Autopsy shows veteran died of gunshot to neck

Posted July 08, 2010, at 11:38 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:29 a.m.
State police Detective Sgt. Troy Gardner [maroon shirt], state police Trooper Thomas Fiske [left] and state police Detective Darryl Peary gather evidence at a makeshift target range outside 49 Grindstone Road in Grindstone on Thursday in connection with the shooting death of James F. Popkowski, 37, of Medway, at the Togus VA clinic.BDN PHOTOS BY NICK SAMBIDES JR.
State police Detective Sgt. Troy Gardner [maroon shirt], state police Trooper Thomas Fiske [left] and state police Detective Darryl Peary gather evidence at a makeshift target range outside 49 Grindstone Road in Grindstone on Thursday in connection with the shooting death of James F. Popkowski, 37, of Medway, at the Togus VA clinic.BDN PHOTOS BY NICK SAMBIDES JR.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Grindstone man shot by Maine law enforcement officers Thursday near a veterans hospital hours after he posted a sign implying that doctors were killing him died from a gunshot wound to the neck, a spokeswoman said Friday.

An autopsy of former U.S. Marine Corps Lt. James F. Popkowski, 37, done at the state medical examiner’s office on Friday determined that he was killed in a homicide. The term denotes only that Popkowski was killed by someone else, not that his death was necessarily caused by or came during a crime, an office spokeswoman said.

The Maine State Attorney General’s Office is investigating whether the two officers believed to have fired their weapons, VA police Officer Thomas Park and Maine Warden Service Sgt. Ron Dunham, were justified in using deadly force.

The two officers and Game Warden Joey Lefebvre, who was there and did not use deadly force, remained on administrative leave with pay Friday pending the outcome of the AG office’s investigation. That office investigates all incidents involving Maine law enforcement officers’ use of deadly force.

Park and Dunham apparently shot Popkowski in woods off Route 17 near the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Togus shortly after 9 a.m. on Thursday, Attorney General Janet Mills said.

Preliminary evidence indicates the officers fired in self-defense. Popkowski had carried a gun, which witnesses tentatively identified as a rifle, “in a threatening manner,” investigators said.

Seeing the confrontation, the game wardens aided Park. AG’s office spokeswoman Kate Simmons would not comment Friday on what kind of weapon Popkowski had or whether he had fired it.

The investigation will likely take from 60 to 90 days, Simmons said.

“It really depends upon the situation and our workload of cases,” Simmons said Friday.

Investigators will try to determine whether in the moment of firing the officers reasonably believed that lives, their own or others, were endangered, and that the use of deadly force was the only way to end the danger. Investigators do not examine whether alternative means could or should have been used.

According to the most recent AG’s office statistics available, 78 incidents in which police used deadly force have occurred in Maine since 1990. In all incidents, the shootings were found justifiable.

Various witnesses on Thursday said several shots were fired, possibly in response to a round being discharged. Some said they did not see Popkowski act aggressively before he was shot.

Resident Rosemary Dumas said she heard a shot fired at about 9:30 a.m. When she looked out her window, she saw a Togus guard with his gun drawn. She heard several shots a short time later. Another witness reported seeing a game warden fire three or four times after hearing another shot fired in the woods.

Popkowski’s Toyota pickup was parked about 40 to 50 feet off the road near the VA facility, said Glenwood Shaw, who lives across the street from the site of the shooting. Shaw said he had seen the pickup parked in the area before.

Popkowski practiced shooting what neighbor Rich Borque, who worked for Popkowski as a handyman, identified as .22- and .32-caliber handguns at around midnight Tuesday and Wednesday near his home in Grindstone, Borque and other neighbors said. And in the hours before the incident, Popkowski posted a sign the size of a picnic table behind a flashing light on his Grindstone Road property.

“I can’t say what it said word for word,” Borque said of the sign, “but it said something about how the doctors were killing him by not giving him stem-cell medicine.”

