From those PBA members who plunged wearing kilts and war paint to those who plunged dressed as superheroes to those who plunged wearing barely anything, they accentuated the reason thousands of them once again stepped up for the Polar Bear Plunge on Feb. 20 in Seaside Heights: Pride.
A new journey begins
Fresh off seven years of active duty,
Justin Nielsen is ready to serve in Verona
By Joshua Sigmund
It’s 2007 – the peak of the Iraq “Surge” – and Justin Nielsen is in hour two of standing in a four-and-a-half-foot-deep concrete runoff in the Diyala Province just north of Baghdad. His unit – part of the 25th Infantry Division – had been sent to that area from Kirkuk to reinforce the 82nd Airborne Division in its effort to take back the province from the Insurgency. Staring through his night-vision goggles from his position of cover and concealment, Nielsen was scanning intensely for Insurgents fleeing from the isolated house as his platoon conducted its raid.
“There was a brief exchange of gunfire and I saw movement in the palm grove just along the property,” Nielsen recalled. “A couple minutes later, I saw eyes looking right at me from only a few feet away.”
It turned out to be a wild dog.
As the sun came up, and the search was called off, Nielsen finally sat down for a moment and collected himself. To engrain the events in his memory, and to unknowingly provide discussion fodder for his future coworkers of this example of a noteworthy night, Nielsen snapped a photo of the water in which he had been standing.
In his seven years of active duty, Staff Sergeant Nielsen was deployed twice for a total of 27 months in Iraq (2006-2007) and Afghanistan (2010).
“After seven years, (the military) was either going to become a career, or it was time to finally become a cop,” Nielsen explained. “I always had an interest in law enforcement; always knew that’s what I wanted to do. I figured that the military would help me be a little older and more mature to get hired later. I had a lot of reasons to stay in the Army, but I decided with my wife that we would move back home (to Verona) so I could finally pursue becoming a police officer.”
Cut to today, and Nielsen is now a few months away from finishing his academy training to become a Verona cop. And he’s already fitting in with his future brothers in blue.
“We’re sitting there one night at 3 a.m. and we started talking,” recalled Verona Local 72 State Delegate Ed Carattini Jr. about the long nights spent together when Nielsen worked as a full-time police dispatcher in town. “He starts telling me a couple stories and I asked questions about being over in Iraq and Afghanistan. He pulled up pictures and started narrating them and they were incredible. The things that all these guys went through and did and what they had to do… I could never imagine being in that situation.”
Nielsen was quick to acknowledge the dangers he faced during his tours.
“The biggest thing that comes to mine is that you’re in a very hostile environment,” he stated. “There’s a lot of stress being there for that long, and your biggest concern is to protect the people around you. But you’re well trained and they prepare you for everything the best they can. It’s like being a police officer; you get trained the best you can and get put in situations that are dangerous and you just react the best that you can.”
It’s Nielsen’s propensity for helping others that has made him a great soldier, a dedicated volunteer firefighter and member of the Verona Rescue Squad, as well as a strong candidate for a career in law enforcement.
“When I was a firefighter, I enjoyed working with civilians,” Nielsen said. “You’re very disconnected with civilians in the military. Being a police officer is the best of both worlds; you get to protect people and work with them. The transition is not easy, coming out of the military and fitting in again in the civilian world, but being in law enforcement where people understand the values that are important to you can make the transition easier.”
Something else aiding in Nielson’s transition is the transferable mindset that he picked up in the military.
“You’re already loyal to the cause, understand the sense of duty and have respect for yourself and other people,” he added. “Honor, integrity… they all apply. When I was doing dispatch in Verona, I saw how everybody talks to each other. They have a loyalty to protect each other and a strong sense of duty because it’s what they want to do; they want to be there. If you have it in your heart – if you’re someone who is driven by service – then in either of these career paths you’re going to have a good chance of doing great.”
Carattini echoed that sentiment: “The entire department has lots of respect for the guy. I think being in the military gives you a good foundation for diving into law enforcement. It helps a lot and makes you a better cop. I’m confident going into a door with him. I’m going to be confident working with him 110 percent.”
‘This has to be a bad dream’
The way the case of Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office Local 232 member Joseph Walker was handled made more than just his friends and colleagues angry. This exclusive, behind-the-scenes account of what happened explains what went wrong and how Walker endured.
By Mitchell Krugel
Matthew Stambuli, State Delegate for Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office Local 232, stepped to the microphone at the July 2014 NJ State PBA Meeting, and prepared to let loose with those words everybody was hoping to hear. Sporting his “In This Family, No One Fights Alone” T-Shirt, Stambuli told the delegation that the trial of Local 232 detective Joseph Walker, charged with murder in Maryland for an obvious act of self-defense, had finally begun and, “we’re confident Joe will be acquitted.”
Opening statements had barely been documented yet Stambuli’s statement turned out to be prophetic. How did he know? Did he have the inside story? What did he know that nobody else knew?
Turns out, he did have the inside story and it went like this:
Walker’s case was filled with investigative techniques repeatedly called into question, actions by an overzealous assistant state’s attorney that eventually led him to be sanctioned and barely enough evidence for an indictment, let alone a conviction. Walker knew he did nothing criminally wrong. So did Stambuli and the other 80 members of Local 232 who staged a year-long vigil that contributed so much to his exoneration. And so did the NJ State PBA, which changed one of its most profound policies to get Walker the legal representation he needed for defense in a case that would have made just about any NJ Cop say, “What the #@&% are they thinking?”
In the aftermath of Walker’s acquittal, Stambuli, Local 232 President William Caicedo and Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office Detective John Mennella, godfather to Walker’s youngest daughter, have provided this exclusive review and breakdown of how and why Walker was put through the wringer. Out of respect for Walker’s ordeal, and the fact that he is still in the midst of clearing some legal hurdles, NJ Cops magazine honored the request form Local 232 to not interview him for this story. So Walker’s friends and colleagues relate how Joe survived and endured.
“We were angry. We definitely sensed an injustice was occurring,” Stambuili said. “Based on our experience – and we are all homicide detectives – they didn’t have the information to charge him, but they went ahead with it. We kept saying, ‘we can’t believe this is happening.’ And I’m thinking, ‘wake me up. This has to be a bad dream.’”
Walker’s nightmare began on June 8, 2013, a Saturday night when he, his wife Marie and their three young children were returning from a party at her sister’s house in Maryland. Walker was driving his Kia minivan when he cut off a green Honda driven by Joseph Harvey Jr. when both cars were making a left turn.
The two drivers exchanged angry words as their cars swerved around each other on the shoulder of the road where Route 3 northbound near the intersection with Interstate 97, south of Baltimore. Both cars came to a halt on the shoulder, and Harvey, an unmarried truck driver, and a passenger got out of the Honda. Harvey began walking toward the minivan parked 100 feet to 150 feet from the car.
As Harvey came closer, Walker identified himself as a New Jersey police officer. When Harvey continued approaching, Walker drew his service weapon, showed it to Harvey and eventually raised it to the ready position. When Harvey, who was reportedly carrying a knife, didn’t heed Walker’s request to stop, Walker fired at him.
Harvey was taken by ambulance to Baltimore Washington Medical Center where he was pronounced dead with three gunshot wounds, and Walker was taken to the same facility after he complained of chest pains. Walker’s attorneys said there was evidence that Harvey had downed several alcoholic beverages prior to the clash and had been spewing racial slurs.
“He also used the N-word. This was confirmed by witnesses,’’ including Harvey’s passenger, Adam Pidel, one of Walker’s attorneys, Anthony Pope, told the New York Post. Another of his attorneys, Patrick McAndrew, told The Washington Post that Harvey was out of control. “He [Harvey] was enraged, screaming at the [Walker] family in their van. His wife was in the passenger seat, she could distinctly hear [the slurs]. There were threats of violence; they were on notice.”
“Imagine being put in a situation where you have no choice but to take a man’s life to defend your family,” said Mennella, who has worked alongside Walker for 10 years. “You not only have to live with that, but knowing that you did nothing wrong and you find yourself being charged with one of the most overbearing and outlandish crimes you can imagine.”
Stambuli received a phone call on the night of June 8 that Walker had been involved in some kind of incident in Maryland. He immediately called Mennella, and within minutes they were on their way. “We drove down there expeditiously,” Stambuli explained. Before they were even in route, Mennella reached Walker and found out had been detained at the scene for a couple of hours already. Maryland State Troopers were questioning him and trying to question Marie, Stambuli reported.
By the time they arrived, Walker was already at the hospital. They didn’t know about the chest pains, but they did know that every officer involved in a shooting automatically gets a medical evaluation. At the hospital, the trooper who escorted Walker to the hospital came in and handcuffed him to his bed. This is really where the nightmare began.
“He said handcuffing him to the bed was hospital policy,” Stambuli related. “But why we would they handcuff him if he wasn’t under arrest? At this point he wasn’t told he was under arrest, but it appeared to experienced investigators (like us) that he was under arrest.”
When Walker was discharged from the hospital, he was taken to the state police barracks. The state police sergeant and the officer handling the case each repeatedly asked both Mennella and Stambuli if Walker was going to make a statement. Mennella responded that they should ask Joe but that he probably would make a statement when his attorney arrived.
“They said to us, ‘You mean, you’re not his attorneys,” Mennella added. “These guys were despicable. When we walked into the hospital, we both introduced ourselves as detectives. Matt was wearing a red pullover shirt with HCPO embroidered on it, his badge number underneath and homicide unit underneath that. How did they not know we were detectives?
“I told them Joe will make a statement, but let him get his attorney there,” he continued. “Apparently, they didn’t like that idea. Their interpretation was that if he was not going to make a statement that automatically makes him guilty.”
The Maryland State Police indicated to Stambuli and Mennella that Walker was going to be charged but probably only with manslaughter and that his bail would not be that high. When the arraignment came down, murder was among the charges and bail was set a $1 million.
The Local 232 team, which had started to grow already, began work on finding an attorney and a bail bondsman that would work with Walker. By Monday morning, they had him out on bail, but the questions were continuing to mount.
“How could they have developed a strong case with so little evidence and a statement for the passenger in Harvey’s car and maybe a few passers-by? It was highway, so how much cold they have actually seen? We knew from the beginning they couldn’t put on a strong case.”
The tipping point for Walker very well might have been when PBA involvement occurred. Mennella said that members of Local 232 showing up in droves at the trial had an impact on the jury, letting the jury members see, “If a man is being supported lie this, he’s not some dirt bag on the street nobody cares about,” he explained. “Once I saw the jury, I was very confidence he would be acquitted.”
Before that, however, the NJ State PBA made a life-saving move on Walker’s behalf. When he was first charged, he put in a claim to the PBA Legal Protection Plan to cover his legal fees.
“We were forced to deny the claim initially because the plan didn’t afford for actions taken if you are not a law enforcement officer,” said Kevin Lyons, coordinator of the PBA Legal Protection Plan. “Once you leave the state you don’t have any police powers. We met with the committee and struggled with it for a while, trying to figure out what to do. Because of the financial position of the plan and how egregious the situation was for Joe and his family, and knowing he acted to protect his family within the confines of the law, we were able to change the policy and cover the claim.”
The Legal Protection Plan has been adjusted to cover actions for out-of-state members, and Lyons added that the program is equipped to handle more of these if needed. The initial coverage helped Walker’s attorneys hire the experts needed to refute the prosecutor’s case. The Legal Protection Plan Committee also acted quickly to approve criminal attorney Michael T. Cornacchia, whom Walker had already retained.
Caicedo believes that the PBA action had greater impact than providing the needed legal muscle.
“Joe was suspended without pay because that was the policy, and we were worried about the way he was being depicted,” Caicedo began. “But the fact the PBA jumped on board right away despite our restrictions with 100 percent unwavering support really sent a message.”
Following that lead, PBA Locals from Clifton, Hoboken and other nearby towns provided support, especially helping with crisis management. Caicedo engaged the Local 232 members in fundraising activities to keep spirits up and borne out of that were the T-shirts made that Stambuli was wearing at the State meeting in July. Sales of the shirts have helped defray Walker’s legal fees as well.
We were working on ways to help Joe, who has a special needs child, and the problem solving brought us together as a team,” Caicedo added. “I think that’s why we all wanted to be there when the verdict was announced.”
During the course of the year, other events had a big impact on the outcome. The National Police Defense Foundation raised money to aid with legal fees. And the assistant state’s attorney and the Maryland state trooper, who led the investigation, were found to have presented materially false and misleading testimony to the grand jury. So when the trial began, Mennella led a contingent from Local 232 that attended nearly every session.
Walker took the stand, and Mennella observed that his testimony showed the jury that he was the sincere, fundamentally grounded, all-around decent human being that he knew could never commit a crime. Then, came time for the verdict. Local 232 and friends and family filled the five rows behind Walker. Stambuli passed the word for everybody to keep their composure regardless of the outcome.
“They went in order of the most serious charges first,” he said. “When she read first-degree murder, not guilty, we expected that. Then she read second degree and then manslaughter. When she said, “not guilty,” the first two rows of people embraced. And in all the rows on the defense side, there wasn’t a single dry eye.”
There were no outbursts. They made sure to maintain respect; after all, a man did die in this incident and Walker and his team didn’t want that to be forgotten. Stambuli confided that many a sleepless night had been spent during the past year and left in the aftermath was a feeling of relief and the facts that fortified Local 232 when he stepped up to the microphone at the state meeting in July.
“We were sitting there watching 12 strangers wondering if they were going to look at the evidence,” Caicedo surmised. “We kept telling Joe, ‘If they let the evidence speak for itself, you’re coming home.’ Thank goodness those people used their common sense and let the evidence speak for itself.”