NORWALK, Conn. (AP) – Police blocked off city streets and searched with dogs for a suspect after an officer was gunned down early Friday while investigating suspicious activity in a secluded parking lot.

Police arrived within one minute of Officer Matthew Morelli’s last transmission to headquarters, but found the 11-year department veteran 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. He radioed that he was stopping to investigate suspicious activity, but a police spokesman said he did not elaborate.

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. Police said Morelli usually wore a vest.

Police union president Bill Curwen said having a suspect still at large made the situation more difficult.

“Nobody knows what really happened at this point,” he said. “The not knowing is what’s eating a hole in everybody.”

Police spokesman Lt. Paul Resnick said neighbors are not in danger.

“I don’t think the public itself is at tremendous risk right now, based on the information I have,” he said. “The investigation is continuing at a very aggressive pace. We’re looking at all possibilities. Everything is on the table.”

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.”

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. Other neighbors reported hearing five or six shots.

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.

Morelli, who had a young daughter, had been a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician.

Curwen said the tall, lanky officer also loved farming and kept llamas, sheep and chickens at his home.

“He walked like he had been on a tractor all day,” Curwen said.

Morelli would jump in wherever he was needed and never considered a job too big or too small.

“He was very outspoken. If he liked you he told you he liked you. If he didn’t like you, he told you. He was a soft and tender guy inside,” Curwen said. “There was a hard side to him. Inside he was really like a cupcake.”

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 Norwalk department in 1996, the same year he was honorably discharged from the Marines after serving in the first Gulf War and was a former Marine intelligence analyst. He was a member of Norwalk’s water rescue 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.


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