It was close to 11 pm on the night of May 21. A tall man wearing a dark hoodie and white sneakers walked south on Brinkerhoff Street, his right hand planted deep in his pants pocket.
A few yards ahead of him sat a blue Nissan Altima parked on the corner of Crescent Avenue directly across the street from Lincoln High School. Music blared from the car’s sound system.
Two men stood outside chatting with the car’s occupants. The light from one of the occupant’s cell phones shone through the front passenger side window.
When he reached the car, the hooded man stopped on the passenger side and looked across the roof at the men talking. Someone shouted “Oh!” One of the two men scampered away. The other quickly ducked behind the car.
The hooded man pulled out a gun and pointed it at the car’s occupants.
What followed that night came as no surprise to residents of the small gentrifying neighborhood off Communipaw Ave. known as Bergen Hill. For close to a year, they had sought help from the police and officials but to no effect.
While most residents were too scared to speak with Jersey City Times about the incident, we were able to piece together what happened from a series of emails and text messages exchanged with Jersey City officials, from a video, and from interviews and a public meeting at which the incident was discussed.
The mayor’s press secretary did not respond to requests for comment.
While the neighborhood had always had its share of petty crime, the onset of the pandemic seemed to take the crime to a new level. Lincoln High School was virtually empty, meaning fewer eyes to witness criminal activity.
In July, a resident emailed Jersey City Municipal Prosecutor Jake Hudnut:
“Since Covid started I have been seeing a ton of gang activity on this corner. Constant drug dealing…I found a hand gun in the garbage can. One of the crew drew a gun on a neighbor. The street has been getting completely locked down every night with 40–100 people.”
He continued, “As of last Monday when Hudson County Homicide did a sweep of the area it has died down a little at night, but the constant drug dealing still continues.”
Over a week later Hudnut responded. “I will handle now in the manner we discussed the other day.”
The next day, the resident responded, “It’s so bad I think we will have to move in the next few months and try to rent this apt out. I literally have eight cars blasting music and around 30 people outside. . . .This will last until about 2 a.m, unfortunately.”
On September 17, another resident wrote to Hudnut, “I wanted to ask…whether police patrol is coming to the neighborhood now that the school has reopened if there is anything else being done to improve the safety of the neighborhood?”
Fearful of being identified, the resident asked that their identity remain anonymous.
Hudnut wrote back, “I was going to loop in the patrol and street crimes leadership, but I see now you wish to remain anonymous, so I am going to FWD to them and remove identifiers.”
By September, little had changed. The resident wrote to Hudnut again. “Since we last spoke there has been no change, and the whole block is upset with what is going on. . . .This is way too unsafe to live. . . .Not sure if this has been escalated, but I have seen 1 police vehicle in the last 5 months and the gangs have completely taken over.”
Later, the resident identified the car and license plate of the gang’s leader. The resident noted that just a couple of weeks before, one of the drug dealer’s clients had overdosed and died in front of the high school.
Over the following months, the resident said that he exchanged more texts with Hudnut, but nothing seemed to be getting done. The loud music and drug dealing continued. The police never seemed to show up.
Finally, frustrated by the inaction, the resident went directly to the police department’s West District. The resident was put in touch with Police Officer Anthony Turner of the anti-crime unit. On April 11, Turner wrote:
“We have received the information you have provided surrounding what you observed in your neighborhood and are taking it very seriously. An active narcotics investigation is underway. You are unlikely to see our officers immediately within your area as they are undercover while investigating this situation.”
Eleven days later, the resident gave Turner a description of several cars involved in the drug activity, writing, “They are 4 deep on Brinkerhoff blasting music. Coming and going on their runs.”
On April 26, Turner wrote back. “Thank you for the info. My team and I will be in the area working this tomorrow. Our target has been identified.”
Apparently, the drug dealers were still of interest to another law enforcement agency. Two weeks later the homicide squad from the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office paid the resident a visit. They were looking for evidence. They told the resident that they suspected that the drug dealers parked outside had been involved in two recent murders.
