Aug. 02--It started with a botched house burglary on a rainy afternoon in Paramus. It led to a chaotic six-town car chase, gunshots, suspects fleeing into the woods and two arrests.
But that was hardly the end of the story.
What happened on Aug. 12, 2010, is at the heart of two civil lawsuits, one seeking $17 million and the other $3 million, in damages from Bergen County. The events of that day are also the focus of a criminal investigation by the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office -- but not into the burglary suspects.
Instead, investigators are probing the actions of two Bergen County Police officers who pursued the suspects. And the criminal investigation of the officers has created strife between County Executive Kathleen Donovan and Prosecutor John Molinelli.
It's rare that an internal affairs case flares up to the point that police officers face a criminal investigation by the Prosecutor's Office. Rarer still is for a county prosecutor to first decline to pursue a criminal investigation against police officers in an internal affairs matter and then reverse that decision, as Molinelli did in this case.
At issue are the actions of Bergen County Police Officers Jeffrey Roberts and Saheed Baksh, who fired his weapon twice at fleeing suspect Francesco Piserchia. However, Molinelli said his investigation is not centered on Baksh's use of force, but rather on allegations that both officers worked to remove evidence and tampered with the crime scene. In fact, the prosecutor said his office has been unable to rule on whether the use of force was justified that day because the crime scene was tampered with.
"The allegations are that after the shooting, both Roberts and Baksh allegedly took measures to hide the fact that a shooting took place, and took actions to frustrate not only our office but their own office in investigating the shooting," Molinelli said.
These claims are also contained in a $17 million civil suit filed in April by Piserchia, and in a whistle-blower suit filed by county police Sgt. Robert Carney, former head of internal affairs.
In his suit, Carney accuses county police officers of tampering with evidence, "concealment or failure to preserve available evidence," and improperly firing a weapon, claims which his attorney, William Feldman said refers to the Piserchia chase and its aftermath. Carney's suit also alleges that he repeatedly advised his superiors of these actions and other misconduct by county police officers, yet was ignored. In his notice of tort claim -- a preliminary step in the litigation process that alerts a public entity a lawsuit may be filed against it -- Carney stated he is seeking $3 million in damages from the county, claiming that he was denied a promotion and that other employees threatened him.
Piserchia contends that when the 2010 chase ended, Baksh fired on him while he was trying to surrender, and that Baksh and Roberts beat him during his arrest. Piserchia also contends that the county police engaged in a conspiracy to conceal the shooting.
Video shows shots fired
Piserchia, 38, of Kenilworth, and Carlos Camacho-Cruz, 42, of Newark, allegedly were burglarizing a Forest Avenue house in Paramus on Aug. 12, 2010, when they were surprised by the homeowners, police reports show. The pair drove away in a black Ford Explorer and would not stop when Paramus police tried to pull them over.
Patrol-car time-coded police video obtained by The Record through Open Public Record Act requests, including video from Baksh's vehicle, depicts a chaotic 13-minute chase, with the Explorer speeding down residential roads and eventually weaving through oncoming traffic. At one point, a vehicle strikes the driver side of the SUV and, shortly after, the vehicle comes to a stop near the railroad tracks on River Road in Bogota.
Baksh can be seen emerging from his vehicle before it came to a complete stop and firing two shots at 1:31 p.m.
The police footage shows that a large group of officers from multiple departments arrested Camacho-Cruz only minutes after the two bailed out of the SUV. Piserchia's arrest is not contained on the footage obtained by The Record, but one video does show him being placed in a county police squad car at 1:36 p.m.
The Record obtained two documents that provide a detailed narrative of what happened next. The first is a report filed by Carney to county police Capt. Uwe Malakas the day after the shooting. The second is a 13-page report filed in October 2010 by Sgt. Russ Christiana of the Prosecutor's Office, who arrived at county police headquarters on Zabriskie Street in Hackensack at 4:20 p.m. that day to investigate the officer-involved shooting, according to his report.
Carney, near the end of his report, advises Malakas that a crime may have been committed due to "the fact that evidence, somehow was removed from this crime scene" -- specifically, the two shell casings from the shots fired by Baksh.
According to Carney, he apprehended Piserchia in a wooded area in Bogota after the suspect fled his vehicle. There is no mention of a struggle or that Baksh and Roberts were involved in the physical arrest of Piserchia. The charges against Piserchia and Camacho-Cruz are still pending. Piserchia is in the Southern State Correctional Facility, serving time for drug possession and making terroristic threats.
In his report, Christiana states he was not informed of the shooting until around 3:55 p.m. that day, when the Prosecutor's Office Chief of Detectives Steven Cuccinello ordered him to obtain information on the event from the county police.
Christiana states that he and Capt. Joseph Hornyak of the Prosecutor's Office searched Baksh's vehicle and duty bag, "but did not locate any shell casings." Christiana said he searched the vehicle a second time with Lt. Robert Anzilotti, who works with the Prosecutor's Office Major Crimes Unit, and again did not find shells.
