VA shooting conclusions elude friends of Marine

Posted Dec. 24, 2010, at 7:02 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 05, 2011, at 7:25 p.m.

The Jim Popkowski whom Brian Ouellette knew was an athlete.

Popkowski, a 37-year-old Grindstone man, also was a U.S. Marine who took to his military service with a joy and intensity unusual even among Marines.

He was a kind and brave man who raised husky pups and lived by a code that valued personal honor, civility and service to others, even as brain cancer was killing him.

“The guy that I remember was extremely happy-go-lucky,” Ouellette said.

“When his house burned down [several years ago], he lost everything,” his friend Marie Tighe, 51, of East Millinocket said Friday. “People wanted to have a fundraiser for him and he said, ‘Don’t do that. I am doing OK. Help somebody else.’ That was the kind of guy he was.”

That’s why Ouellette, Tighe and other friends say they cannot easily connect the man they knew with the Popkowski who Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills said had threatened repeatedly to kill the medical director of the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center, who pointed a handgun at a Togus police officer and two game wardens and was killed by a gunshot to the neck near clinic grounds on July 8.

“It’s kind of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-type transformation,” Ouellette said. “A friend of mine, a hospice social worker, told me that cancer, if it does spread to the brain, can alter a person’s mood or judgment. I wonder if that’s what happened here.”

Other friends wonder whether medications in his system altered his mood and might have inadvertently triggered the chain of incidents that Mills described in a report she released Tuesday. The report cleared Togus Officer Thomas Park and Game Wardens Joey Lefebvre and Sgt. Ron Dunham of wrongdoing in connection with Popkowski’s death.

According to the report, Dunham and Park both commanded Popkowski to drop the gun. He continued walking toward them, gun raised. The officers fired several rounds, killing Popkowski with a wound to the neck from a shot fired by Park. A rifle was recovered near the scene, along with a scope and GPS device.

Five more loaded firearms and several hundred rounds of ammunition were found in the 37-year-old Grindstone man’s truck, Mills’ report states.

Mills’ report and an autopsy of Popkowski that the state medical examiner’s office in Augusta released Thursday shed no light on what medical or psychological factors might have led to his actions. The coroner who conducted the autopsy, Dr. Marguerite DeWitt, no longer works at the medical examiner’s office and could not be reached for comment on Thursday or Friday.

“It is beyond the scope of this report and beyond the authority and expertise of this office to determine Mr. Popkowski’s motivations, his state of mind or the medical or psychological underpinnings of his behavior and actions on July 8, 2010,” the attorney general’s ruling stated.

Yet Mills’ report also describes how for several years Popkowski fought over his medical care with VA practitioners. Those years were marked by Popkowski’s frustration, what could be paranoia and his increasingly ugly threats of violence, the report said. The day before the incident, Popkowski told a neighbor that doctors were trying to kill him by terminating his stem cell treatments.

None of his friends publicly deny claims made in Mills’ report, but several say privately that the full story of Popkowski’s problems hasn’t been told. Ouellette, who also served in the Marines, said he could understand how the illness, its forcing Popkowski’s retirement from the Marines and his battle with the VA could have changed him.

“Something just isn’t adding up,” he said. Being a Marine “was part of who he was. I know that when stuff happens [like his forced retirement] you could lose part of your identity and you could become depressed. You could lose part of who you are.”

The friends also question points in Mills’ report. For example, his friends long saw that problems caused by his cancer and its treatment left Bing, as they called him, unable to walk without significant difficulty. So how was it, they wonder, that Mills’ report could describe him as walking “at a brisk pace down the path” toward the officers just before his death?

“And he couldn’t move his hands well, either,” Tighe said. “Even when he was walking he would walk weirdly, he would move side to side. [His cancer treatments] made his skin really tight and he didn’t have the range of motion. He couldn’t bend his wrist back like we can. He was in a lot of pain with that.”

“I have a lot of questions here,” Ouellette said. “I would like to learn more.”

Some of Popkowski’s friends also believe that the report, and the publicity surrounding it, present an unbalanced picture of who he was. In Medway, the town where he grew up, the friends raffled a lasagna meal and a cheesecake made by his brother and sister-in-law to raise $600 for Toys for Tots, a Marine Corps charity that Popkowski supported, said Angela Adams, a friend of the family.

Tickets went on sale Dec. 4 and the raffle took place Wednesday.

The idea behind the raffle, Adams said, was to keep Popkowski’s memory alive and associated with something positive.

“We want people to have a happy memory of him, not just the negative publicity that has been around him of late,” Adams said.

Family members reached Wednesday and Thursday declined to comment on the report, and Kate Simmons, a spokeswoman for the Maine Attorney General’s Office, said the report speaks for itself and Mills would not comment further on the case.

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