MASSILLON — Officer Anthony Morelli was a man who led by example.
Friends and former classmates of the fallen 54-year-old police officer describe him as a man who gave all he had with every challenge he faced. Genuine, compassionate, hard working and true of heart are just a few words that come to mind when longtime friends think of Morelli.
Morelli, known as Tony to his friends, grew up on the west side of Massillon and graduated from Washington High School in 1982. For 29 years, he worked in law enforcement — the majority of those years at the Westerville Police Department.
Morelli and a fellow officer Eric Joering, 39, responded to a 911 hang-up call that turned fatal Saturday afternoon.
Both officers were immediately shot upon knocking on the door of a home in the 300 block of Cross Wind Drive, The Columbus Dispatch reported. One of the officers returned fire, hitting the suspect Quentin Lamar Smith, 30. He was taken to Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and was in critical condition Sunday.
According to Massillon Independent archives, Morelli was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. His mother, formerly Carolyn Steiner, is a Massillon native. According to friends, Morelli's parents Anthony and Carolyn Morelli still live in the city.
Anthony Mastrianni, owner the Elms Country Club, met Morelli in the eighth grade. The two were a part of a close-knit group of friends who played football for the Tigers and graduated the same year.
"Whatever he did, he was all-in," Mastrianni said. "He had the unique ability to be a tough guy while playing sports, but as nice as you could be off of the field. I think those characteristics that he had when he was a kid when he played football carried over into the rest of his life."
Mastrianni said Morelli was interested in a career in law enforcement since his early high school years. Morelli would always head home to watch the newest episode of "Hill Street Blues," a TV show that took a realistic look at police officers in a metropolitan city. He went on to study criminology at Kent State University, Mastianni said.
George Roknich, another close friend, remembers seeing a news alert about the shooting in Westerville but didn't expect the phone call he received later that day telling him Morelli had died in the encounter.
"I'm sure for all the families involved it's probably indescribable what happened and how they're feeling," Roknich said. "It's quite sad. Even though (Morelli and I) live in different parts of the state, the Massillon culture makes us part of an extended family."
Roknich last heard from Morelli on Christmas Day. He wished Morelli a merry Christmas via text message and sent him an old photo from their junior high days.
Many of Morelli's high school friends were able to reconnect during a 35-year reunion for the Washington High class of 1982 in September.
Not long after, Dan Ricker met up with Morelli in October for the Ohio State vs. Maryland game. No matter how much time passed between visits, it always felt like old times when they were able to reconnect.
"It was always just like yesterday," Ricker said. "He was just that type of person."
Morelli was a father of two and was very involved and committed to his family, according to friends.
David Chovan, of Marengo, lives just 20 minutes from Morelli and his family. The two met in the seventh grade and played football for six years together. They were very close friends growing up and continued to stay friends through college and beyond as they built their families.
Morelli met his wife, Linda, through Chovan.
Chovan and his wife began dating while attending Capital University. Morelli's wife was a roommate and close friend of Chovan's wife. The two were introduced when Morelli went to visit Chovan.
Chovan was the best man at Morelli's wedding. The two remained in contact every few months and recently went out to dinner together with their wives.
Chovan spent much of the weekend wondering how could this happen. Chovan said Westerville is a fairly quiet, middle-class neighborhood. He has heard and read about shootings of police officers on the news but never thought he would be personally impacted by it.
"The attitude in our country toward police officers is not good," Chovan said. "It's a sad story. We just really need to honor and support our law enforcement officers."
Samantha Ickes is a staff writer for the Massillon Independent