SOUTH SALT LAKE — Red, white and a lot of blue surrounded the South Salt Lake Police Department Sunday.
As the community woke to news that officer David Romrell, 31, had been killed in the line of duty, citizens made their way to the police department to hang blue ribbons from trees, while some, like Kim Deacon, left flowers at a small makeshift memorial.
"South Salt Lake has a good police department and this is just terrible for everyone," she said.
John Reed, a member of the Honoring Heroes Foundation, lined the street outside the department with American flags to let all the officers know that they have the support of the community and that the public mourns with them.
"I hope they realize they’re not alone,” he said.
Saturday night, Romrell, who served several tours of duty as a U.S. Marine before becoming a South Salt Lake police officer 11 months ago, was hit by a fleeing vehicle and killed. He is the first South Salt Lake officer killed in the line of duty.
"As much as we know the risk of this job, we’re not prepared for this. It’s taken us by surprise. It’s very painful,” an emotional Chief Jack Carruth said during a press conference held about 3:30 a.m. Sunday.
Hundreds of police officers from throughout the state gathered at Intermountain Medical Center late Saturday to pay their respects to a man who dedicated his life to serving his community and his country. They lined up outside the hospital and saluted as Romrell's body was escorted to the Utah State Medical Examiner's Office. His body will now be watched over by an honor guard around the clock until his funeral. Funeral plans were still being worked out Sunday.
The fatal confrontation happened when Romrell and another officer responded to a report of a burglary in progress at 3575 S. West Temple. A person who was still inside the business as the alleged burglars attempted to get in called 911, according to police.
As officers arrived, two men attempted to drive away from the business complex, Carruth said.
"The driver of the vehicle then accelerated toward officers, striking officer David Romrell,” he said.
The driver, Felix Anthony Calata, 32, of West Valley City, was shot and killed. It was not immediately known whether both officers fired their weapons. After Calata's vehicle crashed, his passenger got out and ran.
South Salt Lake police detective Gary Keller said that man was captured a short time later with the help of police K-9s. But after questioning him, the man was released, according to Unified police. There was no evidence at that time that the passenger, whose name was not released, committed a crime, said Unified Police Sgt. Melody Gray.
Romrell was taken to Intermountain Medical Center where he underwent emergency surgery, but died from his injuries.
"He did everything right but was targeted by this vehicle as it fled,” Carruth said.
Romrell is survived by his wife and a 4-month-old boy. Carruth said he was a very humble, soft-spoken man who was "very kind," but also "very squared away." His "passion," the chief said, was serving, first his country as a Marine, then his community.
A GoFundMe link was set up Sunday to help raise money for Romrell's family.
Unified police will conduct the investigation of the incident. Unified and other departments also helped patrol South Salt Lake on Sunday and handled many of their calls as officers from that department were given time off to mourn.
As news of Romrell's death spread, tributes from other law enforcement agencies and state officials filled social media Sunday morning. Many changed their Facebook profile picture to a graphic of the South Salt Lake police patch, and a badge with a black band across it, accompanied with the words, "In remberance of officer David Romrell."
"Jeanette and I join the entire South Salt Lake Police family in mourning the death of one of our finest, Officer David Romrell. We mourn with and for officer Romrell’s dear family, and we pray that they may find peace in the midst of this heartbreak," Gov. Gary Herbert tweeted. "Officer Romrell was exemplary in every way, and I feel humbled by the service he gave his country as a Marine, as well as the service he gave our communities here in Utah."
"All of us in the Utah (law enforcement) community have heavy hearts today with the tragic loss of SSLPD Officer David Romrell. Our deepest condolences go out to his wife, child, family and friends. His life of service will never be forgotten. Semper Fi, Marine," the Utah Highway Patrol tweeted.
"God Speed officer Romrell," tweeted Utah Rep. Lee Perry, who is also a member of the highway patrol.
"To the Romrell family and the South Salt Lake Police Department we are so sad for your incredible loss last night. Thank you for your service officer David Romrell," University of Utah AirMed tweeted.
"This is terrible news. Our hearts are broken this morning. God bless this officer and his loved ones. And God bless all the men and women in Blue that put their lives in harms way to keep us safe," added Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
Even Chief Carruth posted a message on his Facebook page Sunday night.
"David, in just 11 months you built bonds with your brother’s and sister’s of SSLPD that can never be broken. You were taken from us way before your time, but will forever remain in our hearts. We will forever honor you and miss you. You were a protector of our country and our community, you are our hero! God Speed ~ Rest In Peace Brother!"
According to court records, Saturday was the second fatal crash Calata was involved in this year.
On March 25, Calata, driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee, ran a red light at the intersection of California Avenue and Bangerter Highway, hit another vehicle, and rolled. Both Calata and Danyelle Marie Jennings, 44, were ejected from the vehicle as it rolled. Jennings was killed.
Just prior to the crash, a Utah Department of Natural Resources officer had spotted the vehicle parked on the side of the road near 5800 West and 2100 South and stopped to find out what was going on, according to a search warrant affidavit.
Formal charges, however, had not yet been filed. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said on Sunday that prosecutors first screened the case on Oct. 24. At that time, attorneys requested that investigators gather additional information about the light cycle at the intersection and the speeds of both vehicles involved in the crash. At that time, there was conflicting information that needed to be clarified before charges were filed, Gill said.
Gill said his office received an email on Friday that the information requested had been collected. Attorneys were scheduled to meet on Dec. 6 to screen a charge of manslaughter for Calata, he said.
The March incident came just months after Calata got into another accident and left the scene, according to court records.
Calata had a lengthy criminal history of mostly misdemeanor drug-related crimes. In 2005 he was convicted of being in possession of a stolen vehicle, a third-degree felony, according to court records.
Sunday evening, former relatives of Calata posted an open letter on Facebook to Romrell's widow, and called officer Romrell a hero. Manuel Lopez said he is Calata's former brother-in-law and that Calata had been "on a downward spiral" for a long time.
"After many run ins with the law and let downs, my sister decided to leave her husband and take their two children away to Texas so they’d be safe," he wrote.19 comments on this story
"David Romrell is my brother in arms," he continued. "I, too am a Marine veteran and it hurt me to see a brother fall in such a way. Without meaning to politicize this ordeal, we want to reach out and let you know, we are with you. We know what Felix, did was inexcusable. His mental illness took over and we never got him back.... Your husband, died a HERO!
"... We are all heartbroken by this and we are hurting too. If there is anything you may need from us to help you find peace, please reach out. Your precious baby doesn’t deserve to be left without a father. We are very sorry for your loss."
Contributing: Sean Moody