Day: May 18, 2023

Trenton Tentatively Agrees To Pay $575,000 To Settle Suit Filed By Man Who Died After 2015 Encounter With City Police

May 18, 2023

By John Paff, Transparency NJ


March 29, 2023 signed release indicates that the City of Trenton (Mercer County, NJ) has tentatively agreed to pay $575,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the estate of a man who died after having allegedly been pepper-sprayed repeatedly and beaten by police and improperly placed in a four-point, hard restraint by hospital staff. According to a stipulation in the release, as well as the City Clerk’s May 2, 2023 Open Public Records Act (OPRA) response, the payment “is subject to council approval and is thus not finalized until such action is taken by that body.”

The following account is taken from both the estate’s lawsuit and a 38-page opinion issued on February 11, 2021 by U.S. Chief District Judge Freda L. Wolfson. Judge Wolfson’s opinion contains a great deal more context than the lawsuit given that it was authored after a significant amount of pretrial discovery had been conducted.

On the morning of June 15, 2015, Kevin Higgenbotham called 9-1-1 and reported that a trespasser was at his Bellevue Avenue home. First to arrive on the scene was Officer Carlo Cavalli who learned that the trespasser was actually Higgenbotham’s brother, Dwayne Jackson, who resided in the home along with their mother and other family members. Jackson told Cavalli that Higgenbotham had recently moved into the house after having an argument with his girlfriend. Jackson also told Cavalli that Higgenbotham, who was bipolar and had not been taking his medication, physically prevented him from entering the home but later allowed him to enter shortly before calling 9-1-1.

While the various accounts diverge a bit at this point, it appears from the opinion that Higgenbotham, who was getting agitated, demanded that Cavalli arrest Jackson for trespassing. Cavalli sent Jackson into the home in order to separate him from Higgenbotham shortly before Officer Samuel Gonzalez and Jackson’s and Higgenbotham’s mother, Adrienne, arrived. Adrienne explained to Cavalli that Higgenbotham was “acting crazy” and that she wanted him removed from the house. Jackson, however, reported to Cavalli that Higgenbotham had assaulted him (Higgenbotham said that was just a “play fight”) which Cavalli said established probable cause for Higgenbotham’s arrest for simple assault.

Cavalli’s and Higgenbotham’s statements conflicted as to whether Higgenbotham resisted arrest. Cavalli admitted, however, that he pepper-sprayed Higgenbotham and struck him with his baton when the pepper spray had no effect. After being sprayed, Higgenbotham fled inside the house, rinsed his face at the kitchen sink and then ran into the bathroom where he tried to close the door. When Cavalli and Gonzalez chased Higgenbotham into the house and prevented him from closing the bathroom door, Cavalli struck Higgenbotham three to five additional times with his baton. Despite the officers’ efforts, Higgenbotham fled away from the house. By this time several other officers arrived, including defendants Sergeant Jason Kmiec and Officer E. Ramos (see the note at the bottom of this article), and Higgenbotham was shortly thereafter handcuffed and taken into custody.

After Cavalli placed the handcuffed Higgenbotham into a police vehicle, Higgenbotham began to kick the door which caused damage. Cavalli and Gonzalez testified that they tried to secure Higgenbotham with a seatbelt in order to prevent him from kicking but that Higgenbotham pushed his head into Gonzalez to push him away from the vehicle. Gonzalez then pepper-sprayed Higgenbotham while he was restrained in the police vehicle. A neighbor, who witnessed the encounter, testified that she heard Higgenbotham say “I can’t breathe in here” three or four times and that she heard Gonzalez say “I’m tired of this s**t,” before opening the door to the police vehicle and pepper spraying Higginbotham. She also testified that after Higginbotham’s kicking increased after having been pepper-sprayed by Gonzalez, Gonzalez sprayed him again, an assertion that Gonzalez disputes.

Higgenbotham was taken to the Emergency Department of the Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton. The estate’s lawsuit alleges that ER nurse Michelle Micalizzi, who is named as a defendant, reported that Higgenbotham “became combative, causing her and the security officers to initiate four-points, hard restraints on [him].” Shortly thereafter, “Higgenbotham became unresponsive and suffered cardiac arrest and respiratory failure,” according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleged that Micalizzi and the security officers were not authorized to put Higgenbotham in a four-point restraint because the Medical Center’s policy requires that the use of such restraints can be ordered only by a physician.

