Judge Mirtha Ospina dropped the hammer on the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office case against all three defendants when she acquitted JCPD Officer Michael O’Neill of all charges, and retired Capt. Joseph Ascolese of related charges, following a Reyes motion by O’Neill’s attorney.
“The State v. Reyes is one of our seminal cases,” Hudson County Superior Court Judge Mirtha Ospina began as she read her decision in The State vs Joseph Ascolese, Kelly Chesler, and Michael O’Neill – essentially ending the “paper oriented” aspect of the “circumstantial case” being tried by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office (HCPO).
The ruling came one day after Charles Sciarra, attorney for Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) Officer Michael O’Neill, filed a Reyes motion – to have the charges against his client dismissed based on the state’s lack of evidence. First Deputy Assistant Prosecutor Peter Stoma agreed to have the motion heard, prior to the state resting their case, under the stipulation that Ospina would review Officer Anthony Ruocco’s statement to investigators.
Specifically, the statement Ruocco provided alluded to a potential voucher-as-refund scheme to payback O’Neill for fixing a woman’s car damaged by another Motorcycle Squad officer – now-Sgt. James Pollack – after an apparent hit-and-run.
Judge Ospina ultimately acquitted O’Neill of all his charges (2 pay vouchers, $400 of theft), and retired Capt. Joseph Ascolese of related charges for signing the vouchers, and apologized to O’Neill for the officer having to wait “one more day” for his two-year ordeal to end.
Part 1 of Ospina’s decision dismissed the paperwork case against not only O’Neill, but Ascolese and Lt. Kelly Chesler, too, as part of a pattern of anomalies with the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) Skyway Rehabilitation Project. In the process, Ospina criticized JCPD officials for not having clear standard operating procedures (SOP) for the off-duty work.
Additionally, Ospina found provisional-Deputy Chief Neil Donnelly’s testimony to be credible, but noted that Donnelly flip-flopped back and forth between whether an officer’s pay voucher or his patrol log was accurate. Similarly, she found Capt. David Brown credible, noting how his testimony highlighted the chaotic nature of the job and how the master sheet was unreliable because of changing traffic patterns and staffing issues.
Part 2 of Ospina’s decision found no favorable inference from the statements Ruocco provided to the HCPO which could warrant a conviction. Rather, the judge ripped investigators and assistant prosecutors for not clarifying what Ruocco meant when he repeated “you know” multiple times while being asked about the voucher-as-refund scheme – especially given that Ruocco is a sworn law enforcement officer.
Based on O’Neill’s two pay vouchers being signed by Ascolese, whom Ospina noted had the ability to do so as Skyway Commander, affirmed by every officer’s testimony, and Ruocco’s worthless statement to HCPO investigators, the judge acquitted O’Neill of all charges.
After Ospina was done reading her decision, she was prepared to move forward with Stoma’s next witness, but the HCPO had to end the 14th day of trial and recalculate their case against Ascolese & Chesler after the judge’s decision.
Officer Michael Maietti, a former co-defendant of Ascolese, Chesler, and O’Neill, and the state’s star witness, is likely to be one of the next to testify for the state. Eighteen months after all four of the officers were indicted and lost their incomes, Maietti agreed to a plea deal which defense attorneys have characterized as generous – including an August 15, 2018, settlement agreement for $80,000 with the City of Jersey City to settle his lawsuit and provide favorable testimony for the Fulop Administration.
VIDEO OF JUDGE MIRTHA OSPINA’S DECISION BELOW: