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30 people arrested in Atlantic County drug ring

MAYS LANDING — At least 30 people have been charged for their roles in a drug ring spanning multiple towns in Atlantic County, with three facing additional charges in the 2019 killing of an Atlantic City youth football coach.

An investigation into the multimillion-dollar operation also revealed the involvement of a corrections officer, who allegedly smuggled drugs into the Atlantic County jail for one of the incarcerated leaders.

County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner on Wednesday announced Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) charges against the 30 suspects. Additionally, murder charges were levied against the three believed responsible for the fatal shooting of Demond Tally two years ago.

More than $2.6 million was seized over the course of the investigation, Tyner said. Officers also seized a “large amount” of drugs and weapons from eight properties in Hamilton Township, Pleasantville and Buena, and three vehicles.

“Very simply, drugs, money and murder may be romantic stories for the streets,” Tyner said during a news conference at his office, “but in reality, there are only two possible endings to those stories. Those involved either wind up in a box or in a box. They wind up in a cell or in a casket.”

Tally, 45, was shot and killed in February 2019 in Atlantic City outside the home of then-Councilman Marty Small Sr., who is now the mayor. In a Press report shortly after the killing, Small said Tally, a longtime friend, was “only 20 steps away” from his house.

Small declined to comment Wednesday on the charges.

According to Tyner, the network was led by 27-year-old Steven Martinez and 31-year-old Shiraz Khan. Martinez has been in the Burlington County jail since May 2019 after being arrested for narcotics distribution and weapons possession.

“The indictment handed up last week will add a host of other charges that he will face,” Tyner said, “including the murder and conspiracy to commit murder of Demond Tally.”

Martinez orchestrated Tally’s killing, which was carried out by 25-year-old Shamar Scott and 23-year-old Deshawn Hose, Tyner said. All three were handed conspiracy and murder charges.

Khan was arrested in April 2019 during a traffic stop when officers recovered 11 ounces of cocaine from his car. He remains in the Atlantic County jail, where he was then discovered to have been paying a corrections officer to smuggle in drugs.

Luis Mercado, the 27-year-old officer, was charged with various RICO offenses as well as official misconduct and selling electronic devices in a correctional facility.

Tyner was joined at the conference by Atlantic City police interim Officer-in-Charge James Sarkos, Egg Harbor Township police Chief Michael Steinman, a representative from the Galloway Township Police Department and county Chief of Detective Bruce DeShields.

“While we know that these charges will not bring their loved one back, we hope that this will bring some comfort and peace to the Tally family,” Sarkos said later in a news release.

The investigation is ongoing as authorities are looking into other murders that may be linked to Martinez and Khan’s network.

“There are a myriad of reasons why any particular investigation begins,” Tyner said, “but what I want to make clear is that just because someone is out there violating our laws and they haven’t been caught yet, the operative term is ‘yet.’ We will catch up to them.”

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177th Fighter Wing dedicates headquarters to former U.S. Rep. LoBiondo

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The headquarters of the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard has a new name.

Unveiled on Wednesday, and a surprise to the recipient, the facility is now called the Congressman Frank A. LoBiondo Headquarters Building 177th Fighter Wing after the former congressman who played a pivotal role in advocating for the base.

LoBiondo, R-2nd, served in Congress from 1995 to 2019. In the early 2000s, he helped secure $8.4 million for the 177th to build multiple buildings, including headquarters and an Air Support Operations Squadron facility.

The unveiling of the plaque, commemorating the new name of the HQ building, was presented as a surprise to the 74-year-old LoBiondo, who was told he was attending a ribbon cutting for a new fuel cell maintenance facility.

“I’m a little lost for words right now,” he said. “This base and the men and women who work here have meant so much to me over the years. I can never explain, adequately enough, how motivated I became when I got involved with them, to get on the base and (see) their training days and watch them work and interact with them. I did that frequently. Then when something good happens, how rewarding it was to see how appreciative they were that we were giving them what we promised them all along, the best tools, the best training, the best equipment.”

He considers the 177th the “premier Homeland Security base in the entire United States of America.”

“We can back it up because of all the projects we have and how modern and state-of-the-art we are,” he said. “You can’t find adequate words to say how critically important (the base) is to the security of the nation and to the economy of the region.”

