Retired Marine Lt. James Popkowski held his rifle at his waist — pointed down and away from three law enforcement officers — and had begun to turn slightly toward them when he was shot dead, a Belgrade man who claims to have witnessed Popkowski’s death said Friday.
Paul Stevens, 42, said he used a cell phone to record a video of the July 8 shooting near the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta. For safekeeping, he gave the video to his attorney, Pam Ames of Waterville, a former assistant attorney general for Maine, a day after the incident at her urging, he said.
“There was nothing in his demeanor that showed aggression whatsoever,” Stevens said of Popkowski in a telephone interview. “I thought he was looking down just watching his footing [as he approached the officers] and I heard later that he had a hard time walking around.”
Stevens said he agreed with the Maine Attorney General’s Office to keep confidential the video, which investigators copied, until the state’s investigation of Popkowski’s death concludes.
Nicole Sacre, acting spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, declined Thursday to comment on the video, Stevens’ account, or whether either might play a role in the investigation of the shooting. The investigation is continuing and should conclude in several weeks, she said.
Stevens and Ames said they agreed to speak publicly about what he witnessed that day because a detective abruptly stopped interviewing him shortly after the shooting when he expressed negative views about the actions of police and because they want to make sure the state’s investigation of Popkowski’s death is as fair and complete as possible.
Ames described the video in some detail as she watched it Wednesday during a telephone interview with Bangor Daily News. She said she took careful notes during the state police interview of her client in her office on July 9. She used those notes to verify that the account Stevens gave the BDN matches what he told state police.
Ames said she believes Stevens, a former construction worker and self-employed landscaper disabled by a back injury suffered in a car accident, is trustworthy.
“He has no ax to grind with police. Is he a Boy Scout? No. Has he been involved in some criminal activity? Yes,” Ames said. “But he has been around firearms all his life. He is an NRA instructor. I believe that he is very credible.
“I have represented him, but most of his criminal activity has involved a domestic situation with the mother of his child. It has not been anything that he would have an ax to grind with police over,” Ames said.
An ‘unobstructed view’
Stevens said he was standing in his uncle’s driveway across the street and 80 to 90 feet away from where Popkowski was shot. He said he had a clear view right up the pathway Popkowski walked before the confrontation with the officers.
“He was walking down an embankment, looking to make sure he didn’t trip,” Stevens said. “I saw him walk for 25 feet before the officers saw him. I had a completely unobstructed view of Popkowski. There was not a blade of grass between me and this guy and I am the only one who could say that.”
A 37-year-old Grindstone man and VA patient honorably discharged due to a rare form of cancer, Popkowski died of a single bullet wound to the neck, the state medical examiner’s office has ruled. The medical examiner’s office has not said how many bullets struck him.
The investigation concerns whether the two officers who shot at Popkowski in woods off Route 17 near the VA Medical Center — VA police officer Thomas Park and Maine Warden Service Sgt. Ron Dunham — were justified in using deadly force.
Preliminary evidence shows the officers fired in self-defense, Attorney General Janet T. Mills has said. Popkowski was carrying his rifle “in a threatening manner,” she said.
The officers and Game Warden Joey Lefebvre, who was there but did not use deadly force, are on paid administrative leave until the investigation concludes.
Park and Dunham could not be reached for comment Friday.
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, officials have said. Investigators do not examine whether alternative means could or should have been used.
Stevens said he believes the officers fired eight to 12 shots at Popkowski. Most of them lodged in a large tree behind Popkowski, judging by the cut marks left in the trunk by state police investigators as they took the rounds for evidence, said Stevens, who visited the scene a day after the shooting.
“As he was getting shot I was actually zooming on him coming down the trail,” Stevens said. The shooting happened “pretty fast. As soon as he was engaged it was like popcorn popping.”
Confrontation with police
As Stevens described it, the incident began with Popkowski walking down the embankment with the rifle at his waist, right hand on the stock and left hand on the barrel, when the Togus officer, handgun drawn, confronted him. Popkowski had already fired at the hospital about 40 minutes before he was killed, according to Stevens and another witness.
If Popkowski was standing at 6 o’clock and straight ahead of him was 12 o’clock, the rifle was pointed at 9 o’clock and the officers were standing at 2 and 3 o’clock, Stevens said. Stevens did not tell the state police investigator about the position of the rifle muzzle because the detective didn’t ask, Ames said.
“He had the gun in a two-handed carry across his hips with the muzzle pointed to his left and the officer was to his right,” said Stevens. “He was facing forward, but not directly in line with them.”
Then a man whom Stevens identifies only by his uniform as “the Togus officer,” presumably Park, spoke, Stevens said.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Is there anybody with you?’” Stevens said. “Before he could reply, the Togus officer said, ‘Put your weapon down immediately.’ He [Popkowski] didn’t say a word and as he started to turn, he was shot.”
Stevens estimated that with the rifle starting the turn from a 9 o’clock position, it moved to 10 or 10:30 when Park opened fire, Stevens said.
