A New Jersey police chief secretly captured on tape saying blacks are “like ISIS” and deserve to die will head to trial in federal court this week on hate-crime charges for allegedly slamming a handcuffed black teenager against a door during an arrest.
Frank M. Nucera Jr., the former police chief of Bordentown Township, is accused of hate crimes and assault in a case that rocked the small South Jersey community just outside Trenton and made international headlines.
Federal authorities say Nucera, who is white, had “a significant history of making racist comments concerning African Americans,” spoke about joining a firing squad to mow them down, and used police dogs to intimidate black spectators at high school basketball games.
The charges stem from a Sept. 1, 2016, incident in which prosecutors say Nucera attacked a handcuffed black suspect in police custody in the Burlington County town. After the assault, authorities say, he made a series of racist remarks that were secretly recorded by an officer in his department at the police station.
His trial begins Monday with jury selection in federal court in Camden. Opening arguments are expected Friday before U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler. The trial is expected to last about two to three weeks.
Kugler has held numerous hearings with both sides and ruled on several motions to set the stage for the legal drama that will play out. They include the attire for law enforcement witnesses and spectators and a laundry list of questions for prospective jurors — from their reading habits to their views on race.
The prosecution plans to use more than 100 hours of recorded conversations in which Nucera repeatedly is heard using racial slurs. In one, Nucera, 62, is heard saying, "These [N-word] are like ISIS, they have no value. They should line them all up and mow 'em down. I’d like to be on the firing line, I could do it.”
Bordentown Township Sgt. Nathan Roohr, who has admitted to secretly recording his former boss, will be among the officers expected to testify against Nucera. Roohr said he was alarmed by the chief’s hostility toward blacks in the predominantly white community and recorded Nucera for nine months.
His testimony and the recordings will pose an uphill battle for the defense to overcome, said Stanley King, a Woodbury civil rights lawyer who has filed several wrongful-death lawsuits against police in South Jersey. He is not involved in this case.
King said the case differs from most cases alleging police brutality because Roohr ignored the “blue wall of silence.” Roohr, a K-9 officer, joined the department in 2003. His identity, kept secret by prosecutors in their criminal complaint against Nucera in October 2017, eventually was revealed in court documents filed by the defense.
“It’s going to be a powerful testimony coming from that officer. Why would you not believe him?” King said. “It gives a lot of credence in a case like this.”
Defense attorney Rocco Cipparone, who tried unsuccessfully to block jurors from hearing what he called “rogue recordings,” acknowledged that the recordings contain “inflammatory language.” Nucera, however, makes no admission on the recordings to roughing up the suspect, he said.
In New Jersey, it is not illegal to secretly record a conversation in which the person is taking part. Cipparone has said that six other officers in the department also taped Nucera beginning in 2014.
”Clearly, it’s an unusual case. Rarely do you see the blue wall of silence fractured,” said Frank Pezzella, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who has done research on hate crimes. “For another police officer to tape a brother police officer like that, obviously he had some serious concerns.”
A 34-year law enforcement veteran, Nucera was a fixture in the community about 40 miles northeast of Philadelphia. He was a longtime resident, a law enforcement officer who climbed the ranks to the top spot when the scandal erupted.
“He’s looking forward to his day in court,” Cipparone said in an interview. “This has been a stressful time since he was indicted.”
Nucera resigned from the 25-member police department and a dual role as the administrator of the township of 11,000 in January 2017 after learning he was being investigated. He was also charged with making false statements to the FBI.
He was paid more than $150,000 annually as chief and now receives an annual pension of $105,992, according to public records. Nucera is free on bond. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
Nucera was succeeded by Brian Pesce, a former captain in the department who filed a formal misconduct complaint against Nucera in 2016 that contained allegations by Roohr and other officers, records show. Pesce has tried to restore public confidence by holding town-hall meetings, providing additional police training, and hiring minority officers.
Authorities say Nucera had a mean streak against blacks that went unreported and unnoticed for years until the incident at a Ramada Hotel in Bordentown that sparked the federal probe.
Police were dispatched to the hotel after Timothy Stroye, then 18, of Trenton, and his girlfriend were accused of not paying their bill. He was pepper-sprayed and placed in handcuffs, and was being led to the top of a hotel stairwell by two township officers when Nucera arrived, authorities said.
Nucera approached Stroye from behind and “slammed his head into a door jamb,” and there was a loud thud, according to federal authorities. An officer who witnessed the incident said Stroye was “shouting at the officers” but was “not kicking or struggling,” authorities said.
Afterward, Nucera told one of the officers who witnessed the confrontation that he and numerous other officers had responded to a call for backup because there were “six unruly [expletive N-words]” at the hotel, authorities said.
Nucera was also captured on a cell phone recording made by Roohr saying: “It would have been nice if that f— dog could have come up. I’m telling you. You’d have seen two f— [N-word] stop dead in their tracks.”
Cipparone has questioned Roohr motives in recording Nucera and suggested there was a concerted effort to get Nucera off the force by officers dissatisfied with his overtime policies and disciplinary actions. Nucera’s son, Frank III, is a traffic sergeant on the force.
In a November 2017 interview with The Inquirer, Stroye said he had gone to the Ramada with his girlfriend, 16, her aunt and uncle, and her three young cousins for a birthday celebration. The adults had paid for a two-bedroom suite so everyone could spend the night, but Stroye said that the next day the hotel clerk mistakenly thought he had not paid the bill.
Stroye told of a harrowing encounter with Nucera and the officers. The officers had placed him on the hallway floor when he noticed four backup officers, including Nucera, coming toward him, he said. Two had their hands on their guns, though neither drew his weapon.
“I thought they were going to shoot me,” he said.
Stroye told police that the couldn’t identify the person who struck him during the melee and had difficulty seeing because he had been pepper-sprayed. He said he recalled hearing someone say “chief” during the incident.
Stroye was charged with resisting arrest, assault on an officer, and theft, but a judge later dismissed the charges. His whereabouts are unknown.
In a court filing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Lorber said she had not decided whether Stroye will take the stand. Stroye 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. Lorber declined comment on the coming trial.
Earlier this month, Kugler granted a motion by prosecutors to bar law enforcement officers from wearing their police uniforms while on the witness stand or sitting in the courtroom. Lorber argued that the presence of identifiable officers “may unduly influence or intimidate the jury.”
Prospective jurors are expected to spend Monday completing a voluminous 27-page questionnaire that asks questions such as the last book they read and whether they watch or read legal dramas or thrillers.
About two-thirds of the 105 questions specifically center around the case. There are questions that seek potential jurors’ opinions about race, discrimination, racial slurs, race relations in the United States and police, and the use of excessive force.
“Would you have difficulty being a completely impartial juror in a trial that involves words used by a person that are racially derogatory, such as the `N-word,' or other racially derogatory words?" one question asked.