By Dean Narciso and Kimball Perry The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
WESTERVILLE, Ohio — The Westerville police officers knew only that someone had called 911 and hung up. That required immediate action.
Eric Joering, 39, and Anthony Morelli, 54, didn’t know they were about to fall victims to one of the most unpredictable and dangerous situations police handle — domestic violence.
Shortly after noon Saturday, they knocked on the door at a home in the 300 block of Cross Wind Drive at the southern edge of town, and both were “immediately met by gunfire,” said Westerville Police Chief Joe Morbitzer. One of the officers managed to return fire.
But the onslaught proved too much.
Joering was pronounced dead at the scene. Morelli died a short time later at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.
They were the first Westerville officers killed in the line of duty, said Matt Dole, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio.
Police later said the 911 hang-up stemmed from a domestic-violence situation.
Morbitzer called both officers “true American heroes.”
“These were two of the best we had,” he said, wiping tears and pausing to control his emotions. “This was their calling, and they did it right. They knew how to do policing the right way, both of them.” Morelli had been an officer for 30 years and Joering for 17 years.
The suspect was shot and taken to Wexner Medical Center in critical condition.
Late Saturday, police identified the man living at the home where the shooting took place as Quentin Lamar Smith, 30, but wouldn’t say whether Smith is the suspect.
Smith is a convicted felon with a history of domestic violence and gun possession.
Court documents show that Smith was convicted in Cuyahoga County in May 2009 for using a gun during a 2008 burglary and for domestic violence. He was sentenced to three years in prison in that case.
According to court records, there was a domestic-violence call at the Cross Wind Drive address in Westerville on Nov. 29, 2017. Smith’s wife, Candace Smith, told police that he had threatened to kill her, their daughter and himself if she ever left him. She asked police about getting a protection order against him, but there is no evidence that happened.
Also before the Nov. 29 incident, Westerville police reported that Candace Smith had gone to the police department to ask about a protection order.
They also responded to a domestic-violence call at that address Sept. 14, 2017. It’s unclear how that was resolved.
The Columbus Division of Police critical-incident response team is leading the investigation into the officers’ deaths, spokesman Dean Worthington said.
Columbus officers led a procession of cruisers and other first-responders’ vehicles through Westerville and to the Franklin County coroner’s office Saturday afternoon.
“We do that informally when the bodies are taken to the morgue or hospital,” said Worthington. “It’s ceremonial and showing support for the officers.”
Separately, dozens of police vehicles from many different area police departments lined up in at least two processions and drove down South State Street to honor the slain officers.
Similar support was seen throughout Westerville on Saturday. Genoa Township and Westerville fire departments raised their ladder trucks and attached a flag in honor of the fallen officers. Residents who drove under the ladders stopped to pay respect.
Outside the apartment complex where the shootings happened, and along the procession route, residents were questioning how something so horrific could happen so close to home.
But Linda Keffer wasn’t shocked. She lived next door to the home where the shootings happened.
Police were at that home often, Keffer said. That was a major reason Keffer moved.
“We just moved out,” Keffer said Saturday from the shooting scene. “It just didn’t feel safe. Because of the fighting.”
Lisa Schmidt and dozens of others were at a memorial created with cards and flowers Saturday night on the steps of Westerville City Hall. One sign there read, “Thank you for keeping us safe.”
Schmidt first met Morelli in an uncomfortable way.
“I got my first ticket from him” for speeding in a school zone, said Schmidt, who has lived in Westerville for 49 years. “Every time I’d see him after that, he’s like, ‘Hi, Lisa.'”
“He was a really, really good guy,” Schmidt added. “An awesome officer.”
Seventeen Ohio officers have lost their lives since 2014, including Girard Police Officer Justin A. Leo, who was shot and killed Oct. 21.
The Fraternal Order of Police has set up a GoFundMe account to help the families of the officers, available here: GoFundMe.com/FOPLodge9HelpFund.
For Morbitzer, his officers and the rest of Westerville and central Ohio, the healing process begins.
“We will miss both of these officers because they were pillars in our department. They were the ones others went to.
“They literally dedicated their lives to the city and this organization.”
Dispatch Reporters Marc Kovac and Catherine Candisky contriubted to this story.
©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio