A single vehicle accident on Bergenline Avenue in Guttenberg more than a year ago has resulted in the termination of a West New York fire official and the suspension of three Guttenberg police officers, due to an allegedly improper police report filed as part of the crash.
According to Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio, whose office conducted a year-long investigation into the case, the police officers involved in the filing of the false police report have agreed to pre-trial intervention and will not face further prosecution, as long as they remain clean of any other illegal activity within the next year.
"It was an unfortunate incident, but we are satisfied with the results," DeFazio said.
According to DeFazio, the story began on Nov. 9, 2002, when two Guttenberg patrolmen, Officers Mark DePew and Joseph Fay, were called to the scene of a one-car accident at the corner of 68th Street and Bergenline Avenue.
When the patrolmen arrived at the scene, they found the damaged vehicle unoccupied, which meant that the driver had fled the scene of the accident.
The officers also realized that the car involved in the accident was an official vehicle from the town of West New York. The vehicle was assigned to town fire official Edward Wengerter, Sr., a retired long-time firefighter from the old West New York fire department, who had been hired by the town as a provisional fire official.
After realizing that the car was an official vehicle, Guttenberg Sgt. Joel Magenheimer, who was working the desk that evening, apparently made calls to find who was responsible for the vehicle.
At the same time, according to DeFazio, Wengerter arrived at the scene. He apparently told the officers that he had been driving the West New York official vehicle, but left the scene to get paperwork.
However, according to DeFazio, a witness to the accident told authorities that Wengerter was not driving the car, but allegedly, that it was Wengerter’s son, Edward, Jr., a current firefighter in the North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue.
The Guttenberg officers wrote in their official reports that Wengerter, Sr. was driving the vehicle – not his son. There was no mention of anyone leaving the scene of the accident.
The Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office took over the investigation, and after collecting all the necessary information, the case was presented to a grand jury in July.
"During the course of the investigation, we were able to ascertain confidently that Mr. Wengerter was not the driver of the car at the time of the incident," DeFazio said last week. "As it turned out, there was an issue about the report that the Guttenberg police officers presented. We were able to ascertain that it was a false police report."
Filing a fraudulent police report is a criminal charge, and all three officers were subjected to possible indictments. If found guilty of the charge, all three could have faced jail sentences and once convicted, by law, they would have been forced to relinquish their positions in the Guttenberg police department.
Given a deal
However, the officers were given a deal to accept pre-trial intervention instead of being prosecuted for their involvement with the police report. Accepting the terms of PTI, the officers did not have to offer a guilty plea, so they were able to keep their jobs – provided that they remain out of any additional trouble over a stretch between six months to three years. The three officers were also slapped with an undisclosed fine.
"Once they were placed in PTI, then it was up to the town to administrate the discipline they felt necessary," DeFazio said. "Without a guilty plea, the case goes back to Guttenberg for administrative action."
Guttenberg determined that each officer would be suspended for six weeks without pay, which the officers accepted.
"There were parameters we had to follow," Guttenberg Mayor David Delle Donna said last week. "We could not suspend them for more than three months. But we felt that the six-week suspension was very fair."
One of the officers has already served his six-week suspension and has returned to active duty. The second officer is currently serving his suspension, and it is almost completed. The third will begin his suspension in January. Guttenberg police officials determined it was beneficial to stagger the suspensions, in order not to deplete the police force for an extended period of time.
"We’re a little disappointed that it happened," Delle Donna said. "We’re looking forward to putting it behind us. These were very serious charges. [The Prosecutor’s Office] could have gone for an indictment on the charges, but decided to give them a chance. Although it appears it was a misguided attempt to help someone, it was not the right thing to do. We will continue to run everything by the book and the appropriate discipline will be administered."
WNY fire official not as lucky
Meanwhile, West New York has decided to sever all ties with Wengerter.
"Based on the information we have received to date, Mr. Wengerter has been replaced as our fire official," West New York Township Administrator Richard Turner said. "He no longer works for the town. We have received some documents from the Prosecutor’s Office that explain Mr. Wengerter’s role in the incident and we’re currently reviewing the case with Town Attorney Robert Murray to see if any further action is necessary. We’re awaiting other documents to complete the review. After the review, we will evaluate if there will be further action."
There is a possibility that Wengerter could face more legal problems in the case, as well as Wengerter, Jr., if it is determined by the grand jury investigation that he was the driver of the vehicle.
"It was an unfortunate incident all the way around," DeFazio said. "The rest of the matter is in the hands of West New York for now."