EXCLUSIVE REPORT: The outcome of charges against a Port Authority police officer accused of sucker-punching a volunteer Wallington firefighter who he said called him a racial epithet during a charity flag football game will come down to witnesses’ testimony.
Attorneys for both men gave CLIFFVIEW PILOT differing accounts of what occurred in the final moments of the the David J. Popek Jr. Man of Steel Football Tournament championship game on June 20 at the Wallington High School field.
Attorney S. Emile Lisboa said his client, 36-year-old PAPD Officer Stanley M. O’Neill Jr., went up to intercept a “Hail Mary” pass and was elbowed to the ground by Steven Ventura, 22, playing for a squad comprised of East Rutherford and Wallington emergency responders.
Ventura then “grabbed my client by the neck and got up,” he said.
As O’Neill stood, Ventura “charged at him, yelling ‘F–k you, n—-r!’ ” Lisboa added.
The officer then dropped him with a punch, he said.
A brief melee ensued, order was quickly restored and “everybody agreed it was a stupid fight,” Lisboa said.
“It was a football game. There was a lot of testosterone,” he said. “But it was a two-second event.”
An unidentified third party then showed up, Lisboa said. “All of a sudden ambulances were called and it was an incident,” he said.
Ventura’s attorney, Jacqueline Rosa, said her client “didn’t even know who hit him.”
“He went to break up a fight and was sucker-punched by a cop — who, if you research it, has a history of doing this,” Rosa said. “He didn’t know who hit him until he got to the hospital.”
Both men were taken to Hackensack University Medical Center.
Friends said Ventura sustained a broken nose and a fractured cheek and eye socket and required surgery that forced him to miss his graduation last week from Lincoln Tech. He could also need surgery on his eye, Rosa said.
Wallington police conducted an investigation over the next several days before filing aggravated assault charges against O’Neill. The Port Authority suspended him without pay pending the outcome of the case.
No charges were filed against Ventura.
O’Neill, a former York College athlete who joined the PAPD in 2010, filed his own — charging Ventura with assault, bias intimidation, making terroristic threats and inciting a riot, Lisboa said.
The cross-complaints were scheduled to be heard this coming Monday in Wallington Municipal Court.
“You have to keep in mind: This is a decorated officer who teaches at the police academy,” Lisboa said. “He’s not going to sucker-punch some guy he didn’t know in a charity football game.”
What’s more, he said, “this was an organized event. There’s a list of at least 60 witnesses.”
At least half of them back Ventura’s version of the events, Rosa countered.
O’Neill, on the other hand, “changed his story several times,” she said. “His first story was that he felt threatened. Then he said he didn’t know who hit him. Then he said he had to go to the hospital because he felt dizzy and light-headed.
“Nearly two weeks goes by and now he’s claiming he was called a racial epithet.
“The defendant was arrested and has been suspended without pay from his job — that’s very telling,” she added. “Nothing has happened to my client. There are no charges against him.
“This is a young kid who has never been in trouble in his life,” Rosa said. “He’s been a firefighter since he was 15. He comes from a good, solid family. And now he has to deal with someone making false accusations about him.”
The East Rutherford team with Ventura won the 7-on-7 tournament, which raised money for a memorial scholarship fund named for Popek, a local high school star and federal Air Marshal who died of unknown causes at 25 years in November 2012.