It was a heartbreaking weekend of crying, praying, embracing and remembrance in a community reeling from the deaths of two police officers in the line of duty.
On the rainy and gloomy Saturday afternoon of Feb. 10, many residents in Central Ohio were shaken from their chores or Winter Olympics-watching by hearing that two veteran WPD officers, Eric Joering, 39, and Anthony Morelli, 54, were ambushed and shot to death when responding to a domestic violence incident on Crosswind Drive in Westerville.
The officers’ quick response to a 911 hang-up call likely saved two lives — wife Candace Smith, and her year-old daughter.
The suspect, Quentin L. Smith, 30, was wounded and charged with two counts of aggravated murder. Gerald A. Lawson III, 30, of Warrensville Heights, is also facing a federal charge for allegedly purchasing the Glock .40-caliber, semi-automatic handgun used in the shooting for Smith, a previously convicted felon. Smith’s record includes felony burglary and misdemeanor domestic violence charges in 2009, and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Westerville Police said they had been to the couple’s apartment three times since last September for domestic disputes.
The horrific tragedy triggered an outpouring of emotion and support in the city of 39,000; as well as throughout the state and nationwide. While the crime scene was being roped off with red tape, trees and signs throughout the area began to sport blue ribbons and blue lights shined on front porches, and some buildings were awash in blue. Local businesses offered blue lights, ribbons and thin blue line t-shirts. Flags were flown at half-staff at private homes and offices in Sunbury and Galena, and flowers and other tokens of appreciation were piled high on the police station’s steps, later to be placed on and around Officer Morelli’s cruiser at Westerville City Hall.
On the rainy and foggy Sunday afternoon of Feb. 11, hundreds of people gathered at Westerville North High School’s gymnasium in Delaware County. Mindy Drayer organized the event, an opportunity for people to express their feelings of sorrow and support, or to recall anecdotes about the officers.
“They have our backs every day. It’s beyond time we had their backs,” Drayer said. “This is the hardest thing we’ve ever had to go through in the history of this city.”
Police Chaplain Jim Meacham said that Eric Joering’s K-9 Sam, who was at the scene but unhurt, was brought home to his grieving family. Joering, a 16-year veteran originally from Centerburg, was a 1997 graduate of Westerville South High School.
Members of the public remembered 30-year veteran Morelli as always smiling and made an effort to establish relationships, whether serving as security at the Westerville Public Library or as a Student Resource Officer at Blendon Middle School. One woman recalled Morelli confidently located her missing 7-year-old daughter at Giant Eagle. Sobbing, she said he remembered the daughter’s name a decade later during a chance encounter.
Many of the speakers were crying, as were many of those in attendance. At first tentative in wanting to speak, soon there was a long line of people wanting to share their memories of the officers or to thank them for their sacrifice.
“This should not have happened. Let us pray this will never happen again here. Don’t let hate define us. We are Westerville strong,” were among the sentiments expressed. And many long-time residents saw the shooting as a turning point — that the bucolic town they grew up in was now a big city, with the problems associated with a big city.
Early Sunday evening, a prayer vigil was held at Heritage Christian Church on Maxtown Road in Westerville. For an hour, pastors from Westerville and elsewhere prayed for the officers, their family and friends, the police department and city employees, and for the nearly 1,000 people in attendance.
“God is our refuge and our strength,” said Pastor Vaughn Bell of Triumphant Church in Westerville. “Even the heart of God is broken because of what has happened.”
“These were two of the best we had,” said Westerville Police Chief Joe Morbitzer. “They got it. They were all about breaking barriers and building bridges. They gave their lives to save other people. It’s times like these that we need to stand together.”
Shockingly, Morbitzer said some people have made nasty phone calls to the department’s dispatchers since the shooting. “There is a special place in Hell for them,” he said.
The service ended with Amazing Grace, sung and played on the bagpipes.
On the bright and sunny Monday afternoon of Feb. 12, thousands of people lined the streets of Westerville to bid farewell to the officers and back the blue. Caravans of cop cars, over a mile in length, made their way from the Franklin County Coroner’s Office to the Moreland and Hill funeral homes in Westerville, where the bodies were delivered by ambulances. At least three helicopters buzzed overhead.
The cruisers, from Delaware and County Sheriff, Genoa Township, Sunbury, Powell, Dublin, Columbus and all over Franklin County pulled in front of the funeral homes, their flashing lights a sea of blue occupying all the lanes of the streets.
The show of support from the other jurisdictions will continue at least through the week, because the Westerville Police Department will take that time off to process and heal from their losses. Police from other area departments will cover for them, just part of their job to serve and protect.
There were other vigils this week at Otterbein University and the First Responders Park in Westerville, and the funerals will be held from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday in St. Paul’s Church, 313 North State Street Westerville. The St. Paul school will be closed Friday; and County Line Road will be closed between Thompson Avenue. and State Street.
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0906 or on Twitt @GaryBudzak.
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