Higgenbotham stayed at Capital Health on a ventilator until late June when he was admitted to Kindred Hospital in Philadelphia “for the purpose of being weaned off of the ventilator,” according to the lawsuit. From there, he went back and forth between hospitals and nursing facilities until he passed away on March 12, 2016. According to the court opinion, Higgenbotham died from sepsis.

According to the lawsuit, the Mercer County Medical Examiner determined that Higgenbotham suffered from cocaine related excited delirium during his June 15, 2015 encounter with police. This assertion was disputed by a forensic pathologist that the estate retained as an expert witness. The pathologist reportedly believed that “Higgenbotham was improperly restrained while he was a patient at [Capital Health], resulting in the deprivation of oxygen to his brain,” according to the lawsuit.

Judge Wolfson found that the officers were generally justified for their conduct prior to the point where Higgenbotham was handcuffed and placed into the police vehicle. However, “[w]ith respect to Officer Gonzalez’s use of force — the use of pepper spray in the rear compartment of the police car — after Higgenbotham was handcuffed, [Judge Wolfson found] that a genuine dispute of material fact exist[ed] as to whether Officer Gonzalez’s conduct was objectively reasonable.” The court also declined to dismiss the estate’s claims that that Cavalli, Ramos and Kmiec were liable for failing to intervene and stop Gonzalez from pepper-spraying Higgenbotham while he was handcuffed in the back of the police vehicle.

The $575,000 tentative settlement releases only Trenton and its employees from the estate’s lawsuit. The estate also named Micalizzi and Capital Health as defendants but dismissed its claims against them on September 11, 2017, approximately three months after the lawsuit was filed. Since Capital Health is not a public agency subject to OPRA, the existence or amount any settlement between the estate and these defendants will likely never be disclosed.

The events leading up to the estate’s lawsuit received substantial media coverage at the time. See, e.g., Trentonian, March 18, 2016, “Trenton man allegedly beaten into coma by cops dies,” by David Foster; Trentonian, September 5, 2017, “Improper restraints at Capital Health led to Trenton man’s death after ‘excessive force’ arrest, lawsuit says,” by David Foster and Trentonian, October 8, 2015, “9-1-1 recording: Trenton man allegedly clubbed into coma by cops called police for help,” by David Foster.

Of the four officers named as defendants in the lawsuit, two have retired, and the other two are still employed by Trenton.

According to city records and DataUniverse, Kmiec, who was born in 1970, had been employed by Trenton since 1994 and was promoted to lieutenant before his special retirement on April 1, 2021. As of December 2021, the last month for which DataUniverse makes this information available, Kmiec received a monthly pension allowance of $9,305.90. Cavalli, also born in 1970, qualified for special retirement in December 2018 after serving Trenton since 1992. As of December 2021, his monthly pension allowance was $6,005.31.

Ramos, hired on September 24, 2003, currently holds the position of sergeant with a salary of $130,206.13. Gonzalez, who was hired on April 11, 2005, serves as a detective and earns a current salary of $93,144.67.

The case is captioned Higgenbotham v. The City Of Trenton, Case No. 3:17-cv-04344 and the estate’s attorneys were Sharon A. King, now a Federal Magistrate Judge, and Stanley O. King of Voorhees.

Apart from the uncontested facts noted in the court’s opinion, none of the lawsuit’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The $575,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the Trenton officers. Similarly, none of the allegations against Capital Health and Nurse Micalizzi have been proven. All that is known for sure is that Trenton or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the estate $575,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Note: The lawsuit does not provide Ramos’ first name. In response to my OPRA request, the City of Trenton also did not provide Ramos’ first name. According to DataUniverse, however, the only officer presently employed by Trenton with the last name of “Ramos” and a first initial of “E” is Eliezer Ramos. DataUniverse shows Eliezer Ramos enrolled in the Police And Firemen’s Retirement System on October 1, 2023 which is consistent with the City’s response to my OPRA request that E. Ramos was hired on September 24, 2003.

Author John Paff is Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project.

18-Year-Old Man Charged With First-Degree Murder And Related Offences In Hamilton Township

May 18, 2023

HAMILTON TOWNSHIP, NJ (MERCER)–Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo J. Onofri announced today that an investigation conducted by the Mercer County Homicide Task Force and the Hamilton Police Division has resulted in the arrest of a Burlington County man for the shooting death of Matthew Morales.

