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Camden cop blames trauma for lewd act at Starbucks

After a drug dealer tried to kill Benito Gonzalez in 2011, leaving him alive only because the gun jammed, the veteran Camden police officer began a downward spiral.

Benito Gonzalez said he did not remember the incident that led to charges that he exposed himself in a Starbucks. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )
Benito Gonzalez said he did not remember the incident that led to charges that he exposed himself in a Starbucks. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )Read more

After a drug dealer tried to kill Benito Gonzalez in 2011, leaving him alive only because the gun jammed, the veteran Camden police officer began a downward spiral.

Gonzalez, the decorated supervisor of the narcotics unit, said he drank heavily and became suicidal. Psychologists diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, according to medical evaluations provided by his attorney.

One afternoon, before his three children returned home from school, Gonzalez said he took a gun out of a locked box, put it in his mouth, and nearly pulled the trigger.

The stress built up for nearly three years, Gonzalez said, until he walked into a Starbucks in Cherry Hill in May 2014 while off-duty. There - in an incident Gonzalez says he does not remember because he was intoxicated and in a blackout state linked to his trauma - police said that Gonzalez exposed his genitals and touched himself.

"I've never done anything like that before in my life," Gonzalez told The Inquirer this week, before an administrative hearing Wednesday in which department officials are expected to recommend his dismissal. "I don't know what it was. I wasn't in the right state of mind."

At stake at the hearing is an accidental-disability pension of nearly $69,000, or two-thirds of Gonzalez's $104,070 salary. If Gonzalez is terminated, he cannot apply for the pension, which law enforcement officials can receive after suffering emotional or physical disabilities from an incident.

Gonzalez's attorney, Stuart Alterman, has asked the department to briefly reinstate Gonzalez from suspension without pay, so Gonzalez can file the pension paperwork and move on with his life.

"All he wants to do is retire," Alterman said.

Gonzalez's downfall from one of the top positions at the Camden County Police Department stunned his family, friends, and coworkers. They point to a man who loved his job and received numerous commendations from Chief Scott Thomson, who promoted Gonzalez from sergeant to lieutenant in October 2013.

Thomson did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Gonzalez's troubles - "demons," his wife called them - started on June 22, 2011, when he dived to the ground, tearing his hamstrings, as Adam Reed, 32, fired a .45-caliber handgun at him. Reed, who was later sentenced to 66 years in prison, then pointed the gun at Gonzalez's head and pulled the trigger. That's when the weapon malfunctioned.

"I just saw my life completely over," recalled Gonzalez, 46, who became a Camden officer in 1998. "I thought I was dead."

Gonzalez said he tried hiding his problems from coworkers and family afterward, using work as a way to escape the flashbacks of him staring down the barrel of a gun.

"You didn't want anyone to think that you're weak and can't do the job anymore," Gonzalez said.

Some of Gonzalez's coworkers, however, noticed something about him was off.

"We all pretty much knew there was something wrong," Orlando Perez, a retired Camden police officer who worked and grew up with Gonzalez. "I asked him a few times to get help. He was like, 'Well no, I'm fine, I'm fine.' "

Gonzalez says he did try to seek help from the city of Camden shortly after the incident. But he said the city's Office of Risk Management denied his request to see a psychologist.

Robert Corrales, Camden's business administrator, said Tuesday, "We do not agree with the characterization of events as represented by Mr. Gonzalez. However, we cannot comment further since there are open legal matters."

About three months after his near-death experience, Gonzalez said he instead saw a psychologist his attorney recommended.

Howard Adelman wrote in his September 2011 evaluation that he believed Gonzalez was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which other specialists also concluded in later evaluations.

"Detective Gonzalez requires psychotherapy, along with various methods of stress management," Adelman wrote. "He has to decide whether he can continue his career with the Camden Police Department."

Ultimately, Gonzalez decided to stay.

In the following years, he said, his fear of the streets grew worse. He once went to a hospital during a shift because he was shaking and could not breathe, he said. Doctors told him it was a panic attack.

At home, Gonzalez became increasingly withdrawn from his wife of nearly two decades, and his son, now 16, and two daughters, currently 15 and 8.

"He couldn't separate work from his home life," said Lara Gonzalez, 45, recalling that her husband's work phone constantly buzzed. "They didn't give him a chance to. They were constantly bombarding him with issues and problems."

On May 7 last year, not long after he considered suicide, Benito Gonzalez, in plainclothes, walked into the Starbucks on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, where he said he regularly stopped on his way to and from work.

Gonzalez said he remembers little of that day, other than drinking at lunchtime before he went to the Starbucks. The next thing he remembers, he said, is pulling into his neighborhood in Sewell around 10 p.m.

In the days afterward, Cherry Hill police posted a surveillance camera image on their Facebook page of the suspect - who had not yet been identified as Gonzalez - walking into the coffee shop. "This male is wanted for questioning for a suspicious incident that occurred at the Starbucks," the post said.

Gonzalez said he did not know he had been at the Starbucks until May 19, when Cherry Hill police called him and said he was being charged.

Last month, a judge found him guilty of the offense.

Gonzalez says he had received treatment for addiction and stress in Florida and at another facility in Westampton, and has remained sober for nearly a year.

But Gonzalez says he cries frequently. His wife says she worries that the family may have to move from its two-story house because of their tight financial situation.

So Benito Gonzalez looks at what happened in Starbucks in the best way he can.

"If it wasn't for this incident - as bad as this incident is - it probably saved my life," he said.

"I'll have to live with this for the rest of my life. But guess what. I'm alive."