Tuckerton Police Cpl. Justin Cherry Testifies as Hearing Wraps Up

By PAT JOHNSON | Jan 08, 2020
Photo by: Pat Johnson

Tuckerton, NJ — Tuckerton Police Cpl. Justin Cherry’s disciplinary hearing ended Dec. 30, but he and his family will have to wait a month or more for the outcome as hearing officer Bonnie Peterson must first decide on a second motion by Cherry’s attorney to dismiss the charges outright.

During a Dec. 17 continuation, Cherry gave his own testimony of the events of Jan. 29, 2014, when he released his K-9 officer “Gunner” on Wendy Tucker after following her from Tuckerton to Barnegat, where he arrested her for driving with a suspended license.

Cherry’s attorney, Tracey Riley, asked him if he was aware Tucker had pleaded guilty in Superior Court to eluding in connection to the event. Cherry said he was, and Riley produced a certified judgment of conviction for resisting arrest and eluding. Tucker was sentenced in October 2016 to 180 days in Ocean County Jail. She served five days and had the balance suspended; she was then placed on probation.

Over Tuckerton prosecutor Ian Goldman’s objection, Riley then led Cherry through the criminal case that was brought against him in Superior Court where two counts of filing false documents and hindering prosecution were dismissed and he was found not guilty on the third count of official misconduct in June 2019.

During his testimony on Dec. 17, Cherry said he had determined Tucker posed a risk to the safety of the public from the very beginning of the incident when he watched Tucker make a “reckless turn without signaling in front of traffic on Route 9.”

This is what bolsters his case for charging Tucker with second-degree eluding, which is a felony – a charge that allows him to pursue a suspect into another jurisdiction.

As Riley attempted to discredit each of the 15 disciplinary charges brought against Cherry by Tuckerton, which if upheld could cost him his job – a job he has been suspended from without pay since 2014 – she arrived at the part of the night when the pursuit or following by Cherry ended in the parking lot of a doctor’s office adjoining the Barnegat police station on West Bay Avenue.

Cherry said he had never before been interviewed in court on the events.

“I looped around the parking lot to get in front of Tucker. I was opposite from her car. I stopped the vehicle, and I could hear and see officers with their guns drawn charging towards Tucker.”

Riley stopped him and asked, “Have you had any experience of coming onto a scene where officers have their guns drawn?”

Cherry said he had come upon such a scene in 2011 when a man pulled a knife on a Tuckerton officer and was shot dead.

“Seeing these two officers with their guns drawn heightened my awareness. It seemed possible that they would use deadly force towards Tucker. I could hear them screaming curse words at Tucker by name. That meant they had dealt with her in the past and had pulled their guns in self-defense. I thought if I grab my K-9, it would provide a lesser use of force option than they would have.

“The use of a K-9 is the use of mechanical force. I would not draw my firearm if there was a way to de-escalate the force. I grabbed Gunner by the collar and went through the snow bank; it had snowed earlier in the day and it was very cold. Her car was facing me with its headlights on, and the high beams of the police cars were above the car, so there were lights in my eyes. I could see Carr had his hand on Tucker with his gun drawn and pointed at her head, and Tucker was leaning against the farther door, away from him. It was my opinion she might possibly have a weapon.”

Riley asked if, when he had met Tucker earlier in the day when he was called to remove her from a boyfriend’s house, he had searched her or her vehicle, and he said no.

Cherry said as he was crossing the snow bank holding Gunner by his collar, he noticed a second Barnegat officer, Cassidy, join Carr in trying to extricate Tucker from the car. Then he was hit with a tree branch and did not see the officers had holstered their guns. “They ripped her out of the vehicle and threw her to the ground.”

“Was she under control at this point?” asked Riley.

“I did not think so. As she was about to hit the pavement, I directed Gunner towards her legs and back area.”

Riley asked about the dash cam footage from the Barnegat police vehicle that shows Tucker’s hands by her side. Cherry said he was in the opposite direction of the camera and could not see her hands. He said he believed they were under her midsection.

Cherry said with his training as a K-9 officer, and as an officer, he was seeing a suspect resisting arrest, and she received her injuries while resisting arrest.