Christiana details how he interviewed county Police Officer Leszek Lorenc and Englewood Police Officer John Peterson, who described how they observed two shell casings near Baksh's vehicle directly after the shooting. Lorenc, a K-9 officer, left the scene with his dog to search the woods for evidence, and when he returned, Baksh and Roberts were standing at the crime scene and the shells were gone, according to Christiana's report.
Baksh and Roberts denied seeing shell casings at the crime scene, Christiana reported. Christiana notes that this contradicts the in-car video footage from the vehicles of Lorenc and county Police Officer Thomas Mucci, who can be seen standing with Baksh "immediately over the shell casings just before Officer Mucci had a conversation with Officer Roberts about the shell casings."
Christiana ends his report stating that the case is closed, no criminal action would be taken and the matter would return to the county police "for any and all disciplinary action," though no reason is given. On Nov. 12, 2010, Assistant Prosecutor Daniel Keitel sent a letter to Malakas, formally advising him of the same.
Nearly one year later, Molinelli would reopen the criminal investigation.
In a series of interviews, Molinelli stated he was dissatisfied with how the county Police Department was handling its administrative review of the Piserchia chase and the aftermath. Specifically, more than a year after the incident, the department was recommending that Roberts face discipline of no more than three months' suspension, Molinelli said.
Bergen County Police Chief Brian Higgins said the discipline he recommended for Baksh "was up to and including termination," which Molinelli does not dispute. Higgins would not specify what he recommended for Roberts, and said only that it was a period of suspension longer than the three months stated by Molinelli.
On Oct. 17, 2011, Molinelli -- through a letter sent by Assistant Prosecutor Daniel Keitel -- informed Higgins that from that point forward, he was taking over the handling of the internal affairs matter concerning Baksh and Roberts, including the filing of administrative charges.
Molinelli said he first attempted to take control of the internal affairs matter to file administrative charges recommending Baksh and Roberts be terminated.
One week later, Donovan, the county executive, fired off a letter to Molinelli, warning him that he had overstepped the boundaries of his authority.
"While you may not agree with the degree of discipline I, through my designee, have determined to be appropriate ... I will not permit you to intercede in matters that are outside of your purview and jurisdiction and encroach on my statutory authority," Donovan stated in her letter.
As the appointing authority of the county police, the decision to impose discipline on one of its officers -- and what that discipline is -- ultimately rests with Donovan, County Administrator Ed Trawinski said.
The question of whether a county prosecutor can file administrative charges against a police officer was quickly rendered moot.
In a response letter sent three days later, Molinelli advised Donovan that his office had launched a criminal investigation into Baksh and Roberts and warned her that she had been "imprudently and inappropriately advised" in stating that he had overstepped his authority. He adds that prior to sending his letter, he solicited advice from "various senior members" of the state Attorney General's Office.
"I am sure you recognize that the allegations against these two officers are severe and which, if proven in a courtroom, could constitute very serious criminal offenses," Molinelli wrote to Donovan in a letter sent Oct. 27, 2011.
John Kaye, a former 23-year Monmouth County prosecutor, said any county prosecutor can supersede on an internal affairs investigation of a local police department.
"Always, 100 percent," said Kaye. "The law on that is clear as crystal."
Higgins said he does not view Baksh and Roberts equally, as Baksh is the officer who shot at Piserchia, whereas Roberts was the first officer to inform his superiors of the officer-involved shooting, and the first officer to cooperate with the subsequent investigation.
"All we think with Officer Roberts is he failed to report the shootings quickly enough -- not that he failed to report it," Higgins said.
Higgins described Roberts, a 23-year veteran of the force, as an officer with a clean jacket who doesn't deserve to be terminated for what may have happened the day Piserchia was fired upon. If Roberts faced termination, it could create a chilling effect on officers in the future cooperating with internal affairs matters, Higgins said.
Baksh and Roberts did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Roberts is represented by Charles Sciarra, a Clifton-based attorney who has worked on many police cases in Bergen County. Sciarra said his client did nothing wrong. He provided The Record with what he said are the results of a polygraph test administered to Roberts in September 2010 by Ralph Nieves, a retired New York City police detective.
When asked if he saw shell casings, if he took shell casings or knew who took them, and if he conspired to take shell casings with someone else, Roberts responded "no" to all, according to the polygraph report. Nieves concluded in his report that the polygraph results indicated Roberts was telling the truth.
Sciarra argued that when the Prosecutor's Office sent the matter back to the county police for administrative review, Roberts had to answer questions about the shooting without being able to utilize his Fifth Amendment right to not self-incriminate. This is consistent with the state Attorney General's Internal Affairs Policy.
Baksh is represented by John Fahy, a former Bergen County prosecutor. Fahy declined to discuss the case, saying only: "I'm confident that my client will be fully vindicated. He's a good police officer."
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