Family Plans for an Independent Autopsy
The six shots fired by a New Jersey State Trooper in the early morning hours of May 23 that killed Maurice Gordon, a 28-year-old unarmed man of color, was the culmination of a three-hour period in which he crossed paths with several police officers in separate encounters as he drove south on the Garden State Parkway, according to documents released by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, as part of the state’s ongoing probe of the shooting.
For the first time since the shooting, officials disclosed the name of the New Jersey State Trooper who shot Mr. Gordon, who actually was not under arrest at the time, but had been invited by the trooper to sit in the back seat of the officer’s vehicle, pending the arrival of a tow truck.
Sgt. Randall Wetzel, with Troop D, was placed on administrative leave, which law enforcement officials said was standard protocol, pending the completion of the investigation, which will include a presentation of the case before a Grand Jury.
A CONCERNED FRIEND
The first exhibits in the case file reference 911 calls placed 24 hours earlier at 3:23 am to 911 in Dutchess County from an unidentified friend of Mr. Gordon in Poughkeepsie who called to alert police that the 28-year-old had appeared “very panicked” when he drove off in his 2010 Black Honda after Mr. Gordon asked the friend if he “looked possessed.”
The state’s timeline then advances to May 23, when Mr. Gordon first encountered a Red Bank police officer when he ran out of gas at Exit 91 on the Garden State Parkway at 3:13 a.m. New Jersey State Troopers also showed up during that road assistance call.
At 6:13 a.m. Mr. Gordon was pulled over at Exit 62 in Stafford by a NJ State Trooper and issued a ticket for speeding 101 miles per hour.
MINUTES A LIFETIME
At 6:26 a.m. at Exit 50 NJSP Sgt. Wetzel pulled over Mr. Gordon for allegedly speeding 110 miles per hour but “during the stop, Mr. Gordon’s vehicle became disabled in the left shoulder and Sgt. Wetzel called a tow truck,” according to the case file. “While they waited for the tow truck to arrive, Sgt. Wetzel asked Mr. Gordon if he would prefer to sit in the back seat of Sgt. Wetzel’s vehicle, and Mr. Gordon stated that he would.”
During that period the officer attempted to engage Mr. Gordon asking him if he felt alright or needed medical attention. He asked why Mr. Gordon was speeding and what he thought was wrong with his car. He also warned Mr. Gordon not to get out of the patrol car because where they were pulled over “was a very bad spot” in terms of traffic.
According to the official narrative, Mr. Gordon, who was not under arrest, stayed approximately 21 minutes inside Sgt. Wetzel’s vehicle, but exited after Sgt. Wetzel “attempted to offer him a mask, resulting in a confrontation with Sgt. Wetzel.”
On the video clip that covers when Mr. Gordon got out, the officer can be heard yelling “to stay in the fucking car” but a physical confrontation ensued, according to the state’s narrative after “Mr. Gordon attempted to enter the driver seat of Sgt. Wetzel’s vehicle on two occasions.”
The account continues. “After the first occasion, Sgt. Wetzel deployed oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray. After the second occasion, Sgt. Wetzel removed Mr. Gordon from the vehicle and, after a physical struggle on the left shoulder of the southbound Parkway, Sgt. Wetzel shot and killed Mr. Gordon with his service weapon. Sgt. Wetzel fired six times and then placed handcuffs on Mr. Gordon.”
The next time entry is 7:25 a.m., “when a State Trooper attempted to provide aid to Mr. Gordon but did not detect a pulse. Shortly thereafter, a second State Trooper attempted to administer aid. EMS arrived at the scene at approximately 7:28 a.m. and pronounced Mr. Gordon deceased.”
According to a one-page internal document in the released files, titled Information of Investigation In Progress, dated on May 29, Mr. Gordon was alleged to have engaged in “physical resistance” and attempts to take Sgt. Wetzel’s handgun and vehicle.
WHYY reported that Sgt. Wetzel was wearing a body microphone but was not wearing a body camera because the state is still in the process of procuring them for Troop D where he is assigned. NJ State Trooper Troops A, B, and C all have them.
BEHIND THE MASS MEDIA CURVE
William O. Wagstaff III, the attorney for Mr. Gordon’s family said he had not had the opportunity to review the released documents but was “outraged” by what he felt was the callous manner in which the Attorney General released the videos depicting Mr. Gordon’s demise without the family seeing them first.
On Sunday, the Attorney General issued a statement that they were “working quickly to finalize our initial investigation, and we anticipate publicly releasing all footage of the incident before the end of this week.”
Evidently, behind the scenes, the state was picking up the pace of disclosure to comply with the Attorney General’s Independent Prosecutor Directive that covers that records related to use-of-force investigations be released “to the public once the initial phase of the investigation is substantially complete, generally within 20 days.”
Initial news reports on the May 23 shooting were based on a very circumspect release by the Attorney General that omitted basic details like the name and the race of the victim as well as the name or race of the officer.
In the aftermath of the in-police-custody death of George Floyd on May 25, and Mr. Wagstaff’s pressing Mr. Grewal’s office for more information on the circumstances surrounding Mr. Gordon’s death, the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets picked up the story.
“Yesterday [Sunday] I objected to the notion that the family should on a half-days-notice, drop everything and stop planning the funeral to come convene at the AG’s office and watch Maurice’s last moments like they were going to the cinema with a bunch of strangers,” Mr. Wagstaff said. “You are going to email it to the press, but you are going to tell the family that they are going to watch their loved ones last moments in front of strangers, many of whom they believe are trying to cover up that he was murdered. That’s not going to happen.”
He was notified that the Attorney General would release the files and video by 3 p.m. on Monday.
Mr. Wagstaff said he immediately wrote back asking for the Attorney General not do the release “until I was able to share it with the family knowing that the family should have the ability to review it in private, process it and go through their emotions before it is disseminated to the public and they are forced to deal with comments and questions of other family members who are going to want to know what is going on.”
He said he got no response.
“And so, while planning his funeral, they start getting text messages letting them know the video has been released,” Mr. Wagstaff recounted. He said both Mr. Gordon’s mother and sister broke down crying.
“I am holding these women up in my arms because they are completely torn—you have millions of people, possibly even on YouTube watch the video of Maurice being killed before they had the opportunity to even view it,” he said.
FULLY NOTIFIED SAYS AG
In a statement in response to Mr. Wagstaff’s criticism, a spokesperson for the Attorney General said that officials had concluded on June 7 “the initial investigation was substantially complete, and so pursuant to AG Directive 2019-4, OPIA was required to promptly release the footage.”
Once that determination was made, officials contacted Mr. Wagstaff and invited the family to view the footage prior to its release but “the family’s attorney declined” and the spokesperson said officials followed up on Monday offering the family a link to the video prior to its public release.
“I can tell you at this point the family can’t get past getting justice for Maurice and they want to see that this officer is indicted,” Mr. Wagstaff said. “If you or I frankly had done what this officer did, we would be in jail right now waiting for them to empanel the Grand Jury. We would not be riding around as if nothing happened.”
For Mr. Wagstaff, the state’s case file and supporting exhibits raises more questions than it answers.
“The one thing I was able to see in my cursory review of the content of that folder was the videotape that purports to be the entire encounter is still missing twelve minutes so even now they are still not providing the entire video,” he said. “The portion of the video that I am sure that has the other officers that were dispatched to the scene, the conversations among those officers, and what if any first aid was given to Maurice at the scene.”
The family was in the process of getting Mr. Gordon’s body and will be conducting “an independent autopsy because at this point, I don’t think the State of New Jersey can be trusted,” Mr. Wagstaff said,
Plans for a Memorial service are underway.