ATLANTIC CITY and Wildwood are both neon-draped resorts where thrills and entertainment abound, where luck can change with the spin of a roulette wheel, and love can blossom on a Ferris wheel.
Last month, however, a supermarket manager from North Bergen and a college student from Edison were visiting the famous resorts and both died in sudden explosions of violence not far from those roulette and Ferris wheels.
Casino executives, police and elected officials up and down the Jersey Shore say the tragedies are a reminder that beaches and sunny skies do not equal paradise.
"It still haunts me that a young man died on my watch," said Al Brannen, Wildwood's commissioner of public safety. "It's a tragedy, but it could have happened anywhere."
Shore populations fluctuate during the summer months and the New Jersey State Police separate "resort municipalities" from other towns when compiling their annual Uniform Crime Report. In the Wildwoods, Ocean City and other Shore towns, police departments respond to the summer rush by hiring temporary officers, often dubbed "rent-a-cops" by tourists and locals alike.
According to the 2008 UCR, Wildwood had 71 violent crimes - the most of any resort. Lower Township, in Cape May County, had 39 violent crimes, and Ocean City had 31. There were few violent crimes, if any, in smaller seaside towns such as Cape May, Avalon, Stone Harbor, and Longport.
Ocean City Police Lt. Steven Ang said tourists do things in his town, dubbed "America's Greatest Family Resort," that they would never do at home.
"I can't tell you how many people don't lock their cars or doors down here or bring all their belongings to the beach and leave them unattended when they go in the water," he said. "They're usually shocked when something happens."
Colton Finney, 19, a college student from Middlesex County, said he and his friends weren't naive about Wildwood when they booked rooms there last month while playing in a nearby golf tournament.
"We knew it had troubled areas, but we didn't go there. We all knew it could get bad and there could be fights sometimes," said Finney. "We were just walking up to the boardwalk, though."
Finney; Vincent DeSario, 19, of Edison, and another friend left the Bolero Motel on Atlantic Avenue to check out Wildwood's boardwalk. One of the three tripped over a curb on the way and Alberto Martinez, a homeless man, just happened to be riding by on his bicycle while the men laughed.
Martinez thought the teens were laughing at him and struck DeSario in the back of the head as hard as he could, Finney said.
"It was pretty bad right away," Finney said of his friend's injuries.
DeSario died on May 24 at a hospital in Atlantic City, and Martinez's aggravated-assault charges were upgraded to murder.
Meanwhile, authorities in Atlantic County were busy searching for Martin Caballero, 47, a supermarket manager from North Bergen who vanished from the Trump Taj Mahal on May 21. Caballero had come to Atlantic City to celebrate his daughter's 22nd birthday. After dropping his wife and daughters off, Caballero drove his beloved Lincoln MKS into the Taj's parking garage.
Following him were a lifelong criminal and his alleged accomplice. Authorities say Craig Arno, 44, of Atlantic City, and Jessica Kisby, 24, of Egg Harbor Township, had an altercation with Caballero in the garage. Surveillance cameras captured both cars leaving. Caballero's body was found Sunday on a farm in Hamilton Township, and Kisby and Arno are charged with murder.
Atlantic City, which has a year-round population of nearly 40,000 and all the crime problems associated with urban areas, is not counted as a resort municipality on the UCR. There were 671 violent crimes there in 2008, including 11 homicides.
Last May, Ray Kot, a shift manager at the Trump Taj Mahal, was shot to death inside the casino by a customer. In January 2009, an elderly man was beaten and robbed in the Taj's parking garage and an elderly couple was robbed and beaten at Caesars a month later.
During an afternoon news conference on Thursday, Atlantic County Prosecutor Ted Housel stressed that Caballero's slaying was a random act.
"However, this crime is not indicative of a pattern of crime in Atlantic City. It is one of those things that happens once in a generation or in a decade," he said.
Atlantic City police declined an interview but in an e-mail, reiterated similar advice for tourists that officials in other shore towns mentioned - use common sense, be aware of your surroundings, and trust your instincts. The department also recommended not carrying large sums of money in the gambling meccas and to stay in well-lit areas.
Several Atlantic City casinos, including the Trump, either declined to comment on security issues or did not return requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for Harrah's Entertainment, which owns Harrah's, Bally's, Showboat and Caesars casinos in Atlantic City, said by e-mail that their security teams regularly upgrade and check their security procedures as needed. Citing security concerns, however, Harrah's Entertainment would not discuss how many surveillance cameras it used or how widespread the coverage was.
Detective Sgt. Robert Glennan, of the State Police's Casino Investigation Unit, said there are plainclothes troopers on the gaming floor of every casino, 24 hours a day. He said casinos do an "adequate" job of protecting customer from harm.
"It could be better. It could be improved, but right now it seems as if we can handle what we have," he said.
Most crimes inside the casinos, Glennan said, are thefts, primarily from people not paying attention at gaming tables or even gamblers who've fallen asleep at slot machines.