Attorney General Janet Mills will meet over the next 1½ weeks with members of the family of a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant killed by law enforcement officers last summer near the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta before releasing the results of her office’s investigation of the shooting.
Mills wanted to give James Popkowski’s family a chance to hear the news from her privately and directly before the report is released, said Kate Simmons, spokeswoman for Mills’ office.
“The attorney general feels strongly that the family be allowed to ask as many questions as they can about the investigation. She wants to have those conversations with them,” Simmons said Tuesday. “Regardless of the outcome [of the report], this is still a terrible tragedy for any family and one that should be dealt with compassionately.”
No meeting or release dates have been set, Simmons said.
Popkowski’s family members have said they would refrain from comment until the investigation was complete.
A veteran forced to retire by a rare form of cancer, Popkowski, 37, of Grindstone was hit in the throat by one round as he turned slightly, rifle in hand, toward two officers during a confrontation after reports of a shot or shots striking the hospital, officials have said.
One witness, U.S. Navy veteran Ray Richardson, said he was in a parking lot at Togus on July 8, walking toward his car, when he heard several loud popping and whistling sounds. He and another man, a VA employee, ducked as soon as they recognized the sound of bullets, he said, adding that he heard what sounded like bul-lets hitting the building behind him.
Sometime later, witnesses reported that several shots — as many as a dozen — were fired at Popkowski, who suffered from depression. In the hours before he went to the VA, where he had been a patient, Popkowski put a sign in his yard indicating he believed doctors were killing him by denying him stem cell medicine, neigh-bors have said.
Paul Stevens of Belgrade, who claimed to have witnessed the shooting of Popkowski and recorded it with his cell phone camera, said, “There was nothing in his demeanor that showed aggression whatsoever.”
The officers who shot at Popkowski — Department of Veterans Affairs police Officer Thomas Park and Maine Warden Service Sgt. Ron Dunham — have been back at work since mid-October. Park had been placed on desk duty since the shooting, but it was unclear Tuesday whether he had returned to full duty.
Dunham was returned to full duty almost two months ago based on what Col. Joel Wilkinson, chief game warden, called in late October “our internal review of the facts.” An Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman, however, said at the time that the “investigation is still pending and nobody’s been cleared.”
Game Warden Joey Lefebvre, who was at the scene but did not fire his weapon, also is back on the job, officials have said.
Attorney General’s Office 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.
Simmons’ announcement came less than a week after the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General released a report on the care Popkowski received at Togus. U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud said he requested the report, which does not refer by name to Popkowski or his doctors, to provide “all the answers” for Popkowski’s family and to improve care for all U.S. veterans.
The report detailed how Popkowski was deeply frustrated by a years-long pattern of missed appointments, delays in receiving medication and a continuous shuffling of his service providers at the hands of the VA.
It also said that Popkowski missed appointments and failed to respond to VA questionnaires and that the VA had reduced his benefits as a result, before the incident.
The report identified three ways the medical center could improve: ensuring smooth transitions when there are changes in a veteran’s provider or care setting; improving communications between medical center personnel and external clinics; and reviewing the procedures of the Disruptive Behavior Committee “to ensure clear and consistent messages about patient risk and to promote patient-centered solutions when risks are identified.”