Contrasts at Deptford police trial

The opening statements presented entirely different views of some violent footage.

Posted: June 28, 2007

Deptford Township Patrolman John Gillespie is either a bad cop who arrested and choked a cursing motorist during a car stop, or the victim of someone who pretended to be battered so he could file a million-dollar police brutality lawsuit.

The two portraits of Gillespie, a patrolman in the Gloucester County township for two years, emerged yesterday as his trial on charges of aggravated assault and official misconduct opened.

Dashboard cameras in two police cars recorded the Feb. 2, 2006, confrontation. In their opening statements yesterday, prosecutors and defense lawyers disagreed on what the videotapes actually show.

"The defendant's crimes were recorded on video and audio," Assistant Gloucester County Prosecutor Paul Colangelo told Superior Court Judge M. Christine Allen-Jackson and the jury. Colangelo said that Joseph A. Rao, the 19-year-old Philadelphia motorist stopped for running a stop sign, was sitting in the back of Gillespie's cruiser, handcuffed, when he uttered an obscenity. That, according to the prosecutor, caused Gillespie and Patrolman Timothy Parks to attack Rao.

"The defendant is hollering, 'What do you have to say? What do you have to say?' and the hollering is accompanied by a choking sound, the sound of Mr. Rao choking and gasping for breath," said Colangelo.

Not so, said Ron Helmer, the defense attorney for Gillespie, 25.

"Officer Gillespie made a very serious mistake. Halfway into the motor vehicle stop, he tells Mr. Rao this is on video," said Helmer.

"Only after that do you hearing choking sounds," said Helmer, who noted Rao had no injuries to his neck.

Helmer said Rao has been convicted of making terroristic threats against a police officer in Philadelphia and hates police. Rao wanted to provoke Gillespie so that he could sue for brutality, Helmer said. Rao has filed a notice of intent to sue the township and the two patrolmen for $1 million, claiming he suffered severe emotional, psychological and physical harm.

"He's got a million reasons, a motive to lie so he can get his million dollars," said Helmer.

Rao was treated for cuts, bruises and pain at Underwood-Memorial Hospital in Woodbury after the struggle. He was expected to testify.

The 14-minute videos, laced with profanity spewed by Rao and Gillespie, show Gillespie stopping Rao's car, then ordering Rao out of the car.

When Rao protests, Gillespie yanks him from the car and frisks him. The two begin arguing and swearing at each other.

The showdown escalates after Gillespie places Rao in the backseat of the police car. At one point, Gillespie and Parks, his fellow patrolman, are both in the back with Rao.

Gillespie and Parks are accused of choking, kicking and punching Rao. Parks is scheduled for trial later this summer. Another patrolman, Brian Green, a 28-year police veteran, is facing trial on charges of lying to investigators about what he saw at the police station, where another struggle allegedly occurred.

Colangelo said police car recording equipment caught Gillespie offering to take off Rao's handcuffs when they get to the police station so "the two of us can go at it, no charges signed."

Another surveillance tape, one that records activities at the station, shows Gillespie removing the cuffs, taunting Rao and then trying to choke him, Colangelo said.

The trial is scheduled to resume today.

To watch the police car video of what prosecutors contend is the police beating, go to

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or

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