Bloomberg News

N.J. Suspends 2 Troopers in ‘Death Race’ Probe

April 24, 2012

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

New Jersey removed two state troopers from active duty amid investigations into a high-speed caravan of Porsches, Lamborghinis and Ferraris led by police cruisers on the Garden State Parkway last month.

Sergeant First Class Nadir Nassry, 47, and Trooper Joseph Ventrella, 28, were suspended without pay, Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said yesterday in a statement. Additionally, State Police said a previous escort is under investigation.

“We’re going to put the entire State Police and everybody in the state who’s ever requested this sort of stuff on trial,” said Charles Sciarra, a Clifton lawyer who represents Nassry. The attorney said escorts are routinely provided for funerals, public figures and groups that travel together.

Motorists reported two cruisers on March 30 leading a pack of sports cars in a “Death Race” convoy at speeds of 100 miles (160 kilometers) an hour toward Atlantic City, according to complaints filed with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. The drivers said two cruisers led the sports cars past them. The cars were weaving in and out of traffic, almost forcing some vehicles off the road, according to one of the statements.

“The state is very lucky no one was killed today,” said Wayne Gantt, of Little Egg Harbor, in one of the written complaints to the agency that runs the toll road.

‘Dumb’ to Do

“It shouldn’t have happened; it was a dumb thing to do,” Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, said yesterday. “Those people who made this mistake should be held accountable for it, and I’m sure they will.”

Gantt dubbed the incident “Death Race 2012” in his complaint. The State Police cruisers had their lights flashing, and the sports cars had their registration plates taped over, according to the complaint from the other driver, John W. Kennedy. He said they passed him between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m.

Former New York Giants football player Brandon Jacobs, 29, was among the group, according to the Newark Star-Ledger, which cited a person with knowledge of the trip that it didn’t name. Jacobs did drive to Atlantic City last month, while it wasn’t clear if he was involved in the occasion under investigation, his agent, Justin Schulman, said yesterday.

“Yes, he went down to Atlantic City in a group that included a police escort,” Schulman, the Irvine, California- based agent representative, said by telephone. “I don’t know, nor does he know, if that was his caravan.”

Signed by 49ers

Jacobs was released as a running back in March after seven seasons with the Super Bowl-winning Giants of the National Football League. He signed a one-year contract in April with the San Francisco 49ers.

Nassry knows Jacobs from charity work, Sciarra said. Jacobs contacted the trooper to request an escort for the drivers, who were heading to the seaside resort to discuss raising money for their next cause, Sciarra said by telephone yesterday.

“Jacobs is a guy who feels blessed and wants to give back,” the lawyer said. “So he calls him up and says, ‘Look, we’re going to get together with some guys. Could you give us an escort?’”

“Why the escort? You get pretenders who want to come in,” Sciarra said. “You have guys doing charitable work and they don’t want to get rear-ended.”

“There’s a whole protocol that has to be followed,” the lawyer said. Nassry, who is from Phillipsburg and has an “unblemished record,” was on duty at the time of the exotic- car caravan, Sciarra said.

‘Public Safety’ Purpose

Troopers do provide escorts “to enhance public safety” in such instances as funerals for fallen soldiers, Lieutenant Stephen Jones, a State Police spokesman, said by telephone. He declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.

A spokesman for Chiesa didn’t immediately respond to a voice-mail message or an e-mail seeking comment on Sciarra’s remarks.

The lawyer said he doesn’t represent Ventrella. A woman who answered a telephone listed to a Joseph Ventrella in Oakland hung up without comment when asked if he was there.

The complaints filed with turnpike authority, which oversees the 173-mile parkway, spurred the probe, Jones said.

In a joint statement, Chiesa and State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes said preliminary inquiries warranted immediate action.

“If people are going to put the public safety at risk as these two individuals did, we’ll take swift action,” Chiesa told the Senate Budget Committee today during a hearing on Christie’s spending plan. “When the need arises to take action, we will.”

Experienced Troopers

Nassry has served on the force for 25 years and was based at the Totowa station, according to the statement, which said Ventrella has six years of service and was assigned to the Troop B Tactical Patrol Unit.

In a related move, the commander of the Totowa barracks was transferred until any involvement on his part can be determined, according to the statement. It indicated that an earlier escort, turned up during the probe, is the subject of another inquiry.

“We will not tolerate any conduct by a member of the State Police that puts the public in jeopardy, as this unauthorized caravan had the potential to do,” Chiesa said.

No citations have been issued stemming from the incident, according to the statement.

“I had the great pleasure today of nearly being killed by, not one, but two, Lamborghinis traveling in excess of 110 mph in a NJSP-escorted caravan of approximately 30 exotic vehicles all traveling well over 100 mph,” Gantt said in his complaint, dated March 30 and provided by the authority. Gantt didn’t respond to a voice-mail message left at his home yesterday.

Dodging the Pack

In his statement, Kennedy said he was traveling to Atlantic City with his wife when the group approached as he drove in the left lane. After pulling over, he said he saw many cars struggle to dodge the police-led pack. Once at his destination, Kennedy said he spotted one of the cars parked on a side street, where someone removed the tape from its plates before driving off.

“I felt bad for all of the drivers pulled over during the trip, because it was obvious that the authorities were abetting others to break the laws,” Kennedy said in the complaint. “Some remain above the law.”

Kennedy, a vice president for Cofely Airport Services and a Madison resident, said in a telephone interview yesterday that he didn’t want to discuss the incident.

“I sent a complaint based on an observation,” Kennedy said. “The fact that it was leaked was very disappointing.”

The incident was reported earlier by the Star-Ledger, a newspaper in Newark, the state’s largest city.

Corzine Crash

It’s not the first time speed has drawn scrutiny to the State Police. A trooper driving then-Governor Jon Corzine at 91 miles an hour on the parkway in April 2007 caused a near-fatal crash. Corzine, riding without a seatbelt in the front passenger seat of the sports utility vehicle, was injured. Investigators sanctioned the trooper, saying he could have avoided the wreck.

Christie said the new investigation left him chagrined.

“I just shook my head, but what are you going to do?” he said. “It’s a completely ridiculous story.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Terrence Dopp in Trenton at tdopp@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net


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