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After Kirkersville: Town Struggles To Find Footing After Police Chief's Murder

Debbie Holmes
The Kirkersville police department, still without a chief, remains closed.

This is the first of a two-part story on the aftermath of the Kirkersville shooting and the viability of police forces in small communities. Read part two here.

On a weekday morning in Kirkersville, a Licking County village that just over 500 people call home, some struggle to find a new normal. The sign inside a thrift store on Main Street reads closed, but a man inside walks out.   

The man complains about media coverage of the town's recent shootings, but after a brief time, decides he does not want to talk to a reporter. He silently goes back in the store. 

The murders, and the sudden national attention they brought Kirkersville, remain fresh in resident’s minds.

Early on May 12, gunman Thomas Hartless invaded Pine Kirk Care Center nursing home, shooting and killing his former girlfriend and her co-worker. When Kirkersville Police chief Steven Disario responded to the call, he too was killed.

Hartless then took his own life.

Six weeks later, the tiny town continues to struggle with the aftermath, including the uncertain future of the Kirkersville police department.

Pastor Matthew Vanwinkle of Kirkersville United Methodist Church says the crime united church members and the town.

“It brought us very close together, not only as a church, but as a community," Vanwinkle says. "We were very blessed to have a lot of members of the congregation to come together to help respond to the tragic events here. But it was truly a blessing for the church to actually be the church in the community."

Credit Debbie Holmes
Pastor Matthew Vanwinkle of Kirkersville United Methodist Church says the town united after the May 12 murders, which happened just across the street.

Pine Kirk nursing home sits across the street from Vanwinkle’s church. He once served as chaplain there, though he says he never met Disario.  

“It was terrible, especially from the perspective that I spent several days and several hours inside that building getting to know the residents, and getting to know the staff," Vanwinkle says. "And my heart truly went out especially for the residents, who had someone come into their home and terrorize them."

With the loss of its young chief, Kirkersville finds itself without a police department. Disario, a 36-year-old father of six whose wife was expecting another child, had only been on the job three weeks.

The station remains closed. Black mourning tape covers part of the shield on the door.

Kirkersville mayor Terry Ashcraft says the city cannot operate a police department without a chief, so there are no officers working right now. He says city officials are in the process of advertising for a new chief. 

The city council, though, only meets once a month.

Nattie Groves, 83, says he supports maintaining a local police department but understands funding is always an issue. 

“They’re talking about enacting an income tax to support a better force," Groves says. "But that has to go before election, so I don’t know how that is going to pan out. Would you support that?  Sure. Absolutely."

Credit Debbie Holmes
Kirkersville city officials say they are in the process of advertising for a new police chief. But the city council only meets once a month.

Groves, who runs the CRS Carpet store in Kirkersville, says that since he moved to town 25 years ago they've usually had a police chief and up to three officers.

“We’ve taken, kind of lean on them, you know for anything that’s going on," Groves says. "They’re very good. You always try to better your community. You always vote for schools and for your first responders."

Vanwinkle agrees a smaller force can be reassuring to a community.

“I’m absolutely supportive of small police departments," he says. "In communities like this, it’s good to have the local presence, because they get to know the people in the community and the community gets to know the law enforcement officers, so you really have that small-town Mayberry feel."