CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — At his sentencing for dumping medical waste off Avalon’s coastline, Thomas McFarland Jr. spoke publicly for the first time Friday but offered no direct apology and little explanation.
“I sincerely regret that I’m here today for this matter,” the 61-year-old Wynnewood, Pa., dentist told Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten. “It’ll never happen again.”
McFarland received four years’ probation and paid Avalon $100,000 for the August 2008 crime, in which he threw 260 needles, 180 cotton swabs and some plastic containers overboard near Townsends Inlet.
McFarland later told his psychiatrist he did it “to destroy myself.”
The waste shut Avalon’s beaches five times in August and stirred a scare on the state’s coast — its economic tourism engine — shortly before the Labor Day holiday.
“The very notion of what occurred here is horrific,” Batten said.
McFarland, who has a summer home in Avalon Manor, Middle Township, lived an otherwise crime-free life, his attorney Carl Poplar said. He is still under psychiatric treatment.
“He’s going to resume his life the best he can,” Poplar said outside of court.
Reading from a report from McFarland’s psychiatrist, Batten said McFarland was diagnosed as “acutely and severely depressed, hopeless and suicidal.” He had a severe psychiatric disorder exacerbated by his wife’s cancer.
McFarland pleaded guilty in March to fourth-degree unlawful discharge of water pollutants through a unusual plea deal that involves him paying Avalon $100,000 — about $70,000 to reimburse the cleanup expenses of overtime and equipment, and the remainder for future environmental programs in the borough.
McFarland could have faced five years in prison if convicted at trial, but because of his otherwise clean record, he would likely have not faced prison time, Deputy Attorney General Edward Bonanno said.
Bonanno said the outcome — and the size of the compensation — sends a clear message, and an important one in New Jersey.
“This had a really important impact on the perception of people and the cleanliness of the state’s beaches,” Bonanno said.
The dumping of medical waste had an immeasurable effect on Avalon and the New Jersey shore, from its economic activity to its image, Batten said. How many shops sold fewer T-shirts? How many people decided not to visit the shore because of the needle scare? Batten asked.
Avalon Mayor Martin Pagliughi saw firsthand the effects of needles of the beach. Borough employees repeatedly combed the beaches in late August 2008, wearing plastic gloves and carrying buckets, sometimes walking past beachgoers to do so.
The news and photographs of those days circulated around the country, leaving unflattering images of an area dependent on tourism for its livelihood.
“I’m just glad it’s the end of the chapter,” said Pagliughi, who did not attend the court proceeding. “I’m glad it was investigated properly and it was not an ongoing scare.”
“I believe it’s probably fair,” he said of the outcome in court. “I’m not going to second guess the judge.”
Prosecutors had the $100,000 cashier’s check in hand on Friday.
McFarland also owes $155 in court costs and surcharges, which he has 30 days to pay, according to the sentencing. He also has a $10 per month probation fee and had to submit a DNA sample. As a term of probation, McFarland has to continue seeing his psychiatrist.
McFarland still owns a $970,000 home in Avalon Manor, according to property records.
McFarland appeared in court Friday afternoon wearing brown pants and a navy blue sports jacket, the attire he’s worn for many of his court appearances. His wife Joanne was in court as well.
On Aug. 22 of 2008, McFarland took his boat from his summer home in Avalon Manor, a small enclave of predominantly seasonal homes with water views, to nearby Townsends Inlet, where he dumped the medical materials from his practice into the water.
The tide brought the needs ashore the next day on a one-mile stretch of beach in northern Avalon.
On Sept. 2, 2008, McFarland confessed to authorities at the Avalon Police Department. At the time, investigators were narrowing their search by tracking serial numbers on the dental needles.
Later different types of medical debris surfaced in much smaller quantities in other shore towns in Cape May and Atlantic counties, although state officials suggested those unrelated cases were due to heightened awareness, copy cat criminals or severe weather.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said the crime affected many in New Jersey.
“This particular crime fortunately the outcome was OK and everyone recovered, but people could have gotten sick from this, it harmed the reputation of a community and hurt the reputation of the state,” said Van Drew, who is also a dentist.
In a statement, Assemblymen Nelson Albano and Matt Milam, both D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said the punishment did not match the havoc caused on the shoreline.
Recently enacted legislation has since doubled the fines from illegal medical waste dumping in New Jersey to $100,000 per day, they said.
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