CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Former Wildwood police Sgt. David Romeo, convicted of official misconduct for kicking two handcuffed suspects, apologized Thursday to the men at the center of the case.
“First of all, I’d like to apologize to Mr. Haege and Mr. McCullough for the bad acts I did back in July of 2007,” Romeo said.
A jury convicted Romeo in March 2010 of kicking Gilbert Haege and Louis McCullough in the head as the two men were handcuffed and lying on the ground in a Wildwood parking lot.
The apology came as Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten re-sentenced Romeo to a five-year prison term.
Romeo, 43, was originally sentenced in May 2010, but at that time Batten opted not to require Romeo to serve the mandatory sentence of five years without parole for the second-degree crime.
Romeo appealed his sentence and the state appealed Batten’s decision not to impose the parole ineligibility term. He was allowed to remain free pending the appeal.
A state appellate panel ruled in August that Romeo was not entitled to a new trial, but it required that the sentence be revisited.
Batten found Thursday that requiring Romeo to serve five years without the possibility of parole would constitute a “serious injustice.”
“I am satisfied that this judge cannot do a better job than I did that day,” Batten said of his initial May 2010 decision.
Batten said that the mitigating factors in the case outweighed the aggravating factors considered at sentencing and he also pointed to Romeo’s conduct the last three years.
Batten left the five-year sentence in place and said that Romeo would be eligible for parole after serving 1 year and 5 days. He received credit for 29 days served in the Atlantic County Jail.
Romeo, clad in an orange jail outfit, was tearful as he addressed the court.
He apologized to his wife, Jessica, and his children for embarrassing them and “making them go through this burden that I have put on them.”
“I am also embarrassed and ashamed to my mother and father that I embarrassed their name, Romeo, which has been around for over 80 years in this community, upstanding until I myself did that name wrong,” he said, his voice choked with emotion.
He told Batten he wanted to get back to work to support his family “so my parents don’t have to fill in for me.”
Defense attorney Louis Barbone told the judge that the family had been struggling and was facing foreclosure.
Romeo’s troubles began on July 24, 2007, the day several members of the Wildwood Police Department were tracking two men suspected of breaking into cars parked near the Boardwalk.
The men, Haege and McCullough, were caught and as they were being arrested Romeo arrived on the scene.
At trial, fellow officers Walt Cubernot, Edward Ramsey and Roger Lillo testified that the suspects were subdued and no weapon was present when they were kicked.
But Romeo told jurors that there was a weapon, identified as a Leatherman multipurpose tool, on the ground.
Then-Assistant Prosecutor Matthew Weintraub had Ramsey kick a handcuffed foam mannequin in the courtroom to demonstrate what happened. Ramsey, playing the part of Romeo, kicked the mannequins in the head.
“He kicked Haege in the face,” Ramsey told the jury. “I watched him do it. It was done intentionally.”
During the original sentencing, Batten had the option of not imposing the minimum sentence if he found “clear and convincing evidence that extraordinary circumstances exist such that imposition of a mandatory minimum term would be a serious injustice which overrides the need to deter such conduct in others.”
At the time, Batten said Romeo was a career police officer and longtime Cape May County resident who served as the sole provider for his family. He also said Romeo suffered from several health problems, and found the sentence would be disproportionate to the crime.
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