“I retired in March of 2014,” said Joel Magenheimer, the former police chief of the Town of Guttenberg. “In February of 2015 I came back as the deputy public safety director. Then I dropped dead in March of 2015.”
Magenheimer was referring to cardiac arrhythmia he suffered while working at his desk. Only the quick actions of fellow Guttenberg police officers and the Weehawken EMS saved Magenheimer’s life after his heart stopped beating several times.
“If it weren’t for them I wouldn’t be standing here,” he said.
Beginning this month, Magenheimer is back in full charge of the Guttenberg P.D. after being appointed director of public safety, replacing Michael Caliguiro.
Caliguiro, who has held the position for more than nine years, is also the town administrator.
“We have a school project right now and he’s tied up a lot with that,” said Magenheimer, referring to the ongoing expansion of the Anna L. Klein building. “He’s got a lot on his plate.”
Hence Magenheimer is back doing the job he loves to do. And the residents clearly appreciate his service. Following his appointment at the March 14 Town Council meeting, Magenheimer gave a short, emotional speech expressing his gratitude to those who saved his life, and how “humbled and proud” he is to accept the position.
“He knows how the police department works, and when he was the captain he did a good job of it.” –Lt. Juan Barrera
“We’re very supportive of him because he came up through the ranks with us,” said Lt. Juan Barrera, the top-ranking cop in Guttenberg, who worked under Magenheimer as an investigator.
The position of public safety director is a civilian one. “We work together to make decisions,” said Barrera. “He knows how the police department works, and when he was the captain he did a good job of it.”
Supporting the community, and vice versa
Magenheimer first joined the Guttenberg Police in 1983 as a “special,” or part-time cop. Three years later he became a “regular,” full-time policeman. In 2006 he was promoted to lieutenant, at the time the highest position in the department. A year later he was made captain.
A few turbulent years began in 2014 when he turned 65 and was required to retire by state law. Soon after, his wife of 46 years passed away following a long illness.
“I was missing her something terrible. I got to a point where I didn’t care anymore,” he said.
Magenheimer had only served as deputy public safety director for a month when the heart attack struck.
“I don’t remember coming to work that day,” he said of the fateful incident. To compound the tragedy, his dog died a week later.
But with the help and support of his fellow officers and friends, Magenheimer quickly recovered. “Besides keeping me alive that day they kept me going,” he said. “They got me out of the house. They even went and bought me a new dog, a Labrador.”
Which Magenheimer promptly named Deputy.
“Most of these guys think I’m a father figure to them, that’s the truth,” said Magenheimer, who will continue to program the summer concert series in town and coordinate events like the annual Safe Kids Day. Last year he was appointed to the school board as well, and at the March 14 meeting he was also appointed deputy municipal coordinator of the Guttenberg Office of Emergency Management.
“That’s enough to keep me going,” he laughed.
New Commissioner Wayne Zitt was named to the position of municipal coordinator of the OEM at the same meeting.
Night of awards
Caliguiro was presented with a plaque by Mayor Gerald Drasheff in appreciation for his years of service as public safety director.
Also taking place at the March 14 meeting were the annual Guttenberg Police Awards. Barrera, who was appointed officer in charge (OIC) of the department on Feb. 1 after being promoted to lieutenant, presided over the ceremony.
The first award, appropriately enough, went to three officers who saved the life of an individual found unconscious with no pulse. Officers Michael Mellifiore, Frank Pelaez, and Steve Pelaez responded to a call in June 2015 to discover an unresponsive 56-year-old grandmother. By administering CPR they were able to restore her pulse and save her life. For this they received the Life Saving Award.
Off. Frank Pelaez received the Exceptional Police Officer Award for his outstanding record of arrests in 2015. “The award recognizes proactivity in a police officer,” said Barrera. “The reason he got that is because he had the highest arrests of police officers in Guttenberg, over 100 in the year. Most of his arrests were narcotics arrests, drug arrests.” Pelaez also had the highest number of DWI arrests, tallying 31 out of the 58 arrests made by the department in 2015.
The Community Policing Award went to Inv. Joseph Keselica, Off. Steve Pelaez, and Inv. Steve Diaz. “That was given to them because they always volunteered their time at all town functions,” said Barrera. “Inv. Keselica runs the Junior Police Academy as well as CERT, the civilian emergency response team. Steve Pelaez and Steve Diaz got the award because they always volunteer with any town event and also they were part of the tree lighting event as well as the Christmas parade. Anything we ask they always come out.”
Off. Frank Pelaez received the Honorable Service Award for his assistance following a gang shooting on Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen. Agencies from numerous neighboring municipalities were called to the scene to assist due to the scale of the investigation. Pelaez “located a weapon that was used in the gang shooting,” said Barrera.
Also commended was Sgt. Rafael Martinez, who assisted in an arrest in another municipality while off duty. “He was out with his family and he saw something happen in front of him,” said Barrera. “He jumped out of his car and assisted with the arrest of someone who was getting away from two employees. They were trying to apprehend and he was able to subdue the individual.” The incident took place on the border of Fairview and North Bergen.
And township employee Marisol Montanez was honored with a certificate of recognition for her ongoing service to the town, including the tree lighting ceremony and any other events, whether official or public. “We wanted to give her a certificate of recognition for always assisting the police department in its function to help the community,” said Barrera.
100 years young
Special honors went to Guttenberg resident Francisca Del Busto on the occasion of her 100th birthday. Del Busto was presented by Mayor Gerald Drasheff with a proclamation that read, in part, “Your strength, endurance and perseverance are quality assets that are an inspiration to us all.”
Del Busto came to New York from Cuba in 1957 and moved to Guttenberg more than 50 years ago. She was accompanied at the ceremony by her longtime friends Miriam Corrales and Maryann Morro.
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner joined the celebration by presenting Del Busto with a citation from the State of New Jersey on behalf of Congressman Albio Sires, Sen. Nicholas Sacco, Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez, and Speaker of the Assembly Vincent Prieto. The citation congratulated her as “a citizen of character and determination whose efforts have brought honor and pride to our community and this state.”
Among the other attendees at the event were Weehawken Director of Public Safety Jeff Welz, Weehawken Town Manager Gio Ahmad, Weehawken Volunteer First Aid Squad Vice President Tom Cheplic, and many police officers and other public servants from Guttenberg and the surrounding communities.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.