‘HCPOmageddon’: JCPD cops face tough cross-exams, 10th day ends with Cho & Stoma as courthouse joke

The ineptitude of the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office was on full display as Judge Mirtha Ospina provided an impromptu Constitutional Law seminar to the state’s attorneys before the trial’s 10th day ended.

Judge Mirtha Ospina’s courtroom on the 10th day of The State of New Jersey vs Joseph Ascolese, Kelly Chesler, and Michael O’Neill.

Given that The State of New Jersey vs Joseph Ascolese, Kelly Chesler, and Michael O’Neill is a bench trial, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Mirtha Ospina has a lot on her plate. By the end of the trial’s 10th day, Constitutional Law professor was added to her duties after she schooled First Deputy Assistant Prosecutor Peter Stoma on the rights of criminal defendants.

Needless to say, it was an embarrassing moment for the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office (HCPO) – concluding another day of witness testimony which raised more questions about the state’s investigation than the actual defendants on trial.

Testifying on October 3, 2018, for the HCPO, in order, was Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) Officer Tommy Zambrzycki (completing his testimony which started the previous day), Sgt. Kevin O’Mara, and Officer Chino Kang – each of whom faced serious questions related to their own suspect anomalies.

Unsigned vouchers, suspect signature highlights Zambrzycki’s testimony

Under direct examination from Stoma, Zambrzycki testified to working New Jersey Department of Transportation (NDJOT) Skyway Project off-duty jobs, specifically on May 29, 2014, 1&9/Broadway, with then-Sgt. Michael Dillon as supervisor; June 6, 2014, 18th St./Marin Blvd., with then-Lt. Neil Donnelly as supervisor; June 10, 2014, 18th St./Marin Blvd., with then-Sgt. Joseph Santiago as supervisor; and July 1, 2014, 18th St./Marin Blvd., with then-Sgt. Edward Nestor as supervisor.

On the aforementioned dates, retired Capt. Joseph Ascolese and Lt. Kelly Chesler are accused by the state of signing fraudulent vouchers, totaling $800, for Officer Michael Maietti, their former co-defendant, who is the HCPO’s star witness that has yet to testify.

Of interest, Zambrzycki testified that he couldn’t recall working an NJDOT off-duty job with Officer Carlos Castillo, yet both were booked for the 18th St./Marin Blvd. post on June 6, 2014.

On cross-examination, Robert Lytle, Ascolese’s attorney, tied Zambrzycki to one of the most infamous names in JCPD off-duty history, and raised serious questions surrounding unsigned vouchers equivalent in monetary value to the charges Officer Michael O’Neill stands trial for.

Specifically, on Zambrzycki’s NJDOT pay voucher for September 25, 2014, former North District “Pickmaster” Juan Romaniello signed as the supervisor – even though he was only a police officer in rank. Romaniello was the first JCPD officer to be taken down by the ongoing federal investigation, pleading guilty to a $230,000 off-duty hustle.

For the date of June 26, 2014, Zambrzycki’s NJDOT pay voucher had no signature, the officer wasn’t on the off-duty master sheet, and no supervisor was covering the post at 18th St./Marin Blvd. The officer testified that there were occasions when an officer would be at a post, but no supervisor came out to sign the voucher.

When questioned about the date of July 16, 2014, things got real mysterious.

Zambrzycki submitted unsigned vouchers for the morning post at Routes 1&9/Sip Ave., and evening post at 18th St./Marin Blvd., for 7/16/14. In both instances, Zambrzycki’s name wasn’t on the NJDOT off-duty master sheet and wasn’t booked into corresponding supervisor patrol logs, yet those records appeared to match for many other police officers who worked posts in the respective districts.

At the end of Lytle’s cross-examination, Zambrzycki testified that no one from the HCPO or JCPD Internal Affairs Unit (IAU) ever asked him about his own off-duty anomalies. On redirect from Stoma, Zambrzycki said he had no recollection of Romaniello signing his pay vouchers, and out of 30-40 details worked, he couldn’t recall how many times a supervisor didn’t show up.


Garrigan rehashes Sgt. O’Mara’s HCPO interview, questions ‘mistakes’

Under direct examination from Stoma, Sgt. O’Mara testified to being the East District NJDOT off-duty supervisor for June 2, 2014. According to O’Mara’s patrol log, not independent recollection, he booked then-Sgt. Robert Majury and P.O. Kang at the Columbus/Marin Blvd. post. Per the patrol log, he didn’t see Maietti, whose voucher for the post was signed by Ascolese.