He recalled, during his time in office, seeing bases closed or consolidated for not being “kept up to snuff.” In 1997, LoBiondo and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. worked to fight the closing of the base, which would have been consolidated and moved to Oklahoma City. At the time, a federal report stated, the facility was being underused and some of its services could have been performed elsewhere.

“I didn’t want anybody to say that about the 177th,” he said. “The strategic location could not be better. (There are) a lot of Homeland Security bases, but none as strategically located as we are.”

For LoBiondo, the fight to maintain the base and upgrade its facilities was “the mission that never ended.”

Col. Bradford R. Everman, commander of the 177th, said during the ceremony that his 12-year-old son recently asked him who was on his Mount Rushmore.

“What he’s really asking me is, ‘Who do you look up to? Who’s made a difference?’” he said.

After that conversation with his son, Everman thought about whom he looks up to, and LoBiondo came to mind.

“If you want to talk about leadership, this is a man that was elected 12 times in a district that doesn’t even align with his party,” he said. “That demonstrates leadership. That demonstrates the trust of Americans and the trust of people from South Jersey.”

He said LoBiondo was a “fierce advocate” for the military and veterans and worked to open or expand clinics for those who served. He looked out for the betterment of the environment with a focus on the wetlands and coastline of New Jersey and advocated for small business and the transparency of government spending.

“There are very few ways in the military that we can show our appreciation, that we can really say, ‘Hey thank you for your service,’” Everman said. “One of the ways that we do that … we’re dedicating something important to us to you. Today is one of those days, where we can show our appreciation for 24 years in Congress.

“It’s our way of saying thank you for your service and essentially put you on our Mount Rushmore.”

There are two times when it’s appropriate for the military to dedicate something in someone’s honor, either after they’ve retired or after they’ve died, according to Everman.

“We didn’t want to wait for the death part,” he said. “We wanted to honor him (now).”

He added the fighter wing headquarters, built in 2011, is the first facility on base to be dedicated in an individual’s honor.

During his remarks, LoBiondo spoke of his own mentor, U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton, R-3rd, a former congressman who represented parts of Burlington, Ocean and Camden counties.

“One of the things Jim said to me … is, ‘You’ve got to get to the 177th. This is key to the district. It’s key to the military. You need to see this facility, you need to see what’s going on down there,’” he said.

During a tour of the base once, LoBiondo was shown a watermark from too much rainfall on a wall inside a building.

“I was appalled,” he said. “I came away so motivated by the dedication of men and women who are protecting our nation. I came away in awe that people are dedicating their lives and sacrificing so much for all of us.”

On Wednesday, he said the dedication was a “tremendous surprise and a tremendous honor.”

“But the real honor was representing the men and women of the 177th,” he said.

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Pleasantville school board takes action on yearslong mold, HVAC and roof problems

PLEASANTVILLE — Despite spending more than a million dollars on mold, HVAC and roof repairs over the past decade, lingering issues have resurfaced in the city’s schools.

At a meeting Tuesday, the Board of Education approved two resolutions to begin the mold remediation and initiate HVAC and roof repairs that caused the district to stay all-remote through the remainder of the school year.

“We want the public to understand that as a district we are fully aware of what the issues are, and we are being transparent,” said Superintendent Natakie Chestnut-Lee, who was hired in July. “All of our facility issues predate my tenure.”

The news of the mold, HVAC and roof issues was announced at a special school board meeting earlier this month. Chestnut-Lee said she had Coastal Environmental Compliance in Hammonton, which has been performing air quality tests annually for the district for about a decade, conduct an air quality test ahead of the district’s plan to return students to school in April. In a March 31 letter following the test, the company wrote that “some of the schools had a more significant issue than others.”

“Mold is present on a number of surfaces such as doors, tables, chairs and other items. This mold is due in part to two factors: the lack of occupancy during this school year and the condition of the HVAC systems throughout the schools,” the letter states.

Pville SD Indoor Air Quality letter March 2021.doc.pdf

Mold within school buildings usually occurs over the summer, when buildings are unoccupied and there is a lot of heat and humidity in the air. Over the years, many schools throughout the region, from Barnegat Township to Ocean City to Hamilton Township and Buena, have had mold issues that have caused buildings to close for remediation at the start of the school year.

For Pleasantville, the issues have been bubbling up for several years. In 2010, the Leeds Avenue School was closed just before the start of the school year for more than a week due to mold. The district also delayed the start of the 2018 school year for students at the North Main Street School to tackle mold.

