The Pennsylvania jury that recommended the death penalty for cop-killer Richard Poplawski earlier this week was kept from hearing about his racist, antigovernment beliefs as detailed in an expert’s report.
The report was authored by Mark Pitcavage, the director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), who began his detailed research into Poplawski’s background just hours after the April 4, 2009, shooting of three Pittsburgh police officers.
Poplawski, 24, was convicted of three counts of murder in Pittsburgh on Saturday. In a hearing on Tuesday, the same jury unanimously recommended that he receive a lethal injection. The judge will formally sentence Poplawski in September.
Pitcavage was to be called as an expert witness for the prosecution, but the judge agreed to a request by defense attorneys that his testimony and 41-page report on Poplawski’s background not be allowed to reach the jury. Judge Jeffrey Manning ruled that it would be prejudicial and inflammatory if the jury were to hear details about the defendant’s white supremacist, antigovernment views.
“I think it would have gone some way to help explain to the jury his [Poplawski’s] mindset and motivation,” Pitcavage told Hatewatch on Wednesday after a gag order was lifted at the end of the trial.
Pitcavage, who has testified as an expert witness in many trials, has documented and analyzed the killings of 84 police officers by extremists since 1965. After the Pittsburgh shootings, he located more than 2,000 Internet postings Poplawski made, including dozens on a site operated by the neo-Nazi Stormfront organization and others on a site operated by antigovernment conspiracy-monger Alex Jones.
Poplawski used the screen names “RichP,” “Pop633 and “RWhiteman.” But at some time in two or three weeks before he gunned down the three police officers, he changed his Stormfront name to “Braced for Fate,” according to Pitcavage’s report.
“I think that’s significant,” Pitcavage said of change of screen names. “I believe it’s an indicator that he may have been anticipating some sort of confrontation or situation in the near future. Considering how innocent ‘RichP’ sounds, he changes it to ‘Braced for Fate,’ something that has a much more ominous sound.”
Poplawski also put up other antigovernment posts on a Pennsylvania firearms owners’ website promoting the right to keep and bear arms. Hints of his antigovernment views even found their way into postings Poplawski made on a hockey site operated by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitcavage said.
“He absolutely was a white supremacist, with very standard white supremacy views,” the ADL researcher said of Poplawski. “But he also subscribed to Patriot-style, New World Order theories, and, to an extent, these began to dominate his thinking and postings.”
Like many other extremists, Poplawski’s interest in conspiracy theories began to pick up tempo after the 2008 election of President Obama. They grew even more intense in the months prior to the shootings, Pitcavage said.
Poplawski was worried about gun control, martial law, and the imagined concentration camps operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He was mapping his own survivalist plans for “The End of the World As We Know It,” sometimes called when the “S**t Hits The Fan” or SHTF on antigovernment Internet sites, Pitcavage said.
In March 2009 – about a month before the murders – Poplawski expressed end-time fears on a Stormfront posting: “The federal government, mainstream media, and banking system in these United States are strongly under the influence of, if not completely controlled by, Zionist interest(s),’’ he wrote. He said that “an economic collapse of the financial system is inevitable, bringing with it some degree of civil unrest if not outright balkanization of the continental [United States and a] civil-revolutionary-racial war.”
Two years earlier, in an Internet forum dedicated to the discussion of carrying sidearms, Poplawski, then just 21, asked questions about gun-bearing citizens stopped by police. “Basically, I'm getting ready to strap on the holster,” he wrote, asking for the “general consensus on the best way to act if hassled [by police] which for some reason I anticipate happening.”
“I don’t care to bend at all from harassment from the police if I'm doing nothing more than exercising a right,” Poplawski warned. “If that means pissing a cop or two off, then so be it, if they are so ignorant as to try to trample my rights or inconvenience me in any way for no reason.”
In a January 2008 post on a gun owners site, Poplawski’s anti-police views again surfaced when he expressed the opinion that some officers demonstrate a “little god complex.” “These guys have the feeling that they can do what they want and nobody is going to say anything to them about it; matter of fact ... nobody will even KNOW,” his posting said.
After the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl in February 2009, Poplawski took to the streets of his hometown to see how police responded to unruly revelers and wrote a kind of surveillance report for Stormfront. His comments suggested that he believed the Patriot myth of secret FEMA-run concentration camps.
“Minutes after the game ended the boulevard flooded with bar-goers ... screaming and dancing, small fireworks. Minutes later a few squad cars arrived on the scene,’’ he wrote. “I observed a formation of four police motorcycles with side pods and two full sized vans parked in the road along with countless cruisers.”
His Stormfront posting continued: “I think the most ominous tidbit from a rather boring night overall (cops and Negro ball aren’t among my favorite things in the world) was that the police had commandeered port authority BUSSES for use in riot control! It was just creepy seeing busses put into action by authorities, as if they were ready to transport busloads of Steelers fans to 645 FEMA Drive if necessary.”
In another February 2009 posting on the Pennsylvania pro-gun site, Poplawski said he and a group of friends were considering “purchasing a lot of military surplus rifles from an online retailer.” But that kind of purchase, he complained, would require the shipment of the firearms to a federally licensed firearms dealer.
“The problem so far is that the local shops want to charge us $35 to $40 per [rifle] to transfer them,” he wrote. “This is stopping the group-buy in its tracks as nobody wants to pay $40 each on a rifle that’s worth less than $100.”
Poplawski expressed fears of a federal firearms ban in a posting just a few months before the police shootings: “There’s going be federal gun ban on the way. That’s a fact. At the very same time there’s going to be increased domestic military presence. Fact. Islamic jihad on innocent Americans. Fact. Duh.”
In another Internet posting advocating the open carrying of firearms, Poplawski advocated arming every U.S. citizen with an AK-47 assault rifle and a sidearm. “Hand everybody an AK and a sidearm,’’ he wrote, “and see how long these mass murdering sprees last, if anybody even dares to attempt them. Watch what happens to armed robbery and murder and rape rates.”
Noting that irony, Pitcavage said, “Four months later Poplawski would use his AK-47 to shoot and kill police officers.” Pitcavage described the shootings as “unbelievably cold-blooded.” “Just that the police were going to be there – that was the trigger for him.”