Mercer County’s Angelo Onofri: ‘Lunch pail guy’ or cowardly cop protector?

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Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri (courtesy of MCPO)

Angelo Onofri gives off good first impressions of being a nice guy.

In February 2015, when he was sworn in as acting Mercer County prosecutor on the fourth floor of the criminal courthouse, he told a story about how he and former prosecutor, friend and accused sexual harasser Joseph Bocchini became conjoined at the hip early in life.

Bocchini was running for state general assembly and asked Onofri, a Hamiltonian, to work for him as a legislative assistant, handing him a pair of “Go Jo Bo” shirts the young, enamored Onofri wore every day to work.

That sowed the seeds for Onofri’s successful legal career as a cheerleader who ingratiated himself with the right people – in politics and with the police – and has been elevated to a position of leadership he is uncomfortable in and perhaps doesn’t belong.

As much came across Friday, in a glowing profile piece on Onofri written by the Princeton Packet, painting the prosecutor as an angelic city protector who stares out the window of his eighth-story office on West State Street in Trenton and wants only a better future for the capital city.

It’s a good read, if you enjoy fiction woven by disingenuous despots who appeared to summon an outside reporter to write a back-scratching narrative about the new prosecutor.

Since being installed two years ago, Onofri has taken the path of least resistance, and it has paid off, landing him the chief law enforcement job for the next five years and a kumbaya relationship with the police heads who supported his bid.

While vying for the position in Mercer County, Onofri received a political endorsement from Trenton Police director Ernest Parrey Jr, raising questions about the impartiality of his office.

A legal expert compared it to the FBI endorsing Hillary Clinton for president.

Concerns about whether Onofri’s office could hold cops responsible when they work in tandem on cases has been solidified in recent months.

Under Onofri’s leadership, police officers have been given breaks and the benefit of the doubt when they appeared dead to rights or when probable cause existed for arrests of the average Jo Bos.

There are countless examples of blue-wall favoritism.

The case of Randall Hanson, a Trenton cop who threatened to pull a gun on his wife during an argment, comes to mind.

Despite police being called out to his Hamilton home on a domestic violence call, Hanson wasn’t arrested and instead was allowed to check himself into a psychiatric ward.

Hamilton Police didn’t charge him and investigated the matter in private.

The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office refused to answer questions about its investigation into the matter, despite this reporter raising questions about whether Attorney General directives regarding police-involved domestic violence were followed.

Hamilton Township, looking to protect Hanson, fought The Trentonian over release of 911 tapes, which are public, and forced the newspaper to sue to get them.

The Trentonian prevailed, the township turned over the tape, and it revealed a woman – possibly the Hansons’ baby-sitter – appeared to call 911 from inside the home.

She told the dispatcher Hanson threatened to pull his piece on his wife during an argument, relaying the urgency of the situation in panicked tones.

Despite potential evidence Hanson committed the crime of terroristic threats, he hasn’t been charged and is still employed by Trenton Police.

This week, it came to light that Mercer County sheriff officer Aaron Scolnick had been arrested Nov. 26 at his home in Hamilton, after he allegedly abused his wife.

Cops charged him with weapons offenses after they allegedly found a cache of guns inside his residence.

Scolnick’s arrest, unlike average Jo Bos, went unannounced by the MCPO, speaking to a pattern of selective enforcement of the law on law enforcement and of extending officers non-publicity perks other defendants are not afforded.

The same courtesy was extended to Mercer County corrections officer John Ledbetter, who was accused of forcing two female inmates to perform oral sex on him while they were in solitary confinement.

Ledbetter’s arrest was also not announced and had to be uncovered by the city’s local newspapers, impressing upon the public the need for dogged reporting.

In the end, Ledbetter resolved his case through pretrial intervention, allowing him to avoid prison and keep his pension while retiring from the corrections department.

Nidia Colon, a Trenton cop who was accused of using excessive force on a woman at a city bar, also reaped the benefits of PTI.

Onofri’s office signed off on the deal even though it had surveillance tape of Colon slamming the handcuffed Michelle Roberts’ head into a wall at La Guira Bar.

By contrast, Onofri’s office bragged about in a news release about the arrest and indictment of alleged pot dealer Edward Forchion.

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Edward Forchion has heckled prosecutor Onofri since his arrest on drug charges.

