Police Officers Defend Tuckerton Cpl. Justin Cherry as His Hearing Continues

By PAT JOHNSON | Dec 11, 2019
Photo by: Pat Johnson Tuckerton Police Cpl. Justine Cherry with his wife Michele

Tuckerton, NJ — Tuckerton Police Cpl. Justin Cherry and his family will be spending the holidays with their in-laws again as Cherry has been homeless since April 2014, when he was suspended without pay for releasing his K-9 partner on a Barnegat woman at the end of a high speed chase from Tuckerton. Cherry was first charged with criminal assault, and his case wound through the legal gears of Ocean County until this past May, when he was exonerated in Superior Court. The criminal charges were dismissed, but another hurdle awaited: Tuckerton would continue with a disciplinary hearing, now in its fifth month.

Hearing officer Bonnie R. Peterson will decide whether the 15 charges of official misconduct brought by Tuckerton Police Chief Brian Olsen will be upheld or dismissed. The charges stem from a Jan. 29, 2014, incident involving the pursuit of Wendy Tucker from Tuckerton through three other police jurisdictions to end in Barnegat, where Cherry released his K-9 officer, Gunner, on the suspect.

Cherry is still a police officer in Tuckerton and wants his suspension lifted and his back pay, which may have accumulated to an estimated $400,000. Cherry is also suing the borough of Tuckerton.

The hearing began in August and broke off on Sept. 6, when Cherry’s attorney, Tracy Riley, filed a motion to dismiss all charges. Tuckerton’s attorney in the matter, Ian Goldman, answered her motion, and Peterson ruled against Riley’s motion.

The matter continued on Nov. 27 with testimony from Tuckerton's former police chief Michael Caputo and on Dec. 9 with testimony from Tuckerton Cpl. John Sanzari, the officer in charge during the night of the incident, and Barnegat Patrolman Richard Carr, who was first on the scene when Wendy Tucker ended her run behind the Victoria Plaza in Barnegat, next door to the Barnegat police station.

Riley subpoenaed Sanzari in defense of her witness. Sanzari was working the 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift with Cherry on Jan. 29, 2014, when the dispatcher informed them that Lenny Hart in Village on the Green apartments had called the police station asking for assistance to remove his ex-girlfriend, Tucker, from his apartment. According to Sanzari, Tucker was not cooperative, but eventually they got her to leave. Because Hart had told them that she had driven there and had been drinking, the officers instructed her to leave her car where it was and take the bus to Barnegat, where they believed she lived.

The officers did a warrant check, and though she had no warrants, they found she had a suspended license.

Riley asked if the officers had searched Tucker’s person and her car at that time; Sanzari said no, they hadn’t. He also did not write a report, said Sanzari, because it was just an unwanted guest and they had handled it, he said. After Tucker left, Sanzari drove to the Tuckerton Wawa. Cherry told him he would stick around to make sure she didn’t return to Hart’s apartment, said Sanzari.

A bit later, Sanzari heard Cherry announce over the radio that Tucker had driven the vehicle past Cherry, where he was posted outside Village on the Green, and was now turning off Route 9 onto Cable Drive. Cable Drive connects to Railroad Avenue, a back road that parallels Route 9 as far as West Creek. Cherry followed her, and because Cherry was unfamiliar with the intersecting roads, he asked Sanzari’s assistance over the radio. (Officers must report their location at each intersection.)

Riley asked Sanzari if he could determine where exactly Cable Road becomes a road in Little Egg Harbor Township, the next police jurisdiction. According to Tuckerton’s police regulations, officers can pursue a suspect only a mile outside of their jurisdiction; one of the charges brought against Cherry was that he did not turn the pursuit over to Little Egg Harbor.

Sanzari said he could only guess it was about a quarter of a mile down Cable.

Riley asked if at any time Sanzari had advised Cherry to terminate his pursuit, and Sanzari said no, he had not.

This brought Goldman to ask for a piece of evidence, a transcript of the radio dispatch tape. Proceedings stopped until the evidence was emailed to Peterson, Goldman and Riley.

Riley asked Sanzari to continue. Sanzari said Cherry said Tucker had “just blown through a red traffic light at an intersection.”

According to the transcript, Sanzari then said, “Justin we know it’s her, let her go home and we’ll mail it to her.”

Cherry responded, “Now I got evading – so …”

“Did you advise Cherry to disengage the vehicle pursuit?” asked Riley.

“No,” Sanzari answered.

Riley then made a motion to dismiss the charge that Cherry had continued the pursuit after being advised to disengage by the officer in charge.

Goldman objected and said Sanzari’s credibility was in question and he would cross-examine him.

Goldman asked if Sanzari had heard Cherry terminate the pursuit. Sanzari said he couldn’t remember the exact wording, but it was “‘I’m going to disengage but continue to follow her at a safe distance,’ something like that.”

Goldman asked if Cherry had asked other towns to be notified of Tucker’s approach; Sanzari said Stafford Township had asked if Tuckerton wanted them to utilize spike strips. This was over dispatch. “I told them it wasn’t up to me as I didn’t know Stafford’s policy on spike strips. I’d let Stafford make that decision.”

Sanzari said he had remained closer to Tuckerton and did not follow Cherry and Tucker as they approached Stafford Township on Route 9.

Riley asked, “Were you brought up on any administrative charges?”

“No,” he said.

“Later did you receive a call regarding the K-9 apprehension?”

“Yes,” answered Sanzari. “As a result of the call I went to Barnegat and assisted with securing the scene and Tucker’s vehicle.”

The police did not search the vehicle, he stated.

