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Ventnor woman sentenced for murder of mother, grandmother

MAYS LANDING — Heather Barbera was a part of a toxic environment and remorseful about beating her mother and grandmother to death. Or, she brutally murdered then robbed the two women after they were kind enough to take her in and financially support her.

Defense attorney James Leonard Jr. and Assistant Prosecutor Allison Eiselen presented two very different descriptions of Barbera during her sentencing Thursday afternoon in Atlantic County Superior Court.

Barbera apologized for the brutal killings, in which she bludgeoned her mother and grandmother to death with a billy club almost two years ago inside their Ventnor condo.

“I never wanted any of this to happen,” she said as she sat shackled in an orange jail jumpsuit, tears flowing down her face. “I just apologize.”

Barbera, 43, who pleaded guilty in October to aggravated manslaughter in the death of her mother, Michelle Gordon, and murder in the death of Elaine Rosen, her grandmother, was sentenced to 42 years in prison before Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Bernard E. DeLury Jr. She also must pay just over $7,000 in restitution.

Prosecutors alleged Barbera beat Rosen, 87, and Gordon, 67, to death before robbing them July 8, 2018, inside a condominium at the Vassar Square Arms complex, where Barbera also lived.

“The Heather Barbera that I have come to know, since I’ve been involved with her, is definitely not somebody that I could ever envision participating in anything like this, committing offenses like this,” Leonard said, adding he learned there was a “very, very toxic and very unhealthy family dynamic on both sides.”

In addition, substance abuse, mental health, self-esteem and emotional issues “created a very volatile situation that exploded very, very unfortunately,” he said, before adding that “emotionally, it has just destroyed her and she is extremely remorseful for everything that took place.”

In contrast, Eiselen said, “There is no more heinous, cruel or depraved crime than killing one’s own grandmother and mother in a manner such as this.”

“This defendant bludgeoned the two victims to death in their own home, then cleaned herself off,” she said. “She stole their money and their jewelry and, as they were gasping their final breath, she just walked away.”

A handful of family and friends sat in the courtroom. Barbera’s second husband, Jimmy “Scotty” Thompson, and family friends sat behind her, while Richard Rosen, Barbera’s uncle and the man who found Rosen and Gordon dead, sat with others on the opposite side.

Erika DeLong, a lifelong friend of Barbera, spoke on her behalf before DeLury handed down the sentence. She asked for mercy.

“She’s not a danger to society, she’s really not,” DeLong said, crying as she spoke about their friendship and the trust she has in Barbera. “This is a horrible situation that just got out of control.”

Eiselen read a victim impact statement from Betsy Tedesco, Rosen and Gordon’s cousin. She called the plea deal “a travesty” and “absurd” because there were “two murders, not one.”

DeLury described the crime as “brutal matricide,” adding the consecutive sentences — 12 years for the aggravated manslaughter and 30 for the murder — were more than warranted.

“After her violent attack on these two women, the defendant callously and calmly cleaned herself up, collected the valuable belongings she could find, including a ring from the hand of her dead mother, and then pawned the jewelry,” DeLury said. “She then fled the jurisdiction. The depravity is palpable.”

Outside the courtroom, Thompson, 48, of Mississippi, said the sentencing was “unfair,” and that it should have been two counts of aggravated manslaughter.

“Heather has got a huge heart. She’s a good person, got a great personality,” he said. “She is going to be missed dearly. We’re losing her, too.”

Richard Rosen, 52, of Brooklyn, New York, said she deserved more.

“How can you get 42 years for two murders? It should have been life,” Rosen said. “I don’t understand the judicial system. I just hope she never gets out.”

Lower to pick new mayor, OC likely to leave seat vacant until election

The swearing-in of two new members of the state Assembly on Tuesday will leave vacant seats in two municipal governments in Cape May County.

Erik Simonsen is the mayor of Lower Township, while Antwan McClellan is an Ocean City councilman representing the 3rd Ward. Both men won legislative seats in November. Along with state Sen. Michael Testa, they’ve flipped the 1st Legislative District to the Republican column for the first time in years.

Both men were set to step down from their positions in local government this week. Simonsen oversaw his final Lower Township Council meeting Monday, while McClellan ended his City Council career Thursday.

McClellan said Ocean City will likely leave his job open until the May 12 municipal election, in which all four city ward seats will be up for election. The seven-member council also has three at-large seats, in addition to a directly elected mayor.

