A New Jersey State Police sergeant was justified in fatally shooting a New York State man who jumped him and tried taking his gun during a furious struggle on the shoulder of the Garden State Parkway, a grand jury has found.
NJSP Staff Sgt. Randall Wetzel ended what had been a series of interactions between Maurice Gordon, 28, of Poughkeepsie, NY and law enforcers in Brick Township, Waretown, Stafford and, ultimately, Bass River in Burlington County, in an encounter two years ago that was captured on video.
New Jersey law required a grand jury review of the incident despite the circumstances as a way of keeping personal or political agendas from interfering.
It all began with a 911 call directed to police in Dutchess County, New York, from a friend of Gordon's who said he "was concerned because Mr. Gordon appeared to be in a panicked state," Acting New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin said on Tuesday, May 17.
Gordon had driven from upstate New York to Connecticut, and then into New Jersey, the attorney general said.
Nearly 24 hours later, he said, an off-duty Red Bank police officer found Gordon with his Honda Civic, which was out of gas and stopped in the middle lane of the southbound GSP near Exit 91 in Brick.
They were joined by an off-duty NJSP trooper who was on his way to work. A trooper who was on duty then arrived, set out flares and left before doubling back and finding Gordon with a tow truck driver.
A different trooper later pulled up behind Gordon’s car, which was now stopped in the left lane of the southbound Parkway near Exit 72 in Waretown, Platkin said.
The trooper called a tow truck, set out flares, and then left, he said.
In the interim, a civilian pulled up and gave Gordon a ride to a Wawa in Barnegat. Gordon then returned to his Honda and headed south on the Parkway.
Another NJSP trooper stopped Gordon near Exit 62 in Stafford a short time later for doing over 100 mph, Platkin said.
Gordon got a summons and kept going – only to be stopped by Wetzel minutes later for doing 110 mph near Exit 50 in Bass River, he said.
That’s where the fatal confrontation occurred.
According to Platkin, Wetzel called a tow truck for Gordon’s vehicle, which had become disabled on the shoulder next to the center median of the Parkway. He also began to write up a series of summonses.
Wetzel asked Gordon if he wanted to sit in the back of the police vehicle while they waited because his disabled car was “partially in the lane of travel,” the attorney general said.
Video from Wetzel’s vehicle video captured the series of events that followed:
After about 20 minutes, Gordon gets out of the sergeant’s vehicle and struggles with Wetzel, who repeatedly orders him back into the car.
Then he tries to get into the driver’s seat.
Wetzel pulls him out, then pepper-sprays Gordon during a subsequent struggle.
Gordon breaks free, runs back to the sergeant’s vehicle and again gets into the driver’s seat.
Wetzel grabs Gordon and again pulls him out – only this time the struggle becomes more violent.
Gordon jumps the sergeant and, while, on his back, tries to grab Wetzel’s gun with both hands,
Wetzel gets control of the weapon and fires six rounds, hitting Gordon twice.
The sergeant immediately calls for medical aid and is met by other troopers who secure the scene.
Paramedics render aid before pronouncing Gordon dead.
State law and his own guidelines require Platkin's office to investigate deaths that occur “during an encounter with a law enforcement officer acting in the officer’s official capacity or while the decedent is in custody," no matter what the circumstances are, he said.
The guidelines guarantee that the investigation is done “in a full, impartial and transparent manner," removing politics or personal agendas.
Once the investigation by Platkin’s Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) was completed, the results were presented to the grand jury “in a neutral, objective manner, and with appropriate transparency,” the attorney general said.
Grand jurors reviewed witness interviews, video footage, autopsy results and forensics evidence before concluding their deliberations with a “no bill” – which Platkin said meant that “the actions of the trooper who shot Mr. Gordon should not result in charges against him.”
“An officer may use deadly force in New Jersey when the officer reasonably believes it is immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person from imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm,” the attorney general noted.
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