When Courtney Smith walked into a police station in suburban Columbus, Ohio, in October 2015 to accuse her husband, Ohio State football assistant coach Zach Smith, of pushing her against a wall with his hands around her neck, she brought evidence.
Police in the city of Powell collected a broken iPhone, two USB drives and a kitchen knife, records show, as they investigated and considered arresting Zach Smith on domestic violence charges. Courtney Smith also had saved threatening text messages, she told police, and — according to news reports this month in the wake of Smith’s firing — she kept photos of her injuries from prior assaults that she shared with Ohio State football Coach Urban Meyer’s wife, Shelley.
Nearly three years later, Urban Meyer’s shifting explanations for his knowledge of allegations of abuse against his former longtime assistant and family friend — allegations Zach Smith has denied — have left Meyer’s tenure at Ohio State in peril.
But while many in Columbus and across college football are focused on how Meyer dealt with the abuse allegations, the controversy also has raised questions about how police in Powell — a quiet, affluent town of about 12,000 that routinely appears on lists of America’s safest communities — responded when the wife of an Ohio State football coach called for help.
Powell police ultimately closed the 2015 investigation without charging Zach Smith, and the department declined to release the case file this month for reasons disputed by Ohio public records experts. In an interview posted online this month by Stadium, a sports news website, Courtney Smith expressed dismay that her ex-husband avoided arrest.
“I don’t know what happened. I felt, and I was told, they had more than enough evidence to charge him. . . . It’s very frustrating, and I felt very defeated,” said Smith, who did not reply to a request for comment for this story.
To victims’ advocates who think law enforcement agencies, as well as college athletic departments, have a poor track record of dealing with domestic violence, the Powell police response to the 2015 case is a troubling but familiar aspect of the story roiling Ohio State.
“I think the entire handling of this has been abysmal yet common. This is the status quo, and it’s a horrible status quo,” said Katherine Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Powell Police Chief Gary Vest defended his department’s handling of the 2015 case, one of seven instances over the past three years in which his officers intervened in disputes between Courtney and Zach Smith.
“We did not believe that the case would be prosecutable,” Vest said. “When there’s violence, and violence can be proven, there will be charges. When it can’t be proven, then we have to kind of back up.”
Vest said his agency decided not to charge Smith after consulting with the county prosecutor’s office. Delaware County Prosecutor Carol O’Brien, however, said her office only handles felony cases and, once it decided no felony charges were merited in 2015, had no influence on whether Powell police charged Smith with misdemeanor domestic violence.
In Ohio, O’Brien said, a felony domestic violence charge requires a suspect with a prior conviction or a pregnant victim. Smith had been charged in 2009, in Florida, with aggravated battery of his then-pregnant wife, but she declined to pursue the case. Smith has never been convicted of assaulting his ex-wife.
“I don’t know why there wasn’t a criminal charge” in 2015, O’Brien said. “I only know why there was no felony criminal charge.”
When Courtney Smith went public this month with accusations that abuse by her ex-husband was ignored by Meyer and others, she provided photographs that she said she took after assaults. Two photos show red, streaking bruises on her arm and neck, and another shows blood flowing from wounds on her hand.
It’s unclear, however, whether she ever provided those photos to police. Attorneys for Courtney Smith and Zach Smith did not respond to several requests for comment.
The lawyer who represented Zach Smith in 2015, Larry James, said in a phone interview that he did not remember seeing any photos back then.
“If there are photos of bruises, without exception, they’re going to go forward with the charges,” James said of police. “There appeared to be nothing there.”
Powell police have declined requests to release the full case file, which would detail what evidence police collected and any statements offered in 2015 by Courtney Smith, Zach Smith and other witnesses. The reason, Vest explained, is because Ohio law bars police from releasing records that identify a suspect never charged with a crime.
In normal closed cases, police simply redact the names of suspects and release the records, Vest said. But in this case, because Courtney Smith and Zach Smith have both, in public interviews, identified Zach Smith as the uncharged suspect, Powell police’s attorney concluded that the agency shouldn’t release any more records from the investigation.
Public records experts in Ohio have criticized this decision.
Jack Greiner, a Cincinnati attorney who specializes in First Amendment and media issues, said in a phone interview that he thinks Powell police are incorrectly interpreting a law that merely seeks to prevent police from identifying an uncharged suspect. Just because Zach Smith has publicly acknowledged he was the suspect in 2015 shouldn’t suddenly render the entire investigative file confidential, Greiner said.
“Everyone already knows that this was the guy involved in this incident,” Greiner said. “I would take the position that the release of these records would not newly disclose the identity of any uncharged suspects, so they should be made public.”
Vest emphasized that Powell police aren’t providing Ohio State with any more information about the 2015 case than the agency has released to news outlets. The university’s investigation into how Meyer and others at Ohio State responded to prior allegations involving Zach Smith is expected to be completed by Sunday.
Meyer, who is on paid administrative leave, initially denied knowledge of the 2015 investigation, then acknowledged he had been aware of the accusations and said he followed “proper reporting protocols.” Zach Smith, in his interviews denying he abused his ex-wife, said Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith was also aware of the 2015 investigation.
In Columbus, some Meyer supporters have seized on the implication that the coach knew police were investigating — and that no charges resulted — as exonerating evidence.
But victims’ advocates said this mind-set — that if law enforcement and courts don’t arrest or convict someone for domestic violence, there’s little employers could or should do — is no longer acceptable, a lesson the NFL learned in 2014 during the Ray Rice scandal.
“To just say, ‘Law enforcement didn’t do anything, so we’re clear,’ is irresponsible and dangerous,” Redmond said. “How many times do we see today where law enforcement clears somebody, and someone ends up dead?”
Vest has strongly disputed any suggestion that his force handled accusations with leniency because Smith was an Ohio State football coach. Vest doesn’t even like sports — he has never watched an entire football game, he noted — and said he was unaware of Smith’s connection to the Buckeyes until the case drew widespread attention.
“Until the media decided Zach Smith’s link to Ohio State was important, I had blinders on,” Vest said. “I didn’t treat him any different than any other person, and I didn’t bend any rules.”