A Bordentown Township police sergeant testified in federal court Wednesday that former Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr., on trial for an alleged hate-crime assault, struck a handcuffed black teenage suspect, but he could not provide a motive for the assault.
Sgt. Nathan Roohr’s testimony in U.S. District Court in Camden could prove crucial in the case against Nucera, who also has been charged with civil rights violations and lying to the FBI in the Sept. 1, 2016, incident at a Bordentown hotel. Prosecutors allege the assault was excessive force and racially motivated.
Roohr, under cross-examination by defense attorney Rocco Cipparone, did not offer race as a possible motive. He told a jury of seven women and five men: “I don’t know why he did it.”
He said that he saw Nucera grab Timothy Stroye, then 18, of Trenton, and slam his head into a doorjamb.
Veteran civil rights attorney Stanley King, who was in the courtroom as an observer, said the testimony “muddied" the prosecution’s case and was a victory for the defense.
“It comes down to credibility,” said King, who has handled police-brutality civil cases. “The issue is why he did it. That’s what makes it a hate crime. If this jury is not convinced that he did it but for the fact that he’s black, that’s a problem.”
Roohr, who secretly made 81 recordings of his former boss, is the prosecution’s star witness in the case that made headlines with allegations that Nucera regularly expressed racial animus against black people — casually using the N-word and comparing African Americans to ISIS.
In his second day of testimony, Roohr spent nearly five hours on the stand, mostly answering a barrage of questions from the defense.
Through his questioning, Cipparone painted a picture of a troubled police department, where officers, including Roohr, ran afoul of the law.
In 2005, Roohr was given a written reprimand for discharging his weapon in the backyard of his grandmother’s home in Westampton. Roohr acknowledged the incident after Cipparone showed him the reprimand. Roohr was also captured on a recording played in court Wednesday using disparaging remarks about women while conversing with another officer.
Cipparone also said Sgt. Anthony Biddle, then the only black officer on the force, was involved in a hit-and-run accident, charged with driving under the influence, and had his license suspended. Biddle also crashed a new police vehicle, totaling it, the lawyer said. Biddle did not respond to an email seeking comment.
At least six officers secretly recorded Nucera, and his second-in-command filed a complaint against the chief alleging misconduct.
The defense has contended that Nucera was disliked by his rank-and-file officers who were upset with his tough discipline and wanted him out as chief.
Roohr has said that he began recording Nucera after a 2015 incident and that he became increasingly alarmed by the chief’s hostility toward blacks in the predominantly white community just outside of Trenton. Nucera told him to use his K-9 to intimidate black spectators at high school basketball games, he said.
Roohr agreed with the defense during his testimony Wednesday that Nucera was never heard using racial slurs in the presence of blacks.
Cipparone pointed out inconsistencies in Roohr’s testimony two days prior during questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Lorber.
Roohr said he misspoke when he said Nucera struck Stroye with his right hand. He also acknowledged that he could have taken better booking photographs to document the swelling on the right side of Stroye’s face.
Furthermore, Nucera makes no admission on the recordings to roughing up Stroye, Cipparone has said.
Roohr is expected to wrap up his testimony Thursday.
Stroye has said that he could not identify the person who struck him because he had been pepper-sprayed. Police were sent to the Ramada Bordentown after hotel employees said Stroye and his girlfriend, 16, were swimming in the pool and had not paid their bill.
Lorber notified U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler on Tuesday that a subpoena had been issued for Stroye, but no decision has been made on whether he will testify. Cipparone said he has not decided whether he will call Stroye.
Stroye, now 19, has a juvenile record and two felony convictions for aggravated assault in 2017 and was sentenced to six months in jail and theft in 2018, according to a filing in the case. Since the Nucera case, he has been convicted of four misdemeanors in Pennsylvania for passing bad checks, access device fraud, unauthorized use of a vehicle, and misbranding of a controlled substance.
“He’s a wild card,” said King. “Neither side probably wants to call him.”