Joshua Davis, 18, of Fieldsboro, NJ, is charged with one count of first-degree murder, one count of second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose and one count of second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon. He was taken into custody without incident Wednesday afternoon in Mount Laurel. The prosecutor’s office has filed a motion to detain Davis pending trial.

Hamilton police officers responded to a shooting in progress in the 4900 block of S. Broad Street shortly after 1 a.m. on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Upon arrival, officers located a male victim in the driveway of a home near Pilgrim Way suffering from a gunshot wound. The victim, identified as Morales, 28, of Blackwood, NJ, was transported to Capital Health Regional Medical Center where he was pronounced dead a short time later. Investigation revealed that Morales was shot during an altercation with Davis on S. Broad Street.

The investigation is ongoing. Anyone with information is asked to contact MCHTF Detective Luis Vega at (609) 989-6406 or Sgt. Sherika Salmon at (609) 960-3119. Information can also be emailed to

Despite having been charged, every defendant is presumed innocent until found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

Joshua Davis, 18, of Fieldsboro, NJ, is charged with one count of first-degree murder, one count of second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose and one count of second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon. He was taken into custody without incident Wednesday afternoon in Mount Laurel. The prosecutor’s office has filed a motion to detain Davis pending trial.

The scene yesterday on South Broad Street near Pilgrim Way and Main Street, Hamilton Township, Mercer County, NJ

Pair Sentenced To 20 Years In State Prison For Howell Township Machete Slaying

During a plea hearing taking place in September 2022, both men admitted that they each took a turn striking the victim in the back of the head with a machete, pleading guilty to single counts of first-degree Aggravated Manslaughter.

May 18, 2023

FREEHOLD – Two relatives responsible for the 2019 machete killing of an Ocean County man in Howell have been sentenced, Monmouth County Prosecutor Raymond S. Santiago announced Thursday.

Omar Rivera-Rojas, 33, and his nephew, Alberto Rojas-Hernandez, 21, both of Lakewood, were sentenced to 22 and 20 years in state prison, respectively. Each must serve at least 85 percent of their terms before the possibility of parole under the provisions of New Jersey’s No Early Release Act (NERA), in accordance with the terms set down during a Tuesday sentencing hearing before Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Marc C. LeMieux.

Members of the Howell Township Police Department responded to a 911 call shortly after 3:45 a.m. on Friday, October 18, 2019, following up on a report of an unconscious male laying prone in Hurley Pond Road, just east of County Route 547.  Upon their arrival, a man later identified as 33-year-old Domingo Merino-Rafael of Lakewood was located at the scene, unresponsive and obviously deceased.

Initially suspected to be a hit-and-run event, Investigators from the Serious Collison Analysis Response Team (SCART) responded but quickly determined that the victim’s injuries were inconsistent with a motor-vehicle collision and were the result of a homicide. The post-mortem examination confirmed the manner of death to be homicide and the cause of death identified as multiple chop wounds.

A joint investigation by members of the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and Howell Township Police Department quickly determined that Rivera-Rojas, Rojas-Hernandez, and Merino-Rafael had traveled from Lakewood to Middlesex County on the evening of Thursday, October 17, 2019. The men were returning to Lakewood early the next morning when they got into an argument that culminated with the uncle and nephew killing Merino-Rafael.

Rivera-Rojas was arrested on Tuesday, October 22, 2019 and lodged in the Monmouth County Correctional Institution (MCCI). Two and a half weeks later, Rojas-Hernandez was taken into custody and brought to the Middlesex County Juvenile Detention Center due to the fact that he was 17 at the time. Rojas-Hernandez was subsequently waived to adult court to face prosecution alongside his uncle. 

During a plea hearing taking place in September 2022, both men admitted that they each took a turn striking the victim in the back of the head with a machete, pleading guilty to single counts of first-degree Aggravated Manslaughter.

The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and the Howell Township Police Department again credit the Lakewood Police Department and the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office for their assistance during this investigation. The case was prosecuted by Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutors Stephanie Dugan and Tara Wilson.

Rojas-Hernandez was represented by Joseph Champagne, Esq. of Toms River, while Rivera-Rojas was represented at sentencing by Michel R. Rosas of East Brunswick.

