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Prosecutor, judge trade barbs in Hackensack police acquittal

Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A judge in Hackensack today cleared two Hackensack police officers of charges that they conspired with former Hackensack Chief Ken Zisa to cover up a mugging involving two of his then-girlfriend’s sons.

Superior Court Judge Donald Venezia said he had problems with the way Capt. Danilo Garcia and Detective Thomas Aletta handled the 2004 investigation of robbery and assault charges against Kathleen Tiernan’s sons, Ryan and Michael.

However, he said, he didn’t see the intent beyond a reasonable doubt to commit the criminal offenses they were both charged with — official misconduct and conspiracy.

Nor would Venezia convict Aletta ( in embrace, above, right ) of tampering with evidence.

The verdicts upset Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli, as did a remark by the judge in which he suggested the prosecutor indulged in “Monday morning quarterbacking” of the department’s decision not to press charges against the teens.

“I’m concerned that some police officers in this county might take this decision as authorization to give a station house release to someone 18 years old, or to bring evidence to their private residence, or to arrange for the payment of $3,000 to a victim’s family,” the prosecutor said.

“If I were to see that type of conduct by another police officer on any Monday morning, that officer would be charged just like these two were,” Molinelli told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

Although the victim, then 15, identified both brothers, Zisa prevented charges from being filed, with help from Garcia and Aletta — even though the boy lost a tooth, prosecutors contended.

Defense attorneys, in turn, said the teens had a dispute over a girl, and that the “stolen” property was a baseball cap that the brothers later tossed away.

Aletta told the judge the incident was nothing more than a “stupid, schoolyard-type fight over girls.” Such incidents are frequent and don’t rise to the level of juvenile complaints, much less criminal charges, he said.

Unlike Zisa, who had a jury trial, Aletta and Garcia chose a bench trial.

(Although the former chief was convicted of official misconduct and insurance fraud, a judge dismissed part of the conviction and sentenced Zisa to five years in prison. He remains free while appealing the conviction.)

Venezia said the evidence showed that Aletta shared a videotape from a 7-Eleven with Danilo, his superior, as well as with Zisa and Tiernan, knowing that the two teens were living with the couple at the time.

The video doesn’t show any of the incident, which occurred several blocks away. But Aletta testified that he recognized one of Tiernan’s sons in it.

Noting that Aletta took the tape home after showing it, Venezia said: “Maybe Hackensack doesn’t have proper storage facilities.

At the same time, the judge emphasized that taking the evidence as Aletta did “is contrary to his duty.”

Aletta also shouldn’t have arranged for Tiernan and others to pay $3,000 to the victim’s family for medical and dental expenses instead of pursuing charges, Venezia said. That nonetheless doesn’t mean that the officer’s actions were criminal, he said.

“I guess … it could have been done better,” the judge concluded.

STORY, PHOTO: Mary K. Miraglia

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