Warden returns to duty after Togus shooting

Posted Oct. 27, 2010, at 8:13 p.m.

One of two law enforcement officers placed on paid administrative leave in connection with the shooting of U.S. Marine Lt. James Popkowski near the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta in early July is back on duty.

“Based on our internal review of the facts, Maine Warden Service Sgt. Ron Dunham has returned to active duty. I will not be releasing any details pertaining to this matter,” Col. Joel Wilkinson, chief game warden, said in a statement released Wednesday.

Neither Wilkinson, in his statement, nor Nicole Sacre, spokeswoman for the Maine Attorney General’s Office, which is investigating the shooting, would say whether Dunham’s return to active duty means that he has been cleared of any wrongdoing in connection with the shooting.

“That is their decision whether they suspend a person or let him back on duty,” Sacre said Wednesday, referring to officials at the Maine Warden Service. “It has nothing to do with us or our investigation. The investigation is still pending and nobody’s been cleared.”

Sacre declined to comment on when investigators expect to finish the investigation. Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, did not return telephone calls and an e-mail seeking comment Wednesday.

When reached at home, Dunham declined to comment on whether he had been cleared by the Attorney General’s Office’s investigation.

“I am going to leave it at that. His [Wilkinson’s] statement is what we are going to stay with. That’s all I can do,” Dunham said.

The investigation concerns whether the two officers believed to have fired their weapons — Veterans Affairs police Officer Thomas Park and Dunham — were justified in using deadly force in the July 8 incident. Earlier estimates placed the investigation’s duration at 60 to 90 days.

Officers at the VA Center’s police department and at the warden service declined to comment Wednesday on whether Park and Game Warden Joey Lefebvre, who was there but did not use deadly force, have returned to duty. The officers were placed on paid administrative leave immediately after the incident, as is standard procedure, 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 at Popkowski, a 37-year-old Togus 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, Attorney General’s Office officials said.

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

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 after Popkowski posted a sign outside his Grindstone home, neighbors said, implying that doctors were killing him by denying him stem cell medicine.

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.

Members of Popkowski’s family have said they would not comment on the incident until the investigation is finished.

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