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Little Egg Harbor Township man faces fines, jail if convicted in dog attacks


LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Glenn Johnson was inside his home Monday afternoon on Lake Winnipesaukee Drive when he heard a scream.

“When I came out, I didn’t hear anything or see anything,” said Johnson, 51. “So I started walking down the street, and I heard more screaming. And then I looked and there’s the three dogs, mauling (a woman) to death.”

Six people were bitten by three dogs that day in the township’s Mystic Island section, police said, and it wasn’t the first time — at least 12 people were bitten over the past four months. The dogs’ owner, 26-year-old Esau Morales, was charged in the attack and appeared for a less-than-five-minute hearing Friday morning.

At least two victims sat in the gallery, and one woman showed lacerations and purple-and-yellow bruises on her forearm outside the courthouse she said were from the attack.

And although Morales previously told investigators and said in court that the dogs were vaccinated, township police Chief Richard J. Buzby Jr. released a statement that afternoon that the dogs have never been vaccinated for rabies. Police believe there may be other victims, and urged those who may have been bitten to speak to their doctors.

Morales was not represented by a lawyer, and stood alone in front of Judge Damian G. Murray in a gray-striped hooded sweatshirt, jeans and mud-stained sneakers, speaking only in short sentences or single words.

He is charged with maintaining a nuisance, three counts of dogs at large with the owner responsible for control and three counts of failure to obtain a dog license.

If found guilty, Morales faces up to a $50 fine for the license charges and up to a $2,000 fine, a 90-day jail sentence and 90 days of community service, or any combination thereof, for the dog running at large charges, the judge said. Additional hearings may be held, as prosecutors are looking to deem this a vicious-dogs or potentially-dangerous-dog case.

“I’m sure there’s medical bills involved in this, and we want to know that, if in fact he is found guilty, I can tell you restitution is going to be part of any sentence in this matter,” Murray said.

Morales answered affirmatively when asked whether he was going to retain a private attorney.

In the meantime, the three dogs will be kept at an animal shelter, Murray said, and Morales was ordered to turn over any vaccination records to police.

“There are people out there obviously who are concerned whether or not there could be a rabies situation,” Murray said.

Buzby Jr. echoed Murray, emphasizing the need for vaccination records.

Morales has been issued summonses for previous incidents, police said. After an incident Dec. 10, the dogs were removed by animal control, but they were returned to the owner after a court appearance soon after.

“At that time, I don’t know if you deliberately misled this court or by omission,” Murray said. “No mention was ever made of any kind of prior dog bites or anything involved in this case. Had there been, you would have not had these dogs in your possession before the incident that occurred here.”

After the hearing, Morales left the courthouse through a side door and rushed into a waiting white BMW, which peeled out of the parking lot.

Standing on his porch Friday afternoon, Johnson said the neighborhood is generally peaceful.

“Nobody can understand how he got these dogs back in the first place,” he said. “They’re going to make sure he’s not going to get those dogs back.”

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Wildwood Catholic basketball preps for moment in the bright lights

Wildwood Catholic High School will be at the epicenter of New Jersey and national high school boys basketball Saturday night.

The Crusaders will play The Patrick School, of Hillside, Union County, in the Metro Classic at 7:30 p.m. before a sold-out RWJBarnabas Health Arena in Toms River. At 9 p.m., Sierra Canyon of Los Angeles, which features LeBron James’ freshman son, Bronny, will play Long Island Lutheran in a game that will be televised on ESPN3. New Jersey high school powers Camden and Elizabeth also will be in action Saturday.

“(We’re) a tiny little school in North Wildwood with a student body of under 150 kids,” Wildwood Catholic coach Dave DeWeese said. “Cape May County with a total population of under 100,000 people, it’s pretty remarkable we are able to compete at this type of level. Many cities in New Jersey are bigger than Cape May County in terms of population. For us to be competing at that level and playing on that big stage is huge for our school.”

The Metro Classic, run by brothers Pryia and Mukesh Roy, is one of the nation’s top showcase events. Pryia lives in Flemington, Hunterdon County, and is the assistant chief council with the Department of Homeland Security. Mukesh lives in Mays Landing and is an Ocean County physician.

Showcase events, such as the Metro Classic, dominate the high school basketball scene. There are multiple events every weekend of the season.

“High school basketball has become like college basketball,” Pryia Roy said. “College basketball has become like pro basketball. The interest in it, the level of play.”

These showcase events give teams and their players statewide and, in some cases, national exposure. There are bound to be plenty of fans who will watch Wildwood Catholic for the first time Saturday night.

