A Passaic County sheriff’s officer charged with aggravated assault went to state court in Paterson Tuesday to defend himself against allegations he was reckless when shooting a drug suspect who eluded his pursuit.
The man defendant Raphael Garcia of Haledon shot and wounded in the left arm testified before state Superior Court Judge Raymond A. Reddin that Garcia was in plain clothes, wore no badge and never identified himself as an officer as he walked toward his car “at a fast pace” with gun drawn.
“I thought he was a gang member or something who was trying to rob me,” said Todd De Lucca, 36, of Park Ridge. De Lucca, an unemployed construction worker and printer, said he had driven to the Riverside Terrace Housing Complex at Plesinger Place and 5th Avenue in Paterson on Feb. 27, 2009, about 2:45 p.m. to buy $18 worth of heroin and visit friends.
His account contradicted earlier testimony from a 20-year veteran Passaic County sheriff’s officer, who was on the warrant detail with Garcia that day. He testified that Garcia was clearly wearing his badge when he emerged from the unmarked vehicle they were both in and approached the suspect. Lt. Francesco Lombardo said he saw De Lucca’s vehicle moving forward and then heard a pop.
A grand jury indicted Detective Raphael Garcia on one count of fourth-degree aggravated assault in July. He faces as much as 18 months in state prison if found guilty.
The trial is being held without a jury. The defendant, with the prosecutor’s assent, chose a non-jury trial before state Superior Court Judge Raymond A. Reddin in Paterson.
Garcia was put on modified duty following his indictment in July. County officials said at the time that he was taken off the street and would not carry a weapon pending the case’s outcome.
Garcia is the son of former Passaic County Jail Warden Felix Garcia, who in 2008 announced he was gearing up to challenge Sheriff Jerry Speziale in 2010. The 30-year veteran of the Passaic County Sheriff's Department was embroiled in a wrongful termination lawsuit against Speziale for four years. Speziale fired Garcia in February 2003 for allegedly disregarding department regulations. The litigation was eventually settled.
De Lucca, In explaining his actions, said, “It’s a high-crime, drug-dealing, gang-related area. It’s extremely dangerous.” Thus, when he saw Garcia coming toward him in street clothes and aiming a gun, the last thing he thought was that he was about to be arrested.
“I immediately thought to get the hell out of there, to avoid bodily injury. I hit the gas. But at no time was he in front of my car,” he testified, noting he never aimed the car directly at Garcia. “I heard a bang. The glass in my car shattered on the driver’s side door window.”
At that point, he testified that things got “foggy” and he can’t remember every detail. “I was in a daze,” he said, as he realized he’d been shot in the left arm. He said he heard people screaming at him and only then did they identify themselves as officers.
De Lucca, who was treated for his injury and recovered, was charged and pleaded guilty to drug possession. He is currently serving a two-year probationary sentence. He appeared in court limping and with a cane, explaining that it was due to lower back problems that he has suffered for some 15 years and for which he takes a variety of pain medications.
“If you knew this was a police officer, would you have stopped?” asked Passaic County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Paul Di Lella.
“Yes, I would have. I could have avoided a lot of trouble.” He later added: “I know better.”
The defense argues that Garcia was acting in self defense, as DeLucca gunned the car toward him and failed to heed Garcia’s warnings to stop. Under cross examination by defense attorney Robert Galantucci of Hackensack, De Lucca admitted he’d been charged seven times in the past with resisting arrest.
Di Lella strenuously objected to the introduction of that history, as only one of those arrests resulted in a conviction and the other charges were dismissed. Reddin allowed it, however, saying the charge Garcia faces is too serious to discount it as part of his defense.
“So you’re saying these officers came after you and shot you because you bought $18 worth of heroin,” Galantucci said, sounding skeptical.
“Yes,” De Lucca responded, noting he only gunned his engine when he was parallel to – or alongside – Garcia and that he was never driving straight at him.