Ex-D.A. praises father involved in shooting of son

The Schmitz house, on Oxford Road in Towamencin. (Adrienne Lu/Staff)
The Schmitz house, on Oxford Road in Towamencin. (Adrienne Lu/Staff)
Posted: June 09, 2011

Calm. Rational. The consummate professional.

The day after Hatfield Police Lt. Eric Schmitz shot and killed his mentally troubled son in an apparent act of self-defense, mention of the veteran officer elicited such descriptions in law enforcement circles.

"He's actually one of the guys in law enforcement I've admired the most," said Bruce L. Castor Jr., a former Montgomery County district attorney. Now a county commissioner, Castor called Schmitz "calm, level-headed, even-keeled . . . completely rational at all times."

He recalled socializing with Schmitz and his wife, Lori, having met them at the Towamencin community pool when Castor lived in nearby Franconia Township.

"We both took our kids there," Castor said, describing the Schmitzes as loving, devoted parents.

"These are people who should be sculpted on the top of a wedding cake as an example of what we want young professionals and parents to be," he said.

Yet Castor said he knew nothing of what one source has described as a "long-simmering" history of mental health-related strife involving their son Stephen.

"I wouldn't have expected to know that," Castor said, explaining that because police officers deal so much with other people's problems, they rarely discuss their own.

That veil was lifted tragically Wednesday when Eric Schmitz, 56, still in uniform and just off his day shift, fatally shot Stephen, 17, in the two-story home where the family had lived since 1993.

District Attorney Risa Ferman issued a statement hours after the 3 p.m. shooting, saying that Stephen Schmitz appeared to have attacked his father with a large, fixed-blade hunting knife.

The shooting happened after the teen had attended classes at nearby North Penn High School - his first day back after a 13-day involuntary commitment to the Horsham Clinic, an inpatient mental health facility.

Ferman said Thursday morning that she expected no new details to be released during the day about the shooting.

Neighbors who answered their doors late Thursday morning declined to discuss the matter with a reporter.

The shooting occurred at about 3 p.m., after Stephen Schmitz returned home from classes at North Penn High School and Eric Schmitz returned from his police shift, Ferman said. It was the day after Stephen Schmitz was released from the Horsham Clinic, an inpatient mental health facility, where he had been involuntarily committed for 13 days.

Ferman said detectives were interviewing those who are familiar with the teen's mental health history, and are trying to obtain his treatment records. The May 26 commitment was made after Stephen Schmitz had threatened to kill himself and police were called to the home for the second time in a month, according to a news released issued Wednesday night by Ferman and Towamencin Township Police Chief Paul T. Dickinson.

The knife used in the 3 p.m. attack had a five-inch fixed blade with an overall length of 10 inches, according to the news release.

Eric Schmitz was cooperating with the township and county investigation and was being treated at a hospital for injuries from the attack, Ferman and Dickinson said.

Towamencin police had been called twice before to the house, in the 100 block of Oxford Road, they said.

On April 30, police were called because the teen was enraged, they said. He reportedly had made vague threats in the past to harm himself.

Ferman and Dickinson said the tension in the household had subsided, but police were called back May 26, when the boy threatened to kill himself.

Stephen Schmitz was involuntarily committed that day to the Horsham Clinic, Ferman and Dickinson said. He was released Tuesday.

Detectives continued to process the shooting scene and conduct interviews Wednesday night. They asked that anyone with information about the behavior of the teen, including threats he may have made, call the Montgomery County Detective Bureau at 610-278-3368 or Towamencin Township police at 215-368-7600.

Investigators cordoned off the property with yellow police tape and put up a blue tarpaulin near the side of the house. About 5:30 p.m., a county coroner's van arrived.

A half-dozen teenagers clutching cellphones stood solemnly at one end of the barricaded street Wednesday night. None wanted to comment.

On a Facebook memorial page had been created for Stephen Schmitz, fellow North Penn students expressed sadness and shock over his death.

"I can't believe this! It seems so unreal, saw you in 4th period today. you were such a nice guy. R. I. P Stephen," wrote Jenny Karim, 16, a sophomore at North Penn.

She later said in a Facebook message to a reporter that she did not know Stephen well, but that "he was a really sweet guy" who sat in front of her in chorus during the school year.

Another student wrote on the memorial page: "I remember that you were Zeke in Penndale's musical High School Musical 3 years ago. RIP:'("

The memorial page identifies Stephen as "actor/director." He also played lacrosse, another student wrote.

His older brother, Drew, also received a steady stream of supportive messages from friends on Facebook.

Their father is listed on the Hatfield Police Department's website as its "right to know" officer and the lieutenant of administration, "responsible for the internal police department function."

Hatfield Township Manager Andrew Haines, who had apparently left for the day and rushed back to the township building, said: "We have no comment at this point until we ourselves learn more."

Tom Zipfel, president of the five-member Hatfield Township Board of Commissioners, said he had known Eric Schmitz for about five years.

"He's a wonderful police officer, there is no doubt about that," Zipfel said. "He has served us fantastically for many years. . . . You couldn't find a more decent man or a more decent police officer."

Zipfel said he did not know enough about the shooting to comment, but he added: "Our township as a whole is thinking about him and his family."


Contact staff writer Larry King

at 215-345-0446, lking@phillynews.com or @KingInq on Twitter.

Staff writer Adrienne Lu contributed to this article.

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