The man accused of fatally shooting two Westerville, Ohio, police officers Saturday was barred from legally owning a firearm but paid a friend to buy him one, federal prosecutors said.
Quentin L. Smith, 30, is charged with aggravated murder in the killings of officers Anthony Morelli, 54, and Eric Joering, 39, who were shot while responding to a potential domestic violence incident, authorities said.
Smith, a convicted felon, is prohibited from purchasing or possessing a firearm but allegedly bought the weapon through Gerald A. Lawson III, 30, who is charged with providing a handgun, prosecutors with the Justice Department for the Southern District of Ohio said in a statement Monday.
“As they went into the apartment, they were immediately met with gunfire and both officers were shot,” an emotional Westerville Police Chief Joe Morbitzer said at a news conference over the weekend.
Immediate details about the incident were scant, though Morbitzer described it as a “potential domestic situation.” In the initial 911 call, a woman can be heard crying before the call disconnects, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. The newspaper also obtained tape from a subsequent 911 call the woman made.
“Please help, please help, please help,” the woman can be heard frantically telling a dispatcher. “My husband shot — he shot the police officers. Please hurry up. My daughter is in there.”
The woman then added that she was hiding in the bushes in the front yard.
Joering died at the scene, while Morelli died at the hospital where he was taken.
Police said Smith was wounded and taken to a hospital, but did not release further information about his condition or wounds.
Lawson is a longtime friend of Smith’s and knew he had a felony conviction for burglary, as Lawson had visited Smith in prison, prosecutors said. Yet Lawson still bought Smith the handgun with the knowledge that he was prohibited from possessing one, according to an affidavit filed by an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A witness told investigators that Smith allegedly paid Lawson the cost of the handgun, as well as an additional $100 for providing the weapon.
Investigators confirmed through social media that the two men were friends, prosecutors said. One of Lawson’s posts showed three photos of the two men together and references to their longtime friendship.
If convicted, Lawson faces up to 10 years in prison, prosecutors said.
Smith could be indicted on formal charges and could face the death sentence, since the officers were killed in the line of duty, according to the Associated Press.
On Monday, hundreds lined the streets of Westerville to watch a solemn police procession escort the officers’ bodies to funeral homes. Morelli was taken to Moreland Funeral Home, while Joering was taken to Hill Funeral Home, both in Westerville, according to CNN. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
The slain officers were “two of the best we have,” said Morbitzer, the Westerville police chief, struggling through tears Saturday. Morelli had been with the Westerville Police Department for 29 years; Joering had been on the force for 16 years.
“Both officers gave their life in protection of others,” Morbitzer said. “Those are true American heroes.”
Three vigils will honor the officers: One at 8 p.m. Monday at nearby Otterbein University’s campus, another at 8 p.m. Monday at Ohio State University, and a third at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, at First Responders Park in Westerville, according to city officials.
The local Fraternal Order of Police set up a GoFundMe account, verified by the city, to help cover unpaid medical bills, funeral expenses and education costs for the officers’ children. Within hours, the fundraiser had exceeded its original goal of $50,000.
Over the weekend, President Trump offered his thoughts and prayers to the fallen officers, their families and the Westerville police, calling the fatal shooting “a true tragedy.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who is from Westerville, ordered the state’s flags lowered in honor of the two officers Monday.
“The finest among us are those who risk it all everyday for our safety, and Officers Anthony Morelli and Eric Joering were those people,” he said in a statement. “Their deaths are a terrible tragedy for my home town of Westerville and all of Ohio.”