MEDWAY, Maine — Close to 400 people and an honor guard accompanied the body of a Grindstone veteran killed during a confrontation with law enforcement officers last week to his final resting place on Tuesday.
With a nod to a President John F. Kennedy quote to address questions surrounding Lt. James F. Popkowski’s death, the Rev. Joel Cyr, pastor of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in East Millinocket, suggested that mourners ask not what Popkowski’s country could have done for him, but focus on what God has done for Popkowski — welcoming the 37-year-old honorably discharged Marine to a better place.
“Our minds and hearts are speeding at 100 miles per hour with misunderstanding and miscommunication, and we are missing the point,” Cyr said during Popkowski’s funeral at the church. “The nature of human beings is that we are perfectly imperfect. Righteousness is not our doing. It is God’s gift.”
Department of Veterans Affairs police Officer Thomas Park and Maine Warden Service Sgt. Ron Dunham reportedly shot Popkowski in woods off Route 17 near the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta last Thursday. Popkowski had been a patient at the center.
Preliminary evidence shows the officers fired in self-defense, officials have said. Popkowski was carrying a gun that witnesses tentatively identified as a rifle “in a threatening manner,” investigators said.
Investigators with the Maine Attorney General’s Office will determine whether in the moment of firing the officers reasonably believed that lives, their own or others’, were endangered and that the deadly force used to subdue Popkowski provided the only means to end the danger, officials have said.
The officers and Game Warden Joey Lefebvre, who did not use deadly force, are on paid leave pending the outcome of the investigation. The Attorney General’s Office handles incidents involving Maine law enforcement officers’ use of deadly force. The investigation likely will take 60 to 90 days.
The only speaker at St. Peter’s to refer directly to Popkowski, Cyr addressed a church that was almost full. Besides Popkowski’s local friends and family, Vianca Popkowski of California, Popkowski’s 8-year-old daughter, attended the funeral and the burial ceremony at the Grindstone Road cemetery in Medway a half dozen miles down the road from Popkowski’s home in Grindstone. A reception at a local snowmobile club clubhouse followed.
Vianca Popkowski accepted a folded American flag from the U.S. Marine honor guard that carried Popkowski’s coffin throughout the ceremonies. She saluted the Marine who gave it to her, saying, “Thank you, sir.” That drew both gentle laughter and tears from the crowd.
At the graveside service, Cyr read from Scripture a passage in which God was asked not to hold a man’s deed against him, “for in his heart he sought to do Your will.”
Two buglers played taps which echoed across the graveyard after seven U.S. Army soldiers, members of the Maine Military Funeral Honors program, fired three rifle volleys.
Family member Bonnie Lyons of East Millinocket said she thought the services were lovely and that Cyr’s words were appropriate.
“I thought it was wonderful, the recognition he got,” Lyons said. “It was a top honor that he deserved.”
Skip Cram of Medway said he thought Popkowski’s family would appreciate the services. At least 200 people attended Popkowski’s wake the night before, he said.
“The family is doing really good, considering what they have gone through,” Cram said.