Three men who were allegedly involved in a 2004 attack on a gay couple may learn their fate with the town’s volunteer fire department before the end of the month.
“Of course I can’t comment on the case extensively because we have been advised by our attorneys not to,” said Mayor Dennis Elwell last week. “However, I will say that whatever we do with the three volunteer firemen, it will be done in a timely fashion. I do not want this to drag on and distract everybody over a period of months. I would like this settled by our next [Town Council] meeting.”
The next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, July 22.
Two years ago, a pair of Secaucus residents, Peter DeVries and Timothy Carter, sued the Town of Secaucus after three years’ of harassment they allegedly endured while living next door to the North End Fire House. This ongoing harassment allegedly culminated in a night in which the firefighters yelled epithets, threatened to kill them, and attacked their home.
DeVries and Carter won their suit last month and a Hudson County jury awarded them $2.8 million in damages, which the town is likely to appeal.
Throughout the case, however, three volunteer firefighters identified in testimony and police reports as being involved in the attack – Charles Snyder Sr., Charles Snyder Jr., and Charles Mutschler – have remained part of the department. Mayor Elwell and the rest of the Town Council must now determine what to do with the three men.
The council held a special caucus meeting on Monday, June 23 solely dedicated to discussion of the judgment against Secaucus and the firefighters’ futures.
Among the topics discussed was what punishments, if any, the three volunteer firefighters will face. The council eventually agreed to hold a special hearing with the volunteers at which the men will be questioned by the town’s labor attorney.
(Some on the council had requested that a special investigator be appointed to handle the matter, but that effort apparently failed.)
At press time no specific date had been set for the special hearing.
Noting that some members of the Town Council were not familiar with details of the case, Elwell has encouraged the councilmen to familiarize themselves with the evidence that was presented at the trial. He has made trial transcripts and police reports available for them to read.
Emphasizing that he wants the process to be “fair,” the mayor nevertheless added that the town is prepared to take “strong, swift action” against anyone found to be involved in the attack.
The firefighters face a range of possible punishments, from suspension to dismissal.
Two sources familiar with the June 23 caucus meeting said that some city officials want the three volunteers removed from the fire department.
Councilman Michael Gonnelli, who currently is deputy fire chief, has repeatedly refused to comment on the case.
Insurers want assurances
The June 23 meeting included Town Attorney Frank Leanza; litigation lawyers who represented Secaucus in the civil rights case; the town’s labor attorney; and legal counsel from the town’s two major insurers, Suburban Essex Municipal Joint Insurance Fund and the Municipal Excess Liability Fund.
The insurers were present since they will be saddled with paying out most of the judgment to the plaintiffs if the verdict is not overturned on appeal.
At the meeting, representatives from Suburban Essex Municipal Joint Insurance Fund and the Municipal Excess Liability Fund informed the town that it would have to pass ordinances and take other actions to protect Secaucus from similar lawsuits in the future.
“Among the things they want us to do is present them with a plan as to how we’re going to deal with alcohol in the fire departments,” Elwell stated. “They will of course want to review whatever plan we come up with to make sure we are protecting ourselves fully and we aren’t a liability for them. We don’t yet know what that policy will look like. But they are going to want to see a policy that’s fool proof.”