Doing what he loved

Officer known for good character, calming effect

Tribune Chronicle / Renee Fox Lisa Manente and Patricia DelGenio tie blue ribbons to the trees Sunday outside the Girard Police Department to honor Girard police officer Justin Leo, 31, who was shot and killed Saturday night. Leo and another police officer responded to 408 Indiana Ave. for a domestic violence call. Leo died just before midnight in surgery at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital. Both women said they are connected to law enforcement through their families and felt the need to do something after learning about Leo’s death.

GIRARD — A Girard police officer killed while responding to a report of domestic violence died doing what he loved — serving the community — and was prepared to die in that service, his parents said.

Officer Justin Leo, 31, was shot just after 10 p.m. Saturday at 408 Indiana Ave., according to Girard Mayor James Melfi and Trumbull County 911 Center records. Leo died just before midnight during surgery at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, Melfi said.

Leo’s father, Dave Leo, said he, his son and his wife, Pat Leo, discussed the possibility Justin could die on the job.

“We had discussed the possibility that he could lose his life doing this, we just thought we would have more time with him first. He still had a lot of lives to touch,” Dave Leo said. “Already, at his age, he had touched so many lives. He coached kids. He always had a smile on his face. This job was his passion. He was doing what he loved to do. We just never got the chance to say good bye.”

Leo was an only child, he wasn’t married and didn’t have children, Melfi said.

The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is leading the investigation. Officials Sunday declined to release the name of the other officer involved, but Melfi said it will be released once investigators deem it appropriate. The officer with Leo returned fire, killing the man at the scene, Melfi said.

Officials are also not releasing the name of the man believed to have shot Leo, however, the owner of the Indiana Avenue home identified him as Jason Marble.

No one else was at the home at the time of the shooting, according to BCI. Several neighbors reported hearing a single shot, followed by a pause and three more shots coming from the house on the dead end street.

BCI is still investigating how many shots were fired, said BCI spokeswoman Jill Del Greco. The location of Leo’s wound or wounds was not released by officials Sunday.

Robert Clark, who lives a few houses down from where the shooting occurred, said officer Leo was not a stranger to the neighborhood, not because the quiet street had problems often, but because when there were arguments, an occasional fist fight or a car accident, he was often one of the officers who responded.

“He was a good, decent guy. He was never crude or short with people. He did his job, but he did it in a way where he was sweet to people. He was a credit to his uniform, a credit to his badge,” Clark said.

Clark said he heard four shots while at home in his living room. At first, Clark said, he didn’t think it was gunshots because in eight years in the neighborhood, violence has not been a problem.

Betty Grigsby, who lives adjacent to 408 Indiana Ave., said a woman has lived there for several years with two young children, and a man moved in with her a few years ago.

Clark, Grigsby and neighbor Sam Griner said they’ve never noticed police called to the house before.

Griner said he was on the phone with his son when he heard the shots and went to look out the door. “There was a man leaning on the tree close to the house. But when more police cruisers and all of the other responders came, he took off running,” Griner said.

The man appears to be a witness, not a suspect, according to information in 911 records. The man was found shortly before 1 a.m. Sunday, according to the call logs.

Police officers from multiple agencies responded to the scene to assist and search for the man, including officers from Weathersfield, Howland, Vienna, Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office, Warren, McDonald, Cortland, Fowler, Liberty, Brookfield and Lordstown. Grigsby said officers from the Ohio State Highway Patrol and Niles were also there.

“Cruisers lined the streets, they were here in an instant,” Grigsby said. “I couldn’t be more proud of our police officers. With everything that happened, after losing one of their own, they were still professional and dedicated.”

Melfi said he expects the investigation to reveal the second officer’s quick response returning fire after Leo was shot saved “many, many lives,” but did not elaborate on why.

According to the 911 call log, officers who responded after the shots were fired were told the man at the house had “been drinking all day” and had access to several firearms.

Officer Leo had the highest score on the police entrance exam, said Melfi, and was an outstanding officer.

“He was who you want to see in blue. He had a calming effect on calls and he wasn’t intimidating. When I asked him why he wanted to be a police officer, he said, ‘I love this town. I love the people in it.’ He wanted to good things for the people here and he did,” said Melfi, who said he has known Justin Leo since he was in first grade.

Patricia DelGenio and Marie Manente Sunday hung blue ribbons donated by Homestead Florist on trees outside of the Girard Police Department. Both women have connections to law enforcement.

DelGenio and Manente said they were up all night and felt like they had to do something to honor Leo and the officer he was with.

“I just feel so helpless, it is just so sad. And the other officer deserves a lot of credit, to watch your partner get shot and to be able to do what you have to do and return fire, that is so difficult and so courageous. Who knows how many lives he saved by doing that,” DelGenio said.

The Leos said the community response to the tragedy has been a comfort, as visitors stopped by their Girard home with boxes and bags of food, tears and hugs.

“We have to remember, God has a plan for every life. We have to know that he is in control. We can’t ask why, we just have to trust,” Pat Leo said.

This is the first time a police officer has been shot and killed on the job in Girard, Melfi said.