Holly Zachariah The Columbus Dispatch Woods The Columbus Dispatch Hendrix
As the tributes and mementos piled up so high around Westerville Police Officer Anthony Morelli‘s SUV that the stacked bouquets of flowers kept sliding off the hood, the Rev. James Meacham sat inside City Hall and cried.
For 46 years, the pastor has served as chaplain of the Westerville Police Department, and nothing in that time had prepared him for the darkness that descended on the city on Saturday, when Morelli and fellow officer Eric Joering were shot to death while responding to a 911 hang-up call in the 300 block of Cross Wind Drive. Quentin Lamar Smith has been charged with two counts of aggravated murder in their deaths.
But on Sunday, Meacham and the hundreds of people who stopped by City Hall and police headquarters to pay respects — and the hundreds more who gathered at two community vigils — didn’t want to talk about the violence that cut two lives short. Instead, they wanted to talk about the joy brought by two lives well-lived.
For Morelli and Joering weren‘t just police officers. They were husbands — Joering to Jamie, and Morelli to Linda. Both were dads. Joering, 39, was a dog lover, his faithful city K-9 officer, Sam, always by his side. Morelli, 54, loved sports, coached his kids when they were young, never missed any games. Both were beloved in this city. And it fell to Meacham to break the news of what had happened to the Joering family on Saturday.
With his red-rimmed eyes swollen and glistening with still more unshed tears, Meacham recounted how he had to tell the four Joering girls that their father was gone.
“I told them Daddy went on a call, and there was a bad man,” he said. “And Daddy died.”
Another of the city’s five chaplains had been dispatched to comfort the Morelli family. Neither duty was easy.
But Sunday was a day to move evil temporarily from their minds and to let the good of a community shine through. One only need to look at the online memorial fund to see it: The Fraternal Order of Police has set up a GoFundMe account to help the families of the officers, (GoFundMe/FOPLodge9HelpFund). By Sunday night, it had raised more than $213,000.
Funeral arrangements for the two officers are pending, but the bodies will be transported from the Franklin County Morgue on Monday morning. Westerville is encouraging people to line State Street about 11:30 a.m. as Morelli is escorted to Moreland Funeral Home at 55 E. Schrock Road. and Joering is taken to Hill Funeral Home at 220 S. State St.
Two gatherings held Sunday allowed people from Westerville — and those who traveled from across Ohio and elsewhere — to grieve together and share memories.
People packed the Westerville North High School gym in the afternoon and spoke of Morelli being a terrific baseball coach, and of memories such as how much fun he had when he gave his daughter’s Brownies troop a tour of the police station.
Morelli, who was with the police department for nearly 30 years, served both on patrol and as a school resource officer. One former student said Morelli changed his perspective on law enforcement when he was a student at Blendon Middle School and the officer would sit at his lunch table, talking about life and building friendships.
“I did bad things and always thought I needed to avoid cops, but he was one of the good ones,” he said.
A mother recounted how frantic she was a decade ago when her then-7-year-old daughter wandered away in the Giant Eagle grocery store, but a calm and cool Morelli, who was working special duty as a security guard, found the child right away.
Only a few months ago, the mother ran into Morelli in town. She didn‘t expect him to remember her. But he did. They laughed about that old story, and Morelli even remembered her daughter’s name.
Joering, who was on the force for more than 16 years, was remembered as a hometown boy, a 1997 Westerville South graduate who loved his city. He was always friendly, always smiling, always did whatever anyone asked and more.
He had really bonded with Sam; his whole family had. And on Saturday, after Meacham and Joering’s wife told the kids about their dad’s death, the girls almost immediately asked to see the dog. Someone took Sam to the house.
“Sam did us all so much good,” Meacham said. “He helped the girls so much.”
Everyone in town, it seems, has a story about one of these two longtime officers.
Wes Elifritz, Westerville North‘s athletic director, recalled how he recently joined Joering on a routine check of students‘ cars and lockers.
“You could tell how much he cared about the safety of our students,” Elifritz said. “It‘s more than a job to them, to serve and protect. They lived it every day.”
As Westerville Police Chief Joe Morbitzer stood inside the auditorium at Heritage Christian Church in front of more than 750 people who had crammed in for a prayer service Sunday night, the visibly shaken officer apologized for not being in uniform. But no one could blame him. He has spent all his time talking with the fallen officers’ families, fellow officers and the dispatchers who had to handle those chaotic calls Saturday.
“People are hurting real bad at our police department,” Morbitzer told the crowd.
Sgt. Greg LeValley, who led the honor guard in attendance, echoed that: “We hurt. The brothers and sisters, we hurt.”
Morbitzer lauded the bravery of the two fallen officers but said he knows the men would not want the attention to be on them. They probably would just ask that the community stand together. But it already is doing so.
Morbitzer said he hopes the community‘s support will last beyond these next few weeks, and that people will continue to stand with the Joerings and the Morellis.
“That‘s what Westerville is about, taking care of its own,” Morbitzer said, drawing a standing ovation.
Video: Morbitzer describes grief
At City Hall and police headquarters on Sunday, the all-day fog, cold drizzle and sometimes-pouring rain kept no one away. Even as darkness fell, people still came and went.
When Mary and Jeff Calvert arrived, they stood back from the growing pile of mementos for the officers and cried, not ashamed of their tears mixing with the mist.
Mary Calvert laid a bouquet of white carnations in tribute.
Officer Morelli, she said, was practically family. He coached their son in T-ball close to 20 years ago, and their kids played together. She had just run into him Wednesday at a local 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 said they simply are heartbroken.
“It‘s such a senseless act,” he said of Saturday’s violence. “ It‘s going to be a hell of a week around here. It‘s going to be so rough.”
But they agreed with Chief Morbitzer that 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.”
Mary Calvert responded: “Today, Westerville is the ‘someplace else.‘” Even so, “We‘re family, all of us,” she said. “This community is amazing, and we‘ll lean on each other.”