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Police chief, two others killed in shooting

Shooter also took two hostage before attack at nursing home

By The Columbus Dispatch Published: May 13, 2017 4:00 AM
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Minutes before a man killed the Kirkersville police chief and two employees of a nursing home, he took two passersby hostage in a wooded area behind the nursing home.

On Friday, Licking County Sheriff Randy Thorpe said Thomas Hartless killed Kirkersville Police Chief Steven DiSario and the nursing home employees before turning the gun on himself.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said Hartless had been hiding in a "very small wooded area" behind Pine Kirk Care Center on East Main Street in the Licking County village. Authorities said it appeared the passersby happened upon Hartless, and he took them hostage to remain undetected.

Police Chief Steven DiSario responded to the scene after a report of a man with a gun at 7:50 a.m. DeWine said the shooter fired at the chief, killing him. The hostages escaped unharmed.

When authorities entered the nursing home, they found that two female employees had been shot and killed. Hartless was also dead inside the facility.

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DiSario had only been police chief for about three weeks.

The last communication DiSario had with authorities indicated that he had the suspect in sight, Licking County Sheriff Randy Thorp said, and Thorp assumes that the chief engaged Hartless before he was shot. He did not know if DiSario fired any shots.

Authorities were not releasing the names of the other two victims.

"It's real hard. It's a hard day for all of us," Thorp said.

Hartless' car was found at the Flying-J at Interstate 70 and Route 158, about a mile and a quarter from the scene. Authorities secured a search warrant to search the car, another vehicle and the suspect's home in Utica.

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There were reports that nursing home employees barricaded themselves inside rooms in the nursing home. All of the nursing home residents were taken to local hospitals so authorities could investigate the crime scene.

Debbie Messer, who lives on East Main Street, said she heard at least one gunshot. After that, her five dogs "went crazy," making it difficult to know if there were more fired.

"I was in my driveway," she said. "My neighbor told me that someone had shot a police officer and to go inside and lock my doors and call 911, and that's what I did."

Messer said others apparently called, too.

She said she didn't see the officer.

"This is a really small town and everybody knows everybody," she said. "These things don't happen here."

Chris Roush also lives on East Main Street near the nursing home. About 7:30 a.m. he was getting his kids ready for school when he heard a shot.

"There's a lot of hunting in this area, so I didn't think much of it," he said. Shortly afterward, however, police cruisers started swarming the area and police were walking around with shotguns and automatic weapons looking for a suspect.

The family stayed in the house and followed the news. About 10 a.m., word came that the threat had ended.

But shortly after 11 a.m., the road in front of Roush's house was still closed.

He said they were never ordered to stay inside, but they did "out of respect" for the situation.

Tweny agents from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation was assisting authorities.

"It was a horrible, horrible tragedy. Our thoughts go out to the chief's famiily and other families," he said.

Gov. John Kasich issued a statement on the shooting and ordered that flags in the state be lowerrd to half-staff.

"Ohio mourns the loss of Kirkersville Chief Eric Disario, who died in the line of duty. Join me in praying for his family, friends and colleagues, and for the others injured in this tragedy. Bleesed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God."

Pine Kirk Care Center is a 24-bed facility in a converted residential residence, said Peter Van Runkle, executive director of the Ohio Health Care Association, a nursing-home industry group.

As of May 3, the facility was serving 23 Medicaid patients, according to the Ohio Department of Health. No one answered a phone call to the nursing home this morning.

"They cater to the forgotten members of society -- folks that have, in addition to physical health care needs, behavioral health issues," VanRunkle said. "They provide them with a small environment that's less institutional than some facilities might be. They do good job of taking care of a niche clientele."

VanRunkle said the the Ohio Health Care Association is aware of the risks nursing homes face and provides active-shooter training.

"Skilled nursing facilities are required to, and should, be open to the public so visitors can come and go and see their loved ones," he said. "We're not permitted to exclude people or lock down the facilities so no one can get it, which makes it challenging."

Kirkersville Elementary School was closed for the day after sheriff's office officials asked the district to put the school on lockdown, said Southwest Licking Local School District office secretary Cindy Pickering. Because the school was not yet in session, kids on their way were diverted to Watkins Middle School, and parents were notified to pick them up.

All other district schools remained open.


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