Sitting only feet from the gun’s muzzle, the car’s occupants never had a chance. In quick succession the hooded man emptied over twelve rounds into the car’s interior.
The gunman turned and walked briskly back up Crescent Avenue, stopping momentarily to look back and fire off one last round for good measure.
A resident was roused out of bed and ran out to the street to find a scene of carnage. One man sat dead in the driver’s seat and another lay on the street gasping for his last breaths. Three other men and one woman were wounded.
The following day, the resident texted Hudnut, “Not for nothing, but you could have stopped this. You had all the information you needed, and you did nothing.” Hudnut texted back “I’m sorry, brother.”
On May 26, the police and residents gathered in a church basement nearby for a public safety meeting. Perhaps anticipating a tough crowd, the police department sent some of its top brass, Deputy Chief Edgar Martinez, Executive Officer Rich Romanski, and Police Director Tawana Moody.
West District Captain Kevin Kot kicked it off with a recitation of recent crime statistics. Then one of the Bergen Hill residents spoke up.
“I’ve been letting you guys know that this gang, for a year and a half, they’ve literally taken over the block. . . .I let you guys know that the same guys who are no longer alive pulled a gun on a neighbor’s contractor.”
“We saw this coming, we let you guys know, we let the quality of life taskforce know. . . .Why was there never a police officer?”
He continued, “We went back and forth with Turner, and he said ‘We have our target, you’re good, don’t worry about it, you’re all set.”
Kot responded weakly. “The information you passed to Turner, it never got to me.” He wasn’t, he said, aware of the situation. “There’s a disconnect somewhere,” he said.
This wasn’t the only communication breakdown, however. Hudnut had told the resident that he had brought the problem up with Executive Officer Romanski. But Romanski denied knowing about it. “He told me flat out ‘Jake said nothing about this,’” the resident recalled.
Another resident at the meeting chimed in, “I knew there was crime in the area, but I didn’t know how bad it was. It’s scary.” With all the gang activity, the resident called the police. “I was terrified” the resident said.
Kot listened patiently, then he began to talk. He described the shooting victims as gang members with “extensive criminal history, prior firearms offenders.” He went on, “What we say with these shootings and gang activity is that today’s actor is tomorrow’s victim, because it’s all about retaliation.”
He expressed frustration at his seeming powerlessness to stop the violence, recounting shootings at the intersection of Union St. and Martin Luther King Drive.
“There were two or three shootings there, literally one block away from the cops. The criminals have become so brazen, knowing that the cops are there, they don’t care. They see a target out there from a rival game member, they’re going to shoot him whether a cop’s there or not.”
“We don’t have enough resources to hit every location every time. . . .We’re continually bouncing around,” Kot explained.
Arresting drug dealers, he said, was of little use. “As soon as someone’s arrested, someone takes their place immediately.”
Compounding the problem, said Kot, was the gang recruitment of juveniles. “They have no at-homes, they look to these gang members as family. The older gang members are recruiting these younger kids. And they’ll ask them, ‘Who wants to do a shooting?’ and the kids are like, ‘I’ll do it.’”
Kot cited bail reform and weak penalties for youthful offenders. “We’ve literally had kids arrested for a firearm…who were released within 48 hours.”
As if to throw the attendees a bone, Community Relations Officer Frank Scarpa jumped in, “Now that we’ve had this conversation, which is probably a conversation we should have had months ago, but now that we know what’s going on, it’s going to get correctly addressed. No if, ands, or buts about it.”
Police Director Moody had the last word. “What I want to apologize for is that you have to keep calling and feeling that you’re not getting the right kind of response.”
“We’re going to try to do it different because whichever which way it was being done, apparently it wasn’t working.”
Municipal Prosecutor Hudnut did not respond to a request for comment.
Two residents who witnessed the aftermath of the shooting are receiving counseling for trauma.
The Hudson County Prosecutor’s office told Jersey City Times, “There have been no arrests and the investigation is ongoing.”