The ECPO Special Victims Unit was formed in 2010 in order to better coordinate the efforts of the ECPO Child Abuse Unit, the ECPO Sexual Assault and Rape Analysis (SARA) Unit, and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) Program. These three units are presently co-located at the Winona M. Lipman Child Advocacy Center at 185 Washington Street in Newark. This allows the efficient and synergistic sharing of resources, information and experience between these units, whose roles and involvements in any particular case often overlap. These three functions within the Special Victims Unit now operate under the unified command of one Assistant Prosecutor / Director and a Captain of Detectives, and are overseen by a Deputy Chief Assistant Prosecutor. An on-site Victim Witness Counselor assigned by the Victim Witness Advocacy Office works closely with this staff. This combined Unit is also expanding its scope of service, e.g. to abused elderly victims and human trafficking victims.
The SEXUAL ASSAULT and RAPE ANALYSIS (SARA) UNIT is one of the oldest investigative units in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. It originated in the 1970′s after the Newark Police Department became one of the first police departments in the nation to establish a sex crimes unit. The SARA Unit was developed to provide legal guidance and investigative support for all municipal police departments within Essex Country.
The SARA Unit originally handled all cases of sexual abuse within the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. As the field of sex crime investigation became more specialized in the early 1980′s, a separate Child Abuse Unit was developed. The Child Abuse unit handles all cases of abuse involving children under the age of 13. By 2001, after the opening of the County’s new Wynona M. Lipman Child Advocacy Center, all cases involving juvenile victims of abuse (under the age of 18) were solely handled by the Child Abuse Unit.
Today, the SARA Unit exclusively handles cases involving adult victims of sex crime. Unit staff consists of experienced Assistant Prosecutors, Detectives, and clerical support employees. The SARA Unit cooperates closely with the on-site registered nursing staff who manage the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program.
Members of the legal and investigative staff are available 24 hours a day to assist local law enforcement in their investigations. The SARA Unit has also adopted a vertical prosecution approach, whereby prosecutors assigned to a case will handle it from its inception through trial. This allows for a more victim-centered approach. A victim will be given the stability of having to deal with a single investigative and prosecution team, thereby sparing the victim the need to endlessly repeat the details of the sexually abusive act to countless people. This approach protects the victim from the need to continually relive the abusive act.
The SARA Unit was involved in many cutting-edge legal issues, including the use of DNA evidence and Internet related crimes. With the establishment of a national DNA Data bank by the FBI, Essex County was the first county prosecutor’s office in the State of New Jersey to have a positive match on a previously unidentified offender, as well as the first prosecutor’s office in the state to have a positive match on multiple cases committed by a serial sex offender.
In 2016, the SARA Unit received 294 referrals for investigation. Of the 294 cases investigated in 2016, 79 resulted in adult criminal charges.
Notable cases from 2016 include:
State v. Romelo Flowers – The victim, a 22-year-old woman, was leaving her home to attend a New Year’s Eve party and was getting into her vehicle when the defendant approached her, pointed a gun at her, and forced her to a neighbor’s yard where he sexually assaulted her multiple times. The young woman was ultimately let go by the man. She underwent a sexual assault examination and it was sent down to the New Jersey State Police Forensic Laboratory for examination. A CODIS hit was subsequently received and based on that information, a photo array was prepared, and the victim picked out the defendant from the array. The defendant was charged with first-degree Kidnapping, first-degree Aggravated Sexual Assault, and second-degree weapons offenses. The case is pending trial.
State v. Brian McPherson – The defendant sexually assaulted a 19-year-old woman after he followed her while she was at a park in Maplewood. The defendant grabbed the woman and pushed her into some bushes where he sexually assaulted her. The woman was eventually let go and she sought medical attention and a sexual assault exam. Video surveillance showed the defendant following the woman through the park. The defendant also sexually assaulted a 12-year-old girl, who he met through an acquaintance. The defendant was charged with first-degree Aggravated Assault and second-degree Sexual Assault. The defendant was identified by both victims. The defendant pled guilty and is expected to receive a sentence of 20 years in New Jersey State Prison with a 20-year period of parole ineligibility.
State v. James Campbell – The victim was walking to her home when the defendant grabbed her, demanded her money and punched her with a closed fist. He grabbed the victim’s phone, threw her to the ground and threatened to sexually assault her. The victim fought off the defendant by scratching and biting him. The defendant pled guilty to second-degree Robbery and was sentenced to 6 years in New Jersey State Prison.
The CHILD ABUSE UNIT (CAU) was established by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office (ECPO) in 1983 in recognition of an urgent need to protect abused children and prosecute those who harm them. The Prosecutor’s Office placed specialized law enforcement personnel with the desire, training and experience to service abused children. Unlike most child abuse units throughout the country, the ECPO Child Abuse Unit services all children up to the age of 18. The CAU is also staffed by various SVU Assistant Prosecutors, Detectives and support staff. The CAU maintains a twenty-four hour on-call service for all county municipal Detectives and N.J. Division of Children and Families caseworkers (Division of Child Protection and Permanency).
