A heartbroken police chief stood in the cold mist outside Westerville police headquarters this morning — with an ever-growing sea of flowers, candles and written tributes to his fallen officers spread out before him — and he promised his community that they will get through this tragedy together.
"The groups we've been thinking about and helping the most, of course, are the families of these officers," a clearly grief-stricken and still-emotional Chief Joe Morbitzer said. "Our folks will take these families under their wing."
Even as he spoke about officers Eric Joering and Anthony Morelli, who both were fatally shot while responding to a domestic-violence call Saturday, more and more people stopped by police headquarters to cry together, to hug, to pay their respects and to offer support.
Morelli had been an officer for 30 years; Joering for 17 years. Each was a family man. Each was beloved.
Morbitzer took time this morning to thank his community for its outpouring of love, and to thank his central Ohio law enforcement brotherhood for pitching in. Area departments will be responding to calls in the city in the coming days, so that Westerville police can grieve. He said the department and the families are working on arrangements.
A community gathering is planned at Westerville North High School today from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., where people can share their memories, and a vigil is planned for 6 p.m. at Heritage Christian Church, 7413 Maxtown Road.
The events that overturned this community started shortly after noon Saturday, when the two officers knocked on the door at a home in the 300 block of Cross Wind Drive in response to a 911 hang-up. Both men were shot immediately. One of the officers returned fire, and suspect Quentin Lamar Smith, 30, was hit.
Smith was taken to Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in critical condition. No one has updated Smith’s condition so far today. He is a convicted felon with a history of domestic violence and gun possession, and police had frequently been called to the Westerville home.
Sunday in that neighborhood, red and yellow police tape marked off the streets around 312 Cross Wind Drive, where a handful of police cruisers are still investigating the shooting deaths of two fellow officers.
The Columbus Division of Police critical-incident response team is leading the investigation into the officers’ deaths.
At the police headquarters, the cold mist and light rain couldn’t extinguish the many candles lit in tribute to Joering and Morelli, men Morbitzer called true American heroes.
Teddy bears, flags, memorial stones, handwritten notes — all soaking up the light rain even as the pile grew by the minute. Sometime around 11 a.m., traffic on State Street came to a stoop as an officer drove Morelli's SUV cruiser onto the grass in front of City Hall. Officers gathered 'round and stood at attention as a small army of volunteers scooped up the tributes and carefully moved them to the cruiser.
Kathlene Cook brought her son, Wyatt, 10, from Worthington to honor Morelli and Joering. Cook, who grew up around Westerville, said she wanted her son to see how true communities come together.
“It’s times like this we come together,” she said. “We don’t erupt in violence. This is how a community says goodbye and see you later to it’s heroes.”
Cook said her parents instilled in her a respect for law enforcement growing up, something she said her children have as well.
“(Wyatt) and my daughter aren’t afraid to walk up to police officers,” she said. “He will walk up and say, “God bless and take care of yourself.’”
Among those who came to drop off flowers — a bouquet of white carnations — were Westerville residents Jeff and Mary Calvert.
Officer Morelli, Mary Calvert said, was practically family. He coached their son in T-ball close to 20 years ago, and their kids played together.
Mary Calvert just saw him on Wednesday at the local GetGo Market.
"He was always so kind, so nice," she said through tears. "I just don't remember a time when Officer Morelli wasn't part of our lives."
As city employees and volunteers all around them tied blue ribbons to trees and benches and posts, Jeff Calvert couldn't hold back his own tears.
"We are heartbroken. It's such a senseless act," he said. "There was no way we could not come down here to lend our support. It's going to be a hell of a week around here. It's going to be so rough."
But, like the chief, they said everyone will get through this together.
"We will wrap the officers' families — and every officer in town — in love," Mary Calvert said. Her husband said it still seems surreal, that "you see this kind of stuff but it always happens someplace else."
And Mary Calvert responded: "Today, Westerville is the 'someplace else.'"
The Fraternal Order of Police has set up a GoFundMe account to help the families of the officers, GoFundMe.com/FOPLodge9HelpFund. The original goal was $50,000 and generous donors quickly surpassed it. Then it became $100,000. Goal soon met. Now the goal is $150,000 and at about noon, almost $138,000 had been raised.
Morbitzer said today that some people are trying to scam the good-hearted people of the community, so he cautioned that the FOP-created fund is the only legitimate one.
City employees said they have been overwhelmed by the goodness of people, and so much food has been delivered there is hardly room for more. Anyone who wants to help in some way is asked to call the records division at 614-901-6450 and there will be some suggestions as to what is needed.
Not everyone, though, is feeling generous. And Chief Morbitzer grew angry as he had to discuss the way some of his dispatchers have been treated the past 24 hours. He said a few people who don't support police are calling his dispatchers and saying vile things, even being threatening.
"There's a special place in hell for those people," Morbitzer said. "And I hope it comes soon."
But Mary Calvert said later, the good in town will soon overwhelm the mean-spirited.
"We're family, all of us," she said. "This community is amazing and we'll lean on each other."
Holly Zachariah and Sheridan Hendrix are reporters with The Columbus Dispatch.