Investigation continues in Togus center shooting

Posted Aug. 17, 2010, at 9:27 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:29 a.m.

The state’s investigation of a shooting in which Grindstone resident and retired Marine Lt. James Popkowski was killed by police outside the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta early last month is continuing, the Maine Attorney General’s Office said Tuesday.

“There is no timeline or schedule for when they expect to finish the investigation,” said Nicole Sacre, an executive assistant and acting spokeswoman for the office.

The investigation concerns whether the two officers believed to have fired their weapons — Veterans Affairs police Officer Thomas Park and Maine Warden Service Sgt. Ron Dunham — were justified in using deadly force in the July 8 incident.

Earlier estimates placed the investigation’s duration at 60 to 90 days.

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 37-year-old clinic patient suffering from a rare form of cancer, in woods off Route 17 near the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Preliminary evidence indicated the officers fired in self-defense.

Popkowski had carried a gun, which witnesses tentatively identified as a rifle, “in a threatening manner,” investigators said.

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.

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.

The shooting occurred just hours, neighbors said, after Popkowski posted a sign implying that doctors were killing him by denying him stem cell medicine.

Several state police detectives and bomb squad members searched Popkowski’s home for several hours after the shooting, 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 because of his medical condition.

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.”

GVHD is graft-versus-host disease, from which Popkowski reportedly suffered.

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.”

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