Two Motorcycle Police Officers Injured In East Brunswick Crash When Motorist Pulls Out In Path Of Motorcycles

May 18, 2023

EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ (MIDDLESEX)–East Brunswick Police Department reported that yesterday, May 17, 2023, at approximately 4:27 p.m. East Brunswick Police Officers responded to Milltown Road at the exit of the Wawa parking lot (426 Ryders Lane) for the report of a motor vehicle crash involving a Honda HR-V and two East Brunswick Police Department Motorcycle Units.

Preliminary investigation revealed that the two East Brunswick Motorcycle Units were traveling east on Milltown Road. The Honda HR-V made a left turn from the exit of the Wawa parking lot onto Milltown Road in front of the path of the two motorcycles. The three vehicles collided in the eastbound lane of Milltown Road.

Sergeant John Bird and Sergeant James Angermeier sustained injuries as a result of the crash. Both officers were transported to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital for medical attention. Sergeant Bird was treated and released, while Sergeant Angermeier remains hospitalized, undergoing further treatment for his injuries.

An accident investigation is being conducted by Lieutenant Wade Gordon of the East Brunswick Police Department’s Special Operations Section, with assistance from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.

The investigation is ongoing, and no further information is being released at this time.

Anyone with information about this incident may contact the East Brunswick Police Department Special Operations Section at 732-390-6969.

Firefighters Battle 4-Alarm Fire In Hamilton Township

This is the 2nd large multi-alarm fire in the region within 12-hours and appears to be in warehouse/industrial use building.

HAMILTON, NJ – On May 18, 2023, at approximately 12:30 AM, Hamilton Fire Division was dispatched for a building fire at 533 Whitehead Road, the former Goodall Rubber building, now operated by Hakim International Trading.

While en route, the Battalion Chief on duty was notified of a large column of smoke visible from a distance from the location of the fire. The first arriving fire engine reported a large fire on two floors and determined that defensive operations would be used. Upon arrival on the scene, the Battalion Chief immediately transmitted a 2nd alarm to bring in surrounding towns. Several homes adjacent to the property were recommended to be evacuated for safety and to assist with firefighting response. 

The Hamilton Police Division has closed multiple roads in the area of the incident, and detours have been established. The Hamilton Township Construction Officer has determined that portions of the building require demolition. As such, we anticipate that the intersection of Whitehead Road and Sweetbriar Avenue will be closed through Friday morning’s commute.

At its peak, the fire was operating at four alarms with 26 firefighting units from 14 municipalities on scene. The NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) is on scene taking air quality samples, and no concerns have been detected thus far. One firefighter sustained non-life threatening injuries and was transported to Robert Wood Johnson Hamilton hospital for evaluation.

We appreciate the fourteen area municipalities, the Hamilton Police Division, the Hamilton Township Building Inspections Division, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, and the NJDEP for their assistance.

The incident is being investigated by the Hamilton Township Police, Hamilton Township Fire Investigation Unit, and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office. Any witnesses are asked to contact the Hamilton Police Division at (609) 581-4000.

Above photos provided by: Hamilton Township

Original story below:

May 18, 2023

HAMILTON TOWNSHIP, NJ (MERCER)–Firefighters are on the scene of a multi-alarm fire in the 500 Block of Whitehead Road near Sweet Briar Avenue. The fire was dispatched around 12:35 a.m. for 533 Whitehead Road, with reports of fire on the first and second floor with a large column of smoke in the air. A second alarm was called immediately sending help from surrounding towns to the scene.

The address for 533 Whitehead Road comes back to Sweet Briar West Industrial Park and appears to be a mix of warehousing and industrial use. The building was formerly part of the Goodall Rubber Complex.

Traffic Advisory:

Please avoid the area of WHITE HEAD RD and SWEETBRIAR AVE. Fire Units on scene of a wear house fire. Expect closures until further notice.

***Street Closings in the area***



RT 1 North Bound down to 1 Lane



This is still a very active fire scene and further details will be provided later in the day.

This is the second large commercial warehousing/industrial type building fire within 12-hours. As some fire departments were being relieved at the South Brunswick warehouse fire they responded to this warehouse fire in Hamilton Township.

This is the second large warehouse industrial building fire in the region as some firefighters were returning from South Brunswick they responded to Hamilton Township for another multi alarm fire.

Photos above: Anthony Greco

NJ Public Safety News Alerts

NJ Public Safety News Alerts