Peter Madden, Ocean City’s council president, said he polled members and found a consensus to let the voters decide because the election is so close.

Ocean City Solicitor Dottie McCrosson advised council members they have the option of seeking applications for the seat, making an appointment or waiting for the election. In previous instances, council has interviewed candidates before making an appointment.

Rather than launch an extensive process to fill the seat for a few months, it makes sense to wait until the election, Madden said. Candidates have until March 9 to file petitions with the city clerk for a place on the May ballot. Ocean City’s elections are nonpartisan.

Lower Township does not have an option to wait for voters to decide, according to Township Manager James Ridgway. Municipalities in New Jersey must have a mayor.

According to Simonsen, the Lower Township Republican organization will put forth three names of potential replacements, and it will be up to Township Council to choose one. Among the names will most likely be Frank Sippel, the township’s deputy mayor.

Simonsen said the deputy mayor does not automatically become mayor.

But the process does not begin until Simonsen steps down.

According to David Stefankiewicz, Lower Township’s solicitor, Simonsen cannot be both an assemblyman and a sitting mayor. Further, if the council does appoint Sippel or another council person to serve as mayor, that seat will have to go through a similar process to fill until the next election in November.

“The statutory process is cumbersome,” Stefankiewicz said. “It doesn’t happen that often.”

Under Lower Township’s form of government, the manager is the chief executive of the township. The mayor presides at council meetings as one of the five members of the governing body.

“He has no greater or lesser power than any other council person,” Stefankiewicz said. But the mayor does have ceremonial duties and often serves as a spokesperson for the township.

Democrats have the majority in both the state Senate and Assembly, as well as the governor’s mansion. They’d also held onto the majority in the 1st Legislative District for years, led by Jeff Van Drew, who first won a seat in the Assembly in 2002, cracking what had been a solid GOP hold on the district.

In 2007, he won a state Senate seat and helped move the district to the Democratic column. His move to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018 cleared the way for Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak to be appointed to the Senate and run in 2019 as an incumbent.

Although Van Drew was not on the ballot, he cast a long shadow over the race, with the Democrats running as “the Van Drew Team.” That team, including Andrzejczak and Assemblymen Bruce Land and Matthew Milam, fell to the Republicans, led by Vineland lawyer Michael Testa at the top of the ticket.

In a tight race, voters went with the Republicans. Since then, Van Drew has changed parties and pledged loyalty to President Donald Trump in a move that made national news.

Simonsen is the athletic director for the Lower Cape May Regional School District. McClellan works as a confidential assistant, personnel director and public information officer in the Cape May County Sheriff’s Office.

McClellan also is the first African American elected to represent the 1st District. He also will be the only black Republican in the state Legislature.

Proposal to change Atlantic City government still possible despite initial rejection

ATLANTIC CITY — Opponents of the proposal to change the city’s form of government who were celebrating Wednesday’s rejection of the submitted petition by the Clerk’s Office may want to temper their excitement, because the effort is far from over.

Atlantic City Residents for Good Government, the political action committee behind the petition, has just under three weeks to rectify the reasons for the rejection and has vowed to continue fighting.

After submitting more than 3,000 signatures in December that were supportive of changing the city’s government to a council-manager format, a majority of the petitions were rejected for a variety of reasons, including invalid names from unregistered voters and questions about the standing of a specific notary.

In a letter that accompanied the rejection notification, the Clerk’s Office told Atlantic City Residents for Good Government it had 20 days to “cure any deficiency identified.”

The Clerk’s Office certified 699 of the submitted signatures, meaning the PAC only needs 236 valid signatures by or before Jan. 28. The city clerk then has 10 days to review.

Should the petition be certified, a citywide special election would be held March 31.

Meanwhile, the PAC issued a news release Thursday afternoon in which the group accused City Clerk Paula Geletei of acting in “bad faith” and suggested her office “conspired with the (City) Council Solicitor (Robert Tarver) to deny residents their constitutional rights.”

Geletei could not be reached for comment before the end of business hours Thursday.

“My role in this matter has been to advise the (City) Clerk as to the legal propriety and sufficiency surrounding the petitions submitted,” Tarver said. “That’s what I have done in accordance with my knowledge and understanding of the law. Nothing that the clerk has done, nor has any advice that I have given, been outside of the scope of accepted legal practice and case law.”

The PAC said it would pursue legal action “if necessary.”

