According to NJ state officials, a state grand jury has voted not to file any criminal charges at the conclusion of its deliberations regarding the death of Mr. Maurice Gordon, 28, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who died when a New Jersey State Police Trooper fired his service weapon at Mr. Gordon on May 23, 2020 on the Garden State Parkway in Bass River.
The Trooper was identified as Staff Sergeant Randall Wetzel of Troop “D” of the New Jersey State Police, say officials.
According to authorities, a fatal police encounter was investigated by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) and presented to New Jersey residents called to serve on the grand jury in accordance with Directive 2019-4, the “Independent Prosecutor Directive” issued in 2019.
Officials say in July 2021, OPIA issued standard operating procedures (“SOPs”) to ensure that these grand jury presentations are conducted in a neutral, objective manner, and with appropriate transparency regarding the process, consistent with the Independent Prosecutor Directive.
According to authorities, the investigation of this fatal police encounter included interviews of witnesses, collection of forensic evidence, review of video footage, and autopsy results from the medical examiner. After hearing testimony and evidence from the investigation, the grand jury concluded its deliberations yesterday May 16, and voted “no bill,” meaning the grand jury determined that the actions of the Trooper who shot Mr. Gordon should not result in charges against him.
According to the investigation, at approximately 6:28 a.m. SSGT. Wetzel initiated a motor vehicle stop of Mr. Gordon near exit 50, in Bass River, because Mr. Gordon was speeding, traveling in excess of 100 miles an hour at 6:26 a.m.
Officials say Mr. Gordon pulled his vehicle to the left shoulder of the Southbound lanes, which is the center median of a six-lane highway. Mr. Gordon provided his driver’s license and, when requested to pull his vehicle to a safer spot, told SSGT. Wetzel his vehicle would not start. In response, SSGT. Wetzel instructed Mr. Gordon to stay in his vehicle and told Mr. Gordon he would call for a tow truck.
Officials say when SSGT. Wetzel returned to the trooper vehicle, he radioed for an expedited tow because Mr. Gordon’s vehicle was partially in the lane of travel. He then took steps to issue various motor vehicle summonses. As SSGT. Wetzel was doing so, Mr. Gordon opened the door to his vehicle and attempted to exit his vehicle.
According to authorities, SSGT. Wetzel told Gordon not to get out his vehicle. SSGT. Wetzel explained to Mr. Gordon that he had stopped in a dangerous portion of the highway. Moments later, however, Mr. Gordon again opened his door, this time exiting his vehicle with personal belongings in his hand, including his keys. This prompted SSGT. Wetzel to invite Mr. Gordon to sit in the rear of the trooper vehicle for safety purposes.
Authorities say that while in the trooper vehicle awaiting the arrival of a tow truck, SSGT. Wetzel asked Mr. Gordon a number of questions about his destination and if he would like to be dropped off somewhere. During this time, Mr. Gordon unbuckled his seatbelt and attempted to leave the trooper vehicle. He initially complied with SSGT. Wetzel’s instruction to re-buckle his seat belt.
At approximately 7:06 a.m., SSGT. Wetzel asked Mr. Gordon if he wanted a COVID mask. When Mr. Gordon indicated he did, SSGT. Wetzel lowered the trooper vehicle’s rear window and walked to the passenger side rear door to provide him with a mask.
At that time, Mr. Gordon suddenly forced his way out of the trooper vehicle, and engaged in a physical struggle with SSGT. Wetzel, who issued multiple verbal commands. Mr. Gordon and SSGT. Wetzel momentarily stopped struggling at the rear, exterior of the trooper vehicle, where SSGT. Wetzel again ordered Mr. Gordon to get back in the car.
State officials say Mr. Gordon walked to the rear passenger door of the trooper vehicle, but instead of re-entering, he closed its rear door and proceeded to enter the trooper vehicle’s driver’s seat. SSGT. Wetzel physically removed Mr. Gordon from the driver’s seat while issuing multiple verbal commands and pulling Mr. Gordon to the rear, exterior of the trooper vehicle.
There, SSGT. Wetzel deployed Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) Spray. Mr. Gordon again ran to, and sat in, the trooper vehicle’s driver’s seat, this time closing the door and attempted to start the vehicle, say officials.
Again, SSGT. Wetzel physically removed Mr. Gordon and pulled him to the rear, exterior of the trooper vehicle. According to SSGT Wetzel, during this struggle, Mr. Gordon while on SSGT Wetzel’s back, attempted to gain control of SSGT. Wetzel’s gun, say authorities.