Cherry said while he was running toward the officers and Tucker he shouted, “Stop resisting police” and “K-9 officer.”

“It’s a rapidly evolving, highly intense situation. I was concerned with the officers’ safety.”

Later in his testimony Riley had Cherry outline his own record as a decorated Tuckerton police officer, which included a Combat Cross Award for the incident where a suspect was attacking him with a meat cleaver; a Lifesaving Award; a New Jersey State Police citation for valor; and a K-9 Service award.

On Dec. 30 the hearing continued with Goldman’s cross-examination of Cherry. Goldman pointed out there were two police incident reports from the Tuckerton Police Department for the night of Jan. 29. One included a paragraph that Tucker had prior eluding incidents and was signed by a supervisor, said Goldman. In the section dealing with the pursuit, Cherry checked a box as to the reason for the pursuit as traffic violations – driving while suspended – and could have checked off “eluding” but didn’t, Goldman said.

Cherry retorted he had not completed his incident reports, including the pursuit report, and had left them in his personal mailbox. He had wanted to see the dispatch transcript and the Motor Vehicle Recorder footage from the Barnegat Police Department before he finished his reports – two pieces of information his supervisors, Lt. Christopher Anderson and Police Chief Michael Caputo, had seen.

“I could have put anything in the box. but they (reports) were retrieved by Christopher Anderson. I could have checked ‘eluding.’ All were not handed in for approval. I could have if I had been able to see them again,” Cherry said.

Goldman then asked Cherry if he had been the supervisor on the night of Jan. 29, 2014. Cherry said no, it had been Cpl. John Sanzari. Had Sanzari called off the pursuit? No, said Cherry, who said he had decided to end the pursuit of Tucker before he saw she had run through a stop sign near Parkertown Drive and Railroad Avenue. In the interest of public safety, he had turned off his sirens and lights and had instead dropped back and followed her.

Tuckerton’s guidelines for ending a pursuit require an officer to inform his supervisor, said Goldman. Had Cherry done that?

Cherry said the guidelines Goldman was referring to were meant for dispatch to inform a supervisor when a pursuit had ended, and anyway his supervisor was working with him that night and was listening to his communications with dispatch as the events unfolded.

“I notified dispatch, and Sanzari was listening,” said Cherry.

“If she was eluding, you should have notified at Cable Drive and Route 9,” said Goldman.

“I had to catch up to her first, and then I notified dispatch that she was failing to yield to my attempts to stop her – and that is eluding.”

Goldman then brought up Tuckerton’s guidelines for a police officer leaving the jurisdiction. The guidelines require an officer to turn over a suspect to the next police department when exceeding a one-mile buffer between municipalities except when there is first- or second-degree eluding. “I believed I did have a first- or second-degree eluding,” said Cherry.

“You wrote in your report that you terminated at Parkertown Drive (outside the one-mile limit),” Goldman said.

“That information is from a draft report that I was unable to finish, and if I was trying to be deceitful, Parkertown is outside the one-mile limit, I would have given a road inside the limit. I was not trying to be deceitful,” said Cherry.

Goldman then changed his questioning to the parking lot in Barnegat Township where Tucker finally stopped and was arrested. “You said the take-down lights were on you and you were blinded,” Goldman said.

Cherry replied, “I saw the Barnegat officers charging towards her car with their guns drawn. I could see her moving her body away from (Officer) Carr and I could see (Officer) Cassidy helping Carr to get her out.”

Later in his testimony Cherry said he had been suspended for insubordination to his superior officer, Sgt. Chris Anderson (now lieutenant), but said he had been tired that day because he had a newborn son and had suffered from lack of sleep. He also apologized to Anderson and admitted he had been in the wrong.

Goldman asked if he had ever been named in a lawsuit against the Tuckerton police. Cherry said yes, the one concerning Tucker and two others. But only Tucker was as a K-9 officer.

Riley asked if Cherry had learned Tuckerton had settled with Tucker. Cherry said he had heard it was less than $26,000.

“If Tucker had stayed at the bus stop that night, would we be here today?” asked Riley.

“No, we wouldn’t.”

“If Tucker had stopped when you put on your lights and siren, would we be here today?”

“No, we wouldn’t,” said Cherry.

patjohnson@thesandpaper.net

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