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Ex-police chief in South Jersey had 'history' of racist conduct, but (almost) nobody knew

The charges raised questions about how the alleged behavior of the 34-year veteran of the force went unnoticed or unreported.

A Bordentown Township Police patrol rides along Farnsworth Ave in Bordentown City New Jersey on Friday November 3,2017.
A Bordentown Township Police patrol rides along Farnsworth Ave in Bordentown City New Jersey on Friday November 3,2017.Read moreMark C. Psoras / For the Inquirer

Former Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank M. Nucera Jr. is a fixture in his South Jersey community: a longtime resident, a law enforcement officer who climbed the ranks to the top spot, township administrator, businessman. He used to work at the local supermarket, too, and frequently stood security at the high school football games at his alma mater.

The many hats Nucera wore put him in frequent contact with residents and motorists passing through the suburban community of 11,000 about 40 miles northeast of Philadelphia.

Then Nucera abruptly retired in January, and federal authorities last week cast him in a light that stunned many: In a criminal complaint they said he had a dark side — a mean streak against blacks, with a "significant history" of making racist comments.

In a civil rights case that drew national attention, Nucera was charged with a hate crime for allegedly attacking a handcuffed black teen, spewing racial slurs afterward.

Among the things federal authorities allege he has said over time: that blacks are "like ISIS, they have no value," and that he could join a firing squad to mow them down. He also deployed police dogs in ways to intimidate black spectators at basketball games, authorities said.

The charges raised questions about how the alleged behavior of the 34-year veteran of the police force, chief since 2006, went unnoticed or unreported.

Civil rights leaders from across the region said they had not received any complaints against him.

Details emerging depict an enigmatic man who was active in his community and well-liked in many circles, but who alarmed some who worked most closely with him.

Recordings made secretly by a fellow officer of Nucera's alleged rants sparked the federal probe of his allegedly racially motivated use of excessive force against the teenage suspect in 2016.

"There is no way that, in 30 years, this was the first time. It could have been that blue wall of silence," said Stanley King, a Woodbury civil rights lawyer who has filed several lawsuits against police departments in South Jersey. "Very seldom will they speak out against another officer."

While one officer who witnessed the alleged assault exposed Nucera, the federal complaint said another who saw him slam the head of the African American suspect against a door jamb did not report it "because he was afraid of retaliation" by the chief.

Nucera lives with his wife, Leslie, a registered nurse, and over the years has owned N.S.C. Inc., and apparently other businesses, according to databases and other records. The corporate charter of Trenton-based N.S.C., an auto-parts supplier, was voided by the state in 1993 for failure to pay taxes, according to Division of Revenue and Enterprise Services records. It was not clear whether Nucera is still operating any other businesses.

Dabbling in a lavish lifestyle, the couple purchased a $1.35 million property in Nags Head, N.C.,  in 2004, then sold it in 2009 for $1 million after they had several large judgments levied against them, records show.

Their son, Frank Nucera III, is a sergeant in the 25-member department.

Bordentown City Mayor James Lynch said he knows the former chief personally and had dealt with him both in his capacity as police chief and as township administrator.  "I didn't know. … I'm extremely disappointed," said Lynch, who is white.

The charges stem from the Sept. 1, 2016, events during which Nucera allegedly attacked the handcuffed black suspect who was already in police control inside the Bordentown Ramada. Nucera made a series of anti-black remarks after the assault, authorities said. The remarks were recorded by an officer who was alarmed by the chief's hostility toward blacks in the predominantly white community.

On Friday, a clerk at the hotel's front desk recalled what happened, but said she had not actually witnessed the attack. A dimly lit doorway and flight of metal steps painted green led downstairs from the second floor, where the scuffle occurred.

The 18-year-old in custody was accused of not paying his hotel 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. The chief approached the suspect from behind and "slammed his head into a door jamb," according to an affidavit filed by the FBI.

In an incident in 2015 involving another African American suspect, whom Nucera suspected of slashing the tires of a police vehicle, the chief allegedly confided in an officer that "these n—s 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 squad, I could do it."

His alleged animus toward blacks was expressed in various ways, authorities said. Nucera instructed K-9 officers to bring the canines to certain basketball games at Bordentown Regional High School and position their vehicles at the gym entrance to intimidate black patrons, according to the complaint. A similar tactic was used at an apartment complex, authorities said.

Willingboro High basketball coach Jeff Haddock said he remembers an extra large police presence when his mostly black team played at Bordentown in recent years. But Haddock, who is black, didn't recall seeing K-9 dogs and didn't get any complaints from his team's fans.

"It was strange because I remember scouting them in a previous game and there weren't nearly as many police there as for our game," Haddock recalled. "It struck me as strange because it's not like it's a huge rivalry game, like Camden-Wilson. But you just keep your mouth shut and deal with it. We went right from the bus into the gym so I wasn't walking around outside."

Former Pemberton coach Roy Heck said dogs were brought out whenever there were problems outside of the gym. But that did not affect his team, he said. "Anytime there are problems we keep the kids in the locker room. The fans had to deal with it outside."

School Superintendent Edward J. Forsthoffer III said by email that he could recall only one game where K-9s were brought in because of an altercation involving fans at a previous game. He said the district has a school resource officer and has a "terrific relationship" with the police department.

He said he was not interviewed by the FBI.

School board member Salvatore Schiano doesn't recall seeing dogs "or a lot of police" either at the basketball games he has attended. "I remember seeing two [officers] at the door, but no more," he said. And in his dealings with Nucera, he said he had not detected any racial animosity.

Nucera's sudden retirement left the public mystified. He stepped down as both police chief and township administrator, apparently after learning of the federal investigation. Mayor Steve Benowitz announced Nucera's retirement but said the township could not discuss details because it was a personnel matter, according to the minutes of the township council's meeting.

Nucera, who appeared before a federal magistrate Wednesday and was released on $500,000 bond, receives an annual pension of $105,992.76, public records show.  If convicted, he faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.

No one answered the door Friday at Nucera's custom-built brick house with a neat lawn. Two cars were parked in the driveway.  A few lawn signs in the area read, "Hate is not welcome here."

Harvey Conway, 78, who is black and a lifelong resident and handyman in Bordentown City, said he hoped people  would rally against racist incidents.

"Everyone needs to get together more often, the different people in the world, and hang together. …  We need to hug each other, not do this stuff."

Staff writers Phil Anastasia and Mark Fazlollah contributed to this article.