BLUFFTON, Ohio — Three suspects are in custody after a police pursuit that left a Bluffton police officer dead early on Thursday morning.
Officer Dominic Francis, 42, was attempting to place stop strips on the interstate when he was struck and killed by the suspect vehicle around 2:30 a.m., said Sgt. Brice Nihiser of the Ohio State Highway Patrol during a news conference after the incident.
The suspects then exited the car they had been driving and fled on foot before stealing another vehicle around 3 a.m. nearby along County Road 29, said Nihiser.
One suspect, 21-year-old Zachary Love, was apprehended near the scene of the car theft. A second, 19-year-old Dante Tate, was captured in Elyria after a highway patrol trooper spotted the vehicle on I-71.
The third suspect, 20-year-old Emin Johnson, was arrested sometime around 1 p.m.
As the search for the suspects commenced around Bluffton Thursday morning, nearby schools and businesses closed or locked down.
Bluffton University locked down its campus, directing students, faculty and staff to stay inside their residence halls and homes, lock their doors and not engage with strangers. Bluffton Schools canceled classes for the day and some local businesses also shut down.
All lanes of I-75 in both directions were closed between State Route 103 and State State Route 235 and motorists heading south from Toledo toward Lima were urged to avoid the area. The interstate reopened shortly before 10 a.m.
Officers from multiple state and local law enforcement agencies converged on the area as the sun rose, patrolling fields, searching yards, and sending K9s to look for the suspects.
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The highway patrol said the chase began around 2 a.m. when a trooper in Marion County spotted a black sedan speeding on Route 23. The car proceeded on north on Route 23 and then Route 15 before turning south on I-75 where a highway patrol trooper from the Findlay post spotted the vehicle around 2:20 a.m., Nihiser said.
The suspect car was traveling more than 100 mph, reaching speeds of 120-130 mph, Nihiser said.
Officer Francis was attempting to stop the fleeing vehicle with stop strips when the car struck him. he succumbed to his injuries at the scene, Nihiser said.
According to a 2019 story from the Bluffton Icon, Francis had a wife and two children. The story reported that Francis joined the Bluffton force in 2010 after previously working Findlay Police Department and the Hancock County Sheriff's Office. He was a 1998 graduate of Cory-Rawson High School and a 2002 graduate of the University of Findlay.
Bluffton Police Chief Ryan Burkholder said the community has lost a hero.
"He's an outstanding police officer. His heart was big. He was a teacher, a bus driver, a coach. He had a heart of gold and he'll be sorely missed," the chief said.
Bluffton Mayor Rich Johnson also praised Francis and said the community will support his family.
"This is a very sad day for Bluffton and the brotherhood of law enforcement," Johnson said. "The village will do everything we can to help the family. We send our condolences to everyone involved."
This article will be updated as the story develops.