Where one man sorts out his thoughts in public



Essays by Me

Essays by Others



August 3, 2005

Grim Account of Police Error in New Jersey Boys' Deaths


CAMDEN, N.J., Aug. 2 - The police officers failed to talk to one another. They waited too long to call in the bloodhounds. And although more than 150 officers scoured the neighborhood where three children vanished in June, no one thought to open the trunk of a broken-down Toyota parked in the weeds of a yard where the children had last been seen.

In an extensive, highly critical report released on Tuesday, city and county authorities outlined, step by step, an alarming series of blunders that resulted in three boys dying curled up in a car trunk. But Vincent P. Sarubbi, the Camden County prosecutor who ordered the investigation, said that no one would be disciplined. "I don't think any purpose would be served to have heads roll," he said.

The report seemed to confirm what angry Camden residents have been saying all along: this did not have to happen. And of all the errors, the authorities kept returning to the very one that has haunted residents since the beginning: there was no excuse for police officers not to open that trunk.

"This was, plain and simple, a mistake," Mr. Sarubbi said. "Common sense would have told you to look into the trunk."

The report shed light on some lingering questions, but did not answer them all. There is still no explanation of how three boys - Anibal Cruz, 11, Daniel Agosto, 6, and Jesstin Pagan, 5 - could be trapped in a car in a yard swarming with people without anyone hearing anything.

"That is one of the bigger mysteries," Mr. Sarubbi said. "It's constantly going through my mind."

The search, it seems, was doomed by close calls. In the early hours of the investigation, one officer even banged on the trunk and called out the boys' names. Nobody answered, and the officer moved on.

Law enforcement agencies are often criticized for not owning up to their mistakes. But in unusually blunt language, Mr. Sarubbi built a case that showed how the personnel under his command as the county's top law enforcement agent failed in many ways, from communication breakdowns and slowness in bringing in the best tracking dogs to failing to cordon off the crime scene and ignoring nationally recognized guidelines that specifically tell officers looking for children to search car trunks.

Mr. Sarubbi said the lessons learned from the investigation go far beyond the gritty streets of Camden, a notoriously poor and violent city. More than 350 people have died trapped in car trunks in the United States since 1970, according to Kids and Cars, a national car safety organization.

"Nobody even knows how big the problem is," said Janette Fennell, a former marketing executive who founded Kids and Cars after she and her husband were carjacked in San Francisco and stuffed in the trunk of their Lexus. "It's especially dangerous for kids, who think it's cute to go into a car and hide."

The Camden report said that the boys had apparently climbed into the trunk to make a fort.

They were missing for nearly 50 hours, from 5 p.m. on June 22, when they were last seen playing in a side yard, to 6:45 p.m. on June 24, when a relative looking for jumper cables discovered them in the trunk. Autopsy results indicated that the boys had died 16 to 36 hours before they were found, which means they may have been alive during much of the search.

Mr. Sarrubi said one of his biggest regrets was finding out - only after the boys died - that the oldest boy, Anibal, had played in the car several times and knew how to fold down the back seat to get to the trunk. He faulted Anibal's parents for not sharing that information earlier, and the investigators for not asking.

"There's enough blame to go around - the city, the police and the family," Mr. Sarubbi said at a press conference shortly after the report was released.

The report, written by three high-ranking Camden law enforcement officers chosen by Mr. Sarubbi, also concluded that the children had not tried to claw their way out of the trunk, because there were no scrapes or bruises on their hands. Their shoes were found on the floor of the car, but the report said no officers ever opened the doors for a closer look.

Mr. Sarubbi also said that the parents of the three boys should have called the police earlier. They had waited three hours.

At the press conference, Edwin Figueroa, the Camden police chief, stood at Mr. Sarubbi's side. Only after repeated questioning did the chief acknowledge that his officers had made a mistake.

"We didn't search the trunk, and we should have," Chief Figueroa said.

No officers were singled out, and Mr. Sarubbi's decision not to punish anyone frustrated some residents.

"These guys shouldn't be let off the hook," said John DiPompo, a retired building inspector. "I mean, how stupid can you be?"

From the beginning, the pendulum of blame has swung back and forth between police and parents. Mr. Sarubbi said he hoped the report would bring some closure. But representatives for relatives of the boys are still asking questions.

"Why weren't dogs used the first night? Why wasn't the training there?" said Peter M. Villari, a lawyer for the mother of Anibal Cruz. "My client was told not to go near that car because it was part of a crime scene. How do you think she feels now?"