“It was very slow,” Stevens said of Popkowski’s turn toward the officers. “To say that he moved slow is an understatement.”
Stevens said one of the game wardens, presumably Dunham, joined the confrontation maybe a minute before shots were fired, and the third, presumably Lefebvre, was still running to the scene, gun drawn, as shots were fired.
Stevens said he thinks the first shot, which he believes came from Park’s gun, killed Popkowski.
According to Ames’ notes and her recollection of the state police interview, Stevens reported that “it appeared that Popkowski was leaning slightly as if putting something on the ground and that was when the officer opened fire,” Ames said.
Stevens “did say that the first shot from the Togus police officer looked as though it hit Popkowski in the face, head or throat and that Popkowski went straight down,” Ames added. “The warden’s shots came later and went over where his head would have been had he not gone down immediately.”
Stevens also told investigators he believed that one warden, presumably Lefebvre, didn’t shoot at all, Ames said.
Officer’s view ‘obstructed’
Based on what he saw at the time and his visit the next day to the scene of the shooting — where investigators apparently left marks denoting where the principals were when the shooting occurred — Stevens said he believed Park had a partially obscured view of Popkowski when the shooting occurred.
“I am 100 percent certain that the Togus officer’s view was obstructed because of the undergrowth,” Stevens said. “I think he saw maybe [Popkowski’s] head, neck and the top of his shoulders. My personal belief is that this could have a bearing on why he was shot in the neck.”
Stevens said he was outraged by the shooting and made angrier when an Augusta police officer, Detective Jason Cote, began questioning him about what he saw but abruptly stopped when Stevens began to express negative views of the officers’ conduct during the shooting.
“The minute Mr. Stevens tried to say that the victim wasn’t doing anything threatening, the officer did not want to talk to him,” Ames said. “It appeared to my client that they didn’t want to hear from him.”
Responding to his outrage at the shooting, officers had already told him to walk away from the scene or face arrest, Stevens said.
Augusta police Chief Wayne McCamish and Cote did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Lt. Keith A. Brann, criminal division commander of the Augusta Police Department, said in an e-mail Friday to the BDN: “I know that Det. Cote did take some initial statements when he arrived at the scene. My only comment is that the facts that you have received may not be correct. However, I cannot comment any further and refer you to the AG’s office.”
Ames said that only after she telephoned the AG’s office on July 8 was the interview with Stevens arranged with state police.
Ames described the initial treatment of Stevens as “ridiculous. If this had just been a shooting of one person by another, and not a police officer, he would be a key witness,” she said.
Stevens contacted Ames because “he was really scared somebody would come in and confiscate his cell phone and he would lose control of what he thought was his property,” Ames said.
Little evidentiary value
By itself, the cell phone video is probably of mixed to little evidentiary value, said Ames, who served as an assistant district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties from 1981 to 1989 and as an assistant attorney general in the AG’s criminal division from 1989 to 1994 before entering private practice.
Consisting of four segments of as much as 30 seconds each, the video is jumpy and erratic, and shows only portions of what Stevens claims to have witnessed, Ames said.
“You can clearly see it is from across the street. There are cars going by,” Ames said. “You are shooting into the woods and you can see an elbow and then the bottom of the trail. It looks like the Togus officer is standing back to, and then sideways to, the camera, with his right arm closer so you see his shirt sleeve on, you see his elbow and it looks like his hand is where his holster is.
“It looks like there are overhangs from the trees that may be obstructing the Togus cop’s view,” Ames said.
The video might achieve significant value as evidence if forensic technicians can enhance it to show, for example, where Popkowski’s hands were on the rifle when he was shot, Ames said.
State Police Det. James Urquhart promised investigators would try to clean it up, Stevens said.
Its greatest evidentiary value, Ames said, is that it clearly shows that Stevens was actually standing where he claimed to have been when the shooting occurred. “He is where he says he is,” Ames said.
That, plus the fragments of the video that illustrate what he claims to have seen, add a great deal of validity to his account of the shooting, Ames said.
“Paul kept watching the shooting and he was not just looking through the viewfinder of the camera when it happened,” Ames said.
‘An important witness’
Ames said she found nothing in his background that would make Stevens an unreliable witness. She said she has known him for several years and that he has worked for her cutting lawns on occasion to help pay back her attorney’s fees.
Stevens and Ames said they hope the investigation does justice for all concerned.
“In any investigation of a police-involved shooting, I hope in the future that law enforcement treats all witnesses with courtesy and respect, no matter if they believe what they are saying or not,” Ames said. “I hope the AG’s office does a full and complete investigation so that as many facts as possible come to light.
“Every witness needs to be interviewed thoroughly and fairly and treated as an important witness,” Ames added. “Paul certainly is.”
Stevens said he just happened to be at the scene of the shooting and thought making a video recording of it “was the right thing to do. I have never videotaped things like that in my life. If I had to run to get a video camera, I wouldn’t have gotten any of it. It was just in my hand at the time.”