Hackensack, NJ – Five Jersey officers involved in a warrantless search have been canned by the city according to a statement released Friday from the city manager, Ted Ehrenburg. The officers took part in an unsanctioned search of the Prospect Avenue apartment in December of 2016. Allegedly acting on a tip about possible drug activity in the area, the fired officers and two (now retired) senior officers converged on apartment C7 of the Sheldon Arms complex.
Accounts conflict what happened next. According to Det. Mark Gutierrez’ police report, he along with Lt. Scott Sybel, Det. Rocco Duardo and Joseph Gonzales, and Officer Victor Vazquez were tipped off by an anonymous man in the apartment complex that there was a child left alone in C7. The group of officers knocked on the door and received no response. The door was allegedly unlocked so the officers entered the premises.
Surveillance video obtained by The Record and North Jersey.com doesn’t show anyone directing the officers to the apartment in question. On top of that, the recently released footage appears to show officers picking the lock on the door to enter the apartment. The report also failed to mention all the officers that were present during that time.
Duardo is seen on camera pointing out the apartment to officers and than officers pick the lock. Duardo and Gutierrez are then seen entering the apartment.
This technicality, or lie depending on perspective, would have went unnoticed had it not been for an anonymous letter singling out Riotto and the narcotics unit. The letter sparked the Internal Affairs investigation resulting in the discrepancies of the officers’ accounts of the search being brought to the forefront.
The firing comes a little over a week after Dennis Driscoll, the hearing officer leading the inquiry into the illegal search, advised the city to get rid of the officers. Duardo, Gutierrez, Vazquez, and Sgt. Justin de la Bruyere were dismissed Friday. Gonzales was also dismissed whom Driscoll recommended be suspended for six months.
“These five officers betrayed the oath and brought dishonor to the Hackensack Police Department,” said Ehrenburg. “Terminating them today is the only justified and reasonable action that we can take to bring this matter to a close.”
A total of seven Jersey officers were suspended without pay last spring after the IA investigation revealed the conflicting surveillance footage. As previously mentioned, two of the officers retired – Capt. Vincent Riotto who retired before the disciplinary hearing began as part of a deal with the city to get off and, Lt. Scott Sybel who retired before the investigation into the search even began.
Three of the officers claim to be fighting the termination through the appeals process with the New Jersey state’s Office of Administrative Law.
“They fired everybody, notwithstanding the recommendation of a hearing officer,” said Robert Biagiotti, the attorney for Gonzales.
Gutierrez’ attorney, James Patuto, agreed saying, “The decision, to me, was an overreach. The city now has really dropped the most extreme penalty on all the lower-level officers.”
Duardo’s attorney, Charles Sciarra, claimed that the city was stacking the case against his client. “Hackensack selected and paid a hack hearing officer to fire my client. The hack delivered,” he said.
The lack of integrity displayed by the officers led then-Bergen County prosecutor, Gurbir S. Grewal, to drop charges in eight active criminal cases due to the involvement of the officers. The decision affected 16 defendants, including an alleged gang member and several violent criminals. The officers’ conduct left Grewal no other choice.
“Simply put, their conduct undermines their credibility as law enforcement witnesses,” Grewal wrote in a July letter to police.
An unknown number of municipal cases were also dropped at the recommendation of Grewal.
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