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Two Bergen County police officers indicted Monday on charges that they tampered with
evidence and lied to investigators — all in an attempt to cover up their
involvement in a 2010 car chase in which two shots were fired — will
plead not guilty, their attorneys said.
Saheed Baksh and Jeffrey Roberts, who are facing mandatory
prison sentences if they are convicted of official misconduct,
surrendered voluntarily Monday afternoon, posted bail and were suspended
without pay, said Jeanne Baratta, chief of staff for Bergen Executive
The seven-count indictment is the culmination of an unusual decision by Bergen County
Prosecutor John Molinelli to reopen his investigation into the
officers’ conduct after he initially declined to pursue criminal charges
and remanded the matter to the Bergen County Police Department.
Molinelli said he acted after it became apparent that the
administration was not pursuing appropriate penalties given the
allegations of evidence tampering.
But Charles Sciarra, Roberts’ Clifton-based
attorney, said the decision to reopen the investigation was politically
motivated and “an act of breathtaking unconstitutionality.” Sciarra
produced a copy of his Aug. 3 letter to Molinelli criticizing the
prosecutor for pursuing criminal charges more than a year after the case
was sent back for administrative review.
“I ask you to reconsider this horrendously ill-advised
criminal prosecution and remove yourself and your office from this
matter,” Sciarra wrote.
The fate of the 90-member county police force is a hotly debated topic in Bergen County,
and Donovan last week sued the county freeholders to stop both a
referendum on merging the department with the Sheriff’s Office and an
ordinance that would dissolve the force. A judge could rule Sept. 6.
“The only real way the prosecutor can make a mark against
the county police is to hammer these two guys long after he cut them
loose,” Sciarra said.
Molinelli dismissed suggestions that his investigation was influenced by any external forces.
“This is about making sure that police officers understand
that they’re held to [a] high standard,” Molinelli said Monday. “There
was a time that I felt comfortable that this would have been addressed
in the administrative tribunal, but it was clear to me that it wasn’t
going to be addressed there. So it was then clear to me the only way it
would be addressed would be through the courts.”
Baksh is represented by John Fahy, a former Bergen County
prosecutor. Like Sciarra, Fahy said his client intends to plead not
guilty, and looks forward to his day in court. He declined further
County Police Chief Brian Higgins did not respond to calls for comment Monday.
The indictment charges both officers with conspiracy to
commit official misconduct in the aftermath of the chase on Aug. 12,
2010, a second-degree offense that carries a mandatory minimum prison
sentence of five years.
That day, police from multiple agencies pursued suspects
Francesco Piserchia and Carlos Camacho-Cruz after a botched home
burglary in Paramus. At the end of the chase on West Shore Avenue in Bogota,
the suspects fled their Ford Explorer and Baksh fired two shots at
Piserchia as he ran into a wooded area, according to investigators. No
one was injured.
The indictment alleges that Baksh interfered with a criminal
investigation by purposefully removing two shell casings from the scene
and that Roberts “improperly failed to maintain and preserve the crime
scene … and in doing so allowed Baksh to interfere with the crime scene
by removing two shell casings.” Both are second-degree crimes.
The officers were also charged with lying under oath in
statements given to detectives with the Prosecutor’s Office directly
following the shooting. That, too, is a second-degree offense, because
both men allegedly committed the acts as police officers and public
servants. Lastly, both are charged with false swearing, a fourth-degree
Each second-degree offense carries a possible jail sentence of five to 10 years.
Baksh, 37, joined the Bergen County Police nine years ago, while Roberts, 52, is a 23-year veteran. Each received a base salary of $126,294 last year.
Both officers will be arraigned within the next six weeks, according to a statement from the Prosecutor’s Office.
Before reopening the criminal probe, Molinelli first
attempted to file administrative charges recommending that Baksh and
Roberts be terminated. Donovan countered that the prosecutor was
overstepping his authority. Molinelli sharply disagreed, and rendered
the argument moot by restarting the investigation on Oct. 27, 2011.
In separate interviews, both Maria Haberfeld, chairwoman of
the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice
Administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York
City, and former Monmouth Prosecutor John Kaye, who served, 23 years,
said it is very rare for a prosecutor to reverse course and pursue
criminal charges in a previously closed case.
In a series of interviews last month, Molinelli said his
investigation was not centered on Baksh’s use of force, but rather on
allegations that both officers worked to remove evidence and tampered
with the crime scene. In fact, the prosecutor said, his office has been
unable to rule on whether the use of force was justified that day
because the crime scene was tampered with.
“This case is about the facts and not hyperbole,” he said.
“We have followed the facts and will rely on a jury to weigh them like
all other cases. While it is never popular with police or their
attorneys when charges like this are filed, the people need to know that
there is an office that is mandated to ensure the highest compliance
with police standards.
“However unpopular this may be with certain individuals, we continue to find it necessary that the right thing be done.”
The charges contained in Monday’s indictment are similar to
allegations made in a $17 million civil suit filed in April by
Piserchia, and in a whistle-blower suit filed by county police Sgt.
Robert Carney, the former head of internal affairs.
In his suit, Carney accuses county police of tampering with
evidence, “concealment or failure to preserve available evidence,” and
improperly firing a weapon, claims that his attorney, William Feldman,
said refer to the Piserchia chase and its aftermath.
Carney's suit also alleges that he repeatedly advised his
superiors of these actions and other misconduct by county officers, yet
was ignored. In his notice of tort claim -- a preliminary step that
alerts a public entity a lawsuit may be filed against it -- Carney
stated he is seeking $3 million in damages from the county, claiming
that he was denied a promotion and that other employees threatened him.
Piserchia contends that when the chase ended, Baksh fired at
him while he was trying to surrender and that Baksh and Roberts beat
him during his arrest. Piserchia also contends that the county police
engaged in a conspiracy to conceal the shooting.
Court hearings on both lawsuits are pending.
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