Borque, who did work at Popkowski’s house on Thursday morning after Popkowski left for treatment at the VA center, said a Penobscot County deputy sheriff stopped by and looked at the large sign at about 8:30 a.m.

Several state police detectives and bomb squad members searched Popkowski’s home for several hours on Thursday, apparently taking evidence from the makeshift target range in his side yard. A large wood and wire frame, apparently where the sign was placed, remained standing.

Popkowski joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1990. In 2003, the first lieutenant was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer called hepatosplenic gamma-delta T-cell lymphoma. Neighbors said it was commonly known that Popkowski was honorably discharged due to his medical condition.

“He was sick a lot. He suffered a lot,” said Ellen Van Dine, a Grindstone Road resident who with her husband occasionally would see and dine with Popkowski. “When he got sick, he was really in pain, and it would make him tired a lot, yet he was always very considerate and kind.”

In 2008, Popkowski wrote at length about his battle against depression and suicidal thoughts in an online response to an article in New Scientist magazine about the complications of certain stem cell transplant procedures. He also indicated that he had been denied or had lost his veterans benefits.

“Suicide is like a little devil, always on my shoulder and always tempting me. Concern for the care of my three dogs after I am gone, my dogs being the only things I feel anything that resembles passion for, is the only thing I think that has kept me from pulling the trigger on the loaded pistol, which rests next to my pillow,” he wrote.

Popkowski described himself as “a rather stoic person” who before his illness was not prone to moodiness. He said he believed his severe and ongoing depression was rooted in “something or some imbalance in my nervous system created by the GVHD.” When the condition was being treated with steroids, he said, “depression was not an issue. As soon as the [steroid treatment] was stopped the depression came on like a freight train.”

Attempts to treat the depression with more than a dozen antidepressant medications were unsuccessful, Popkowski wrote.

“The best way to describe the mental and emotional issues is that I am numb … passionless. Nothing brings joy or pleasure,” he wrote. “I graduated Magna Cum Laude with [degrees] in Computer Info Systems and Business Management in just three years. Now, I cannot mentally focus long enough to read a newspaper. I find it hard to even have a brief conversation on the telephone; never mind reading or sending email.”

Popkowski said he also lacked the energy to perform routine tasks, seldom left home and often was unable to sleep.

“I have lost count on the number of sleep aids NIH and my local VA have tried. Like the anti-depressants, none have worked,” he wrote.

“One concern I have, but hope never materializes is that, a research center’s desire to label a recipient’s transplant a success, causes the center to ignore health issues that may lead to the recipient losing benefits from agencies like the Social Security Administration. Or as in my case, benefits from the Veterans Administration,” he concluded.

A Togus official confirmed Thursday evening that Popkowski was an current patient at the medical center.

Popkowski also was an occasional commentator on the Bangor Daily News website. He weighed in at length about the inconsistency of expecting young adults to fight and die in wars but prohibiting them from drinking alcohol.

He advocated for the legal use of marijuana for treating certain medical conditions, including cancer and graft-versus-host disease, from which he reportedly suffered. Several comments pertained to his dogs and the care they received from a local veterinarian.

Several of Popkowski’s friends in Medway and Grindstone neighbors said that he bore his cancer’s sometimes terrific pain and often debilitating effects like an officer, bravely and without losing his regard for or desire to serve others.

Van Dine said she occasionally would see Popkowski walking his three dogs and that he always was cheerful and quick to help neighbors with any problems they might have.

“If he did not have that illness, I think he would have stayed in the military all of his life,” said Greg Hale of Medway, a friend and classmate of Popkowski’s at Schenck High School of East Millinocket. “He was a soldier, that’s all I can say. He was a military man from the day he was born.”

“He suffered terribly from cancer and he was never miserable,” Van Dine said. “The only time he would mention it, and he never really wanted to mention it, was when he apologized for not calling you back right away. He would just say, ‘I had a bad day.’”

The Associated Press and Bangor Daily News writers William P. Davis, Meg Haskell, Eric Russell and Eryk Salvaggio contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Popkowski as from Medway.

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