NJ says cop was justified in 2019 shootout near gas station
The use of force taken by a Tuckerton police officer at a traffic stop on November 21, 2019, where the suspect shot at him and engaged in gunfire with the officer who shot back in self defense, was legally justified, Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer said on Thursday.
As a result of their investigation, Billhimer said that presenting this case to the grand jury was not necessary "because there were not material facts in dispute regarding the lawfulness of the use of force."
Billhimer said the Attorney General’s Office conducted an independent review of the use of force in this case and agreed with the OCPO’s determination that the use of force by the officer was justified.
The Attorney General’s Office also agreed with the OCPO’s conclusion and decision not to send this case to the grand jury.
"The Office of the Attorney General and Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer are satisfied that the undisputed facts establish that Tuckerton Patrolman used the appropriate force necessary to protect his life and that of innocent bystanders and that he was legally justified in doing so," state officials said.
The man who shot at the Tuckerton officer that day, 31-year old Miguel Angel-Villegas, of New Haven, Connecticut, pleaded guilty to first-degree attempted murder and third-degree hindering apprehension on August 13.
When Villegas is sentenced on September 27, the state will be looking for 15 years in prison on the attempted murder charge, subject to the No Early Release Act, while he serves a five- year term on the hindering apprehension charge.
On the day of the incident, Villegas instructed this then-girlfriend to speed away after their Black Nissan Altima was pulled over by a Tuckerton officer at the Delta Gas Station on East Main Street.
It collided with another vehicle right away.
That's when Villegas came out shooting before running away, police said.
Prior to taking off, the officer said he told both occupants of the vehicle they were being pulled over for obstruction of view and a seatbelt violation.
The officer couldn't identify a valid motor vehicle license under the name the driver provided to them and had asked her to exit the vehicle, officials said.
She got out, then back in and took off heading towards North Green Street where she hit the side of another vehicle, police said.
The police officer pursued the Nissan and as he went to check on the car that was hit, he saw Villegas and his girlfriend outside their own vehicle, officials said.
Then Villegas was seen by the police officer putting his hands in his waist area and so the officer ordered him to show his hands multiple times, police said.
Villegas ignored the orders and took out a handgun he had hidden under his clothes, pointed it at the officer and began shooting, police said
The officer then fire his weapon in response, "as he had no other option to protect his life," prosecutors said.
Nobody, including bystanders, were injured in the shootout.
Villegas took the opportunity to then run south towards East Main Street, broke intro a garage, stole a bicycle and then took a Lyft ride to North Jersey, police said.
Billhimer said investigators found the police officer "did not have a body worn camera and his vehicle was not equipped with a mobile video recorder," however, "surveillance video was recovered from the Delta Gas Station showing the suspect vehicle departing from the initial motor vehicle stop" and after that detectives were able to recover video from the Wawa convenience store, which showed Villegas entering a Lyft.
Detectives were able to speak with Villegas' now ex-girlfriend and she told them that he ordered her to drive him to New Jersey from Connecticut because he was wanted by police in that state, police said.
The two were in Tuckerton to get gas on their way back home from the Atlantic City area.
She also said that Villegas told her to provide a fake name to the police officer during the traffic stop and even pointed a handgun at her while doing so before demanding she drive while he pushed her foot on the accelerator, police said.
Detectives also spoke with witnesses at the scene who watched the gunfire take place.
"One witness observed the entire exchange between Officer 1 and Villegas. He confirmed that Officer 1 gave multiple verbal commands to Villegas to show him his hands to which Villegas did not comply. The citizen also observed Villegas pull out a gun and fire upon Officer 1 at which time Officer 1 returned fire."
Another witness "stated she did not see the events leading up to the shooting, however, she did see a male matching the description of Villegas shooting in the direction of a police officer at the scene of the accident."
Another witness said that they "observed the collision between the suspect vehicle and a third party vehicle. She observed Officer 1 order a male matching the description of Villegas to the ground with negative results. She also observed Villegas brandish a firearm and fire it toward the third party vehicle, which was in the direction of Officer 1. It was at that time she was pulled behind a vehicle by Officer 1 for protection and Officer 1 returned fire."
Another witness stated that they "observed a male matching the description of Villegas standing next to his vehicle shooting across the street in the direction of a police officer. All four of these witness accounts corroborate the timeline of events as described by Officer 1."
Villegas was found in New York City by U.S. Marshals and the NYPD.
Billhimer said that they learned from the ballistic reports that a total of 23 shots total were fired during the cross gunfire, with two of those shots coming from a 9mm handgun matching the description of the weapon in Villegas’ possession.
Twenty-one shots were fired from a 40-caliber weapon, matching that of the Tuckerton police officer.
On February 4, 2020, Villegas was indicted on the attempted murder of an officer, kidnapping, unlawful possession of a firearm, and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, hindering apprehension, and aggravated assault by auto, eluding, and aggravated assault of a police officer, resisting arrest, burglary, and certain person not to possess a firearm.