Ruben Morales stands outside the Northern State Prison in Newark, where he worked as a correctional officer for 20 years until he was suspended and arrested for misconduct. A judge last week dismissed charges at the prosecution’s request. (Photo courtesy of Ruben Morales)
About two years ago, the state lobbed a grenade that blew up Ruben Morales’ world. They called him a liar, an outlaw, and a gang leader, criminally charged him, and threatened him with decades behind bars.
A correctional officer for 20 years, Morales was suspended from his job, lost his side business operating a food truck, and spent 10 days in a psychiatric ward — missing the birth of his son — when the stress became too much.
Last week, the state Attorney General’s Office quietly petitioned to dismiss the charges, admitting they made errors during the interrogation on which they based their case.
It was the latest in a string of failures by the Attorney General’s office of public integrity and accountability, which was trumpeted when it launched in 2018 as a tool to combat corruption and strengthen public confidence in government institutions.
After a judge dismissed another one of the office’s cases earlier this month, a state senator called for an independent review of the office, saying its losing streak “should be of concern to every citizen in this state.”
Last week, Morales demanded more.
“This office of integrity? They have zero integrity,” Morales said. “I feel like they’re trumping up charges to make it look good for the media. And there’s no consequences to them when they’re wrong. This office needs to be investigated and disbanded.”
As relieved as he is that his charges were dismissed, Morales said his experience as a crime suspect devastated his life.
“It broke me. This thing broke my spirit,” he said. “It broke any type of respect that I had for any law enforcement. These was supposed to be my brothers in blue, and they tried to throw me out like garbage.”
The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to questions about the office and Morales’ case, nor a request for an interview with the office’s director, Thomas Eicher.
Earlier this month, after Sen. Joe Cryan’s call for oversight, Attorney General Matt Platkin defended their work in an emailed statement to the New Jersey Monitor.
“This work is not only sensitive, but it is time-consuming and complicated — and often unpopular among powerful people and interest groups,” the statement read. “At a time in our nation’s history when maintaining and restoring faith in our governmental institutions has never been more critical, I am especially grateful for the work of OPIA.”
String of failures
When Morales was called to Trenton in August 2020, he thought he was meeting with state officials to hammer out the details of his medical retirement.
He’d been out of work for 16 months after a severe beating at the hands of an inmate who had escaped his cell at Northern State Prison in Newark through a broken door.
The meeting started out with questions about the assault and his recovery from back surgery, he said.
“When I speak about that, I get very emotional because you know, I still got mental health issues because of that,” Morales said. “And they was acting like my friends and handing me tissues.”
But the friendliness evaporated as talk veered to Morales’ food truck, which he ran in his spare time down the street from the prison with another correctional officer, Ruben DeJesus, and to Morales’ involvement in the motorcycle clubs “Thug Riders” and “Thunderguards.” Within minutes, Morales said, a tough-talking investigator ordered him to sign some paperwork and go with them to get fingerprinted.
“At that point in time, he could have told me to tap dance and I would have turned into Gregory Hines, I was just so frightened,” Morales said. “I was scared because I never broke the law. I worked 20 years in prison. And I didn’t understand what was happening to me.”
Prosecutors from the office of public integrity and accountability charged Morales with official misconduct, tampering with records, and hindering prosecution. Authorities said he failed to disclose on Department of Corrections paperwork his involvement in outlaw motorcycle gangs and didn’t secure needed approvals for outside employment.
“Absolutely no law enforcement officer should be a member of a subversive group or gang, and with correctional police officers, there is a special concern related to the destabilizing and dangerous impact that gang activity and gang rivalries have in prison,” then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in a March 2021 statement announcing Morales’ indictment. “By allegedly flouting disclosure requirements, falsifying official records, and being an active member of outlaw motorcycle gangs, Morales violated his oath and his duties as a corrections officer.”
Last week, Morales told the New Jersey Monitor he’d done nothing wrong. He said he’d always been open about the motorcycle clubs he rode with, denied he or the clubs did anything criminal, and said he’d left the clubs anyway when he and DeJesus bought their food truck in 2017.
“The only thing I’ve been doing wrong on a motorcycle was doing wheelies on the highway,” Morales said. “And that’s just a traffic violation. And I never got pulled over for that.”
Morales worked on his food truck, where his prison colleagues were regular patrons, before his injury and afterward, when he was out of Northern on workers’ compensation. Correctional officers can have second jobs and work while on workers’ comp, as long as they divulge secondary employment to the Department of Corrections and avoid work that could cause reinjury, said William Sullivan, president of New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 105, which represents correctional officers.
Morales said he complied with those requirements.
But a judge and jury never got to consider the merits of the case.
Deputy Attorney General Andrew Wellbrock recommended a dismissal, saying in a court filing last Monday that investigators failed to record their interview with Morales, as both state law and the Attorney General’s office requires with few exceptions. Morales told the New Jersey Monitor that investigators also failed to read him his Miranda rights, as law requires, or tell him he was under arrest until nearly two hours after the interview started.
Superior Court Judge Verna G. Leath ordered the case dismissed with prejudice, meaning authorities can’t refile the charges against Morales.
The dismissal was the latest in a string of humiliations for the office:
- Earlier this month, a judge dismissed a public corruption indictment against suspended Saddle Brook Police Chief Robert Kugler, who the office claimed illegally assigned his officers to escort funeral processions for a funeral home he owns.
- In September, a sergeant in the office got arrested and charged with trespassing after allegedly trying to reenter a North Wildwood bar she’d been told to leave. A municipal prosecutor dropped the case against Danielle Oliveira last week, because she was charged with “an offense that did not exist under the law,” her attorney Timothy R. Smith said. Oliveira was arrested outside the bar, did not reenter it or try to, and so did not trespass, Smith added.
- In July, another judge ordered a new trial for Lakewood Rabbi Osher Eisemann, who the office accused of misappropriating funds at a school he founded for special-needs children.
In Kugler’s and Eisemann’s cases, the judges found the office’s prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense.
Sullivan echoed Cryan’s and Morales’ calls for action. The dismissals show investigators “aren’t doing a thorough job,” Sullivan said.
“They’re quick to charge without going through all the facts, like they only want a notch on their belt. I think it’s political mostly, just to show they’re tough on corruption and all that other stuff,” Sullivan said. “The whole unit should be disbanded. We have an internal affairs that’s supposed to investigate staff misconduct, and if they feel it’s criminal, they’re supposed to refer to the local prosecutor’s office. They should go back to letting the local prosecutors do their jobs.”
Now a civil lawsuit
After his arrest, Morales was suspended without pay, his bid for retirement put on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case.
Now that his indictment was dismissed, he hopes he’ll finally be approved for medical retirement. He said he’ll fight, too, for back pay for the time he spent suspended while his case wound through the courts.
He thinks the office singled him out for investigation because authorities feared he’d go public about the broken cell doors in the maximum security unit at Northern where he was ambushed.
“I feel that they was like, ‘OK, they been asking for us to fix these doors for so long. Now this officer just got assaulted, and he could never work again. So let’s just discredit this man as much as possible and call him just some Spanish gang member from Newark, New Jersey, instead of a hero,’” Morales said. “They retaliated against me because I got injured due to their gross negligence.”
In April 2021, he filed a civil rights lawsuit against the state, the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the Northern State Prison, and several named defendants alleging 18 counts of wrongdoing, including retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false complaint of unprofessional misconduct, and wrongful discharge.
Morales hopes to amend that complaint to include malicious prosecution and defamation.
“They put my name all over the newspaper saying I was this motorcycle gangster and had illegal businesses,” Morales said.
Morales still has nightmares from an assault so brutal he felt like he was fighting for his life.
“Then a year and a half later, I had to fight for my life again, from the same people that I worked for for 20 years,” he said. “I had to wait 30 months of my life to get vindicated, and people are like ‘congratulations, you won!’ To me, I didn’t win anything.”
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