EXCLUSIVE REPORT: Two Bergen County police officers committed criminal misconduct that “disgraces the badge and good name of all law enforcement officers,” Prosecutor John L. Molinelli wrote last week to a judge who is considering their request to dismiss what they call a politically motivated indictment stemming from a shooting incident in Bogota three years ago.
In doing so, the prosecutor presented his office’s first detailed account of the August 2010 shooting and its aftermath.
Grand jurors in August 2012 indicted BCPD Officers Saheed Baksh and Jeffrey Roberts on charges of second-degree official misconduct and conspiracy to commit official misconduct, along with a fourth-degree count of false swearing.
This came after prosecutors presented videotape from various patrol car dashboard cameras and transcripts of interviews with several officers following a chase from Paramus.
No one was hit, but Molinelli said Baksch pocketed the shell casings after firing the shots, while Roberts did nothing to stop him.
The officers have been free on $10,000 bail each and remain suspended without pay.
Both insist that Molinelli pursued the charges against them as part of a politically motivated “witch hunt” designed to “result in the dissolution of the Bergen County Police Department.”
They’ve petitioned Superior Court Judge Patrick J. Roma in Hackensack to either dismiss the case or, failing that, transfer it to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Among their arguments:
In response, Molinelli called the claims “meritless” and said they “fail to challenge the integrity of the indictment.”
Under state and federal law, you must be advised of your rights when you are being taken into custody. The officers were being interviewed “as part of an investigatory procedure” before anyone had any idea that a criminal investigation would result, Molinelli wrote in a brief to Roma that was obtained by CLIFFVIEW PILOT.
He also pointed to an interview in which Baksh acknowledges giving a “voluntary, sworn statement” about the police pursuit that led to the firing of his weapon.
What’s more, the prosecutor said, a defendant’s “self-serving statement denying involvement in a crime” isn’t evidence. Roberts, he said, “conveniently ignores the fact that results of polygraph examinations are inadmissible in the State of New Jersey and have been for a very long time.”
No criminal case — at first
In their petition to the judge, both officers cited a letter that Molinelli sent to the department’s acting commander at the time, Uwe Malakas, indicating that his office wasn’t pursuing criminal charges. Molinelli, however, said that he told Malakas in the same letter that he was monitoring what he expected would be a strict and thorough handling of the incident by the BCPD “given the seriousness of the charges involved.”
“When developments demonstrated that the investigation was not being handled properly,” he wrote to the judge last week, he “rescinded the decision to decline prosecution and re-opened the criminal investigation.”
Prosecutors are vested with “broad discretionary powers” that include the authority to “reclaim a case that [they] initially declined to prosecute,” Molinelli added. He referred to a Supreme Court ruling that states: “An initial decision should not freeze future conduct.”
The incident began the afternoon of Aug. 12, 2010, when a Forest Avenue resident returned home and found a black SUV with a man inside parked in her driveway. Suddenly, a second man emerged from her house and got into the SUV, which drove away.
She called Paramus police, who immediately responded and broadcast a description of the vehicle, with a partial license plate. An hour later, a Paramus officer began chasing the SUV, broadcasting its location over the State Police Emergency Network (SPEN).
Baksh was at the Bergen County Police Traffic Unit trailer in Hackensack doing paperwork when he heard the transmission, Molinelli wrote in his Oct. 22 brief to Roma.
Baksh got into his patrol cruiser, activated the lights and siren and joined the chase heading east on Route 4. This automatically activated the car’s dashboard camera and microphone, the brief says.
Heavy traffic, combined with rain and the SUV’s “high speed and erratic driving conditions,” quickly made Baksh the lead pursuer as the getaway vehicle exited off the highway into Teaneck.
In Bogota, the SUV was struck by a truck driven by a civilian. The SUV spun and collided with Baksh’s patrol car before continuing down Chestnut Avenue toward West Shore Avenue, Molinelli wrote.
At the bottom of the hill, where Chestnut intersects with West Shore, the driver turned left and pulled the SUV onto a grassy berm near some woods.
“Baksh continued straight and then onto the berm,” Molinelli wrote.
Driver Francesco Piserchia and passenger Carlos Camacho then bailed out and ran toward the woods, he said.
