EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — A sleek black body. Eighteen-inch rims. Blue-and-red mood lighting. Booming bass.
Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough was shocked the first time the Benz pulled out in front of him with one of the township’s uniform officers behind the wheel.
“I was like, ‘Whoa,’” he said. “’How am I going to explain this to the taxpayers?’”
No, the Police Department hasn’t been infiltrated by drug dealers. If anything, it’s the other way around. The suped-up 1987 Mercedes Benz 420, fittingly, once belonged to a marijuana grower and dealer. Now, it’s an educational tool for the township’s D.A.R.E. program.
“It gets the name out there,” said Officer Michael Palmentieri. “Hopefully, kids see the car out there and they remember the program — not to smoke, drink alcohol or do drugs, and to avoid violence.”
The car also serves as a not-so-subtle reminder that crime doesn’t pay, since its original owner lost it when his operation was raided. But obtaining it was a long and winding road for EHT police.
Palmentieri said he and previous D.A.R.E. coordinators have always wanted one, since they immediately attract the attention of the kids. All of the township’s fifth-graders go through the program.
Starting in 2005, when Palmentieri took over the program, he kept a keen eye on the township impound lot. Despite a few close calls, none of the cars fit the bill. In one case, a retro police car was so rusted, the auto body technician said he didn’t have enough filler to even begin to paint.
“They needed so much work, we couldn’t ask someone to donate all that time,” he said.
Three years into his search, the police executed a search warrant on a drug dealer growing a substantial amount of marijuana in his house. They recovered three vehicles, including a newer Mercedes Benz and a Lexus that were sold at auction. The older Mercedes 420, which didn’t sport any lavish upgrades, didn’t sell.
“This is the one they couldn’t make any money off of, so they gave it to me,” he said. “But, for the purpose it serves, it’s perfect.”
Thus began more than three years of work, with all of the labor and most of the parts donated by local businesses. Palmentieri said the department paid just $2,700 — out of a school resource officer fund — for the wheels and the sound system.
John Coyle, owner of Cornell’s Auto Body in Egg Harbor City, said he’s worked on quite a few drug dealers’ rides, including one whose car was confiscated from the shop. He was glad to paint a car for the good guys, he said.
“I think it’s the coolest thing — and if it helps one child, I’m happy,” he said. “Maybe they’ll look at it and see that if I turn to this style of life that could be my car sitting there.”
Egg Harbor Township-based Municipal Equipment Enterprises, which outfits traditional police vehicles, installed “mood lighting” in the interior and lights under the chassis that illuminate the road.
“Seeing where it came from and knowing how it was acquired, it felt really good to work on a car like that,” said owner Len Polistina.
Palmentieri said other businesses that donated parts or labor included Birch’s Communications in Mays Landing, Creative Graphics in EHT and One Stop Car Audio in Northfield.
“It was a big effort with a lot of people,” he said. “We appreciate them all, considering we were getting all the work done at a time there was no money in the budget for any of this stuff.”
Given the car’s tendency to turn heads, Palmentieri said he’s babying the Benz for now.
“I don’t drive it every day,” he said. “I don’t want someone to run into it because people do turn their heads when they’re driving - it’s scary.”
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