ASHLAND — Doug Smetzer was 29 years old when, as a Times-Gazette reporter, he approached the Ashland County Prosecutor with a question.
The younger Smetzer was not after his next journalistic scoop. He was after a new job.
Bob DeSanto was the prosecutor at the time and his office was about to go through a transition as one of its investigators planned to move on to another gig.
“I knew there would be an opening, so I talked to DeSanto about being interested in the position,” Smetzer remembered. “I had no law enforcement background. But he interviewed me. He offered me a job and he took a chance.”
That was 36 years ago. Smetzer, now 65, spent his last day on the job Wednesday, officially retiring as the chief investigator for the Ashland County Prosecutor’s office.
Over the years, the Ohio State journalism graduate has worked for three different prosecutors in an office where its employees deal with “the unsavory,” as he puts it. Smetzer reminisced on some of the cases on his last day in the office. He sat at an empty conference table, the word “RETIRED” spelled out in seven yellow pages hanging on the wall behind him.
The first case he mentioned involved Shawn Grate, a serial murderer from Ashland who is now awaiting execution as one of Ohio’s 132 people on death row.
As chief investigator, Smetzer was in charge of reviewing criminal charges, whether submitted by the Ashland County sheriff or any of the county’s police departments, before the prosecutor took on a case.
“We review what they’ve got. We give them advice on what they need to do. Or how to do it differently next time,” he said. “We review the facts to see how the evidence fits into criminal statues, what crimes could have been committed. And then we make sure the case is presentable to a grand jury for charges.”
Smetzer said he would then continue to work on the case through trial and in some cases when it gets appealed.
There have been several other cases he remembered: Maxwell White, convicted of shooting and killing State Highway Patrol Trooper James R. Gross in 1996; Brian Siler, convicted of killing his estranged wife in 2001; Rose Roseborough, convicted of the 2003 arson deaths of her twin children; and Robert Watson, a serial sex offender who escaped while imprisoned in Tennessee.
“We see things we cant unsee; we deal with things you don’t really want to,” Smetzer said of his job.
Yet, he stuck with it.
DeSanto said that’s because Smetzer could make any career successful. It’s just who he is as a person.
“He’s the salt of the earth, a really good man. Everybody likes him … if you have an intelligent person who works hard, then those people succeed no matter his experience,” DeSanto said.
DeSanto said he hired Smetzer because he knew him as a “really good reporter.”
“I can tell you, his accuracy was really top notch. He has a great work ethic and he’s perceptive,” the former prosecutor said.
Ashland County Prosecutor Chris Tunnell agreed, but he used a different word to describe Smetzer’s approach.
“What makes him valuable is that he cares,” Tunnell said. “Not to say others don’t. But he cares about the community, the office — he cares that cases and the way we do business are done correctly. He cares that law enforcement does their job correctly. And it genuinely bothers him when it’s not.”
Tunnell, who assumed the prosecutor’s role in 2014, said he will miss Smetzer’s institutional knowledge that shone through daily conversations in the office about cases the team was working on.
“With (Smetzer), you know, there’s 36 years of talking cases out … not having him here everyday to talk over a case, you can’t really replace that,” Tunnell said.
The office will replace Smetzer, however, with Tony Shambaugh, who has worked in the office as one of its two investigators since 2007. In turn, Shambaugh’s position will be filled with a candidate Tunnell declined to identify.
Tunnell has full confidence in Shambaugh.
“He’s been here for a long time. He’s got plenty of experience on board. He has seen enough of the courtroom and how things work there to really be able to read a case,” Tunnell said.
Shambaugh said he realizes he has some big shoes to fill, but that he is confident the knowledge Smetzer has passed on to him will stick. He’s also honored to be chosen for the new role.
“To be capable and worthy of that position, it is rewarding,” he said.
The office’s caseload has grown over the years, primarily with felony drug cases. The increase in cases has offered Shambaugh, who primarily worked on juvenile cases as an investigator, a chance to get acquainted with more criminal cases.
Smetzer said in 2014, the office’s case load per year hovered around 120-130 cases. Now, that number is closer to 300, he said.
“And we’re doing those cases with the same number of people we’ve always had. It’s a pretty busy place,” Smetzer said. “People work late and on the weekends. But now we can work from home because of our electronic-based reporting system. We have access to every file on the computer.”
The new technological reality makes it difficult to separate work from home. Smetzer said it’s taken a toll on him, physically and mentally, over the last few years.
“I go home and I’m tired,” he said. “I try to take care of myself physically. I work out, stay active. But I see the energy level going down. So it’s time to slow down, turn it over to somebody who has the energy it requires and deserves.”
Smetzer, who lives in Ashland with his wife and two dogs, has three children and one grandchild, whose parents have lived in Colorado for several years. They plan on coming back to join Smetzer’s two other children who already live in the area.
“So I’ll be slowing down and enjoying the everyday. The simple pleasures,” he said.
Smetzer grew up in the Loudonville area, so he plans to visit down there to hike and enjoy the outdoors. He might do some traveling elsewhere — like to Ohio State’s campus in Columbus, a place he hasn’t seen for years, he said.
Tunnell said the office’s caseload is always a concern. But that’s why, he said, the office has implemented new tech.
“It’s to make the flow of information more efficient,” he said. “But that means we’re busier.”
Smetzer is confident he’s leaving the job in capable hands.
“Obviously, I wouldn’t have been doing this so many years if I wasn’t trying to make Ashland a more safe and better place to live, he said. “But people are still doing the job. They’ll continue to fight the fight. I’m confident Mr. Tunnell will maintain the same kind of standards we’ve always tried to keep.”