NORWALK, Conn. â€” Police blocked off city streets and searched with dogs for a suspect after an officer was gunned down early Friday while responding to a report of suspicious activity in a secluded parking lot.
Officers responded within one minute of Officer Matthew Morelli’s last transmission to headquarters, but found the 11-year veteran of the police department and former Marine intelligence analyst dead, said Chief Harry Rilling.
Police said Morelli was shot just before 12:30 a.m. in a parking lot on Lubrano Place in south Norwalk, about 50 miles northeast of New York City.
Rilling said it was premature to release any information about suspects and would not say whether Morelli was ambushed or whether he was wearing a bulletproof vest.
Past problems in that area improved after the city instituted more patrols and installed better lighting, Rilling said.
Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia met with Morelli’s family Friday to offer condolences. Morelli is the fifth officer to die in the line of duty in the department’s 94-year history. The last was in 1982.
“Obviously I received a call no mayor wants to receive,” Moccia said. “It’s fair to say it’s been my toughest day since I’ve been mayor of the city.”
Lt. Paul Resnick, the police spokesman, said Morelli had been a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician.
“He was very well-liked and respected by his fellow officers,” Resnick said.
Leo Ramos, 24, who recently moved to the residential neighborhood and was out walking his dog Friday morning, said the helicopter woke his mother.
“It’s terrifying,” he said. “To know a cop got shot around the corner from me is a little scary.”
Angel Baez, 11, said he heard four gunshots early Friday and looked out the window to see lights flashing. He said a tall officer he believes was Morelli once gave him $5 in the store because he didn’t have any money.
Joe DeFlorio, 49, grew up in the neighborhood, where he was doing construction Friday. He said the area had declined and now seems to be on the rebound, though he pointed out gang graffiti scrawled on storefronts and said he would be cautious walking to a nearby train station at night.
“We used to play in that parking lot,” he said. “If someone will kill a cop, that’s the ultimate. It’s a sad day.”
Another neighbor said officers often parked in the area to do paperwork or have a cup of coffee because it was quiet.
Flowers started arriving at the police station soon after news of the shooting spread. State officials also sent their condolences.
“Each day, brave police officers risk their lives so that we and our families can be safe and secure,” U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said in a statement. “We should honor the ultimate sacrifice that has been made by Officer Morelli.”
Morelli joined the force in 1996, the same year he was honorably discharged from the Marines. He was a member of Norwalk’s marine unit, where he had a close call just before Christmas as he and another officer searched for an endangered windsurfer in Long Island Sound on a windy, frigid afternoon.
He slipped on their boat’s deck and fell into the 41-degree water, but was rescued by fellow Officer John Taranto, The Hour of Norwalk reported.
Norwalk Sgt. Peter LaPak described Morelli at the time as someone who “isn’t that easily rattled. I think he was having all he could do to try and grab the side of the boat.”
Before Friday, Connecticut’s most recent line-of-duty death was New Haven Officer Dan Picagli, 38. He was struck and killed by a sport utility vehicle while directing traffic at a construction site on Oct. 21, 2006.
The Connecticut Law Enforcement Memorial lists 30 Connecticut officers killed in the line of duty since 1980.