Angelov leads Wildwood Catholic win

Martin Angelov scored 21 points to help the Wildwood Catholic High School boys basketball team beat Cape May Tech 78-42 Wednesday in a Cape-Atlantic League United Division game.

“It’s a championship atmosphere,” Wildwood Catholic senior guard Jacob Hopping said. “Practices in days leading up to these games are big days for us. Everything is magnified. We want to show everyone what we can do.”

Wildwood Catholic is the two-time defending Cape-Atlantic League champion. The Crusaders feature West Virginia recruit Taj Thweatt and Temple-recruit Jahlil White.

Plenty of showcase events wanted Wildwood Catholic. This season, the Crusaders not only played in local events, such as the Seagull Classic, Battle by the Bay and Ocean City PBA Tipoff Weekend, but also in events in Jersey City and Cherry Hill. Players love these types of games.

“A bunch of my friends and players from around this area are always talking to me about how awesome it is that we get to play in these showcase games and settings,” Hopping said. “It’s another chance to play against great competition.”

The high-intensity regular season contests also serve a purpose when the postseason begins later this month.

“It’s preparation for the pursuit of our ultimate goals, which is to win some titles,” DeWeese said. “When you go down that road, you face the same type of circumstances that you see in these showcase events.”

Saturday’s game is one of the biggest of the season for the Crusaders. The Patrick School features Jonathan Kuminga, a 6-foot-8 junior who is projected to be an NBA lottery pick in 2022. Wildwood Catholic also wants to erase the memories of its last showcase outing, a 64-44 loss to Seton Hall Prep at the Battle by the Bay in Atlantic City.

“We need to come even stronger after last Saturday,” Hopping said. “That was just a very bad game. There was a lot of circumstances leading up to that. It was just like a mirage.”

Wildwood Catholic will be the favorite in every CAL game they play this season. Few fans root for favorites in any sport.

But when the Crusaders play out of the area in one of these showcase events, plenty of local fans unite behind them.

“We feel like we have the support of the county, the league,” DeWeese said. “Anytime a program in this area is having success, I think everyone rallies around them and provides them with as much support as they can because it is such a small area and close-knit community.”

GALLERY: Wildwood Catholic prepares for The Patrick School

Edward Lea  

David Deweese head coach of Wildwood Catholic is practicing for their game against the Patrick School on Saturday night in Toms River Thursday Feb 6, 2020. Edward Lea Staff Photographer / Press of Atlantic City

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CRDA outlines plan to deal with Atlantic City rooming houses

ATLANTIC CITY — New details emerged about the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority’s proposed rooming house conversion plan Friday morning during a public hearing as residents and business owners sought clarity about how the program would work and who it might benefit.

The specifics of the rooming house conversion plan have not been finalized since the full CRDA Board of Directors has not yet voted on it. A preliminary estimate of $1.2 million would be allocated for the program, which CRDA officials anticipated could fund about four projects. The CRDA board is expected to consider the conversion plan Feb. 18.

Attendees of Friday’s hearing expressed a mix of support and skepticism, with most acknowledging that substandard living conditions must be addressed and adequate affordable housing options must be available for those who need it.

But questions arose about whether the plan would be enticing enough to convince smaller investors to assume additional financial risk and whether the proposal was simply targeting a symptom of a larger problem.

Only vacant rooming houses would qualify for the program that would provide interest-bearing loans for approved applicants to either convert or demolish properties.

The CRDA would prefer to repurpose or tear down rooming houses that do not comply with existing land uses or possess the proper permits in an effort to alleviate the large number of illegal units.

“Our plan is to provide assistance in the form of a loan for the conversion of vacant rooming houses to other lawful uses that can encourage developers to purchase and improve these properties, which will help reduce the overwhelming burden of (hundreds of) rooms that exist now in the city,” said Lance Landgraf, director of planning and development for the CRDA.

The exact number of rooming houses in Atlantic City varies, depending on the agency. The CRDA identified 53 rooming houses, while the state Department of Community Affairs lists 56. Landgraf said the total number of rooms is about 492, down from a high of more than 600 a couple of years ago.

Dan Mittelman, of Atlantic City, said local officials may be underestimating the number of rooms because of all the illegal conversions throughout the city. He said getting a better system in place to identify and “get rid” of the illegal operators was “most important.”

“All of these issues, in my mind, go back to enforcement and, maybe, your $1.2 million could be used better” on identifying those operations, Mittelman said. “You might be able to use that money to close 15 or 20 units a year.”

Landgraf admitted there were likely more rooming house units than city and state officials were aware of, but that efforts had to be made to address the sheer number of them, whatever it may actually be.

“There are rooming houses in the city that are not licensed,” Landgraf said. “We want to get rid of those. We have too many, whether they’re licensed, not licensed, whatever. There’s too many of them based on (the) population.”

Both the number of people occupying rooming houses in Atlantic City and their proximity to one another in certain neighborhoods violate city regulations, which mirror those found in the state’s Rooming and Boarding House Act. According to city and state law, the total number of people living in rooming houses in Atlantic City cannot exceed half of 1% of the total population. Based on 2018 U.S. Census population data, Atlantic City should only have about 190 people in rooming houses.

City officials have said rooming houses are a burden on municipal resources, specifically public safety, because they are often hot spots for criminal activity, such as drugs and prostitution. In 2018, the Atlantic City Police Department responded to more than 800 calls for service to the city’s known rooming houses.

Michael Scanlon expressed concern that the conversion plan was targeting the wrong issue. Scanlon’s father owns multiple rooming houses in the city, including one around the corner from the needle exchange on Tennessee Avenue. Scanlon said many of the existing and lawful rooming house operators “don’t want drug addicts” or “drug dealers” on their property, but the abundance of social services in the city attracts people from surrounding areas who can only afford to live in low-income housing.

“That’s part of the problem,” Scanlon said about the exchange’s location. “Any drug dealer in their right mind is going to try to get in a building where the drug addicts are.”

Evan Sanchez, city resident and co-founder of Authentic City Partners, said his organization supported the CRDA initiative. Authentic City Partners is among those responsible for the Orange Loop project on Tennessee and New York avenues and St. James Place.

“In addition to the financial support here ... it’s important also to think about what else needs to be done to actually move from a rooming house-driven economy to the future economy that, I think, most of us in this room want to see,” he said, noting that code and zoning enforcement, relocation of social services, condemnation and redevelopment were all “tools in the toolbag that I think we should be using to move the city forward.”

New Code Blue law expands warming shelter access, creates confusion

Warming shelters will host more guests in the years to come. However, plans on the public and private levels likely will generate mixed results.

Code Blue alerts, intended to assist municipalities in protecting vulnerable citizens during cold weather, were expanded under a law recently signed by Gov. Phil Murphy.

The change in criteria has been accepted positively by those who work directly with the law, though funding remains an issue.

On Jan. 21, Murphy signed into law new criteria for Code Blue. Alerts are now triggered any time the National Weather Service predicts a temperature of 32 degrees or lower. Previously, alerts were activated when temperatures were predicted to fall below 25 degrees without precipitation, or below 32 with precipitation.

“I was in tears when it passed. I was just really, really excited when it happened,” said Paul Hulse, president and CEO of Just Believe Inc. in Toms River, which operates warming shelters In Ocean County.

According to the Iowa State Environmental Mesonet, 101.1 nights per year experience a low temperature below 32 degrees at Atlantic City International Airport. That’s well above the 31 Code Blue alerts issued in Atlantic County last winter.

Vince Jones, coordinator for the Atlantic County Office of Emergency Management, said the law is well-intentioned and serves an important purpose, but questions where the funding to pay for it will come from.

“We felt that they did their homework when it came to the weather part of it and how temperatures affect the body,” Jones said. “They did their due diligence there. However, it’s going to create more Code Blue nights and there’s going to be more costs involved and it just didn’t get addressed.”

The bill states that “the act shall take effect immediately,” though different counties implemented the law at different points.

Jones said that after speaking with the New Jersey Association of Counties, the new standards went into effect for the Code Blue issued this weekend.

In Cumberland County, officials believed it did not go into effect until the following winter. However, as of Feb. 18, the county utilizes the new criteria. 

Cape May County changed its criteria immediately after the bill’s passage.

The lack of funding on the state level has caused additional confusion and frustration, Jones said.

“You’re going to have a lot of Code Blue nights. Who’s putting them up, who’s paying for them? We’re stuck now on the back end with this new law,” Jones said.

The M25 Initiative, a nonprofit that operates warming shelters in Cumberland County and offers amenities like food, beds and worship, said they cannot continue in their current capacity given the law change. One night of Code Blue costs about $500 for the county with volunteer forces, Rob Weinstein, president and founder of M25, said in an earlier interview.

“While we remain committed to the spirit and goal of the program, we believe that the long-term needs of the program, along with the limited human resources of the M25 Initiative, require more operational leadership and resources than our volunteer board can offer,” the group said in a letter to Cumberland County officials.

The group is looking to others for support.

“I think we were more looking toward a county agency of some sort and partner with them. ... We want to partner with another organization,” Arrigo said.

When were the least snowiest winters in South Jersey history?