Cop’s killing of man in NJ barfight likely headed to grand jury. Is indictment next?
UNION TOWNSHIP — A grand jury will hear evidence in the case of an off-duty officer who shot and killed an unarmed man during a bar fight two months ago, according to Union Township's police director.
"That's been our impression all along," Johanna Aguilar, Michael Gaffney's girlfriend of 10 years, told New Jersey 101.5 Friday. She said she's been in frequent contact with the Union County Prosecutor's Office since Gaffney's death, early in the morning of May 13.
A grand jury presentment could lead to an indictment in the altercation. What charges prosecutors would ask a grand jury to consider remains unclear.
Township Police Director Dan Zieser told those gathered at a June 28 Township Committee meeting: "There's going to be a grand jury presentment. When, I don't know. It has to go to the grand jury." The meeting was captured on video by Union TV 34.
Zieser stressed, answering a question from resident Jason Krychiw, that while the Union Township Police Department secured the scene of the homicide, it has no role in the ongoing investigation.
A spokesman for the prosecutor's office told New Jersey 101.5 Friday only that the investigation was continuing, but wouldn't comment on whether or when a grand jury presentation would take place.
"I think there's sort of a general frustration with residents just because there's never really any public comment about what happened when the event took place or since then," Krychiw said at the meeting.
Gaffney, 37, was killed before closing time outside Paddy’s Place after he and the cop got into what authorities have described as an altercation.
Even though the officer was not on duty, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office is investigating the incident the way it would any case in which an officer uses lethal force. The officer has not yet been charged with any crime, and his name has not been publicly released.
Aguilar's mother has told New Jersey 101.5 the two men knew one another — they both frequented the same bar, and knew many of the same people — but weren't close.
It's not clear what exactly happened the night of the altercation — New Jersey 101.5 has not been able to reach any firsthand witnesses, and friends of Gaffney's say those present May 13 were told by attorneys not to speak to media.
A 911 caller told dispatchers she'd heard five gunshots, but it's not clear if her account was accurate. Friends of Gaffney's have alleged he was trying repeatedly to end a confrontation with the officer, but no one has publicly provided a firsthand account.
Newark Fraternal Order of Police President James Stewart Jr. has previously told New Jersey Advance Media: "It is our belief the entire incident is captured on video and when the investigation is completed it will show he was justified in his actions." Stewart has also told New Jersey 101.5 he hasn't seen that video.
Records requests filed by New Jersey 101.5 only shed small bits of light on the officer's history. He's never been promoted in his time with the Newark force. He has never been identified in a federal or state lawsuit against Newark or its Police Department. Since 2012, he hasn't filed a use of force report — filed when an officer fires a weapon or even when an officer needs to use force to restrain an individual.
New Jersey 101.5 is continuing to seek more documentation regarding the officer and his history.
Julie Dinnerman, who described herself as "Michael Gaffney's best friend of 23 years" said she and several people throughout town have been eager for answers for months.
"People are kind of in an uproar at this point," she said. Dinnerman said she's seen "Justice for Gaffney" and "Justice for Michael" signs in several township bars and restaurants, including Paddy's Place. Friends have made wristbands and T-shirts, and often wear green ("It's just an Irish thing," she said) on Fridays in Gaffney's honor.
Much of the activism has centered around a Change.org petition seeking a change to state law that would prevent any officer from entering a bar, intending to drink, while carrying a service weapon. The petition has reached nearly 5,000 signatures.
Weapons carry permits are difficult to get in New Jersey, but unlike many other states that issue them more freely, no law prevents someone with permission to carry a weapon from doing so while drinking or intoxicated.
Aguilar said given her interactions with the prosecutor's office — which she described as "extremely responsive" — she's confident in the course of the investigation. Prosecutors have told her certain tests have come back (but not what their results were), and spoken to Gaffney's loved ones about the procedures involved in investigating an officer-involved shooting, she said.
Aguilar told New Jersey 101.5 a prosecutor has suggested to her a grand jury presentation could occur around the end of July, though it depends on factors including a medical examiner's analysis.
She said she has faith in the process.
"Maybe I'm being naive, maybe I'm being a little too hopeful, but what else do I have to stand on to keep me going?" Aguilar said.
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