For months, family members, media and community activists have been trying to get answers about the mysterious disappearance of 41-year-old Felix DeJesus, last seen during an encounter with Paterson, New Jersey police.
What we know: On Feb. 2, police got a call to a Union Avenue Bodega about a disturbance. There, they took DeJesus, a Haledon resident, into custody. What happened next is unclear, but DeJesus’s family says he has not been seen since, and they've struggled to get answers from police about what happened.
The Paterson Press reports it had to fight in court to get limited body camera recordings of DeJesus’ interaction with police, and that city officials say police audio recordings from that night no longer exist.
The Passaic County Prosecutor’s office told Gothamist it won't comment on any internal investigation it may or may not be overseeing, though the Paterson Press reports city officials say one is taking place. Paterson’s public safety director hasn’t yet returned a call for comment placed Monday.
Haledon police also haven’t yet returned a call for comment, but have put out several calls to the public via social media, asking for help finding DeJesus. They’ve said he was last seen by five people in the area of Westside Park behind John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, where Paterson officers say they dropped him off. Haledon police say they’ve interviewed a dozen witnesses, reviewed surveillance recordings and conducted canvassing. One April statement from Haledon police references court orders being involved in the investigation.
“Our investigative efforts will not idle until Mr. DeJesus is located,” Haledon Police Chief Angelo J. Daniele said in the April post. He also thanked several other government entities and agencies for their cooperation, including the City of Paterson.
Michael Hill, host of Morning Edition on WNYC, spoke with Joe Malinconico, editor of the Paterson Press, about the status of the case. The interview, transcribed below, has been lightly edited for clarity.
Joe, what do we know so far about Felix DeJesus and the night he went missing?
We know that he had been out on Union Avenue in Paterson prior to his encounter with the police, that he was in a bodega, that a woman accused him of accosting her in the bodega. As a result of that, police were called to the scene. We know from video recordings that one of the police officers handcuffed Mr. DeJesus while he was laying on the ground face down amid patches of snow. And we know that the two officers then put Mr. DeJesus in the back of their police car. And that is all we know firsthand, substantively.
Family members and others have been trying to get a handle on what happened but it took months to get limited police body camera recordings. And they still can't get radio transmissions. What sort of obstacles have been in the way here?
Right from the get go, I filed OPRA (Open Public Records Act) requests back in February for the body camera recordings. I was given two recordings of an unrelated incident. I was denied the recordings involving DeJesus. And the reason for the denial was that it was part of an internal affairs investigation. I consulted with my partners at USA Today Network, New Jersey and North Jersey Media Group. They retained a lawyer. We took them to court, and we won. Several months after the incident, we forced them through the courts to release the body camera videos. And actually those videos created as much mystery and uncertainty — more so than answering questions — primarily because the videos end right after the officers get back in the vehicle after they put him in the back seat. So we have a video that shows him in the vehicle, and it's almost like the end of “The Sopranos” series, where it goes dark, and we don't know what happens once they drove away with him in the car.
New Jersey guidelines for for body-worn cameras require the recordings to continue while someone is being held by the officers. No one in the city government, the city police department or the prosecutor's office has provided an explanation as to why those cameras were shut off at that point.
Joe, what else do these limited body camera videos released show so far?
Well, besides him being handcuffed, we see the struggle that the officers had, and in getting him inside the back seat of their patrol vehicle, and part of that struggle appears to be due to the fact that he seems to be inebriated — something his family members have said in the past, that he had been drinking that night and might have been drunk. The video also shows the police officers speaking to the young woman who allegedly was accosted by him, and the woman saying she did not want to file any charges. So as a result, he was not arrested or charged with a crime. He was detained. One of the officers says, “We're just going to transport him out of here.”
Why do city officials say they resisted making records public in this case?
They cited the fact that the video was part of an internal affairs investigation, and that internal affairs investigations are confidential. We were able to prevail because the video itself is just a regular public document that was being looked at as part of the investigation, but it wasn't an investigative report. Now I'm not in a position to ascribe any motives or anything, you know, but it certainly has fanned the frustrations of the family. DeJesus’ family has come to every city council meeting, week after week, since his disappearance, and they’ve often complained about the lack of answers from authorities about what took place.
DeJesus is described as 5 feet and 9 inches, and 200 pounds. Haledon police ask anyone with information on his whereabouts to contact Detective Sgt. Timothy Lindberg or Detective Christian Clavo at 973-790-4444.