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Salute to the fallen: Sheriff's Office investigates officer's death; arrangements pending

ELYRIA — Slain Elyria police Officer James Kerstetter arrived alone at 326  W. 18th Street around 10:30 p.m. Monday night, answering a call that the man living there had exposed himself to a neighbor’s daughter.

Kerstetter walked into the home of Garnetta and Ronald Palmer without backup.

Moments later he called out for help on his police radio.

“Officer down” was the message a police dispatcher barked over the radio.

Those two words sent law enforcement racing to the scene.

More photos below.

Elyria Police Chief Duane Whitely said he got the call soon afterward. The first call was sketchy, coming from an officer with a quivering voice who could only say someone had been shot.

The calls made to Whitely as he headed to the scene provided more details.

Kerstetter, 43, was killed in a confrontation with Ronald Palmer. Kerstetter was shot several times. He was rushed to EMH Regional Medical Center. There, doctors pronounced him dead.

Lorain County Coroner Dr. Paul Matus said the 15-year veteran police officer died from multiple gunshot wounds and head injuries. The Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office performed the autopsy, a decision Matus made out of respect for Elyria police, he said.

He was trying to spare Elyria police from having to have an officer on hand for the autopsy, as is customary in homicides, and from having to associate the local morgue with this tragedy.

On Tuesday afternoon Kerstetter’s body was brought back to Bauer Laubenthal Funeral Home in Elyria, where funeral arrangements are pending.

Whitely said a tentative plan has been set to have calling hours Thursday and Friday with the officer’s funeral to follow on Saturday.

Kerstetter is survived by a wife, Tammy, and three daughters: Misty, Shelby and Bailey.

The family declined to comment.

“They are going through a difficult time,” Whitely said.

As for Palmer, the 58-year-old man was shot and killed by two Elyria police officers near his 18th Street home and sustained multiple gunshot wounds, Matus said. It will be weeks before full toxicology results are back, Matus said.

Whitely is not releasing the identity of the two officers who shot Palmer. Both are now on their scheduled days off, he said.

When both will return to work will be decided during the course of the ongoing investigation, which is being handled by the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office.

Whitely, who was recently sworn in as Elyria’s police chief, said he decided to let the county agency handle the investigation because he knew it would do a thorough job.

“I have found that I am spending my time, and most of us in the department are, with just having to deal with this,” he said.

At a news conference Tuesday evening, Whitely said he hopes to have more details either today or Thursday on what took place on 18th Street.

Friends of Palmer said he suffered from bipolar disorder and was subject to delusions when he was off his medication. A police report from March 26, 2009, which recounted a domestic incident between Palmer and his wife, said both had a history of mental issues. At that time, Palmer said he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation is helping to investigate and spent much of Tuesday collecting evidence around Palmer’s home.

Neighbors were interviewed extensively.

A gun was recovered from the scene, but Whitely said he could not say if it was the gun used to kill Kerstetter.

Whitely said he also is waiting for the conclusion of the criminal investigation before starting his own internal investigation.

He said he doesn’t have enough information to say whether two officers should have responded to the initial call.

“If a call comes in about two people fighting, two officers go,” he said. “If a call comes in about someone who has done something and goes away, generally one officer goes because there is no threat of violence. But I don’t know if that was the case here.”

Nonetheless, the incident changed the way patrol officers are working.

Officer Tom Baracskai, president of the Elyria Police Patrolmen’s Association, said officers are teaming up.

“Even today, everyone is riding around in two-man cars,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t know if that will be some kind of policy change down the line in the future. Something like this changes everybody and everyone, no matter what walk of life they are from.”

Matus, who said he has known Kerstetter since Kerstetter was a teenager and often worked with him, said Kerstetter’s death is “a tremendous loss to the community.”

“He always did a marvelous job and was always fair,” he said. “He was the type of man you’d want to come help when you were in trouble.”

Residents in the city are also grieving his loss.

A makeshift memorial outside the Elyria police station has grown to include flowers, balloons, cards and messages of condolence from people who knew Kerstetter and many who did not.

Motorists and pedestrians passing by the West Avenue station Tuesday momentarily slowed or glanced over to see the impromptu memorial set up by people wishing to show their sorrow and compassion for Kerstetter.

Others took to the Internet to express their grief.

On the social networking site Facebook, a group was started Tuesday called “In Memory of Police Officer James Kerstetter Elyria PD, Ohio.”

By 9 p.m. it had 4,351 members and a long list of messages, many telling his wife and children they were in their prayers.

Those who didn’t know what to say simply posted “RIP” and “God Bless.”

Want to help?

  • A fund has been set up in the name of slain Elyria police officer James Kerstetter. Donate at any FirstMerit Bank branch.
  • Kerstetter is survived by his wife, Tammy, and three daughters, Misty, 17, Shelby, 14, and Bailey, 8.
  • Funeral arrangements are pending.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.



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