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Westerville Mourns Two Police Officers Killed In Ambush

A tribute to two Westerville officers, who were killed in an apparent ambush while responding to a 9-1-1 call.
Nick Evans
A tribute to two Westerville officers, who were killed in an apparent ambush while responding to a 9-1-1 call.

The city of Westerville is reeling after two police officers were shot and killed responding to a 9-1-1 call over the weekend. On Monday, Gov. John Kasich ordered flags across the state to be flown at half-staff until the officers are interred.

A tribute to two Westerville officers, who were killed in an apparent ambush while responding to a 9-1-1 call.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
A tribute to two Westerville officers, who were killed in an apparent ambush while responding to a 9-1-1 call.

Officers Anthony Morelli and Eric Joering died after they were ambushed responding to a call early Saturday afternoon.

Struggling to hold back tears, Westerville Police Chief Joe Morbitzer describes the incident.

“At 12:10 the officers arrived on the scene," Morbitzer says. "As they went into the apartment, they were immediately met with gunfire and both officers were shot."

Joering died at the scene, while Morelli was transported to a hospital and died a short while later.

The suspect is identified as Quentin Lamar Smith. Police say Smith, 30, was shot during the altercation and taken to Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center.

On Sunday, he was charged with two counts of aggravated murder. Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said on Sunday that he will pursue the death penalty against Smith if he survives his injuries.

Police say they had several interactions with Smith since last year. In November his wife requested a protection order against Smith, saying "he carries a gun all of the time" and threatened to kill her, their daughter, and himself if she left him.

Smith was legally barred from owning a gun because of his criminal history, which includes convictions of burglary and domestic violence.

On Sunday afternoon, the crime scene was still cordoned off with police tape. Neighbors seem stunned to imagine what happened in their backyard.

“We didn’t hear any part of it whenever it actually happened,” says Chad Temple, who works for Westerville schools and he lives across the street.

“We were going out to actually go to do our taxes," Temple says.  "And we opened up our back garage door, and just to see all the police vehicles, we were all, umm… O.K.?”

Temple says details filtered out in pieces, but when he found out what happened, he was shaken.

“One of the police officers—I believe it was Morelli his name was—he was, because I’ve worked for schools, he did a lot of interaction with the schools," Temple explains. "So I got to know him a few times, so it kind of does hit a little close to home in that sense.”

Karl Garrabrant, who is Temple’s neighbor, recognizes Morelli from his time working as a fire chief in Minerva Park. His niece’s husband trained with Joering, too.

But the connection between Westerville and its police officers isn’t limited to one-on-one relationships.

On the way toward downtown Westerville, you might pass Flowerama on State Street. The owner Steve Ozment calls this week—just ahead of Valentine’s Day—his Super Bowl. 

But the sign out front isn’t advertising roses. It’s memorializing the officers.

“Some things are just more important than commercialism and even Valentines Day," Ozment says, haltingly.  "So we—we just felt like it was the right thing to do.”

A squad car in front of the police station is covered with bouquets of flowers, flags and mementos. A knot of mourners mill around quietly in the drizzling rain, staring in shock at the impromptu memorial. No one wants to speak. 

Earlier on Sunday, Chief Morbitzer promised his department would take the Morelli and the Joering families under its wing. And he explained residents would see that same sense of solidarity on their streets in the coming days.

“Over the next 48 hours, our citizens are going to see different cruisers in the city of Westerville," Morbitzer said. "You’re going to see cruisers from Dublin, Hilliard, Upper Arlington, Genoa Township, Otterbein, Columbus, Franklin County, Glyndon township all patrolling our streets to give our folks a break and time to process.”

The Fraternal Order of Police has established a fundraising pageto help the Morelli and Joering families, and the city will be holding a vigil Tuesday night at First Responders Park.

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Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.