Sgt. Joseph Szczerba, an 18-year veteran of the force, was stabbed to death while responding to a call in the Penn Acres Community near Wilmington early Friday.
It all began just before midnight on Thursday when officers responded to a 9-1-1 call for a disorderly subject in the area of Finny Road. Investigators say the suspected cop killer tried to break into several cars overnight including one belonging to Guy Salvadori's son.
"Because it's so peaceful in this community, it's leading me to start to put some security and motion detectors and stuff like that," Salvadori said.
While en route, officers received information that the subject was involved with a theft from a vehicle. The 44-year-old Szczerba saw the theft taking place and confronted the suspect and assaulted him after a brief chase. The victim received minor injuries in the scuffle.
After the confrontation the suspect then fled toward E. Roosevelt Avenue. Police were notified of the man's whereabouts and several patrol officers responded to the area and set up a perimeter.
Sgt. Szczerba responded to the area and spotted a man who matched the suspect's description. He stopped his cruiser at the intersection of Fithian Drive and E. Roosevelt Avenue and approached the subject.
The subject took off down E. Roosevelt Avenue and a foot pursuit ensued. Sgt. Szczerba managed to catch up to the man, a struggle took place, during which Sgt. Szczerba was stabbed and fatally wounded.
Other officers were arriving on scene and they too attempted to take the subject into custody. The yet to be identified suspect continued to resist arrest, but was eventually subdued and handcuffed. However, before the struggle ended, three additional officers sustained minor injuries.
Several officers performed CPR on Sgt. Szczerba before medics arrived. The officer was rushed to Christiana Hospital and pronounced dead soon after.
Later in the morning, it was a somber sight as police escorted the officer's body to the medical examiner's office in Wilmington.
"This is one of the saddest days for this department and for the law enforcement community; the department would like to thank our fellow agencies and the community for their outpouring of support," New Castle County Police Chief Michael McGowan said.
Authorities closed off the streets as the procession came off I-95 at Maryland Avenue. Fellow law enforcement lined up and saluted a man who served the force for nearly two decades.
Neighbors were shocked at the outbreak of violence.
"It's sad that a cop got stabbed trying to protect this community," said Tori Watson.
Diane Guthrie moved to Ohio a few years ago but was here visiting with her sister. "It's always been safe. I used to walk around at 10 or 11 o'clock at night for a walk to get exercise," Guthrie said. "To think that this could happen here in a few short years is just crazy." County Executive Paul Clark says he was met "with extreme shock, sadness and regret" upon learning of the incident. He says he has offered his condolences to family members of the officer.
Sgt. Szczerba is the first New Castle County police officer to lose his life in the line of duty since 1972.
Szczerba graduated from the Salesianum School in 1985.
Hundreds of people, including students, Wilmington police officers, and New Castle County police officers gathered around the flagpole of the school Friday afternoon.
Joseph was remembered by classmate Dan Kegelman '85, a mathematics teacher at Salesianum, as someone who was "genuine" and nice to everyone.
A four-year football player at Salesianum, Joseph earned Second Team All-State honors in his senior year while playing offensive guard.
At Salesianum's Friday night football game, there was a moment of silence for Sgt. Szczerba .
In a statement, the school said Szczerba is survived by his wife Kathy, brothers Gerald and Stephen, and sisters Nancy and Karen.
His family says the school is very important to the Szczerba family.
After graduating high school, Szczerba attended West Chester University where he received his Bachelors of Science degree in Liberal Studies and a minor in Criminal Justice and Public Administration.
A cousin, with the same name, says Szczerba was a family man who loved being a cop.
"I've seen him in action before and, in fact, a couple times, he was in the neighborhood for certain things, he was the most suave guy, easy going, very congenial, and knew his stuff," cousin Joseph Szczerba said.