The white stone townhome Zach and Courtney Smith used to share with their two young children sits just behind the pool, tennis court, and putting green in an upscale apartment complex in this quiet, affluent Columbus suburb. Police came to know the home well.
Officers visited, for the first time, on Oct. 21, 2015, when Courtney thought a strange man had followed her home from the grocery store and she told them, in passing, she was having problems with her “soon to be ex-husband,” an assistant football coach at Ohio State.
Four days later, Courtney Smith called police again, alleging she was a long-running abuse victim and had text messages to prove it, and police filed a report that never resulted in criminal charges for reasons that remain unexplained. In January 2016, an officer who pulled over Courtney for speeding found her crying behind the wheel because of domestic issues — “the city of powell is aware of it,” she told the officer — and in December 2017, officers returned when Courtney called to report a neighbor had seen Zach there at 1:30 a.m., banging on the door and peering in the window.
The 2018 Ohio State football season officially began Friday with the opening of training camp in Columbus, and the team is in a state of crisis. In a city where public morale rises and falls based on the competitive fortunes of the college football team, and streets and school buildings are named for successful head coaches, Urban Meyer is fighting for his job. After initially denying knowledge of the 2015 allegation against his former longtime assistant and family friend, Meyer’s public stance on Zach Smith took an abrupt 180-degree turn late Friday, when he admitting he had been aware of the incident, and apologized for his previously evasive answers.
As the turbulent — according to Courtney, abusive — relationship documented in records released by Powell police this week became the focus of national outrage and Meyer was placed on paid administrative leave, more questions than answers remain about what actually happened inside that white townhome near the pool and the putting green, and how various authorities responded.
Among them: Why did Powell police never arrest Zach, if the relationship was as abusive as Courtney has described, and she possessed the evidence she provided to journalist Brett McMurphy; photos of bruises and text messages that appear to show him acknowledging putting his hands around her neck? When police contacted Ohio State in 2015, what steps, if any, did Athletic Director Gene Smith take to determine if he was employing a serial domestic abuser? And if Ohio State officials believed Zach’s claims — that his ex-wife was lying, and he never struck her — what changed this year that necessitated firing him?
Gene Smith did not reply to an email seeking comment Saturday, and in public statements, Powell police chief Gary Vest has said his officers handled every call by Courtney and Zach Smith properly.
In Columbus, meantime, Friday’s rapid-pace developments were subject to vastly different interpretations by close followers of the Buckeyes, with some seeing a new set of facts that clearly vindicated Meyer, the state’s highest-paid employee at more than $6 million annually, and others believing the only thing that remains for his tenure at Ohio State is to negotiate the buyout.
Just after noon Friday, hours before Meyer issued his statement, McMurphy, the independent journalist whose reporting prompted the week’s developments, was subjected to something of a cross-examination on local sports talk radio.
In an interview on 97.1 The Fan, McMurphy laughed as one of the hosts alluded to rumors about Courtney Smith circulating through Buckeyes message boards online, among them that the 33-year-old ex-wife of the Ohio State assistant had been selling her story to the highest bidder.
“I’m not trying to discredit her,” host Anthony Rothman explained.“Was she shopping her story, was she paid for her story?”
“I have been a professional journalist since 1987, and I have never paid for an interview . . . I did not pay Courtney Smith one penny to talk to her,” said McMurphy, formerly of ESPN, who on Wednesday broke on his Facebook page Courtney’s accusation Meyer was well aware of her 2015 allegations against her husband.
In a series of questions, Rothman and co-host Dave Biddle challenged McMurphy’s conclusion that, given the text messages Courtney Smith provided from 2015 with Shelley Meyer, Urban’s wife, the Ohio State head coach must have known.
“I don’t have a direct text from Urban, but looking at all the evidence [Courtney Smith] had . . . my conclusion is that he knew about it,” McMurphy said.
“I was very shocked that he has taken the circumstantial evidence and formed his truth,” Rothman said on the air after the interview concluded, before assuring his listeners the reporter’s opinions wouldn’t impact the work of the committee Ohio State had put together to investigate the allegations against Zach Smith and how Meyer handled them.
“The investigative group that is going to turn over every stone, they’re going to determine what happens here . . . Not Brett McMurphy’s opinions,” Rothman said.
That investigative group — which includes three university trustees, a former deputy attorney general of Ohio and a former federal prosecutor — will have to deal with a question unanswered in the dozens of pages of records released by Powell police this week connected to nine interactions with Zach and Courtney Smith from late 2015 through this July: Why did Zach Smith never face a criminal charge over his wife’s repeated claims of abuse?
Courtney Smith did not return a call seeking comment Friday, nor did her attorney. Zach Smith, in an interview Friday evening on Columbus radio station 105.7, said police never filed charges over abuse because he never committed a crime.
“There are times when things got out of hand and I had to defensively kind of restrain her,” Smith said. “There are thousands of things that I regret when things got volatile . . . none of them were physical. I was not a great husband . . . but I didn’t do anything physically to harm her.”
In an interview Friday, Larry James, the lawyer who represented Zach Smith in 2015, said he believed no arrest happened because none was merited.
The relationship between Zach and Courtney Smith that he observed was not one of clear-cut criminal abuse, James claimed, but rather a troubling reality for law enforcement: a toxic relationship rife with verbal abuse and conflict that requires constant refereeing by local police.
“Look, this is a situation that plays out every day in America. You’ve got a bad marriage and you don’t know who’s at fault,” James said.
‘The truth is the ultimate power’
Police reports don’t reflect what efforts officers made to corroborate Courtney Smith’s claims over the years.
In October 2015, officers filed a report that appears to show they intended to pursue domestic violence charges against Zach Smith, but an arrest never occurred. A few days later, Courtney Smith filed for divorce and ultimately agreed to keep that file — which also contains allegations of abuse — sealed for a time, records show, out of concern her claims would cause Zach to lose his job, hurting his ability to support her and their children.
In December 2017, when Courtney claimed a neighbor saw Zach stalking the home late one night, officers didn’t note if they tried to locate the neighbor, or if they asked the apartment complex for security footage.
And while the sheer number of complaints has been interpreted by some as damning evidence against Zach, his attorney has repeatedly pointed out in interviews that none of the events that brought Courtney’s prior allegations to light this year — a criminal trespassing complaint against Zach Smith over an incident he claims was a disagreement over dropping off their son and a civil protection order Courtney obtained — prove Zach Smith’s guilt of abuse.
In his interview Friday, Zach Smith said he believed Ohio State fired him in July, not because his bosses believed he abused his ex-wife, but to quiet a “media uproar” as the allegations gained widespread attention through their ongoing court battles.
“I don’t think I did anything that warranted it, but the problem was that, it was going to be unfair for those players at Ohio State,” Zach Smith said.
A hearing over the protection order, in which both Courtney and Zach were expected to testify, was postponed Friday to Sept. 14.
Ohio State’s investigative committee presumably will continue its work, even though Meyer’s statement Friday seemingly answered some of the core questions it sought to answer: what he knew and when.
In his statement, Meyer changed his story from weeks before. He was informed about the 2015 allegation against Zach Smith, he acknowledged, and without specifying what he told and to whom, he “followed proper reporting protocols.” As for his denial during Big Ten media days last month, Meyer apologized, and said he was not “adequately prepared to discuss these sensitive personnel issues with the media.”
“Please know that the truth is the ultimate power and I am confident that I took appropriate action,” said Meyer, who closed his statement expressing hope he could rejoin his team soon.
To one of the radio hosts who questioned the reporter McMurphy’s conclusions earlier Friday, Meyer’s statement ensured he would keep his job.
“Meyer reported the 2015 incident to Gene Smith, plus the police were involved the entire way,” Dave Biddle wrote on Twitter. “Those who tarred and feathered Urban Meyer are going to be feasting on some serious crow.”
To others in the community, however, Meyer’s decision to publicly shift any blame for how Ohio State handled the 2015 allegations against Zach Smith to athletics administration points to a much different scenario.
“Even if he did kick it upstairs, I don’t see a way that Urban keeps his job. But if he did kick it upstairs . . . he is not going to be the only domino that falls,” said Matt McCoy, sports director at 105.7 The Zone, on his show Friday evening. “I think Urban has already been told that you will not keep your job . . . and so he wants to strike first.”