Baksh got out, as well, pulled his Glock service weapon and fired two shots, the prosecutor said.
Roberts, who also heard the SPEN transmission and joined the pursuit, was directly behind Baksh as he drove down Chestnut Avenue, the court brief says.
After firing the shots, Baksh ran south on West Shore Avenue toward the SUV. Roberts made a left onto West Shore, stopped just south of the SUV and Baksh’s patrol car, and joined the pursuit on foot, Molinelli wrote.
“By now, officers from other jurisdictions were converging on the area” and caught Camacho, the prosecutor said. Piserchia was caught by Baksh and then-BCPD Sgt. Robert Carney, he added.
Roberts then returned to his patrol car, drove it to River Road and got out, Molinelli wrote.
A short time later, Roberts was seen “walking back to his patrol car and entering the driver’s side of the vehicle” on video footage from the police cruiser of then-Lt. Daniel Hippe of the Ridgefield Park Police Department, the prosecutor said. “At that point, Roberts shut his patrol car camera off…”
The video continues with Baksh and Roberts getting into Roberts’ cruiser, Molinelli added.
At one point, Carney is “observed leaning into the open driver’s side window and speaking to both Baksh and Roberts,” the prosecutor wrote. The sergeant “instructed Baksh and Roberts to return to West Shore Avenue and call for a tow truck to transport the SUV and Baksh’s patrol car to headquarters.
“At no time did either Baksh or Roberts tell Sergeant Carney, the highest ranking officer at the scene, that Baksh fired two rounds from his duty weapon,” Molinelli contends in his brief.
Soon after, BCPD K9 Officer Les Lorenc arrived. At Carney’s direction, Lorenc began searching the area where the suspects fled, Molinelli said. Then Englewood Police Officer John Peterson arrived.
Both officers “were inspecting the damage to Baksh’ s car when Officer Lorenc saw a shell casing on the ground, and pointed it out to Officer Peterson,” Molinelli wrote. “Officer Lorenc, who was wearing a collar microphone, transmitted a request on the radio for ‘250,’ the designation for Sergeant Carney.”
BCPD Officer Thomas Mucci then joined Lorenc and Peterson.
Peterson picked up the shell casing with his pen “to get a better look,” the prosecutor wrote. It was stamped “357.”
Lorenc “recognized the casing as similar to the ammunition used by Bergen County Police,” the brief contends. “Officer Peterson returned the shell casing to the ground.”
A few seconds later, a second shell casing was found nearby, Molinelli said.
Lorenc again requested Carney and asked whether any other officers were close to the sergeant (who, Molinelli said, “later advised the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office that he left his car without his portable radio”).
“None of the three officers knew at the time that shots had been fired,” the prosecutor wrote.
“Almost immediately, Baksh and Roberts arrived back at the bailout scene in Roberts’ patrol car and exited…. Baksh approached Officer Lorenc while Officer Mucci, who was wearing a microphone, spoke to Roberts. Officer Lorenc made a hand gesture to Baksh, simulating the firing of a gun, but Baksh did not respond.
“Officer Lorenc then pointed out the shell casings to Baksh, who nodded his head toward Officer Lorene’s patrol car, indicating that he wanted the camera turned off, which was done.
“Officer Lorenc asked Baksh how many shell casings he should expect to find. Baksh told him ‘two.’
“Officer Mucci informed Roberts that shells casings were found, to which Roberts incredulously answered, ‘no kidding.’ When Mucci asked, ‘[Y]ou weren ‘t popping off any rounds were you[?],’ Roberts responded, ‘I don’t know nothing.”
The two suspects complained of “medical issues” and were taken to Hackensack University Medical Center.
“Officer Lorenc left to conduct the canine search, leaving the scene because Baksh and Roberts were present,” Molinelli’s brief says.
When Lorenc returned to the shooting scene, “the shell casings were gone,” it says.
“Instead of preserving the scene, Baksh removed [the two shell casings],” Molinelli wrote to Roma. “Roberts was aware of his conduct and did nothing to prevent it.”