Forchion was later arrested for allegedly cyber-bullying a Trenton cop outside of his restaurant across from city hall.

Free-speech advocates roundly rebuked the arrest as unconstitutional. Instead of quashing the case and upholding the sanctity of free speech, Onofri’s office did its best to give the impression that free speech is under attack in Trenton when it indicted Forchion on the charge.

But it tried to avoid public scorn about the decision to indict the case by not announcing it, like it had done the marijuana activist’s arrest and indictment on the drug charges – a shocking unevenhanded-ness undermining Onofri’s public persona of being even-keeled.

Forchion, an outspoken marijuana activist known as NJ Weedman, can get under people’s skin and he had been critical of Onofri, personally challenging him to try the drug case against him.

Every time someone has asked about these issues or about cops appearing to get breaks under his watch, Onofri has avoided questions and interviews.

His tenure, so far, has been pockmarked by an unwillingness to make tough decisions and then stand up and answer tough questions about those decisions.

Suggestive of that nice-guy persona, one lawyer once described Onofri to me as a “lunch-pail kind of guy,” as in a blue-collar, boots-on-the-ground community engager.

Another way of looking at it is lunch-pail kinds of guys aren’t meant to lead.

For years as the top assistant, Onofri built inroads in the community that rendered him unable to govern it as the chief law enforcement officer.

Born and raised in Mercer County, he is too close to the community and stakeholders to hold them responsible. It shows with preferential treatment of cops and other ways..

In his few public appearances, Onofri has been criticized for  interacting with the community – and the press – when it is most opportune for him politically.

That was the case in the aftermath of the shooting of Radazz Hearns, a Trenton teenager who survived being shot multiple times by two police officers in August 2015.

Hearns was charged after the cops said he pointed a handgun at them during a foot pursuit. A Trentonian investigation revealed the gun that Hearns allegedly pointed at the cops was 151 feet away from where the teenager fell after being shot.

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Radazz Hearns (courtesy of Root)

It was in the middle of the road, near a manhole, meaning Hearns had to have cocked back – and as former Philly cop/private investigator Terence Jones suggested – with the might of former pro football quarterback Michael Vick – tossed the .22-caliber handgun half a football field away.

To make matters worse for police officers, Douglas Muraglia and James Udijohn, their statements to investigators, experts said, appeared coached. The statements also revealed that after they opened fire on Hearns and searched him, they couldn’t find a gun.

The cops were cleared by a state grand jury despite mounting questions about whether the gun was planted after the fact, like Hearns’ supporters suggested.

Onofri waited until after the grand jury process was over, the cops cleared, to go on a speaking circuit, peddling new police shooting protocols promulgated by his boss, then-state Attorney General John Hoffman.

An outspoken community leader called Onofri a “local salesperson.”

To some, Onofri’s timing, as all of his decisions, seemed like they were intended to promote his career aspirations.

Nominated for the position by Gov. Chris Christie in October, Onofri was approved by the state Senate in December by a 34-0 vote for a five-year term, meaning – as Alonzo from “Training Day” would say – he had the drop on all those political fools in the Statehouse.

Alonzo appears to be a fitting character comparison for Onofri, not only because Alonzo is a cop and Onofri a cop instructor, but because while he may have had his training partner fooled, Jake finally figured out Alonzo’s Macheveillian persona at the end of the movie.

During one scene, Alonzo dropped off a blender (full of cash) and housewarming items for some CIs. Tagging along to the home of Alonzo’s gang-banging buddies was Jake.

Alonzo already arranged a hit on Jake earlier in the day. He turned on Jake when he realized he couldn’t be trusted.

Jake, realizing the true colors of Alonzo’s cop henchmen, held a shotgun to Alonzo’s head and threatened to turn him in to superiors after he and his crew murdered and robbed a well-known drug dealer in his home.

Alonzo concocted the ruthless plot, getting permission from the “Wise Men,” the high-risers in the Los Angeles police and legal community, so he could get $1 million in blood money needed to pay off Russians mobster who put a hit out on him for killing one of their own in Las Vegas.

This was at odds with the public face Alonzo presented to Jake throughout the movie.

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Does Onofri and Alonzo share personality traits?

The veteran L.A. police detective, while jaded and with his faults (he had an soft spot for boozing in his souped-up black 1979 Chevy Monte Carlo and philandering with women from The City of Angels’ Jungle), initially took the rookie “greenhorn” under his wing, promising to up his street IQ and give him tools he needed to ascend in the department.

