Troopers charged in high-speed escort

Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the N.J. State Police, and Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa announce charges. "No one is above the law," Chiesa said.
Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the N.J. State Police, and Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa announce charges. "No one is above the law," Chiesa said. (MEL EVANS / AP)

Two made the Parkway a "virtual speedway," officials said, and they concealed their plates.

Posted: July 29, 2012

TRENTON - Two state troopers, charged Friday with records tampering, turned a state highway into a "virtual speedway" in March when they gave a caravan of luxury cars a high-speed escort while taping over their own license plates to conceal their involvement, the state attorney general said.

"No one is above the law," Jeffrey Chiesa said. "We will not tolerate officers who endanger the public they are sworn to protect."

Administrative charges also were brought against four other members of the state police in connection with a similar high-speed escort of luxury cars in 2010, and a fifth trooper for his handling of a ticket issued to the driver of a Lamborghini clocked at 116 m.p.h., also in 2010.

Sgt. First Class Nadir Nassry and Trooper Joseph Ventrella sought to conceal their involvement in the March escort, which reached speeds exceeding 100 m.p.h., by using black electrical tape to alter their plates, the attorney general said.

Nassry also is accused of instructing other drivers in the caravan of high-performance vehicles to conceal or partly conceal their license plates using tape or other means.

By hiding their plate numbers, the drivers were able to speed through tolls on the Garden State Parkway without paying, the attorney general said, creating what he described as a "mirage."

Chiesa said that putting the tape on the plates showed "they intended to conceal their involvement in conduct that they knew was wrong."

The unauthorized escort "turned our highway into a virtual speedway, placing countless motorists at risk," Chiesa said.

The attorney general said the time limit had expired to issue tickets to the motorists involved in the high-speed caravans.

New escort procedures are now in place, he said, including "clear instructions on observing posted speed limits."

Nassry, an assistant station commander and 25-year veteran, took full responsibility Thursday for the escort and submitted his retirement papers. Through his attorney, he denied taping his plates and asked for leniency for Ventrella, who he said was simply following orders and has been on the force only six years.

Nassry's and Ventrella's attorneys both denied that their clients engaged in any criminal wrongdoing. Ventrella's attorney, Vincent K. Nuzzi, said his client never taped his license plate and only participated in the caravan on his supervisor's orders.

"He's the lowest guy in the chain of command, given a direct order to do this stuff, and given that direct order by somebody authorized to give him the order," Nuzzi said of Ventrella.

Both Nassry and Ventrella were charged with fourth-degree falsifying or tampering with records. Nassry also faces a charge of third-degree tampering with public records.

Nassry had agreed to participate in the escort because of his friendship with Brandon Jacobs, a former member of the New York Giants, now with the San Francisco 49ers, who was part of the caravan, Nassry's attorney, Charles Sciarra, said Thursday.

Witnesses who e-mailed the state Turnpike Authority reported seeing the caravan, escorted by two state police vehicles, traveling down the parkway at speeds exceeding 100 m.p.h., weaving in traffic, and forcing some motorists to speed up to get out of the way. Its participants included members of a New York driving club.

Nassry, 47, and Ventrella, 28, were suspended in April.

The state police superintendent, Col. Rick Fuentes, announced Friday that new guidelines on state-police escorts covered authorization and reviewed procedures and rules of conduct, including observing posted speed limits and avoiding passing lanes.

Fuentes and Chiesa referred Friday to the 2012 escort as "unauthorized," but state police have refused previous requests from news organizations to provide a copy of their previous policy on escorts and did not make available a copy of the new policy.

In the administrative charges announced Friday, two state troopers were charged with unsafe driving and improperly conducting an escort, and two supervisors were charged with improper supervision relating to the 2010 high-speed escort.

One trooper was charged administratively with improperly handling a speeding ticket during the incident.

Fuentes said the five troopers, who were not named because they are subject to an internal hearing process, are likely to face unpaid suspensions.

The investigation of the escorts also led to a major shake-up of state police brass, with the reassignment of 10 state police commanders.

Both Chiesa and Fuentes emphasized that the state police regularly conducted lawful escorts for legitimate reasons and insisted that the two incidents were isolated.

"Thankfully, thankfully," Chiesa said, "nobody was hurt."

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