Emotional hunt for cop killer under way in NJ town

Jan. 14: Emergency personnel respond to the scene of where a police officer was shot in a townhouse complex in Lakewood, N.J.

Jan. 14: Emergency personnel respond to the scene of where a police officer was shot in a townhouse complex in Lakewood, N.J.

LAKEWOOD, N.J. – One moment, they were just talking, the young police officer in the patrol car who had rolled up alongside the even younger pedestrian.

It was a low-key give-and-take, question-and-answer exchange Friday afternoon, not hostile or confrontational.

That changed in an instant, when the pedestrian pulled a handgun out from his baggy clothing, stepped back and fired three shots into the officer, who never had a chance.

Patrolman Christopher Matlosz slumped behind the wheel of his police cruiser, mortally wounded, his gun still in its holster. The gunman ran away, touching off a massive manhunt by land and air, with authorities vowing he would soon be caught and punished.

No arrests had been made as of late Saturday morning, but authorities said they had completed a painstaking house-to-house search in the area of the shooting overnight.

“This investigation is going in a different direction now,” said Capt. Thomas Hayes of the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, declining to elaborate.

He said more than 100 local, county, state and federal officers were involved in the search for the suspect.

Officers were struggling with their emotions, grieving for their slain colleague while trying to remain focused on the task of catching his killer. Several officers at police headquarters worked deep into the night, their eyes red from crying, even as they coordinated strategy.

“Everyone is remaining professional,” Hayes said. “This really is an intense investigation.”

A Facebook tribute page created to honor Matlosz had more than 1,000 followers by early Saturday afternoon. Some had changed their profile pictures to the Lakewood police crest adorned with a blue and black line, and some bore Matlosz’s badge number: 317.

Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford said several drive-by shootings had previously occurred in the neighborhood where Matlosz was killed. She called the shooting “an execution-style killing.”

The 27-year-old Matlosz had just transferred off the midnight shift a week ago. He was engaged to be married next year, and his fiancee rushed to the hospital where he died less than an hour after being shot.

“This is a terrible tragedy, and our hearts and prayers go out to Officer Matlosz’s family, friends, fellow officers and the entire New Jersey law enforcement community,” Gov. Chris Christie said. “While the facts are still being gathered, we support the Lakewood police and Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office in their work to bring swift justice to whomever is responsible.”

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), called the officer’s death “a tragic loss for all New Jerseyans.”

Alluding to the shooting spree in Arizona that killed six people and grievously wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Oliver said, “His passing is a senseless loss in what’s been a sad week for our nation, but we must remember Officer Matlosz’s commitment to justice and public service. He was an example to us all.”

Within hours of the shooting, individual police officers began circulating the name and photo of a 19-year-old man who they claimed in e-mails and Internet postings was the suspect in the case. But a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office would not confirm that the person named in the online postings was the suspect for whom authorities were looking.

The suspect was described as a black male in his early 20s or late teens, 5-foot-6 or 5-foot-7, stockily built with sunken eyes and puffy cheeks. He was wearing a black hoodie and dark jeans slung so low that gray boxer shorts were visible, according to a witness account to police.

Matlosz was conducting “a routine stop” of the suspect, chatting with him for a few minutes, Ford said, leading authorities to believe the two may have been acquainted with each other before the shooting.

“This was an encounter that was between the officer and the person, not hostile,” she said. “The individual stepped back and suddenly pulled out a handgun and shot the officer.”

While the suspect fled on foot, a neighbor called 911 just after 4 p.m. to report an officer down. Matlosz was rushed to Jersey Shore University Medical Center, where he died in the trauma unit. He is survived by his mother and a brother.

“Every year we lose police officers in this country and so many of their losses are just like this one: routine, nonviolent situations” that suddenly turn deadly, Ford said. “Now it hits home. This is the risk every officer takes when he put on the badge.”

The State Policeman’s Benevolent Association is offering a $40,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the suspect. The reward continued to grow Saturday, with the Cape May County borough of Avalon contributing $1,000 to the fund and urging every police department in the state to do likewise.

“It is very important for all communities in the state to contribute to a special reward fund that leads to the arrest and conviction of the coward who took Officer Matlosz’s life for no reason,” Avalon Mayor Martin Pagliughi said.

Lakewood is an ethnically diverse community of 60,000 residents located 54 miles east of Philadelphia and 47 miles south of New York.

Matlosz joined the department Aug. 14, 2006, and lived in nearby Manchester Township, according to Lakewood Police Chief Robert Lawson.

“Chris was one of our most popular officers,” the chief said. “You might say he was the best of us. He was very dedicated to his job. I have a lot of accolades about him from the public.”

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