The next time he saw Tucker was in the Tuckerton station after she had gone to the Southern Ocean Medical Center; her arm was in a sling because her shoulder had been dislocated during the take-down.

Riley then asked Sanzari about the Tuckerton Police Department’s recordkeeping and whether it was secured by individual passwords. Sanzari said the “Xpiditer” system utilized back in 2014 allowed superiors to edit and correct reports; the same was true for individual officers’ logs.

Additional questioning about Sanzari’s weapons qualification tests and two different forms, one that said he had passed satisfactorily and one that said no, he hadn’t, were part of Riley’s “laying a foundation of potentially forged documents.”

Goldman objected to this line of questioning, saying it had no relevance to Sanzari’s evidential testimony in the disciplinary hearing of Cherry.

Peterson agreed with Goldman, at which point Riley said the hearing officer was tying her hands in relation to defending her client.

Peterson said she didn’t remember any testimony in the case dealing with changing documents. Riley said the case rested on her client’s truthfulness and she was establishing that.

Peterson let Riley continue. Sanzari said he had no idea when his firearm‘s qualification report was changed or by whom.

Goldman then took over questioning Sanzari. He took Sanzari through the events of the night and said he and Cherry had decided to give Tucker a “pass” on driving with a suspended license and possible drunk driving.

Riley objected.

Sanzari then said when he observed Tucker in the apartment, she was not slurring her words, and while walking to the bus stop, she was not stumbling. “I did not see her drink anything.”

“When you left to go to the Wawa, did Cherry tell you why he was going to stick around?” asked Goldman.

Sanzari said he couldn’t remember. Likewise he couldn’t remember exactly when he had said to let her go home and let Barnegat pick her up.

“He didn’t follow that instruction,” said Goldman.

“I wasn’t there; I left it up to the officer’s discretion.”

Goldman then tried to say that Sanzari had left Cherry alone to deal with Tucker, “a potentially dangerous individual,” but Sanzari said he knew other officers were responding.

After the incident in Barnegat, after Cherry had let his K-9 apprehend or attack Tucker (that is the question), Cherry called Sanzari on his own cell phone. Why would he do that? Goldman asked. Sanzari said the conversation had to do with impounding Tucker’s car, and he used his own phone because he didn’t want to tie up dispatch with a mundane piece of police business. It was not unusual for police to use their own phones, he told Goldman.

“Did you require Cherry to disengage or terminate his vehicle pursuit?” asked Riley.

“No,” said Sanzari, and he later stated that he left the pursuit up to Cherry’s discretion because Cherry was there witnessing the event. Tucker could have been speeding or intoxicated – “It’s always up to the officer.”

Barnegat Patrolman Richard Carr was next to testify. Carr had been manning a light at the corner of Barnegat Boulevard and West Bay Avenue as Tucker approached that town to keep people out of harm’s way if Tucker was going to blow through another light. She had been driving 65 mph on Route 9. But he left his post when he was informed that Tucker had bypassed the intersection and was driving around the parking lot behind the Barnegat police station.

Carr said he saw Tucker enter the Victoria Plaza across from the police station and followed her in to block the exit. “I positioned my car at a slant, unholstered my weapon,” said Carr. Riley asked why he unholstered his gun. “She was involved in a pursuit; her car was in front of me, and she could use the car as a weapon.”

Carr said he knew it was Tucker and started yelling, “‘Wendy, get out of the car!’ But she did not comply, so I approached the vehicle. The driver’s door was slightly opened, so I reached in to try and get her out of the car.”

Riley asked if Carr still had his gun unholstered. Carr said yes, because he didn’t know if she had a weapon or not.

“So you used constructive force on her. Did she comply?” asked Riley.

“No.”

Carr said Barnegat Sgt. Richard Cassidy then arrived at the scene, and between the two of them they pulled her out of the car, and she fell to the pavement. It was at that point that Carr said he saw Cherry release his K-9 and he, Carr, stepped back to avoid getting bitten.

“When you were pulling her out of the car, were you in control of her?” asked Riley.

“No,” said Carr. “She was failing to comply.”

The charges against Cherry include violations of K-9 procedure to use a K-9 only when it is justified. The charges state that according to the video, when she was placed on the ground, her arms were at her side and her hands were in view, said Riley.

“Could you observe her hands?”

“No,” said Carr.

“The charges state that she was not resisting arrest. Is that true?”

“No,” said Carr.

“You were there – the first person to get out of the car and approach her. Did (Tuckerton Police) Chief Olsen ever call you?”

“No,” said Carr. “I don’t know who he is.”

“Did you believe, did she pose an immediate threat to you? You pulled out your gun, didn’t you?” asked Riley.

“Yes,” answered Carr.

Goldman asked Carr if either he or any other officers had requested K-9 assistance. Carr said no. “Did you motion for him to assist you? “ Carr said no, but he added Tucker was resisting arrest. Carr also said that Cherry was yelling something, but in the heat of the moment he didn’t hear exactly what it was.

Goldman asked if he and Cherry had attended the police academy together. Carr said no, but they had worked together in Seaside.

Goldman said the incident report that Carr made indicated that Tucker was under the influence, yet she had not been charged with DUI or DWI, nor had she been charged with resisting arrest. Carr said he knew the Tuckerton PD would be doing the charging since the event started in Tuckerton. Tuckerton did not charge her with those offenses, only the motor vehicle charges.

After Tucker was arrested for reckless driving and driving with a suspended license, Carr and Cherry had talked for a while, Carr said, catching up on family. Carr also told Cherry he was going on a vacation to Florida in the morning.

The hearing is set to continue Wednesday, Dec. 11, at noon.

patjohnson@thesandpaper.net

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