Carney was heard over the radio “requesting officers to have them assist in the transport of the prisoners to HUMC,” the prosecutor wrote. “Baksh, who was under the mistaken impression that Sergeant Carney was looking for him, arrived at River Road in his own patrol vehicle. This of course, was completely contrary to Sgt. Carney’s previous order — to wit, that he remain at the bailout site until his patrol vehicle could be towed, along with the suspect SUV.”
Once Carney realized that Baksh had returned, he ordered him to use Perry’s vehicle to follow the ambulance to the hospital, Molinelli says in the brief.
Baksh, however, went to Bergen County Police Headquarters, “still not having informed any superior of the shooting,” the prosecutor said. He “never explained why he disregarded Sergeant Carney’s directive,” the brief adds.
Baksh, in an interview with prosecutor’s detectives, said that he “telephoned Roberts [from headquarters] and they discussed notifying a superior about the shooting,” according to Molinelli.
Roberts, meanwhile, told investigators that he called off-duty Lt. James Mullin, his supervisor in the Traffic Department, and told him “there may have been some shots fired at the scene,” the prosecutor said.
Mullin told investigators that he called Baksh at the end of the chase to tell him he thought he “did a really good job catching the bad guys,” Molinelli’s brief says.
Baksh never mentioned firing his weapon, it adds.
When Carney arrived at the hospital, he learned that Baksh “disobeyed his orders about accompanying the suspects to the hospital,” Molinelli said. Carney called Mullin to ask for blood kits to test which of the suspects was the driver, and Roberts brought them.
It was at that point that he told the sergeant about the shooting — “which was the first time Sergeant Carney learned of it,” Molinelli said.
Carney “returned to headquarters, spoke to Baksh, and seized his service weapon, which had two rounds missing,” he said. The prosecutor’s office was notified, as is required by the state Attorney General’s Office.
Baksh, Roberts and several others were interviewed, Molinelli said.
Roberts, during his videotaped interview, said he saw Baksh get out of his vehicle, yell “Show me your hands,” and fire two shots. At another point in the statement, he said that Baksh shouted the same order twice before firing.
Baksh, meanwhile, said he ordered both me to “show me your hands” or “let me see your hands, let me see your f—–g hands” before firing, Molinelli said.
“A review of the video footage from Roberts’ patrol car camera clearly established that Baksh never said anything before he fired his duty weapon,” the prosecutor wrote. The same goes for the video from Baksh’s car, he said.
Baksh “claimed not to know the location of the shell casings and indicated that no one had told him about it,” Molinelli wrote. “These statements were contradicted by the footage from Officer Lorenc’s patrol car camera as well as Officer Lorenc’s statement to detectives from the Prosecutor’s Office.”
Molinelli said investigators scoured the scene and couldn’t locate any shell casings. They did, however, “find evidence of a bullet strike on a sign and a tree which was consistent with the direction that Baksh was shooting,” he said.
Roberts insists that Molinelli decided to seek criminal charges because of the “political turmoil” surrounding the continued existence of the Bergen County Police Department. As a result, he said, Roma should remove the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office from prosecuting the case and “reassign it” to the Attorney General’s Office.
Defendants must have “some reasonable basis” in arguing a conflict, Molinelli countered. Roberts “supplies only innuendo and baseless accusations…. The mere fact that a defendant claims a conflict of interest in a particular case” doesn’t require anyone to act, he said.
From a “public policy standpoint,” he wrote, “one can argue that the criminal actions of any police officer need to be aggressively prosecuted in order to maintain the public’s trust in the integrity of law enforcement.”
“Put another way,” Molinelli said, the officers’ “criminal conduct … does not simply debase the badge of the Bergen County Police Department; their criminal conduct disgraces the badge and good name of all law enforcement officers.”
Molinelli said he first informed Malakas that he was declining prosecution at the time “based upon a lack of facts and information which, once proven, would not constitute a crime,” as well as “the likelihood that a fair disposition would occur during the administrative process.”
“I am concerned over whether or not justice will be served by continuance of the planned administrative proceedings against these officers,” the prosecutor later wrote to Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan, adding that he’d consulted the state Attorney General’s Office on the matter. “We have reopened our criminal investigatory file and will take whatever actions we deem appropriate at this time and in the future.”