TOMS RIVER - Jahmell Crockam had to think - and act - fast when a police officer drove up next to him.
According to Corey Rua, he did.
"He said, ‘The cop seemed like he was reaching,' and he (Crockam) shot first," Rua testified Thursday in Crockam's trial on murder and weapons charges stemming from the Jan. 14, 2011, shooting death of Lakewood Officer Christopher Matlosz. The officer was shot behind the wheel of his police cruiser.
Rua, a longtime friend of Crockam's mother and a career criminal who has spent 10 of the past 20 years in prison on drug and other convictions, recalled driving to Camden and speaking with Crockam on the night the officer was killed. Prosecutors say Crockam fled to an apartment there to avoid an intense dragnet searching for him.
"At first, he said that he didn't do it," Rua testified. "I said, ‘This is me. Keep it honest.'" Crockam then admitted shooting Matlosz, explaining that it was a kill-or-be killed situation, Rua testified.
"It looked like (the officer) was reaching for his gun," Rua quoted Crockam as saying. "He whipped out his gun and shot the cop."
Rua's testimony contradicted evidence and testimony presented by the prosecution that Matlosz's gun was still firmly seated in his holster when his body was removed from the patrol car. A crime scene video recorded by the on-board video camera inside Matlosz's cruiser, activated by a responding officer after Matlosz had already been shot, shows a police supervisor struggling to remove the dead officer's weapon from its holster.
In court, police Capt. Gregory Meyer testified at length about the steps that have to be taken, including latches and other locking devices that have to be unfastened before an officer can draw his weapon. Asked last week how easy it is for a seated police officer to draw his weapon, Meyer responded: "It's extremely difficult."
On Thursday, Rua said he went to Camden to ask Crockam if he had killed the officer. When Crockam admitted he had, Rua said, he asked him where the gun was.
"He said, ‘It's right here.' He pulled it out of his pocket," Rua testified.
Rua said he and two other men whose names he does not know drove about 15 to 20 minutes away from the apartment where Crockam was hiding, finding a secluded spot along the Delaware River where one of the two men threw the gun into the river.
Rua said he was in contact with Crockam's mother, who wanted her son to turn himself in to police. Crockam eventually agreed, saying he would spend one more night in Camden, at a motel, before turning himself in to a police officer with whom his mother had already made arrangements. But Crockam never went to the motel, and police arrested him early the next morning at the apartment where he had been hiding.
Also Thursday, the jury heard from a prison inmate who said he was friends with Crockam before they both were arrested. Ronnie Crippen, of Lakewood, testified that he was locked up in the Ocean County Jail in January 2011 at the same time Crockam was there after his arrest in the Matlosz shooting.
Crippen testified that Crockam approached him one day in jail and began talking about the killing.
"He told me he shot the officer," Crippen testified. "He was walking down the street and the officer passed him and then backed up and asked him for ID. When he walked back to the car, he pulled out the gun and shot him: Pow! Pow!
"He said the reason why was he had previous charges and he didn't want to go to jail," Crippen testified, supporting a prosecution contention that Crockam knew there were outstanding warrants for his arrest on weapons charges and that he killed the officer to avoid being arrested.
Currently incarcerated, Crippen also faces numerous drug and weapons charges that have yet to go to trial. If convicted of those, he could get an additional 126½ years in prison. Crockam's lawyer suggested the potential extra prison time is ample motive for Crippen to say what he thinks prosecutors want to hear.