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Atlantic City police officer indicted in violent 2013 arrest

CAMDEN — An Atlantic City police officer was arrested Thursday following a federal grand jury indictment in a violent 2013 arrest in which he allegedly unleashed his K-9 on a Linwood man and justified the excessive force by writing up false reports.

David Connor Castellani, 25, said he required hundreds of stitches to repair bites by Officer Sterling Wheaten’s police dog, Hagan, and settled an excessive-force lawsuit against Atlantic City for $3 million in September of last year.

Atlantic City police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Fair declined to comment on the allegations.

In his report, Wheaten, now a detective in the Criminal Investigations Section, wrote that Castellani “violently assaulted uniformed law enforcement officer[s] with hands and fists” and that he “was going to get up and retrieve his weapon to injure us and flee the area endangering the public,” according to the indictment.

The indictment is “further vindication of the actions of Connor Castellani on that horrific night in the summer of 2013,” said Castellani’s lawyer, Steve Scheffler.

“Connor is a very humble young man that takes no joy in the misfortune of Officer Wheaten,” Scheffler said in a statement. “Notwithstanding, if this matter was properly handled by the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office at the time of the event five years ago, the actions of the U.S. Attorney’s Office probably would not be necessary.”

A videotape taken by security cameras at Tropicana Atlantic City showed Castellani arguing with officers about 3 a.m. June 15, 2013. Castellani walked away from the officers and across the street, where he continued to yell at them. Castellani then walked back toward the officers yelling and pointing, and then was taken down by Officer Darrin Lorady, with other officers quickly running toward the scene.

Castellani excessive force law suit settles for $3 million

A Linwood man seriously injured in an arrest outside the Tropicana Atlantic City in 2013, requiring hundreds of stitches to repair bites by a police dog, has settled an excessive-force lawsuit against Atlantic City for $3 million, his attorney confirmed Sunday.

Wheaten then pulled up and released his police dog.

After the incident, a grand jury cleared the officers of wrongdoing and charged Castellani, who required more than 200 stitches from the police dog’s bites, with aggravated assault on a police officer and resisting arrest. He also was indicted on a lesser charge of inflicting harm on a law-enforcement animal.

After pleading not guilty, Castellani completed pretrial intervention,which allows defendants without a criminal record to avoid prosecution, and all charges against him were dismissed.

4 charged in Millville youth football coach slaying

BRIDGETON — Four people were arrested Wednesday and charged in the August murder of Millville Midget Football League coach Joseph “JoJo” Jones, according to a statement from the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office.

Jones, 37, was shot at 8:15 p.m. Aug. 9 in the parking lot of Lakeside Middle School as athletes, coaches and parents were leaving after a Midget League practice. Jones’ 7-year-old son, an athlete on the team, was at the practice where his father was killed.

League President Rob Ennis Sr. declined to comment on the arrests.

“This homicide was particularly unsettling because it was committed in broad daylight at a football practice field in front of numerous children,” Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said. “It is my hope that these arrests assure the victim’s family, the children and the parents of the Millville Midget Football League and the greater community that law enforcement will do all in its power to bring those we allege are responsible to justice.”

Eugene Cosby, 42, of Malaga, Gloucester County, and Will El-Bey, 22, of Vineland, are both charged with homicide and conspiracy to commit homicide.

Genea Hughes-Lee, 34, of Malaga, and Tyrell Hart, 22, of Vineland, are charged with conspiracy to hinder apprehension, hindering apprehension, obstruction and two counts of false reports to law enforcement.

All four are being held in the Cumberland County jail pending a detention hearing.

The arrests come after a two-month investigation into what officials called a targeted attack. After the shooting, at least one masked individual drove away in what was described as a maroon sedan, Webb-McRae said.

The Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, State Police, Millville, Bridgeton and Vineland police, Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office and the Prosecutor’s Offices in Gloucester, Atlantic and Cape May counties investigated.

Borgata owner donates $500,000 toward A.C. Boys & Girls Club

ATLANTIC CITY — The Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City received a $500,000 donation Thursday from the parent company of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, followed by contributions from several other benefactors, in an effort to help build a new center for city teens.

MGM Resorts International made the initial investment to jumpstart a $2 million capital campaign that will fund the construction of the Teen Center for Economic Development & College Readiness.

At a press conference Thursday announcing the start of the campaign, Michelle Carrera, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City, said Tropicana Atlantic City and the property’s new ownership group, El Dorado Resorts, Bank of America, George and Patty Siganos, and several other donors each contributed $100,000 to the project, bringing the initial investment to $1 million.

The new facility will provide Atlantic City youth a space they can go to after school to develop the necessary skills to graduate high school, attend college or begin a career.

“Today we support about 1,900 youth a year. This center will not only help about 400 more kids, but it will expand our services to provide them with the skills and tools necessary to break the cycle of poverty,” said Carrera. “We could not transform the lives of so many without the support of MGM Resorts and our donors. Thanks to them, we are well on our way to creating a better future for thousands of Atlantic City youth.”