On cross-examination, Jeffrey Garrigan, Chesler’s attorney, rehashed O’Mara’s interview with HCPO and JCPD IAU investigators – which was “compelled” and “involuntary” at the same time. According to the transcript, Det. Michael Signorile of the HCPO said the interview was not a reflection on O’Mara because his paperwork was “spot on.”

During the HCPO interview, O’Mara stated that he would take notes on the unsaved master sheet before filling out his patrol log when working as an NJDOT off-duty supervisor. He also testified that he couldn’t picture Maietti’s face during the HCPO interview, but under cross-examination said he knew of him as a Motorcycle Squad officer.

Furthermore, O’Mara had no independent recollection of the 6/2/14 date, including the Columbus/Marin Blvd. post from that morning, beyond his patrol log. Though he never saw Maietti on that date, per the patrol log, the officers he did see were booked at different times – Majury (6:15 AM) and Kang (8:00 AM).

It’s unclear why the separate booking times occurred, even though both officer’s pay vouchers had them on the post from 6-10 AM that morning. O’Mara did state in his HCPO interview that if a post was uncovered, he would make a radio call to the clerk to confirm the post was uncovered – which other officers could hear.

Of interest, O’Mara asked Signorile and JCPD Lt. Robert Sjosward if they had preserved radio calls to back up his statement – which the investigators were apparently unable to do because their inquiry started after the records were destroyed. That said, some radio transmissions from the dates in question, preserved due to Open Public Records Act requests, were discovered by JCPD officials during the trial and turned over to defense attorneys.

The booking time discrepancy was the most important of many inconsistencies Garrigan brought to O’Mara’s attention, which had the JCPD sergeant flip-flopping as to what paperwork should be trusted when anomalies occur. O’Mara ultimately testified his records were accurate, but that a few mistakes existed – some of which may have occurred when he transferred notes from his master sheet to patrol log.


Kang defensive on 6/2/14 voucher, testimony turns Cho & Stoma into courthouse joke

As previously reported, by the time HCPO Assistant Prosecutor Charles Cho was done with his direct examination of Officer Joseph “Joe” Torre the previous day, it was apparent he needed to be reassigned to the minor leagues for New Jersey prosecutors. By the time Kang’s testimony was done, it seemed like Stoma may need to join him in the minors.

Under direct examination by Cho, Kang testified to working off-duty on May 20, 2014, and June 2, 2014. The 5/20/14 date was used as an example to highlight the integrity of Kang’s pay voucher, signed by Majury – his apparent co-worker on 6/2/14 – because the officer was paid for only one hour of work from the four-hour sift.

At one point, Kang elicited laughter after stating that supervisors signed his pay vouchers with a pen during Cho’s questioning.

On cross-examination, Lytle questioned Kang heavily on his 6/2/14 pay voucher – specifically whether the start time appeared to have a 7 that was changed to a 6. Kang acknowledged that the start time appeared to be changed, but that it was possibly a result of how he sometimes writes the number 6.

Officer Chino Kang’s pay voucher from June 2, 2014.

Despite the start time anomaly, Kang was uncompromising, stating that he definitely worked all four hours that day because his pay voucher said so – even though he wasn’t booked on O’Mara’s patrol log at 6:15 AM like Majury was. Kang was never asked questions by investigators regarding the booking discrepancy.

Lytle also questioned Kang on “book by phone,” specifically whether the officer ever recalled signing a supervisor’s signature to his pay voucher after receiving permission by phone – which the officer denied ever occurring. Yet, for July 8, 2014, Kang couldn’t explain how a voucher, supposedly signed by then-Sgt. Vincent Corso, didn’t match with Corso’s signature on other pay vouchers for officers booked in the supervisor’s patrol log from that day.

On redirect, Stoma, not Cho, handled the rehabilitation of the state’s witness – drawing an objection from Garrigan. When Stoma questioned what specific rule made it that Cho had to handle the redirect, Judge Ospina responded that she was under the belief the prosecutors were splitting up the witnesses – which is why she delayed the trial for a week with Stoma out sick.

Stoma pushed back at Ospina, pointing to how defense attorneys had so far been handling cross-examinations – prompting the judge to give the prosecutor a Constitutional Law lesson as to the defendants rights. After the brief educational moment, Garrigan withdrew the objection.

Of note, according to a Jersey Journal article from 2012, Ospina spent 14 years as an assistant prosecutor at the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office – where she tried more than 60 cases – before she was sworn in as a Superior Court judge.

In the end, all Stoma asked Kang was whether he knew Maietti and if he ever recalled working an off-duty post with him. The officer answered yes and no, respectively.


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