The death of a man whose body was recovered from the Passaic River following a police chase was being investigated by county and state authorities, a family member said she was told.
Meanwhile, she and other loved ones wait in anguish for answers.
Everyone agrees that the body retrieved from the river below Route 21 Monday evening was that of Thadius Wilder, a 35-year-old father of five from Passaic.
Wilder, who had a history of drug arrests, was last seen running from police on that very same highway on Saturday, said his sister, Amber Wilder-Hunter.
Wilder-Hunter filed a missing persons report Sunday night.
Twenty-four hours or so later, two City of Passaic detectives and a uniformed officer came to her Garfield home to tell her the body found in the river was her brother’s.
No official announcements have been made, however. They won’t be until the body is positively identified by the New Jersey Medical Examiner’s Office.
That had yet to happen as of Wednesday afternoon.
Amber Wilder said she emailed the medical examiner dental records for her brother, who’d had a root canal two months ago. She also emailed photos showing scars, birthmarks, tattoos, “even pictures of the sneakers he was wearing the day he went missing,” she said.
Wilder had a record of drug-related offenses, including a 2007 conviction that sent him to state prison for roughly a year and a half, records show.
“That means they have his fingerprints,” his sister said.
Her brother's ID was also in his pocket, the detectives told her.
The person she spoke with at the Medical Examiner’s Office on Tuesday said they’d have an answer for her in 24 to 48 hours, Wilder-Hunter said.
She called again on Wednesday and was told the body was still too unidentifiable, however. As soon as they had a positive ID, she said, they’d let her know.
Authorities in Passaic referred questions to Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes’s Office. Valdes hadn’t yet confirmed the circumstances as evening approached on Wednesday.
State law requires the state Attorney General's Office to investigate all deaths in New Jersey that occur “during an encounter with a law enforcement officer acting in the officer’s official capacity or while the decedent is in custody."
The guidelines guarantee that the investigation by the attorney general's Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) is done “in a full, impartial and transparent manner," removing politics or personal agendas.
Once the investigation is complete, the results are presented to a grand jury.
The grand jury reviews a host of evidence -- including witness interviews, body and dashcam video, and forensic and autopsy results -- to determine whether or not there's cause to suspect any wrongdoing on the part of law enforcement.
Wilder-Hunter said she was told an investigation was being conducted. She also did some investigating of her own.
Speaking with police supervisors and civilians over the past several days, Wilder-Hunter assembled a timeline of events leading to her brother’s death.
She knows for a fact that Thad was sitting on a bench at the Passaic public housing project on Aspen Place when two uniformed officers approached him shortly before 7 p.m. Saturday.
She also learned that authorities had an arrest warrant with his name on it. Law enforcement sources said it was for dealing drugs.
“I don't know what was said, but I do know that my brother said, 'No! No!' and then he ran,” Wilder-Hunter told Daily Voice. “I have no idea why.
“He shouldn’t have run. There's no good reason," she said. "But he may have been scared."
Wilder hopped a fence onto southbound Route 21 with the officers in pursuit, witnesses told his sister. One of the uniforms radioed the situation to headquarters, his sister said.
Several police vehicles arrived soon after, those who were there told her.
“From what everybody's saying, it lasted three to five minutes,” Wilder-Hunter said, “and then everybody disappeared.”
So did her brother.
“He would have called somebody. He would have said I'm safe, I'm OK,” she said. “But nobody heard from him – not me, not anyone. No one had seen him.”
Wilder-Hunter and others searched the projects and surrounding areas, as well as local parks, on Sunday.
“We talked to every person we know who he's really close to -- not one person had seen him,” she said.
Eventually, she went to Passaic police headquarters to file the missing persons report.
Her brother had run from police and may not have wanted to be found, at least not immediately, Wilder-Hunter said she was told.
She was OK with most of the responses – with one major exception.
Wilder-Hunter said she told a sergeant that she’d heard her brother may have ended up in the water. The sergeant said police were sure he hadn't, she said.
She asked if they’d actually searched the river. She said she was told they didn’t.
The sergeant who took the report said he would enter it into the National Crime Information Center database, she said.
The next morning (Monday), Wilder-Hunter said she got a call from a police captain asking if anyone had seen or heard from her brother. Surrendering to police would be his best option, he told her.
Wilder-Hunter said she understood. Then she explained her concerns.
The captain called back five minutes later, she said. If police thought Thad was in the water, he said, they would’ve conducted a complete perimeter check. He asked her again to call him immediately if she'd heard any news.
Around 5:30-6 p.m. Monday, Wilder-Hunter got calls and texts from friends saying that her brother’s body had been spotted in the river.
She headed straight to Passaic police headquarters.
The sergeant who’d taken the missing persons report told her that they were in the process of removing the body, she said. They were having trouble getting to where it was from their side of the river, so boats were launched from Rutherford.
As soon as they knew what was what, he said, they’d let her know.
Wilder-Hunter went home and waited. The detectives and uniformed officer came to her door around 9:30 p.m.
Since then, she's tried to be patient.
Wilder-Hunter is caught in a heart-rending limbo, however, unable to collect her brother’s body and frustrated at the amount of time that passed before it suddenly turned up in the very spot where she’d asked police to look in the first place.
“That’s where it ended for him,” she said. “That’s where the answers are.”
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