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Crime
15-year-old shooting an 'accident' while defendant played with gun, attorney says

MAYS LANDING — Nahquil Lovest was playing with what he thought was an unloaded gun last month when he pointed it at Na’imah Bell’s head and pulled the trigger, Lovest’s attorney said Wednesday morning, calling the 15-year-old’s fatal shooting an accident.

“He was cooperative with the police,” Alex Settle told Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Bernard E. DeLury Jr. “He informed them that this was an accident. He acknowledged he was playing with the gun. He acknowledged that he unloaded the gun. He believed that he had taken all of the bullets out.”

Lovest, 18, of Pleasantville, appeared before DeLury for a detention hearing, where Settle unsuccessfully argued for the murder charge stemming from the July 25 fatal shooting to be dismissed, saying manslaughter or aggravated manslaughter would be more appropriate. He also argued for Lovest’s pretrial release, but was denied.

“He knew the gun was loaded,” Chief Assistant Prosecutor Seth Levy said. “He knows how many shells were in the gun. … He knew that by pointing the gun and pulling the trigger, it was likely to cause death or would cause death.”

Levy said those in the room even told Lovest to stop pointing the gun around before he took the shells out, then fired the fatal shot.

The teen, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, kept his eyes downcast or level during the hearing. He didn’t speak.

Bell, also of Pleasantville, was shot in the head just before 4 a.m. July 25 inside a home in the 100 block of South Massachusetts Avenue in Atlantic City.

She was the third teenager to be killed by gunfire and the seventh victim overall of a fatal shooting in the city this year.

In his argument, Settle cited witness statements gathered by police, all of which described the scene as an accident. The witnesses, identified only by their initials in court, said Lovest “was joking” and thought he had taken all of the bullets out of the gun.

They said Lovest cried after the shot rang out, saying “he didn’t mean to do it.”

Levy countered Settle’s argument by saying those witnesses had no idea what was going on in Lovest’s mind at the time.

“Just because they use the term ‘accident’ because he wasn’t trying to steal or it wasn’t for revenge doesn’t make it the colloquial term ‘accident,’” he said. “That’s not how we work in the law.”

DeLury took about 30 minutes in his chambers to review the arguments before returning to deliver his decision: that the state had established there is reason to believe Lovest caused Bell’s death and did so knowingly.

“The defendant knew that the weapon was loaded,” DeLury said. “He may have removed some rounds, but he knew at that point that the weapon had rounds at one point and allowing from that fact the court to infer that the weapon was capable of causing death or serious bodily injuring resulting in death.”

After hearing arguments from the state and defense for and against pretrial detention, respectively, DeLury ruled Lovest would stay in jail pending trial, citing his “very extensive and violent juvenile record.”

The shooting occurred while Lovest was released on pending charges, Levy said. Juvenile charges against him include receiving stolen property, aggravated assault, possession of a weapon, robbery and conspiracy.

“This defendant’s conduct is escalating violently and sharply,” DeLury said. “He is a palpable danger to public safety.”

Lovest is being housed in the Atlantic County jail.


Local
Inside a Stockton lab, baby turtles are raised by humans

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Rows of one-inch, chalky white eggs sit side by side in plastic containers in a 30-degree Celsius incubator at Stockton University.

In a few weeks, baby diamondback terrapins will be born — all lucky to be alive. They’re part of the school’s “Head Start” program, in which eggs from road-kill female turtles are recovered, hatched and monitored for 10 months before being released into the wild.

More than 610 of the creatures were hit and killed by cars while crossing busy causeways this summer between Corsons Inlet in Ocean City and Stone Harbor Boulevard, according to the Wetlands Institute. Nearly 900 eggs have been recovered from those dead females.

“Some of these should be hatching very shortly,” said John Rokita, a lab technician for Stockton’s Head Start program, which rehabilitates the creatures and raises their young in conjunction with the Middle Township nonprofit.

This season was one of the deadliest for terrapins in Atlantic and Cape May counties in recent memory, due to a lengthened and warmer nesting season.

And the lab is busy.

In another room, dozens of tiny, matchbox-sized turtles lounge in tanks filled with shallow, brackish water and attached to heat lights to mimic the sun’s rays. The air smells like salt.

Some try to climb out of the container, their back legs working feverishly, while others devour floating turtle pellets. When a turtle matures, it graduates to a deeper tank of water.

A terrapin’s sex is determined by the temperature, Rokita said. If the incubators are below 26 degrees Celsius, a male will form. The researchers control the environment to ensure females are born that will keep the population thriving.

“Their sex isn’t determined chromosomally like dogs, people, rats or cats,” Rokita said. “It’s by the nest temperature. ... If it’s a cool summer, mostly males will be produced.”

The researchers mark X’s on the terrapin eggs that never develop, likely because they were cooked or crushed inside their mother.

There are about 150 turtles throughout the facility, and each has a different story.

Rokita picked up one who wriggled in his hands. She was struck crossing the Longport causeway July 2 and suffered a crack along her top shell, called the carapace. She was carrying one egg.

“She’s going to be OK,” Rokita said, pointing toward the glue sealing the fissure. As the pieces repair, the adhesive material will fall off. “She’ll probably get released this year. ... She’s well healed up.”

Other terrapins never leave the Stockton lab, like one blind 39-year-old who hatched there in 1991. His eyes appear fused shut, and he would likely not survive long on his own, so he remains under the school’s care.

Another injured turtle was taken to the lab in early July who was born 19 years earlier under the program and injected with a Passive Integrated Transponder tag under the skin of her back leg, said Brian Williamson, a Wetlands Institute research scientist.

The nonprofit said she was microchipped July 13, 2000, and found by a volunteer in Stone Harbor almost two decades later. It was a chance event that shows the effectiveness of the program, Williamson said.

“We definitely know head starting is effective in some ways,” Williamson said. “These turtles would have never hatched if we didn’t get them.”

The institute also started a new tracking effort last year.

Radio tags, costing between $100 and $200, have been attached to the backs of about 30 turtles to monitor their movements in the marshes. Antennas at the group’s research center receive signals emitted from the devices.

It will allow the scientists to see the terrapins’ favorite hangout spots, and the challenges they face.

“It’s a new program, and we’re still trying to make sure everything is working,” Williamson said. “But looking at it, we get a sense of their location.”


Education
New laws enhance access to education for deaf students and families

For the first year and a half of his life, Cole Renart lived 60% of his day in language isolation.

Born without any hearing, Cole was 17 months old when he began receiving early intervention with a deaf American Sign Language teacher while he was at daycare.

“Within three months, his language exploded,” said Amy Andersen, an ASL teacher at Ocean City High School and 2018 New Jersey Teacher of the Year, who helped lobby the state for Cole’s interventions. “It was the first time it had been done in the state of New Jersey.”

On Monday, Andersen, Cole, now 4, and Cole’s mother, Stephanie, of Galloway Township, sat inside the Statehouse as Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver signed two bills that add protections for deaf students in New Jersey.

The new laws establish a Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights and a Working Group on Deaf Education. The legislation also requires the Department of Education to develop a parent resource guide, and for both the Department of Education and Department of Health to collect and report data on children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Andersen said the laws will help students who are deaf or hard of hearing in those first few critical years of building a foundation language.

“It’s going to make all the difference in learning, in acquiring another language, their reading level, their academic success,” Andersen said. “It’s going to give them the best shot in life moving forward.”

Stephanie Renart said she has been fighting for equality in education for Cole since the day he was born. For Renart, who testified before the Legislature last year on the issue, the laws mean lessening a parent’s fight and ensuring a student is taught in their mode of communication.

“My son, all he needs is access to language. It’s not special education,” Renart said. “That’s really the most important is to get the kids the language that they need all day every day, not an hour or two here or there.”

Andersen made deaf education a platform during her term as Teacher of the Year and testified before a legislative committee on the laws.

“Specifically, I was speaking to early language acquisition and equality, ensuring that parents and families get the information that they need in more of a balanced approach, so that they’re being told about ASL and being shown how to take advantage of the opportunities,” Andersen said.

Last fall, she also brought with her several students to Trenton to testify before lawmakers, including Ocean City student Kierstyn Kuehnle, who is hard of hearing and was recently named the recipient of the 2019 Outstanding Young Adult award from the Hearing Loss Association of America.

Andersen said the work at the state level was started before she came on board by advocates like Christopher Sullivan and Michelle Cline, and with the support of legislators including sponsors Sens. Shirley K. Turner and M. Teresa Ruiz, and Assembly members Daniel Benson, Annette Quijano, Pamela Lampitt, Nicholas Chiaravalloti, Raj Mukherji, Ralph Caputo and Mila Jasey.

Cline, executive director of the Walden School at The Learning Center for the Deaf, said the Bill of Rights will promote the importance of communication equity for all deaf and hard-of-hearing children in New Jersey.

“New Jersey has become the first state to support a full comprehensive program assuring that all deaf, deaf-blind and hard-of-hearing students be given equal opportunities to obtain equitable education in a manner that would best help them thrive and communicate with teachers and students in all phases of the school day,” Cline said.


