PITTSBURGH—On Saturday, hours after Richard Poplawski is alleged to have gunned down three police officers called to evict him from his mother’s house, experts on extremism began trying to unravel his mind. Getting into his head was surprisingly easy, thanks to the Web. Understanding what they found there was not.

These experts found a MySpace account in which 22-year-old Poplawski wrote of his experiments in self-mutilation. They then matched common screen names from that account with another, then on to Stormfront, a neo-Nazi chat site that has become the Grand Central Station of the white supremacist movement, where conspiracy theorists and Jew-baiters change trains in their journey down the road to Valhalla.

In workmanlike prose, Poplawski explored the idea that the economy faced imminent collapse. His words: “I also don’t think there is too much debate about the eventuality of a collapse of economic and social order in this country. All signs seem to point to a once great nation in the midst its last gasp, suffocating under the weight [of] fiscal irresponsibility. Poisoned by design by the moral decadence that is a direct byproduct of item 1.”

Fairly dry words—not too different from what we’ve been reading in newspaper columns for a few months now. But here’s “item 1”: “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.”

In another post, he offered a vivid narrative of chasing down a pair of “groids” who had swiped his mother’s car. Elsewhere he wrote with schoolboy torment about losing his girlfriend, who he is sure took up with some black guy just to spite him. By the end of his run, he had changed his online name from “RichP” to “Braced for Fate.” These revelations traced what seemed a rather common trajectory for many an extremist: inner turmoil here, a conspiracy theory there, and, voila!, out comes Timothy McVeigh.

Yet one of the finds by Jake Bialer, a political-science student at Reed College, remains intriguingly unfathomed. Checking a site called Stumbleupon, Bialer was able to find Poplawski’s last few links from MySpace. They were, in turn, a page on “how to reprogram your subconscious,” a Meyer-Briggs personality test, and a psychotherapy chart.

For someone presumably certain about Jewish conspiracies and his own racial adequacy, Poplawski seemed possessed of the notion that something curious was going on inside his noggin. It was almost as if he were looking for the Great Reset Button.

There is much already known about Richard Poplawski, but still more to be understood. He kept up a friendship with Aaron Vire, a black man, yet despised race-mixing. Some described him as almost maddeningly polite. He loved dogs, say his friends, yet during the year he spent in Florida, a neighbor who entrusted her dog to his care ended up calling the police. She suspected some sort of foul play when it vanished.

Twenty-five years ago, when Pittsburgh’s economy was going to rust and flinders, desperate men who had played by the rules and lost everything to a market too complex to be understood climbed this city’s bridges and jumped. A generation later, with the economy vaporizing amid revelations of incompetence, greed, and corruption on Wall Street and elsewhere, we see the corollary. One generation turned its violence inward. We have to wonder if the next is turning its outward.

One of the places to which Poplawski turned, according to his best friend, Edward Perkovic, was Alex Jones. In the realm of conspiracy, Jones defies the traditional left-right paradigm. When I described his site as “far right” in an article recently, I was inundated with indignant e-mails. Jones might have made his chops with documentaries about the Waco siege, but he views himself as a libertarian, not a right-winger.

His site, Infowars, where Perkovic says Poplawski sought his news, is a pastiche of links to reports from far and wide, all seemingly driven by the need to get a real story Jones doesn’t think is being told. In that sense, it seems almost apolitical. In another, it’s about finding the hidden “other” that is running the show.

“All it is is mainstream links to government documents calling for one-world government,” Jones said of his site.

Indeed, Jones, whose latest documentary is The Obama Deception, says of his movie: “It’s not about left or right. It’s about one-world government.” Trace these fears of one-world government back to their ur-texts and you will find, for instance, that the Trilateral Commission theories so popular among the right a decade ago had their start in a report on “suppressed news stories” by a left-leaning group called “Project Censored” (motto: “The news that didn’t make the News”).

Jones is into what we can only politely describe as an alternate interpretation of what exists around us. The 9/11 attacks were an inside job. The airplane contrails overhead are a giant biomedical experiment. Even a sponsor ad, read by Jones, sounds ominous: “Have you ever thought about what’s in your shampoo, soaps, and detergent?”

Jones advocates saving and storing food, something Poplawski wrote of doing. Poplawski was not 100 percent with Jones on all things—he seemed to dislike the fact that Jones doesn’t bait Jews and perseverate on race. What Poplawski seemed to find in Jones was a bridge from the near-mainstream to a level of paranoid obsession in search of an explanation for his life’s failures. For that, one does not need an ideology, just an inclination.


Intelligent, but prone to violence

Father, others talk of accused killer of Pittsburgh officers.

PITTSBURGH – Accused of killing three police officers in a shootout that shook the city’s sense of security, Richard Andrew Poplawski has been described by some as intelligent and thoughtful.

But he also has been talked about as prone to violence in relationships, and to racism in writings he hid even from those who knew him.

A shifting set of goals – life as a Marine, dental school, computers, business – ended in failures and frustration directed at society.

That’s what records and personal accounts suggest about the 22-year-old man arrested after the April 4 shootout, which left Officers Eric G. Kelly, Stephen J. Mayhle, and Paul J. Sciullo II dead.

“I didn’t know of his beliefs that have come out. I wasn’t aware of it, that he had guns,” said his father, Richard Alvin Poplawski, who last saw his son two years ago in an on-again, off-again relationship. “There was no indication of any animosity toward anyone.”

That was around the time the younger Poplawski started posting on racist Web sites, writing about favorite guns, and describing nonwhite people as “putrid.”

“That’s not the Richard that I knew,” said Debbie Devine, Poplawski’s great-aunt. “Richard was totally different. He was a good kid.”

Born Sept. 12, 1986, he would not know stability.

His father was 32 and his mother, Margaret, 17 when they married six months earlier. They were fighting when their son was just 5 months old, according to divorce records. He threw her against a wall, kicked her in the ribs, and dragged her across the floor, her accusations in court filings say.

She was arrested for driving while intoxicated, as the father would be in later years. She got custody; he got visiting rights. The divorce, finalized in 1989, was followed by 15 years of court fights over unpaid child support.

Margaret Poplawski enrolled her son in Catholic schools. His father was periodically involved.

“We went to the zoo, you know. And he loved to go bowling,” Richard Alvin Poplawski said. “We went to places, like a kid!”

His son enrolled at Pittsburgh’s North Catholic High School but did not graduate.

“The administrators here talked to his parents his junior year and suggested that he leave North Catholic, which he did,” school president Frank Orga said.

Almost as soon as he turned 18, Poplawski registered to vote. His party affiliation was Republican.

He joined the Marines, effective Dec. 13, 2004, and attended boot camp but was discharged three weeks later.

Family friend John Orlando, who knew Poplawski for most of his life, said the failure in the Marines “turned him the wrong way,” making him angry.

After Poplawski’s discharge, his reunion with his girlfriend, Melissa Gladish, did not go well. She got a protection-from- abuse order against him six weeks later, alleging that he grabbed her hair, threatened her, and spoke of a buried gun. He was found in contempt of the order after he showed up at her workplace and proposed marriage.

Poplawski moved to Florida in 2006 because, according to relatives, he liked warmth and beaches.

“He moved away from his family. He later said he had problems with his family,” said Dana Kaufman, who rented him a room in a house she owned.

She had no reservations, she said, about renting to the polite, well-dressed young man who said he would go to dental school. “He was like a smart, really smooth kind of person. I did see mail from a dental school, so I thought he was on the road to doing that.”

When she left for a few days, Poplawski offered to watch her German shepherd, and she returned to find the dog gone. When her boyfriend confronted him about it, Poplawski reported the loss to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, “due to the fact that if things escalate, he wanted this situation documented,” according to the sheriff’s report.

Kaufman told him to leave, and he moved next door, sharing a house with Gerard Carrano, a respiratory therapist.

“He was very polite. He was very well-spoken and a well-groomed young man,” Carrano said. Poplawski spoke lovingly of a grandmother, Carrano said, but seemed disappointed in his mother.

Poplawski’s educational ambitions shifted from dentistry to computers. Carrano said he hadn’t picked up on any racism, though Poplawski did refer to the Haitians with whom he worked as “dirty people.”

Carrano did not interpret the large eagle tattoo on his housemate as a sign of fringe thinking. In online writings in February, the author believed to be Poplawski called the tattoo “a deliberately Americanized version of the iron eagle” – a Nazi symbol used by domestic racist groups – and “symbolic of freedom and nationalism.”

“Something bad happened to his mom, and he had to go back to Pittsburgh,” Carrano said. Poplawski wasn’t happy about returning home. The night before he left, he swam into the middle of Lake Wellington, Carrano said, despite warnings of alligators there.

“He told me he left Florida because he was tired of just working to live,” said the elder Poplawski, who went bowling with his son after his return to Pittsburgh. “He talked to me like a man who was like, ‘Dad, I’m going to make some money. I’m going to make a lot of money. I’m going to find a way to succeed.’ And with his intelligence, I thought he would. I knew he would.”

Instead, online postings attributed to Richard Andrew Poplawski became angrier.

In early 2007, the writings dealt with tattoos and favorite firearms. Late that year, a racist tone emerged, including criticism of what was referred to as “the black attitude,” including “head bobbing and the lip smacking and the ebonic bubonic slurring.”

He insulted one neighborhood resident who is African American with a racial slur to his face, according to the man, who asked not to be identified. One of Poplawski’s close friends became the subject of police interest for alleged drug dealing, neighbors said.

Poplawski began buying firearms through GunBroker.com and Braverman Arms Co. in Wilkinsburg. He lauded his AK-47 in a Web posting in December.

By mid-March, he was writing about “the eventuality of a collapse of economic and social order in this country. All signs seem to point to a once great nation in the midst [of] its last gasp, suffocating under the weight [of] fiscal irresponsibility.

“If a total collapse is what it takes to wake our brethren and guarantee future generations of white children walk this continent, if that is what it takes to restore our freedoms and recapture our land: let it begin this very second and not a moment later.”

Eddie Perkovic, who described himself as Poplawski’s best friend, said his friend had moved out of the Stanton Heights home that Margaret Poplawski bought in 1999 and had gone to Greensburg to get away from his mother.

But then Poplawski’s grandfather became ill, and he moved back to take some of the burden off his grandmother, Perkovic said. That was about a year ago.

Also about a year ago, Poplawski stopped working to have knee surgery. Later he took to walking two pit-bull mixes, now 7 months old, that the family had adopted from the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania. After the shootings, Pittsburgh Animal Control returned them to the shelter.

It was the urination of one of those dogs on a carpet that apparently prompted the argument between Poplawski and his mother that spawned her 911 call and brought unsuspecting police into an apparent ambush.

In the hours after the standoff and during interviews with detectives, authorities said, Poplawski bragged about his actions, saying he thought he might have killed as many as five officers.

The tragedy has left those close to Poplawski empty of answers and divided.

“No one can understand what my son’s going through, what the families of those officers” are going through, Richard Alvin Poplawski said.