"I think it's a personal tragedy of immense proportions," said Jim Lynch, assistant prosecutor in the county narcotics unit. "I would hope that all his accomplishments will not be overlooked because of this. . . . It's a tremendous shock for us here in the office. Of all the people I've known, no one loved his job as much as Sam."
"I don't know anybody who loves the job the way he does," echoed Gloucester County Prosecutor Richard Hickey.
"I don't think this act was indicative of the way he ran his office or his philosophy of the job," Hickey added, baffled: "I have no idea why he did this."
John Stamler, Union County prosecutor and head of the statewide county prosecutors' association, called the incident "a true tragedy for our time."
And criminal defense lawyer Michael Pinsky of Haddonfield quoted Aristotle: " 'Everything in moderation.' . . . I guess sometimes you can like doing something too much. And it can become a compulsion."
That theory - that Asbell desperately wanted to be renamed prosecutor - was repeated over and over by officials when they talked about his admittance to the Carrier Foundation, a private psychiatric hospital in Belle Mead, Somerset County, after state authorities concluded he had faked a dramatic assassination attempt in Camden on New Year's Day.
"He was under a lot of pressure, probably generated by himself, to try and keep his job," said George J. Kemble, Pine Valley police chief and president of the Camden County Police Chiefs Association.
"We're going to miss one hell of a good man. . . . He loved his job to the point where it became an obsession, but no one would have suspected that he would take the action he did."
Allen A. Etish, president of the Camden County Bar Association - a post Asbell held in 1983-84 - issued a statement that described Asbell as "a deeply committed and professional attorney over the course of his career."
He continued: "We can only hope that with the aid of medical care he will repair the mental and emotional illness that allowed this tragic turn of events."
Outside Asbell's brick-and-stucco home in Cherry Hill's east side - Lilyan McCaughan, who lives across the street, called the outspoken, publicity-loving former prosecutor "our celebrity neighbor" - mail was piling up yesterday, and what had been a steady stream of police cars had thinned to a trickle.
"I've jogged with him. I've been with him, and I know him. So it's a very sad day for me," Assistant Attorney General James F. Mulvihill said only a few hours after he had taken over Asbell's post behind the oak desk in the Parkade Building across from the Camden City Hall.
Union County Prosecutor Stamler was likewise saddened, and baffled, by the rapid-fire changes for Asbell, who was elected in May as first vice president of the county prosecutors' group.
"He was the kind of guy you knew would do any job, or handle any critical mission that you asked him to do," Stamler said.
"Our fathers were very close friends. . . . They served as deputies attorney general in the '50s, working on the same cases," Stamler said. ''Partially because of that, Sam and I felt a special bond. I just feel terrible for his family. . . . He's a brilliant lawyer."