Over a thousand in Girard support police during vigil

Tribune Chronicle / Guy Vogrin Viola McClimans, left, a freshman at Girard High School, and Hunter Patrick, attend a vigil Sunday evening for Girard police officer Justin Leo, 31, who was shot and killed Saturday night.

GIRARD — The illuminated sign outside the high school Sunday evening flashed the words: Girard Strong.

More than 1,000 people put those words into action by turning out for an impromptu vigil at Arrowhead Stadium to honor fallen police officer Justin Leo, who was shot to death Saturday at 408 Indiana Ave. answering a domestic violence call.

The crowd holding candles sat silently in the twilight for about 45 minutes waiting for police Chief John Norman to lead his department onto the track along with Leo’s parents, Pat and Dave. Tears and hugs were abundant as the crowd politely applauded.

Mayor James Melfi made his way up the stairs from the field to the press box atop the home-side bleachers to speak for the group down below.

“This is the saddest day in our city’s history. We lost one of our finest citizens. I have a feeling of numbness that I am sure is universal through Girard,” Melfi said of Leo, who worked for the police department for five years.

The mayor also spoke of Leo’s commitment to the community from his younger days when he was involved in sports. “Justin was made to serve this community from the sandlots to the police station,” said Melfi, who called Leo, 31, an “absolute gentleman.”

Monsignor John Zuraw, Leo’s pastor at St. Rose Catholic Parish, had some advice for those in attendance. “May all of us do something good in Justin’s honor,” Zuraw said.

Leo’s kindergarten teacher, Regina Racketa, who has been at St. Rose School for 38 years, said the officer “was one of those kids that you’d never forget.”

Racketa talked about a chance encounter she had with Leo about two weeks ago at the same high school track. “He gave me his cell phone number and said if I never needed him, he would be there,” Racketa said as she fought back tears.

As a student, Racketa said Leo was most inquisitive, hanging on every word she would said. “He also loved Notre Dame. The second-grade teacher had a hard time keeping him from singing that fight song all day,” she laughed.

Renee Carroll of Girard said she remembered the officer at baseball fields as a youth umpire.

“He always was flashing that smile,” Carroll said.

At the beginning of the vigil, Bobby Caldwell of Girard, a long-time friend and teammate of Leo in high school track, cross country and basketball, began a memorial one-mile relay by running the first quarter-mile leg.

“He will be greatly missed. I was very blessed to be so close to him,” Caldwell said.

Girard residents Marcie Plant and Terry O’Neil said they organized the vigil Sunday afternoon. It was announced on social media.

“We put this thing together in a few hours. I didn’t expect the police officers to show up, but I think they needed to see this support from the community,” O’Neil said.

Also standing on the track were officers from Howland, Hubbard Township, Fowler and Youngstown State University.