 

Having spent two years covering the courts, and having background on Onofri, he doesn’t have the drop on me. I have him pinned down pretty well.

While he’s not capable of murder like Alonzo, Onofri is not a nice guy even though he plays one well.

Nice guys finish last, and judging by his success, Onofri hasn’t finished last. Nice guys don’t get appointed by Christie, the potbellied governor who told a dissenter critical of his handling of the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy to “shut up.”

Stories float about Onofri being somewhat of a control freak.

A few years ago, while he was still second-in-command, Onofri called up a city councilman to ream him out, and threatened to have him arrested, for allegedly leaking information about a murder to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

More recently, Onfri appeared to react to a story I wrote for The Trentonian, questioning. whether he would be judged for the amount of high-profile murder cases ending in acquittals or hung juries.

He reportedly told prosecutors they needed to stop losing because they were making him look incompetent in his dress rehearsal for the permanent position.

These reported antics demonstrate Onofri shares the same cold-blooded indifference of Gov. Christie, who allowed top aides to go down for the Bridgegate scandal amid his bid for the White House or a cushy position in President Donald Trump’s cabinet.

Christie struck out with Trump, which tells us something when even a blathering, billionaire, with a track record of serial misogyny, tells the fatso to take a flying leap.

Mercer County should question Onofri’s squeaky-clean image if only because he worked for decades under a man who, like Trump, reportedly made a career out sexually harassing women.

Former prosecutor Bocchini allegedly treated the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office as his own personal pick-up spot, hitting on secretaries and female prosecutors.

He asked one woman suing him for his alleged boorish antics to “bang me at your leisure.” Bocchini also allegedly sent out tawdry and lewd emails to his office, objectifying women with subject lines such as “breast of the day.”

Onofri was Bocchini’s right-hand man throughout this period and never has forcefully come out to say he put a stop to it.

It took an anonymous letter, sent to the capital city’s daily newspapers, to expose Bocchini’s alleged misdeeds.

Many people pointed the finger at Robin Lord, the media-savvy attorney for “Jane Doe,” as the procurer of the letter. She denied doing so in an interview with me, saying she could have easily picked up the phone and alerted reporters about the sexual harassment.

Onofri may have alerted County Counsel to the sexual harassment allegations at an April 15 meeting. But if he did so, he waited too long, a huge error that speaks to a lack of sound judgement and Onofri’s modus operandi of taking the path of least resistance.

Maybe he didn’t want to do his old boss and former friend dirty so he held the cards close to the chest, until he was forced to show down.

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Former prosecutor Joseph Bocchini (courtesy NJ101.5.com)

That could easily come across to others as passive-aggressive sniping.

Onofri, a former municipal prosecutor who is not used to dealing with serious cases or being exposed to rigorous cross-examination about his actions or inactions, also appears to pass the buck in his handling of the media.

Consider the recent interview Onofri did with writer Phillip Sean Curran, of the Packet Online.

Curran admittedly isn’t in Trenton courts often, covering defendants from Princeton, where the publication gets most of its readership.

The Trentonian and The Times of Trenton, whose home bases are closer to Onofri’s hometown, seemed like more likely candidates for a meet-the-new prosecutor puff piece.

That didn’t pan out.

Coincidence or intentional product placement? Did Onofri need a pat on the back after a round of bad publicity following stories like Scolnick’s?

Even if he read the reports about Onofri’s actions in recent months, Curran was at a disadvantage to interview the prosecutor about hard-hitting issues.

Did Onofri have him picked for that reason? Politicians employ that tactic to get stories they want.

In the past, Onofri avoided reporters’ calls about certain issues. He was either not available, declined to comment, did not return phone calls or hid behind spokeswoman Casey DeBlasio.

When the going gets tough, Onofri gets going.

That approach has allowed him to survive controversies that threatened to unravel his chances of becoming the top prosecutor.

But while Onofri loves the New York Yankees, according to Curran’s story, playing ball only with reporters who throw soft-ball lobs is a way to lose credibility with the community he serves.

If he really is the lunch-pail type of guy he portends to be, it’s time for Onofri to stop hiding.

If not, Trentonians need to rise up, hold him accountable and refuse to hold his lunch bag any longer.

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