File photo 

BELL


Local
WEST WILDWOOD
West Wildwood officials say attorney told them to do it

WEST WILDWOOD —  Commissioners said they were acting on the advice of their solicitor when they made a pact with Police Chief Jackie Ferentz not to use extensive disciplinary records against her in defending a lawsuit she brought alleging wrongful firing.

Ferentz lives with Mayor Christopher Fox, who called the disciplinary charges against Ferentz brought by a previous mayor "ridiculous."

Current commissioners — and Cornelius Maxwell, who recently resigned — also rehired Ferentz, gave her full back pay and pension credit, promoted her to chief and gave her a substantial raise.

“At the time we followed our attorney’s advice, to put the borough in the least liable state for anything,” Commissioner Scott Golden said to disbelieving guffaws from the packed audience of taxpayers still paying off a $1.7 million judgment to Ferentz.

“Hindsight being 20/20, we are stuck with what we got, and that’s where we’re at,” Golden said.

But resident Mary Ann Welsh said court documents paint a different picture. She read from Superior Court Judge James Pickering’s 2018 decision that the borough’s insurer did not have to pay the judgment, since the borough did not cooperate in its own defense.

That decision was recently affirmed by a two-judge appellate panel.

The judge quoted Solicitor Mary Bittner as saying she told the commissioners the actions they were undertaking would have potential adverse consequences to the borough.

“I presented several options to the commissioners on how to handle the issue without compromising the CEPA (Conscientious Employee Protection Act) claim,” Bittner is quoted by the judge as saying.

Bittner advised them they were risking loss of insurance coverage, Welsh said.

“I did not sign off on this,” said Fox, who said he recused himself. “But I will tell you this … the charges (against Ferentz) were the most ridiculous I’ve ever heard.”

That got a loud response from residents, who hollered, “In your opinion!” and exclamations of disbelief.

“I believe you are delusional,” Welsh said.

“I feel the same about you,” answered Fox, and things only got worse from there.

Fox said the charges against Ferentz, although reviewed by an independent hearing officer and upheld, would not have held up in court and the borough would risk having to also pay a punitive award to Ferentz.

“Why did you feel it necessary to take evidence out if you were so sure she’d win?” asked resident Dan Giffear. “You should put all the chips out there and let the jury see what it is.”

“This was a (expletive) scam,” said resident Mark Meighan. “They ripped us off. They stole from us.”

Meighan went on to tell the commissioners he’d “take both your asses outside” if he was younger and more in shape.

“And you’d lose,” said Fox. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

Other residents asked for Fox and Golden to resign so the borough can heal from all of the anger and anxiety, or asked them to pay the judgment themselves.

At each request the crowd broke into applause.

Fox repeatedly said he would not resign, and that most people in town support him.

There is also another lawsuit against the borough by former Class II police Officer Jeremy Mawhinney, of Egg Harbor City, who claims he was fired for writing tickets to political allies of Fox. He also claims he was directed to target residents who may not vote for the mayor in future elections.

Ferentz had alleged in her lawsuit mistreatment and retaliation by former Mayor Herbert Frederick, dating to 2008 when she was a police lieutenant and the two filed charges against each other. The commissioners voted to fire her in 2011, after an independent hearing officer investigated, upheld a number of serious charges against Ferentz and recommended terminating her.

The 2012 election brought Fox back into office along with his political allies, and the borough’s insurance fund argued the new commissioners rehired Ferentz in 2012 before her case went to trial, against its recommendations.

Ferentz was awarded more than $1 million by a jury, but then negotiated a payment plan over time that will result in her ultimately collecting $1.7 million from taxpayers.

Fox has been fined $24,900 in ethics violations for his behavior in that case and for other behavior while in office by the state Department of Community Affairs’ Local Finance Board.

Fox has appealed those fines.

Frederick fired Ferentz after an internal affairs investigation charged her with making false statements about the training of an officer, unauthorized use of the title of chief of police, and unauthorized absences from work, according to the appellate court decision.

Ferentz alleged the investigation was retaliation for her reporting alleged violations by Fredericks.

An independent hearing officer listened to 91 hours of testimony over 14 months and rendered a 63-page decision sustaining most of the charges against Ferentz and recommending her termination, according to the appellate judges’ summary of the case.

The tiny borough that has a budget of about $2.9 million a year is struggling to pay Ferentz $5,000 a month for 200 months and her lawyer about $18,000 a month for 42 months.

To accommodate the payments, it furloughed workers last year and has frozen salaries this year and next. It also has increased taxes, which have been somewhat offset by a decrease in school taxes, but taxpayers would have received a tax cut if not for the judgment.


Dale Gerhard / For The Press  

Fox West Wildwood Mayor Chris Fox answers questions about his alleged ethics violations during a recent borough meeting.