“The rejection by the City Clerk of thousands of petitions lawfully signed by Atlantic City residents to have a referendum to change the form of government is, on its face, specious and reeks of malfeasance,” the statement from Atlantic City Residents for Good Government says. “This baseless, reckless lawyering is an affront to Atlantic City taxpayers and not surprising coming from a soulless government that has turned its back on the needs of its citizens.”

PAC Chairman Bob McDevitt, who is also president of Unite Here Local 54, the casino workers union, said the notary in question, Jayesh Sodha, presented the Clerk’s Office with his state certification Thursday.

A copy of the certification was provided to The Press showing Sodha’s commission as a notary is valid until 2023. However, a search of Sodha — who was previously employed by the city as the multicultural coordinator — on the state Treasury Department listing of active notaries did not turn up any results.

The petition group began collecting signatures over the summer.

Proponents of the change say the reform is needed to curb nepotism, fiscal mismanagement and corruption in City Hall. Opponents believe the effort is little more than a coup attempt orchestrated by outsiders with self-serving interests.

McDevitt, former state Sen. Ray Lesniak, Resorts Casino Hotel owner Morris Bailey and Resorts CEO/President Mark Giannantonio have all worked in some capacity to support the petition. Bailey has contributed more than $126,000 to the PAC, according to filings with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. Labor unions from across the state, including Iron Workers Local 399, the union for which Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, serves as general vice president, have also donated to Atlantic City Residents for Good Government.

The petition group is seeking to change the makeup of government to a council-manager form implemented under the 1923 Municipal Manager Law. The change would reduce the number of council members from nine to five and eliminate a directly elected mayor. Under the 1923 council-manager form, nonpartisan elections would be held in May and at-large elected officials would serve four-year terms beginning in July.

Rather than an elected mayor serving as the city’s chief executive, a municipal manager would be hired by the governing body to oversee the day-to-day operations of the city, including preparing a budget, negotiating contracts and handling most personnel matters.

A mayor would be selected annually from among the at-large council members and preside over public meetings.

Bill allowing drug court grads to work in casinos passes Senate

The state Senate approved a bill Thursday permitting graduates of drug court to be eligible for upper-level Atlantic City casino jobs that require a license from gaming regulators.

The action by state lawmakers would allow people who successfully complete the state’s Recovery Court program after being convicted of low-level drug offenses to apply for casino key employee licenses. The bill permits the Casino Control Commission to issue casino key employee licenses and the Division of Gaming Enforcement to issue casino employee registration to anyone who has been discharged from drug court.

Currently, people who have been convicted of drug offenses are not eligible to apply for casino employee licenses.

Time to allow drug court grads to advance in casino industry careers

New Jersey’s drug court program is one of its most powerful tools for rehabilitating people convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug crimes. As an alternative to prison, they spend up to five years being tested for drug use, making regular court appearances and under rigorous supervision by judges, treatment providers, probation officers, prosecutors and public defenders.

State Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the change will give people the opportunity to seek gainful employment in the region’s largest industry.

“Having attended interventions for those close to me fighting with substance abuse, I know firsthand how addiction attacks families throughout Atlantic County no matter their race, age or where they live,” Brown said. “If our families are to win their battles against substance abuse, and so we don’t lose an entire generation of young people to addiction, we have to assure them that while recovery won’t be easy, it will be worth it by providing real hope for their future with a second chance to live productive lives by opening doors to get jobs in our casino industry.”

The Senate passed the measure Thursday by a vote of 36-1. It moves to the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy, who must sign the bill to make it law before the current legislative session ends later this month.

“Individuals with a criminal record face countless barriers to housing, employment and public programs,” said state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson. “This legislation will remove one of those barriers and open the door for drug court graduates to explore a career in the casino industry beyond an entry-level position. As we work to improve reentry services in the state, I look forward to seeing how this bill helps individuals find meaningful employment.”

Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, both D-Atlantic, sponsored the companion bill in their legislative chamber, where it passed in November.

The casino industry has backed the effort as a means to both better support the community in which it operates and to broaden the available workforce.

Casino key employee jobs include managers of hotel operations, human resources, entertainment or food and beverages, directors of security, surveillance or marketing, and gaming floor supervisors.

Joe Jingoli, CEO of Joseph Jingoli and Son Inc. and one of the principals of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, has been a vocal advocate for the need to provide people in recovery with stable employment. In his experience, Jingoli said, people in recovery “make really good employees.”

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