An ailing Grindstone man and former U.S. Marine fatally shot by law enforcement officers near a veterans hospital Thursday was remembered by friends Friday as a generous, considerate man who struggled heroically to overcome a rare form of cancer and believed strongly in his right to carry a gun.
An autopsy of James F. Popkowski, 37, on Friday determined that he died from a gunshot wound to the neck and was killed in a homicide. The term denotes that he was killed by someone else, not that his death was necessarily caused by or came during a crime, a medical examiner’s office spokeswoman said.
“I wished I could write that this was all a bad dream. … I can’t, so I instead will pray for the [lieutenant’s] family. Bing was a great boy and greater man. … He grew up with my boys and he never was nothing but a great kid,” wrote Galen Hale, a friend of Popkowski’s, on a Facebook page dedicated to Popkowski.
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 investigation likely will take 60 to 90 days.
“It really depends upon the situation and our workload of cases,” Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Kate Simmons said Friday.
The officers and Game Warden Joey Lefebvre, who did not use deadly force, are on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation. The Attorney General’s Office handles incidents involving Maine law enforcement officers’ use of deadly force.
Park and Dunham apparently shot Popkowski, a clinic patient, in woods off Route 17 near the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Togus on Thursday. Preliminary evidence shows the officers fired in self-defense.
Popkowski had carried a gun, which witnesses tentatively identified as a rifle, “in a threatening manner,” investigators said. Simmons would not comment on Popkowski’s weapon or whether he had fired.
Investigators will determine whether in the moment of firing the officers reasonably believed that lives, their own or others, were endangered and that deadly force provided the only means to end the danger. Investigators do not examine whether alternative means could or should have been used.
Various witnesses have 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.
One of his friends, Medway resident Greg Hale, expressed doubts that Popkowski intended to commit homicide, suicide or suicide by cop, in which people try to induce police to kill them.
“He liked his freedom and he liked his right to bear arms,” Hale said Friday. “He carried them into stores and when he was riding [his ATV]. He always had a shoulder holster and sidearm on. That is the type of person he was.”
Popkowski practiced shooting on the homemade target range on his Grindstone Road property with what one neighbor said were .22- and .32-caliber handguns near midnight Tuesday and Wednesday. He fired about 50 rounds that night, the neighbor said.
Shooting at night was not unusual for Popkowski nor especially bothersome in Grindstone, a woodsy and sparsely populated area enjoyed by sportsmen that is north of East Millinocket and Medway, where Popkowski was raised, neighbors said.
That Popkowski’s beloved military career ended because of his suffering from a rare cancer called hepatosplenic gamma-delta T-cell lymphoma and that he complained about his treatment at the VA were commonly known among his friends and neighbors.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who hails from nearby East Millinocket, said he would not comment on whether the congressman’s office would investigate the care Veterans Affairs gave Popkowski until the investigation is finished.
“I don’t want people to think of him as an unstable person,” Hale said. “He was often up at night because he couldn’t sleep” because of his condition.
More troublesome was Popkowski’s posting a large sign on his property implying that his “doctors were killing him by not giving him stem cell medicine,” a neighbor said. State police apparently seized the sign and other evidence on Thursday.
But their overriding portrait of Popkowski on Friday described a patriotic, uncommonly polite and generous man, eager to help others and heroically contending with a debilitating illness. Those who saw him in the hours leading to the incident maintain that they saw nothing unusual in his behavior.
Popkowski would often plow driveways for free and left a hose and pump for neighbors to use in conjunction with the Penobscot River, which runs parallel to Grindstone Road. His house had burned several years before and he didn’t want others to suffer that, neighbors said. He loved his dogs, which now are being cared for by family members, according to police.
Popkowski was building a float for his Schenck High School graduating Class of 1990 to ride in town celebrations this weekend but said he likely wouldn’t finish it in time for the parade, Hale said.
As a tribute to Popkowski, a public page on Facebook called “In Loving Memory of James ‘Bing’ Popkowski….Semper Fi” created on Thursday had 364 members and carried more than 80 comments as of 4:30 p.m. Friday. Popkowski also had a MySpace page but did not appear to use it.
Other Facebook users put pictures of Popkowski as their own profile portraits on their home pages while others who said they never knew him paid tribute to his military service.
“You had more friends then I think you even realized! You grew up in the Village so that in itself made you family, Bing. The Village was such a great place to grow up in,” wrote Facebook user Gordon VanDine of the Medway section in which the Popkowski family lived.
“Passion and enthusiasm are some things, among many things, that really made you stand out from every one else. You put your whole self into anything that you were really interested in, including being a Marine,” he added.
“May you rest in peace old friend,” John W. McLaughlin wrote.
Bangor Daily News writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.