Programs that will be offered at the MGM Resorts International Teen Center for Economic Development & College Readiness include hands-on training in the health, hospitality and technology industries, complete with a teaching kitchen, simulation rooms and a fabrication lab. The center will also offer academic enrichment in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), high school tutoring, SAT prep and college access, in addition to community workforce development opportunities.

The $2 million will be used to upgrade the current Pennsylvania Avenue building. In December 2017, the city provided the Boys & Girls Club with a 30-year lease for a building on Drexel Avenue, directly behind the existing club, which will allow the transfer of the younger members to a building already equipped for preschool and elementary school-aged children. The current Boys & Girls Club building will be renovated into the MGM Teen Club.

Carrera said the goal is to have the new teen center open by the spring of 2019.

Mayor Frank Gilliam said that when the city was approached by the club to assist, “it was a no-brainer.”

“When you have the opportunity to say that you’re growing out of the space to improve children’s lives, that’s something that you can get behind 100 percent,” Gilliam said. “There’s no better way to spend money than investing in our kids.”

Providing better opportunities for Atlantic City’s youth was one of six areas of strategic focus highlighted in the state’s transition report released last month. The report, authored by Jim Johnson, a former U.S. Treasury undersecretary and 2017 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, outlined specific recommendations for the city in order to receive local control again.

Overdose donor becomes 'hero' for kidney transplant recipient

Tammy Tozer often tells people that not all heroes wear capes, because the person who saved her life isn’t usually portrayed as the protagonist in most stories.

After more than six years on an organ transplant list waiting for a kidney, Tozer, 40, of Ocean View, got a call last November that her transplant hospital had one for her. But there was a caveat: The donation was from a 22-year-old man who had died from a drug overdose.

“Because it was an overdose patient, they had to tell me if he had died from IV injection use, which he didn’t,” she said at Village Kitchen in Marmora on a recent Tuesday. “They asked me, ‘Do you want the kidney?’ I said, ‘Yeah, of course.’”

While efforts are being made to address the nationwide opioid epidemic, researchers have identified a spike in organ donations from overdose patients that have gone on to save people waiting on transplant lists during an ongoing shortage of organs in the United States.

“The current epidemic of deaths from overdose is an American tragedy. It would also be tragic to continue to under-utilize lifesaving transplants from donors,” said Briana Doby, who worked with researchers from Johns Hopkins University on a recent study about overdose donations.

“Death from overdose does not change how we should see these donors. We should reject the stigma around addiction, work together as a larger community to solve the overdose epidemic and honor every gift of life given by these donors and families,” she said.

Dr. Ronald Pelletier, director of the Renal and Pancreas Transplant Program at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, said he’s seen firsthand the significantly increasing numbers of donations coming from overdose donors both where he worked in Ohio and now in New Brunswick.

Pelletier said experts have to determine whether overdose-death donors should be designated as increased-infectious risk donors due to someone’s behaviors, such as intravenous drug injection, that increase the risk for contracting HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C.

Even with advanced testing, Pelletier said there is still a window of time where a disease may present itself, and experts discuss with patients their risks for contracting a blood-borne disease should they accept an organ from a high-risk donor.

“There are some patients who just are uncomfortable accepting that kind of risk, but there are quite a few who have been on the list a long time,” he said. “New Jersey has a very long wait time compared to other places, and there are patients who prefer to proceed rather than remain on that wait list.”

There were 2,353 people in New Jersey waiting for donations as of Tuesday, the majority needing kidneys, according to the U.S. Organ Procurement & Transplantation Network. On average nationally, more than 20 people die per day waiting for an organ transplant.

The Johns Hopkins study showed that while about 56 percent of overdose-death donors were flagged as high-risk, the five-year survival rates for kidney transplant recipients of overdose-death donors and trauma-death donors were similar. Organs from the first group also tended to be younger and, in some cases, healthier.

Barbara Taylor watched her son Fred, of Haddon Heights, Camden County, struggle with heroin addiction. He was set to go to a rehabilitation center in California the week he died of an overdose in August 2017 at 46.

As a donor, he helped save a mother of three in Maryland, she said.

“We felt if he could help another person with his kidneys, it would be a good thing,” Taylor said. “It was something good not in living, but in leaving.”

For Tozer, her transplant story had come full circle. She and her husband knew what it was like to personally lose someone to addiction. One of their closest friends, Matt Farmer, died from an overdose Oct. 19, 2012, leaving behind his then 10-year-old daughter, Lindsay.

Tozer and her family, including her 14-year-old son and Lindsay, not only advocate for organ donation, but also volunteer and work with organizations that provide support and resources to people struggling with addiction.

“There’s such a stigma against heroin and addiction that is just starting to be broken down,” she said. “When I got a kidney from an overdose patient, my one mission was to tell people, don’t think just because of your past, because you’ve used, doesn’t mean you can’t help so many people.

“I always tell people that I’m here because of an addict. My hero was a drug addict.”