According to authorities, Mr. Gordon used both hands and yanked on the trooper’s gun, bypassing the holster’s retention hood, which is designed to prevent access to the weapon by anyone other than the holster wearer. SSGT. Wetzel struggled with Mr. Gordon for control of the gun and then fired six rounds at Mr. Gordon, striking him five times. SSGT. Wetzel called for medical aid immediately. Other troopers arrived shortly afterwards and secured the scene.
Officials say paramedics, trained in advanced life support, arrived, rendered aid and assessed Mr. Gordon’s condition. Paramedics conveyed their physical observations about Mr. Gordon and the lack of vital signs on a cardiac monitor to a doctor, and Mr. Gordon was pronounced deceased at the scene.
According to officials, on the day prior to the shooting incident, May 22, 2020 an individual called 911 and told a Dutchess County, New York, dispatcher that he was concerned because Mr. Gordon appeared to be in a panicked state. Police in upstate New York sought the whereabouts of Mr. Gordon to check on his well-being but did not locate him.
The investigation revealed that in the early morning hours of May 23, 2020, Mr. Gordon drove from upstate New York to Connecticut, and then into New Jersey.
According to the investigation, prior to the shooting, between approximately 3:13 a.m. and 6:13 a.m., members of the New Jersey State Police had multiple contacts with Mr. Gordon on the Garden State Parkway.
- In Brick, at approximately 3:13 a.m., an off-duty Red Bank Police Officer driving a police vehicle pulled up near Mr. Gordon’s car, which had run out of gas and was stopped in the middle lane of the southbound lanes. The Red Bank officer called a tow truck. A short time later, an off-duty State Trooper driving to work in his personal car pulled over to assist Mr. Gordon and the Red Bank officer. The off-duty State Trooper provided assistance and then departed. A short time after the off-duty Trooper departed the scene, a second, on-duty State Trooper pulled up to assist Mr. Gordon and the Red Bank officer.
- Near Waretown, at approximately 4:54 a.m. on May 23, 2020, a different State Trooper pulled up behind Mr. Gordon’s car, which was stopped in the left lane southbound near Exit 72. The Trooper called a tow truck, set out flares, and then departed. After the State Trooper departed, but before the tow truck arrived, a civilian vehicle pulled alongside Mr. Gordon’s car and the occupants offered Mr. Gordon a ride to a nearby Wawa convenience store to get gas. Afterwards, Mr. Gordon returned to his vehicle and continued driving southbound on the Garden State Parkway.
- Near Stafford, at approximately 6:13 a.m., a State Trooper stopped Mr. Gordon for speeding. The Trooper issued a ticket to Mr. Gordon, who had allegedly been driving 101 miles per hour. Mr. Gordon then proceeded on southbound.
According to authorities, 2019 law, P.L. 2019, c. 1, requires the Attorney General’s Office to conduct investigations of a person’s death that occurs during an encounter with a law enforcement officer acting in the officer’s official capacity or while the decedent is in custody. It requires that all such investigations be presented to a grand jury to determine if the evidence supports the return of an indictment against the officer or officers involved.
After considering the evidence, testimony from the OPIA investigation, and instructions on the legal standards, including whether the officer’s actions were legally justified, the state grand jury determined that no criminal charges should be brought against the officer. An officer may use deadly force in New Jersey when the officer reasonably believes it is immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person from imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm, say authorities.
Officials say a conflicts check was conducted pursuant to the Independent Prosecutor Directive and no actual or potential conflict of interest was found involving any individual assigned to the investigation. Prior to presentation to the grand jury, the investigation was reviewed by OPIA Executive Director Thomas Eicher in accordance with the policies and procedures established for these presentations in the SOPs.
At the conclusion of these investigations, pursuant to the Independent Prosecutor Directive and SOPs, OPIA determines whether any principal should be referred to the appropriate law enforcement agency for administrative review in accordance with the AG’s Internal Affairs Policy & Procedures. OPIA monitors any resulting review and takes such actions as are necessary to ensure that the review is completed in a timely fashion, and that appropriate actions are taken based on the results of the review.
The Independent Prosecutor Directive is posted on the Attorney General’s website at this link: https://www.nj.gov/oag/dcj/agguide/directives/ag-Directive-2019-4.pdf
Further information about how fatal police encounters are investigated in New Jersey under the directive is found at this link: https://www.njoag.gov/independent-prosecutor/