INVERNESS, Fla. - He dedicated more than two decades to protecting his community. Now, family and friends are sharing precious memories of 52-year-old Steven Smolensky.
Smolensky was a devoted father.
"He taught me everything about hard work," said his daughter, Caitlyn.
He was a beloved husband.
"I finally found my other half," said Smolensky's wife, Katie.
He spent more than two decades as a deputy.
"Always treating people the way he wanted to be treated," recalled retired CCSO deputy Kat Powers.
And he was a friend to many.
"When you knew him, you loved him," said retired CCSO deputy Chris DiCamillo.
Steven Smolensky grew up in Citrus County. He later swore to protect it. Those who knew him can't imagine it now without him.
"For him to go out like this is, I'm just devastated and so angry," DiCamillo said.
After retiring from a 25-year career with the Citrus County Sheriff's Office -- which included 21 letters of commendation, as well as awards for perfect attendance and commemorative service -- Smolensky worked for Suburban Propane.
"He worked just as hard, if not harder, for Suburban Propane," said Katie Smolensky.
Tuesday morning, Smolensky was filling a propane tank at a Marion County home when investigators say 38-year-old Steven Swearingen came out, accusing him of stealing propane.
The former deputy tried to calm him and get back to his truck. But Swearingen admitted to holding him at gunpoint, shooting, and killing him.
"For someone to survive 25 years in law enforcement, come through that, serve the community well... and then to be tragically killed in a situation like this, it’s very heartbreaking," said Sgt. Paul Bloom with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.
Those who worked alongside the deputy known as "Smo" from 1992 to 2017, are trying to focus on the good, like the laughter, civility, and professionalism they say he brought with the badge.
"He put a little bit of humor into situations and stuff, too, so it kind of took the edge away from everything," said retired CCSO deputy Mike Hudgens.
"He was always level-headed, always treated people with respect," said Powers. "He knew his job. He was good to people."
"He was good at anything he tried. I mean, he became a pilot. He got his commercial driver's license. He excelled in every part of his job," said DiCamillo.
Other colleagues reached out with their own memories.
Kellie Reese, who worked with Smolensky in the Warrants/Judicial Division of the agency, said that whenever CCSO held a fundraiser to help a member of the agency in need, he was first in their unit to donate $100.
Sheri Moeckel, another former colleague, shared a photo of a note he secretly wrote in her shred box when he retired. It read, "I (heart) you Sheri!!!"
She saw it every time she emptied the shred box. It's now a treasured memento.
"He grew up on the lake in town and so did we," said his daughter, Jennifer Smolensky.
For Steven Smolensky, family was everything.
"He came into my life later on, but he was, honestly, he was like my best friend," said Jacob Everett, his stepson. "He played a huge role in my decision to get into law enforcement."
His family said Smolensky was a Troop 302 Eagle Scout, he played in the high school band and loved -- really loved -- Neil Diamond.
"The greatest singer-songwriter of this generation," his family laughed, recalling something he'd often said.
They say he was the happiest on the water, boating, scuba diving, and snorkeling.
"His happy place was in Destin with his new boat," said Katie Smolensky.
Steven Smolensky was a hero to the many he served but especially to the ones he loved.
"He was a hero," said Katie Smolensky. "Still is. Great dad. Terrific husband."
Photo via MCSO
Swearingen is charged with second-degree murder, false imprisonment, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He is currently in Marion County Jail with no bond.
Suburban Propane tells FOX 13, Smolensky "will be deeply missed by the customers he served, the team he worked alongside, and the entire Suburban Propane family. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends."