YOU READ IT HERE FIRST : Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli testified today that he seized an internal affairs investigation from the county Police Department after it became obvious that then-acting Chief Brian Higgins was nullifying disciplinary action against two officers in a shooting cover-up.
Molinelli took the witness stand in Hackensack in the trial of Saheed Baksh, who is accused of pocketing shell casings after shooting twice at two fleeing suspects following a high-speed chase from Paramus to Bogota, and Jeffrey Roberts, who is charged with helping him keep it from investigators.
As county prosecutor, Molinelli told jurors, he is responsible for all policing agencies in the county and must ensure that state Attorney General guidelines, policies, rules and standards are followed.
That, he said, is why he was closely following the outcome of a a BCPD internal affairs investigation into the officer-involved shooting.
“This is a very serious case, and we were carefully tracking and monitoring what was being done in the Bergen County Police Department,” Molinelli testified under questioning by Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Wayne Mello. “They were indictable charges.
“This is not unusual,” he said. “You have indictables in local departments, and you weigh all the information and try to do what is right.”
In November 2010, Molinelli said, he advised his team that he was sending the case back to the BCPD for action. An internal affairs investigation was conducted, a hearing officer was appointed and things were proceeding in an acceptable manner, he said.
The prosecutor said he wasn’t pursuing a criminal case but, instead, kept an eye on what he expected would be a strict and thorough handling of the incident “given the seriousness of the charges involved.”
Soon after, Higgins became acting Bergen County police chief, put aside the recommendations of the hearing officer and ended the disciplinary proceeding, Molinelli told jurors.
He then “let it be known he would sign a new notice that of discipline I had not seen,” the prosecutor said.
Molinelli said he notified the acting chief in writing that he was superseding his authority and bringing the investigation back to his office.
Molinelli later told CLIFFVIEW PILOT that the disciplinary notice Higgins prepared gave 20 days’ suspension to Baksh and Roberts.
“This was far too lenient for compromising a crime scene,” he said.
Had the disciplinary hearing proceeded, Molinelli said, he believes the judge would have recommended termination for both men.
Molinelli testified that he tried calling a meeting with Higgins and his boss, County Executive Kathleen Donovan, along with County Administrator Ed Trawinski, to work things out.
When he arrived, he said, he was met by Trawinski, who gave him a letter from Donovan accusing Molinelli of “superseding [her] authority” and telling him that “any preliminary notices of disciplinary action issued by your office will be considered a nullity.”
“She was ill-advised and she was incorrect in the letter,” Molinelli testified. “I was not superseding her authority — I was superseding the chief.
“Under the criminal justice act of 1970, I have the authority to supersede a police department on any criminal matter that exists in this county, and that includes internal affairs investigations,” he said.
New Jersey Attorney General guidelines require county prosecutor’s offices to review all police shootings to determine whether they are justified.
According to Molinelli, the two-hour gap between the shooting and when the officers finally reported it compromised the scene — and, as a result, the investigation.
Baksh’s lawyer, Louis Diluzio, has portrayed the August 2010 scene as a mess of 20-plus officers from several jurisdictions, including local, county, and New Jersey State Police, plus the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office. Mass confusion plus a short time frame — and not an attempt to deceive — led to assumptions and delay in reporting an officer-involved shooting, he said.
Diluzio also said prosecutors have no evidence to prove Baksh removed the shell casings from the crime scene.
Roberts’ attorney, Charles Sciarra, said his client had neither motive nor a crime that had to be covered up in the first place. Sciarra also accused Molinelli’s office of being “up to something” by not delivering evidence that he needed to prepare his case until a few weeks ago.
The two officers face a total of six charges, including conspiracy to commit official misconduct, tampering with evidence and making false statements.
Grand jurors in August 2012 indicted both after prosecutors presented videotape from various patrol car dashboard cameras and transcripts of interviews with several officers following the chase. No one was hit, but prosecutors 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.”
The topic came up briefly during today’s testimony.
At the same time that his office was investigating the two officers, Sciarra asked Molinelli, “Did you pay over $600,000 in forfeiture funds for a study to disband the Bergen County Police Department?”
Molinelli said that was incorrect.
“I was asked to help pay for a study to consider the way all three police agencies in Bergen County interact,” he said.
Both sides rested soon after. The case now goes to the jurors.
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BACKGROUND: 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. READ MORE ….
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STORY / PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter
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