A Belgrade man who says he witnessed the shooting of a retired Marine by police outside a veterans hospital and his attorney are speaking publicly about what he saw.

Retired Marine Lt. James Popkowski, 37, was shot and killed by authorities in July after he allegedly fired shots at the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta. The state Attorney General’s Office is still investigating the shooting.

Paul Stevens, 42, not only witnessed the entire incident, but also caught pieces of it as video on his cell phone — though his attorney, Pamela Ames, said the footage doesn’t include the actual shooting of Popkowski. But it does prove that he was where he said he was, she added, making him a valuable witness in the investigation.

“I watched it all unfold — it was kind of unfortunate for everybody involved,” said Stevens.

Ames said Saturday night that Stevens had called her just minutes after leaving the scene of the shooting.

“He was extremely upset over how he had been treated by the Augusta Police Department, (by) the detective who had tried to interview him,” Ames told the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Popkowski died of a single bullet wound to the neck, the state Medical Examiner’s Office has ruled. The Medical Examiner’s Office has not said how many bullets struck him.

The AG is investigating whether the two officers who shot at Popkowski in woods off Route 17 near the VA Medical Center — VA police officer Thomas Park and Maine Warden Service Sgt. Ron Dunham — were justified in using deadly force.

Preliminary evidence shows that the officers fired in self-defense, Attorney General Janet T. Mills has said, and that Popkowski was carrying his rifle “in a threatening manner.” The officers and Game Warden Joey Lefebvre, who was there but did not use deadly force, are on paid administrative leave until the investigation concludes.

“I watched the whole thing unfold from the time the Togus policeman had gotten there,” Stevens told the Maine Sunday Telegram Saturday night.

Stevens said his uncle, who lives near where the incident occurred, had told the officer that people often hunt and shoot on the property.

Stevens told the Bangor Daily News that he was standing in his uncle’s driveway across the street and 80 to 90 feet away from where Popkowski was shot. He said he had a clear view right up the pathway Popkowski walked before the confrontation with the officers.

“He was walking down an embankment, looking to make sure he didn’t trip,” Stevens told the Bangor newspaper. “I saw him walk for 25 feet before the officers saw him. I had a completely unobstructed view of Popkowski. There was not a blade of grass between me and this guy and I am the only one who could say that.”

Stevens said Popkowski had the gun at waist level, pointed down, and he was taking short, cautious steps. The Togus officer asked if anybody was with him, and immediately told him to put the gun down. Stevens said that Popkowski leaned slightly, as if to put the rifle down, and was shot.

“I can honestly tell you what I saw, what happened, was the wrong thing. It shouldn’t have happened that way,” Stevens told the Maine Sunday Telegram. “I think it’s fair to say the officer might have thought he was in the right.”

Right after the shooting, Stevens said, he threw his arms up and hollered, “What’d you do that for, the guy wasn’t doing anything.”

Officers “offered to arrest me,” said Stevens.

Ames said Stevens was interviewed briefly by an Augusta detective, but when Stevens said Popkowski was walking down the trail and “then he just got shot,” the detective walked away from the interview. Ames said her client was also told by police that if he didn’t go inside his uncle’s home and stop recording the scene, he would be arrested.

So he took his cell phone and left the area, said Ames.

“If he were an eyewitness in a civilian-to-civilian shooting, he would have been interviewed immediately, on tape, in depth,” said Ames. “I think there can be an attitude of protecting law enforcement by co-law enforcers. I’m not saying this was the case, but there was certainly mismanagement at the scene to allow an eyewitness to leave without an in-depth interview, and without that video at least being looked at.”

Nicole Sacre, acting spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, declined this week to comment on the video, Stevens’ account, or whether either might play a role in the investigation of the shooting, according to the BDN. The investigation is continuing and should conclude in several weeks, she said.

In an e-mail statement to the BDN, Lt. Keith A. Brann, criminal division commander of the Augusta Police Department, said a detective did take some initial statements when he arrived at the scene.

“My only comment is that the facts that you have received may not be correct. However, I cannot comment any further and refer you to the AG’s office,” he said.

After the incident, Stevens called Ames and went to her office. Ames, a former assistant district attorney and a former assistant attorney general, contacted the AG’s office. Stevens was interviewed by a State Police investigator the next day for about an hour. The investigator also took a copy of the video that was recorded.

Stevens said he started recording because he’s a National Rifle Association instructor, and thought he might be able to use the video in a lesson. The video was of poor quality, said Ames, and showed some movement on a trail, then an officer in short sleeves with his hand near his hip. Another clip shows cars passing. There’s about a minute and 45 seconds of recording, said Ames.

At this point, said Ames, it appears that her client’s account is part of the shooting investigation.

Her client does have a criminal past, mainly involving domestic issues, said Ames, but doesn’t have “an ax to grind” with the police. Ames said she couldn’t comment on whether her client has any current criminal charges against him. Her client contacted her, she said, because he believed what he saw was important, and because he was worried about retribution by law enforcement.

“I am concerned; I don’t need any troubles in my life,” he said.

She also said that her client had not proactively sought to tell this story in the media.

“Paul’s not seeking this attention; neither am I,” she said.

 

Maine Sunday Telegram Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser and the Bangor Daily News contributed to this report.