CVP EXCLUSIVE: An Old Tappan man charged with manslaughter in the heroin-inducted overdose death of an Emerson woman has been denied entry into a pre-trial intervention program for the second time.
Supporting a Bergen County assistant prosecutor’s decision, Presiding Suprior Court Judge Liliana DeAvila-Silebi said the refusal to alow Christopher Benvenuto, 28, into the diversionary program was neither a “clear error in judgment” nor a “patent and gross abuse of discretion.”
As a result, the prosecution continues against Benvenuto and co-defendant Jesse Kurzweil, 27, of Closter for the June 11, 2013 death of 47-year-old Doreen Leach.
Prosecutors said Kurzweil sold the heroin that killed Leach, while Benvenuto bought batches of drugs twice the day before Leach’s 3:44 a.m. death in the Emerson Plaza West apartment of Marie Massey.
Defense attorney Irwin Rochman said Benvenuto has been out on bail for more than a year and a half and was in a narcotics treatment program.
He is also “dealing with the mental health issues he has,” Rochman said.
Kurzweil, meanwhile, after posting bail was arrested again on heroin charges in Hackensack last March. He remains free on $10,000 bail.
Benvenuto, a former EMT, told Emerson police that Massey asked him to help her try to revive Leach, who was on her couch “in a cyanotic state” after using at least three bags of heroin, DeAvila-Silebi’s opinion says.
Benvenuto had taken Massey to buy the drugs from a contact of his, and the three had been using them together, it says.
“Um, she was like um, she was like what do I do?” he later told police. “I was, like, you know, just call the ambulance, like, it’s be okay. Like I just don’t wanna get in trouble, you know, um, and uh, I left.
“I honestly had no idea that she was dead, like zero clue. It didn’t even cross my mind,” the judge’s opinion quotes Benvenuto as saying. “Um, um, because recently this is why I left because a friend of mine had overdosed in front of me and I ended up doing CPR on him and I saved him and I mean, like, he was, he was at my house.”
Benvenuto, 28, had appealed Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Danielle Grootenboer’s denial of entry into Pre-Trial Intervention in January.
His attorney argued that he is an “ideal candidate for PTI” and that the prosecutor “disregarded [his] personal traits” and suitability for rehabilitation when she barred him from entering the program last fall.
A prosecutor’s consent is required for admission into PTI program — which, if completed successfully, removes all criminal charges.
Grootenboer said that people who “engage in cover-ups to hinder their own apprehension” are “not worthy of diversionary programs.”
“When faced with an opportunity to help the victim,” she wrote last October, Benvenuto “chose to flee the scene.”
“Of course, defendant had the presence of mind to take all of the incriminating evidence with him,” the prosecutor added.
Grootenboer also cited the escalating number of heroin deaths in Bergen County, as well as adamant opposition from the victim’s family.
Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli said he’s applying a decades-old law that allows authorities to hold drug suppliers criminally liable when a user dies in the hopes of sending a clear message to street-level dealers that they could face long prison terms no matter how small the amounts they sell.
The prosecutor vowed that his investigators would trace every deadly overdose in the county back to “everyone” in the chain — from the manufacturer to someone who helps a heroin user snort or shoot up the drug.
Benvenuto and Kurzweil are charged with first-degree strict liability for a heroin-induced death, manslaughter, hindering and drug possession offenses, among other counts.
Kurzweil remained free on $150,000 bail, posted two days after Molinelli said detectives arrested him in the parking lot of the Paramus Park Mall while carrying several bags from the same batch that killed Leach.
Massey wasn’t charged under state Overdose Protection Act immunity.
STORY / PHOTO (TOP): Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter