Lawyers rip HCPO & JCPD, Stoma denies ‘circumstantial’ case is ‘de minimis’ as trial opens

After four hours of opening statements, it’s clear some of the Jersey City Police Department’s dirty laundry is about to go public – especially related to the infamous Motorcycle Squad.

Judge Mirtha Ospina (left), Charles Sciarra and Peter Stoma (bottom), Jeffrey Garrigan (bottom right), Robert E. Lytle (top right), and Michael O’Neill, Joseph Ascolese, and Kelly Chesler (top).

If Snoop Dogg comes back to Hudson County next summer for Jersey City’s 4th of July Fireworks Celebration, he might have to remix his classic track “Murder Was The Case” to “Signing Timesheets and $400 Was The Case” for Capt. Joseph Ascolese, Lt. Kelly Chesler, and Officer Michael O’Neill of the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD).

That’s because, unlike the many JCPD officers convicted by federal authorities for thefts ranging from tens of thousands in the case of ex-Chief Philip Zacche to $230,000 for Juan Romaniello, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office (HCPO) is pursuing a case against the aforementioned officers in the hundreds of dollars.

Yes, that’s right – the HCPO has spent over three years investigating and prosecuting a case against three law enforcement officers alleging they cumulatively stole $400. Two of them, Ascolese and Chesler, aren’t even accused of stealing any money at all.

In short, that’s basically what was learned after four hours of opening statements as The State of New Jersey vs Joseph Ascolese, Kelly Chesler, and Michael O’Neill finally kicked off on September 5, 2018. Additionally, it looks like the dirty laundry of the JCPD and HCPO is about to go public – which should be exciting to local news junkies that love to read about cops and watch courtroom drama.

The video below is eight minutes and twenty seconds summarizing the opening statements of HCPO First Deputy Assistant Prosecutor Peter Stoma and defense attorneys for Ascolese, Chesler, and O’Neill. Real Jersey City’s summary of what happened on the first day of the trial, including major points raised by Stoma and each lawyer, can be found after the video.


Multiple counts tossed before opening statements in bench trial

One of the more interesting aspects of the trial is that Hudson County Superior Court Judge Mirtha Ospina is both the judge & jury. That’s because the defense decided to go with a bench trial, which isn’t common for criminal cases, due to apparent difficulties with selecting a jury.

Furthermore, before opening statements even started, 10 counts from the original 107-count indictment were dismissed and another 3 were amended.

Stoma: Case is “circumstantial,” but not “de minimis” occurrence

Stoma’s case against the three officers is centered around 19 pay vouchers, which he claims were falsely signed by Ascolese (15) and Chesler (4) on behalf of O’Neill and two witnesses for the state. The vouchers were for JCPD off-duty jobs related to the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s (NJDOT) Pulaski Skyway and Route 139 rehabilitation projects – which Stoma alleges the officers didn’t work, but were ultimately paid for.

“[Ascolese] was designated as the commander from the very beginning of the [Pulaski Skyway] detail. A detail, your honor, that paid over $1.6 million in taxpayer money to police officers and supervisors staffing a detail in the first four months alone,” Stoma stated in his opening statement.

“I point that out, your honor, and I submit to you that would disavow any notion of this being some type of de minimis type of occurrence.”

NOTE: The definition of de minimis (adjective): too trivial or minor to merit consideration, especially in law.

The two main witnesses for the state are officers Michael Maietti and Joseph Widejko. Maietti was originally indicted by the HCPO with Ascolese, Chesler, and O’Neill, but has since decided to cooperate with Stoma and testify against the three officers.

Stoma acknowledged credibility issues with his witnesses will be raised, but told Ospina she would be “firmly convinced” that Maietti, O’Neill, and Widejko didn’t work the jobs they were paid for, and that Ascolese and Chesler knowingly signed their fraudulent pay vouchers. Defense lawyers suggested Maietti and Widejko’s testimonies are the result of favorable deals with the HCPO after being coerced by the state.

For O’Neill specifically, Stoma alleges that he submitted two false pay vouchers, signed by Ascolese, for a total of $400, in a conspiracy to be refunded for a motor vehicle collision he settled involving another member of the JCPD’s Motorcycle Squad.

“Michael O’Neill is here because he did a good deed,” said Stoma. “He took responsibility for attending to Mrs. Katherine Durango, a civilian in Jersey City… whose car was stuck by Jersey City motorcycle officer James Pollack.”

“[O’Neill] made good on his representations that he would take care of the damage to her car, and on June the 3rd, of 2014, Michael O’Neill, and the phone records are going to corroborate this your honor, Michael O’Neill met up with Katherine Durango, while on duty, and gave her $200 in cash.”

“It so happens, judge, that that day, June 3rd, 2014, Michael O’Neill submitted the first, of only two, false pay vouchers,” Stoma claimed as he framed the alleged conspiracy O’Neill stands trial for.

As he wrapped up his opening statement, Stoma admitted the case “is detail oriented, it’s paper oriented, and it is circumstantial to a large degree.”

“Circumstantial evidence can be more persuasive than direct evidence. Sometimes you don’t have to rely on the credibility of witnesses when you rely on circumstantial evidence.”

Sciarra criticizes conspiracy alleged to implicate O’Neill 

“It’s very curious that on May 1st and another date in 2014, when this thing first kicked up, Joe Ascolese signed Mike O’Neill’s vouchers, he got paid, and there’s nothing about that,” Charles Sciarra said in his opening statement.

Sciarra, who is representing O’Neill, claimed the prosecution exploited the Pollack incident to establish a motive – using two vouchers from early June 2014 to concoct a conspiracy.

“Maybe we can show something that remotely suggests some money left O’Neill’s pocket, and the money had to be returned to O’Neill’s pocket, so let’s establish something related to a motive,” Sciarra theorized about how Stoma built the charges against his client.

Lytle cites “deals of the century” for Maietti, Widejko, attacks “old guard” of JCPD Motorcycle Squad

Robert Lytle, the attorney representing Ascolese, did agree on one thing with Stoma – that the case is about an “abuse of power.”

“This case is indeed about an abuse of power,” Lytle stated. “It doesn’t involve an abuse of power by Joe Ascolese, or Kelly Chesler, or Michael O’Neill.”

“Make no mistake about it your honor, the evidence will show that this case is indeed about an abuse of power, and a terrible one at that. An abuse of power by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office and the Jersey City Police Department.”

Specifically, Lytle ripped the HCPO for giving out the “deals of the century” in exchange for testimony from Maietti and Widejko.

“The state abused its power by making the misguided decision to plug the holes in its investigation by effectively purchasing the testimony of its two cooperating witnesses,” Lytle said.

Lytle said Widejko was allowed to have his charges handled administratively and retire with his pension, while Maietti doesn’t have to plead guilty to any crimes after facing decades in prison under his deal with prosecutors. Lytle also revealed that Maietti recently entered into a settlement agreement with the City of Jersey City – for $80,000 – that “resolves a number of matters he was involved in.”

Additionally, Lytle cited divisions within the Motorcycle Squad and attacked the “old guard” for spearheading the abusive prosecution of the defendants in the case. Not only did he read the infamous “n-word, c-word” report allegedly written by then-Sgt. Terrence Crowley to Ospina, but he recalled an infamous inspection of the motorcycle squad from 2010 done by former Chief Robert “Bubba” Cowan (when Cowan was a captain).

“During the inspection of the motorcycle squad locker room, numerous pornographic posters and mens magazines were found, along with x-rated videotapes that could be played on a nearby TV, and to top it off, the refrigerator in the locker room was found to contain alcohol,” Lytle stated when describing the culture of the unit under Crowley and then-Lt. Leonidas “Lou” Karras’ command.

Garrigan says case would be laughable if it weren’t for serious consequences

“If this wasn’t such a serious case with such serious consequences, it would actually be laughable,” attorney Jeffrey Garrigan said about the situation Chesler, his client, is facing.

Additionally, Garrigan skewered prosecutors for the “time, effort, and resources that went into this case against Kelly Chesler for four vouchers.”

“We’re talking about $800 here, Judge,” Garrigan stressed to Ospina. “And Kelly Chesler didn’t get a nickel out of it. Not one nickel.”

Garrigan stated that “when you look at the totality of the circumstances, and you’re gonna ask yourself, and I’m talking about all these vouchers and all these paperwork I’m going to show you, that’s not worth the paper it’s written on, you’re going to see that it doesn’t make any sense.”

“After 15 years on the job, about to become a captain, first female captain in City of Jersey City, and she’s going to sign these four [vouchers] to give these guys freebies, cause why? Cause she can?”

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Expect more analysis of the opening statements, as a lot was said and it’s difficult to cover everything in one report.

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