In December 2018, the district authorized its engineering firm, Remington and Vernick, to submit documentation to the state for the HVAC renovations at North Main Street and Leeds Avenue and approved a resolution to go out to bid for a five-year lease purchase agreement in the amount of $5.75 million to fund the demolition, acquisition and installation of various HVAC improvements at the two schools.

In January 2019, then-Superintendent Clarence Alston told the school board the New Jersey Schools Development Authority would be visiting its North Main Street and Leeds Avenue schools for inspection of its HVAC systems, which are in need of replacement. Alston said temporary units were put in place until the repairs could be made, which was contingent on funding.

At a March 2, 2020, school board meeting — a year and one month after going out to bid on the project — the board awarded a $1.8 million contract to Kisby Shores Mechanical Contractors for the North Main Street HVAC replacement. The district said the delay in awarding the contract was due to having to wait for confirmation of funding from the SDA. The SDA awarded the district $2.4 million, but only for North Main Street repairs, not Leeds Avenue.

In addition, district officials allocated $1.4 million in the 2020-21 budget for HVAC replacement at the Leeds and Washington avenue schools, but those projects were never completed.

In addition to HVAC repairs, the roofs at the high school, middle school and Washington Avenue and South Main Street elementary schools are all in need of repair or replacement, with leaks permeating the buildings and drop ceilings covered in brown water stains.

District records show that from 2011 to 2019, the Pleasantville School District paid ServPro $960,947 for services related to mold remediation. In 2012, the district paid Plymouth Environmental $68,900 for mold remediation. Between 2013 and 2020, Kowalski Roofing was paid $362,357 for roof repairs. And in 2013, the district paid Core Mechanical $636,003 for mold remediation work.

This week, Chestnut-Lee said even more HVAC work is needed at North Main Street despite the SDA-funded repairs because the chillers there were never replaced. The district plans to use the $4.9 million from the second round of federal school relief funds and the $1.2 million in unused funds from this year’s budget to pay for at least a portion of the work, which in total is estimated at $10 million.

According to a report by Remington and Vernick, between the Washington Avenue, Leeds Avenue and North Main Street schools, the HVAC work will cost $4.2 million. The roof replacements at the high school and the Washington Avenue School will cost about $500,000.

Both Chestnut-Lee and board President Julio Sanchez, who was elected to the board this year, were critical of past administrations who had let the problems get so dire, and of the state monitor, Constance Bauer, for not pushing the school board to make the needed repairs over the past 10 years.

“I was upset, but not surprised,” Sanchez said. “Minimal work has been done to mitigate the situation. That’s disheartening.”

Chestnut-Lee said she has been in contact with Gov. Phil Murphy regarding Pleasantville’s mold and HVAC issues. Murphy’s press secretary, Alyana Alfaro, confirmed that.

“The governor continues to encourage all schools to open for in-person instruction as soon as it is safe to do so,” Alfaro said. “In August, the governor dedicated $100 million in Coronavirus Relief Fund funds to assist districts in reopening. His FY22 budget proposes an additional $75 million for emergent needs via the SDA.”

Meanwhile, remediation of the mold, which exists districtwide, is awaiting approval from Bauer, who is reviewing the expenditure.

The district wants to open the buildings by the summer for an in-person summer school program that will be open to any student with a C average or lower.

Chestnut-Lee said she hopes to complete a second phase of the needed HVAC and roof repairs in 2022.

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AP top story
Grim list of deaths at police hands grows even after verdict

Just as the guilty verdict was about to be read in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, police in Ohio shot and killed a Black teenager in broad daylight during a confrontation.

The shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant, 16, who was swinging a knife during a fight with another person in Columbus, is in some ways more representative of how Black and other people of color are killed during police encounters than the death of George Floyd, pinned to the ground by Chauvin and captured on video for all the world to see.

Unlike Chauvin’s case, many killings by police involve a decision to shoot in a heated moment and are notoriously difficult to prosecute even when they spark grief and outrage. Juries have tended to give officers the benefit of the doubt when they claim to have acted in a life-or-death situation.

While Tuesday’s conviction was hailed as a sign of progress in the fight for equal justice, it still leaves unanswered difficult questions about law enforcement’s use of force and systemic racism in policing. The verdict in the Chauvin case might not be quickly repeated, even as the list of those killed at the hands of police grows.

“This was something unique. The world saw what happened,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sam Gill, who has examined over 100 use-of-force cases there. To have video, witnesses, forensic evidence and multiple police officers testify against one of their own is unique and “demonstrates how high the bar has to be in order to actually have that kind of accountability,” he said.

Convictions like Chauvin’s are extraordinarily rare. Out of the thousands of deadly police shootings in the U.S. since 2005, fewer than 140 officers have been charged and just seven convicted of murder, according to data maintained by Phil Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University.

“This is a success, but there are so many more unjust murders that still need reckoning, that we still need to address,” said Princess Blanding, a Virginia gubernatorial candidate whose brother was killed by Richmond police. Marcus-David Peters, who was Black, was fatally shot by a Black police officer during a mental health crisis after he ran naked onto an interstate highway and charged at the officer.

In Columbus, Bryant had been swinging a knife wildly at another girl or woman pinned against a car when the officer fired after shouting at the girl to get down, according to police and body camera video released within hours of the shooting. The mayor mourned the 16-year-old’s death but said the officer had acted to protect someone else.

Kimberly Shepherd, who lives in the neighborhood where Bryant was killed, had been celebrating the guilty verdict in Floyd’s killing when she heard the news about the teenager.

“We were happy about the verdict. But you couldn’t even enjoy that,” Shepherd said. “Because as you’re getting one phone call that he was guilty, I’m getting the next phone call that this is happening in my neighborhood.”

In Chauvin’s case, by contrast, cellphone video seen around the world showed the white officer pressing his knee to the Black man’s neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd gasped for air. It sparked protests across the U.S., and Chauvin’s fellow officers took the extraordinary step of testifying against him.

“As we look to future prosecution, the question is going to be: Is this perhaps the beginning of a new era, where those walls of silence are not impenetrable?” said Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor and executive director of the reform-minded group Fair and Just Prosecution. Chauvin’s case could also make future juries more skeptical of police, she said.

The day after Bryant was fatally shot, at least two other people were also killed by police in the United States.

On Wednesday morning, an officer killed a man while executing a search warrant in eastern North Carolina. And in the San Diego suburb of Escondido, police said an officer fatally shot a man who was apparently striking cars with a metal pole.

On Thursday, a funeral will be held for Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black motorist who was shot during a traffic stop earlier this month in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, just a few miles from the courthouse as the Chauvin trial unfolded. In Chicago last month, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was fatally shot less than a second after he tossed a gun and began raising his hands as an officer had commanded.

Police officer Kim Potter, who is white, has been charged with second-degree murder in Wright’s shooting on April 10. The former police chief said Potter mistakenly fired her handgun when she meant to use her Taser. She resigned from the police force afterward and was charged with second-degree manslaughter. Wright’s family has called for more serious charges, comparing her case to the murder charge brought against a Black officer who killed a white woman in nearby Minneapolis in 2017.

The Cook County district attorney’s office is weighing whether to bring charges against Eric Stillman, the white police officer who shot Adam in a Chicago alley on March 29 in Little Village, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of the city’s southwest side. The boy, who was Latino, appeared to drop a handgun moments before the officer shot him. The graphic video of the boy’s death sparked outrage across the U.S., but some legal experts have said they don’t believe Stillman could or should be charged under criteria established by a landmark 1989 Supreme Court ruling on the use of force by police.

Instead of just prosecuting officers after shootings happen, more must be done to prevent such encounters from happening in the first place, said Eugene Collins, who was a local organizer for the NAACP’s Baton Rouge, Louisiana, branch when Alton Sterling, a Black man selling CDs in front of a convenience store, was shot and killed by a white police officer in July 2016. The two officers involved in the encounter weren’t charged in his death.

“We’re pulled over more, stopped and frisked more,” said Collins, now head of the NAACP branch. “It’s about putting responsibility on the policymakers.”

Activists say the fight for police reform and a more just legal system is far from over.

“This really has been a year with a wake-up call that’s long overdue,” Krinsky said. “But it’s vitally important that we not squander and ignore it, that we really struggle with what a different vision for policing looks like.”


Associated Press reporters Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Va., and Rebecca Santana in New Orleans contributed to this report, as did Farnoush Amiri in Columbus, Ohio, a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.


Find AP’s full coverage of the death of George Floyd at: