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Former N.J. police chief pleads not guilty to hate crimes; his lawyer calls evidence 'rogue recordings'

The attorney for former Bordentown Police Chief Frank Nucera, who is charged with hate crimes, said he would challenge the secret tape recordings of Nucera as possibly incomplete or edited.

A Bordentown Township Police patrol car rides along Farnsworth Avenue in Bordentown City shortly after the hate crime charges were announced against former Chief Frank Nucera Jr.
A Bordentown Township Police patrol car rides along Farnsworth Avenue in Bordentown City shortly after the hate crime charges were announced against former Chief Frank Nucera Jr.Read moreMark C. Psoras

After a former South Jersey police chief pleaded not guilty to hate crime charges in federal court in Camden on Thursday, his lawyer said he may challenge recordings that allegedly capture his client comparing African Americans to ISIS and offering to "be on the firing squad" to shoot them.

The charges stem from a September 2016 incident in which former Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank M. Nucera Jr. allegedly assaulted a handcuffed black suspect and later made a series of chillingly detailed racist remarks.

Authorities said Nucera's sentiments alarmed a fellow officer, who secretly recorded them.

Rocco Cipparone, Nucera's lawyer, said he plans to analyze the 100 hours of recordings made covertly by at least one Bordentown Township officer.

The former chief, who abruptly retired in January amid a federal investigation of his conduct, ignored a request for comment after he entered his not-guilty plea before District Judge Robert B. Kugler in Camden. "Not guilty" were the only words he uttered during the 20-minute proceeding.

In court, Nucera chewed gum and stared straight ahead at the judge. He wore a rust-orange shirt and brown pants, and brought a zip-up jacket.

Nucera, 60, was released to his home in Bordentown on $500,000 in unsecured bonds after his arrest last month. He faces up to 25 years in prison and $750,000 in fines if convicted of charges of hate-crime assault, a civil rights violation against the suspect, and lying to the FBI, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Lorber.  He was indicted this month.

Cipparone said he would review the recorded statements that were provided by federal authorities. "The vast majority of them were not done under the direction of law enforcement," he said, and suggested they were "rogue recordings."

Cipparone questioned why someone would record the chief on their own and what the motivation might be. The attorney also suggested the statements could have been taken out of context.

"I don't know if they stopped or started it, or recorded it continuously. … None of those controls were in place," he said. He also said that "what appears to be indelicate comments" were made at the very end of the recordings, and he questioned whether there was improper prodding or editing of the remarks.

Among the comments on tape about African Americans, Nucera allegedly said: "They should line them all up and mow 'em down. I'd like to be on the firing squad, I could do it." Federal authorities said Nucera also instructed officers to use police dogs to intimidate black spectators at high school basketball games.

"The tone in which [Nucera] conducted himself and in what's charged is one of the most disturbing and disgusting events I've seen in over 20 years in law enforcement," acting U.S. Attorney for New Jersey William E. Fitzpatrick said after the arrest was announced last month.

Officials in the community said they were surprised to learn of the charges, saying the 34-year career officer had not openly displayed any hostility.

At the arraignment, Kugler set deadlines for completing various trial preparations, including discovery, which could effectively push the trial date into the summer at the earliest.

In the Sept. 1, 2016, incident, Nucera allegedly attacked Timothy Stroye, then 18, of Trenton, who was already in police custody inside the Bordentown Ramada hotel. The chief, who arrived in response to a call for backup, slammed the suspect's head into a metal door jamb as he was being escorted by two officers out of the hotel to a police cruiser, authorities said.

Stroye's arrest began over a dispute over an unpaid bill for a room at the Ramada. In an interview, Stroye said he had been Maced, handcuffed, and placed on the floor of the hotel by two officers when several backup officers arrived, some with their hands on their holstered guns. "I thought they were going to shoot me," he said.

Stroye did not know that one of them was the chief but recalled one officer had slammed his head into the door jamb at the top of the stairs in the hotel, shoved him a second time at the bottom of the stairs, and hit him as he was being placed into the police cruiser.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said Stroye was not a threat and was not "kicking or struggling" when Nucera allegedly struck him, causing injuries.

Cipparone said his client "adamantly denies" assaulting Stroye and also said there are no video or audio recordings of the alleged assault.

"It's hard to fathom that this kind of racial animosity would surface at the end of his career," Cipparone said.