Officer's widow seeks answers in fatality

Phoebe Berner (front), 13, and friends pass out candles during a memorial service for her father, Craig Berner, an off-duty Moorestown officer killed in a motorcycle accident.
Phoebe Berner (front), 13, and friends pass out candles during a memorial service for her father, Craig Berner, an off-duty Moorestown officer killed in a motorcycle accident. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 29, 2014

Sgt. William McGovern of the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office fatally ran over a motorcyclist and called 911 last July 27. Then, minutes after he learned the victim was off-duty Moorestown Patrolman Craig Berner, McGovern left the scene on Westfield Road to feed a friend's cat, according to law enforcement records.

Although McGovern returned within an hour of the 10 p.m. crash - and township police then documented that he smelled of alcohol - authorities called off a sobriety test requested by a Moorestown officer. Investigators did not ask McGovern to take a breath test, and they did not draw blood until six hours after the accident, according to investigative records provided to The Inquirer.

Blood-test results for McGovern, 61, of Mount Laurel, were negative for alcohol and drugs. Berner, 52, an officer of 26 years, tested negative as well.

A year after the fatality, Berner's widow, Carrie, said she believed authorities orchestrated a cover-up to protect McGovern. She said authorities should not have allowed McGovern to leave and should have conducted sobriety and breath tests right after the accident.

The Camden County Prosecutor's Office and state police were asked to investigate to avoid conflicts of interest. Warren Faulk, prosecutor at the time, said the investigation was thorough but there was not evidence on which to base criminal charges.

Faulk, in an interview, said it was unacceptable that McGovern left the scene to feed a cat. Had that happened with one of his employees, Faulk said, he would have acted administratively.

Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi declined to be interviewed. In an e-mailed statement, he said: "Once again, our condolences are extended to the Berner family. Craig Berner was an admired police officer and his death is a very distressing loss to the entire Burlington County law enforcement community.

"Notwithstanding the anguish of this tragedy, we continue to rely on the findings of the investigation conducted by the Camden County Prosecutor's Office and the New Jersey State Police.

"The joint investigation concluded that no evidence whatsoever existed to indicate that Detective Sgt. William McGovern committed a crime or a motor vehicle violation. Even so, the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office is reviewing the findings to determine if any administrative sanctions or penalties should be imposed."

The state Attorney General's Office, which received requests on behalf Berner's family to investigate the accident and how it was handled, has referred the matter for review by its Division of Criminal Justice.

"I just want to know the truth," said Carrie Berner, who lives in Moorestown with her son, 16, and daughter, 13. "Let a grand jury investigate. If there's nothing there, we can all go home."

There are more than a thousand investigative pages that include police records, witness testimony, transcripts of dispatch calls, phone records, and insurance reports. McGovern declined to comment but maintains through his attorney, John S. Sitzler, that he did nothing wrong.

"He absolutely did nothing wrong," Sitzler said. "He did everything asked of him that night."

According to law enforcement records, McGovern had been drinking at a pig roast on the afternoon and early evening with other law enforcement officers. A friend of McGovern's told an investigator McGovern had at most four beers. Another friend said he later saw McGovern with a beer at the Flying W bar in Medford about 8 p.m., according to transcripts of law enforcement interviews.

Sitzler said there was no evidence McGovern was driving drunk. He said he believed Berner, who was riding a Honda CBR 1000 motorcycle, hit a hole or defect in the road that made him lose control.

Berner locked his front brake, went into an 84-foot skid, then was thrown from his bike into the opposite lane, state police records show.

State police, in a crash reconstruction report, concluded Berner caused the accident by improperly braking and going in excess of 80 m.p.h. The state police detectives who wrote the report based their conclusions partially on an assumption that McGovern was driving 50 m.p.h., the speed limit, which Carrie Berner said was unsubstantiated.

Steven Lucas, a motorcyclist who had seen Berner in his rearview mirror, said Berner was going about 50 miles per hour and could not have been racing over 80, according to police reports.

Records show McGovern called 911 a few minutes after 10, and told a county dispatcher, "the guy drove off a motorcycle . . .. It looks like it's really, really, really bad." Asked whether another vehicle was involved, McGovern replied, "it looks like it might have been a vehicle involved afterwards."

David Opperman of Riverside told The Inquirer and police he did not witness the crash but came upon the scene immediately afterward. He recalled seeing a partially crushed Budweiser can near Berner's body. "I could tell that something was not right," Opperman said, adding that he immediately suspected alcohol was involved.

Moorestown Sgt. Howard Mann, the first officer to arrive, spoke briefly with McGovern before Officer Thomas Lewis revealed the accident victim was "Berne." Another passerby, retired Palmyra officer Jake Lippincott, told investigators that after McGovern learned the victim's name, he heard McGovern say to Mann, "I got to run right home . . . just give me like, ah, figure 15 minutes . . . and Sarg says, 'Yeah, yeah, that's fine, Bill, thanks.' "

Mann declined to comment for this article.

Authorities documented that McGovern later told authorities he left to feed his friend's cat, Happy Feet, while the friend was vacationing in Italy.

Records show that twice after McGovern left the scene, he spoke by phone to Lt. Jay Abadia of the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office. Abadia, who was not yet at the scene, called Moorestown police for information, but did not disclose that he had spoken to McGovern, according to radio dispatch recordings.

Abadia was connected by dispatch to Mann. Mann expressed concern about alcohol, that it appeared McGovern was involved, and that McGovern left and had not returned. Abadia said he would call McGovern, who then returned about 11 p.m. Three officers wrote in reports that when McGovern returned, they smelled alcohol.

Moorestown police made arrangements for a Mount Laurel officer to conduct a sobriety test at the accident scene. Abadia arrived and advised township police that state police would conduct the accident investigation.

The sobriety test was canceled. It's unclear from police records who canceled it or why. Abadia did not return calls to The Inquirer.

McGovern agreed to give blood, according to police records. Moorestown officers said they could smell alcohol in the police car as they took McGovern to Virtua Hospital-Mount Holly after midnight for the blood test.

McGovern tried to reach several attorneys between 11:13 and 11:56 p.m., according to records. He also called his friend Marc Sano, a former Lumberton police chief who had been at the pig roast. Sano connected McGovern to Sitzler. Sano hung up when contacted by The Inquirer for comment.

After speaking to Sitzler, McGovern told Moorestown police they had to get a warrant to obtain his blood, records show. Camden County authorities obtained the warrant and at 4 a.m. July 28, McGovern's was drawn, records show.

McGovern, who has been a law enforcement officer since 1975, was put on paid leave last July and has since returned to work. He is scheduled to retire in January, when he will reach 25 years of service with the Prosecutor's Office.

856-779-3838 @BBBoyer

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