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Couple die while hiking in Arizona
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Couple die while hiking in Arizona

Extreme heat blamed for deaths of Hammond natives

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A husband and wife who began dating 10 years ago when they met at the Lake Central Theater Guild died together last week while hiking in Tucson, Ariz.

Laura M. Popiela (nee Bacon), 26, and Joseph E. Popiela, 30, both formerly of Hammond, were hiking at Picacho Peak, a state park about 40 miles northwest of Tucson on Saturday, according to Sgt. Keith Cisewski of the Pinal County Sheriff's Office in Florence, Ariz.

Cisewski said the temperature Saturday exceeded 100 degrees.

He said it appears the couple climbed to the top of the small mountain and were on their way down when Laura Popiela apparently collapsed from heat exhaustion. Joseph Popiela apparently went on for help but fell into a ravine, where he died.

"The heat out here is nothing to play with," Cisewski said.

He said the preliminary coroner's report indicates both died of heat exhaustion and that there was no indication of foul play.

Laura's father, Crown Point resident William Bacon, said he feels some comfort in knowing that his daughter and son-in-law died together, and somewhat peacefully.

"There was no violence, no mayhem, no crime," he said. "They went together doing something they love."

Bacon said his daughter and son-in-law loved being outdoors and spending time each other.

"We loved her," Bacon said. "Everybody that ever met her liked her. She was a realist, but she had good spirituality. She had a beautiful sense of humor."

Laura and Joseph met when Laura was a 16-year-old student at Lake Central High School. Joseph had graduated from Lake Central a few years prior, but was still involved with the Lake Central Theater Guild.

The couple attended Purdue University Calumet, where Laura studied electrical engineering and Joseph studied geology. Joseph was employed by the Center of Visual and Performing Arts in Munster. After her graduation in 1999, Laura got a job in Tucson with Raytheon Co., a defense and aerospace systems supplier, so the couple moved out west together.

Joseph's mother, Christine Popiela, a St. John resident, said her son and daughter-in-law always intended to move back to Northwest Indiana. In fact, Joseph was supposed to come home to St. John this weekend to attend a war re-enactment with his family.

"He cared very much for Laura. We know from the police report that he was actually running back to the car to get help for her," Christine said.

Police told the Popielas that Joseph's body was found about 75 yards from his car. He had apparently tried to take a shortcut through a ravine on his way to get help for his wife and may have stumbled and passed out, Christine Popiela said. The couple's cell phone was inside the car.

Joseph was known as a caring, reliable person who was "generous to a fault," his mother said.

Laura and Joseph's parents all emphasized how loving their children were to each other.

"They were always together -- where there was Joe, there was Laura," Christine said.

Emily Hiser can be reached at ehiser@howpubs.com or (219) 836-3780.

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