The mission of the unit is to support an environment of lawful behavior, safety, security and justice for all of the people of Essex County. We recognize that the children of Essex County are our greatest resource and we are committed to their protection. To accomplish this mission, the CAU uses the most advanced methods to successfully identify, apprehend and prosecute those who commit crimes against children. When crimes against children occur, the CAU diligently pursues the arrest, indictment and conviction of those responsible. At the same time, all Constitutional safeguards of the accused are respected.
By their very nature, child abuse investigations and prosecutions are extremely difficult. The CAU uses a multi disciplinary team approach to investigations and victim services. In conjunction with the Wynona’s House non-profit organization and the State Division of Children and Families, the CAU is an integral part of the Winona M. Lipman Child Advocacy Center located in Newark. The Winona M. Lipman Center may be the only child advocacy center in the country to have a full-time prosecutor’s office unit, child protective service caseworkers, juvenile trauma therapists, forensic pediatricians and multi-disciplinary coordinators all under one roof.
The philosophy of the Center is the “Child Comes First” and a multi-disciplinary approach is used to protect child victims from unnecessary trauma during the investigative stages of a case. Under this approach, a single interview of all victims of sexual abuse under the age of 12 years old is conducted by a highly skilled primary interviewer while professionals from other agencies view the recorded interview. The technique prevents multiple interviews by law enforcement officials and reduces trauma suffered by the victim. In addition, victim family members receive a wide range of services. (Click here to see more about what the Wynona Lipman Child Advocacy Center means for children who have become victims of abuse)
Starting in December 2000, the Child Abuse Unit began videotaping the interviews of children under the age of 13 who have been sexually abused. A primary interviewer from law enforcement conducts the interviews while members from N.J. DCF and the Child Advocacy Center manager (Wynona’s House) sit in a monitoring room nearby.
Cases are investigated either solely by the CAU or through joint investigations with municipal Detectives or staff of N.J. DCF. The Assistant Prosecutors assigned to the Unit handle a significant number of cases from the inception of the investigation to the case’s ultimate disposition. The Unit is responsible for investigating or co-investigating cases involving children under the age of 18 who were victims of crimes which include:
Depending upon the results of the initial interview with the child, he or she may require a medical examination and assessment by the Lipman Center’s medical staff. The Lipman Center collaborates with Essex County Regional Diagnostic and Treatment Center for Child Abuse and Neglect at Children’s Hospital of New Jersey (RDC), whose physicians have extensive training in both pediatrics and issues related to child abuse. Through the compilation of the child’s medical history and the examination, evidence may be obtained and stored for the potential prosecution of the alleged perpetrator. The physicians also provide basic, preventative healthcare services to ensure the complete recovery of victims of child abuse.
The Lipman Center has implemented a twenty-four hour, seven-day a week on-call schedule for its investigative staff, thereby ensuring that all child abuse victims will be treated with the best care and concern, regardless of when they are victimized or choose to disclose.
In 2016, the Child Abuse Unit received 402 referrals for investigation. Of the 402 cases investigated in 2016, 170 resulted in adult criminal charges and 16 juvenile charges.
Notable 2016 Cases:
State v. Uvaldo Melgar – The defendant was charged with sexually abusing two young girls in his home while he and his wife were babysitting them. The girls alleged that when they were between the ages 7 and 11, the defendant sexually abused them while they were in his care. The defendant was charged with multiple counts of first-degree Aggravated Sexual Assault as well as multiple counts of second-degree Endangering the Welfare of a Child. The children did not immediately disclose the abuse, but finally disclosed to their mother. The children provided forensic interviews wherein they disclosed to members of ECPO the nature of the abuse. There was no other corroborating or other forensic evidence. The defendant refused to plead and at trial was convicted of aggravated sexual assault as well as endangering the welfare of the children. The defendant was sentenced by Judge Gizzo to a term of 18 years in New Jersey State Prison. Under the No Early Release Act, he must serve 85% of his sentence and is subject to Megan’s Law and Parole Supervision for Life. Assistant Prosecutor Peter Polidoro tried the case.
State v. Leo Donaldson – The defendant was a teacher and track coach at Bloomfield High School. A 15-year-old student alleged that the defendant had sexual relations with him both at the school and at his home in Bloomfield, as well as a prior address in Jersey City. The student alleged that the sexual abuse took place over a period of months. The student alleged that the defendant’s husband, Bradley Donaldson, and the teacher Leo Donaldson, engaged in various sexually charged activities with other members of the track team, which included naked card games. Another student age 18 also came forward and indicated that he had sexual relations with Leo Donaldson while he was also a student at Bloomfield High School. The defendant was charged with various counts of second-degree Sexual Assault as to both students as well as numerous counts of Endangering the Welfare of the various children. The case is pending.
State v. Robert Ashley – The defendant was alleged to have sexually abused three children over the course of their lives. The children came forward as adults and disclosed that the defendant abused each of them in the presence of the others and alone. The children corroborated each other’s account of the abuse. The defendant was charged with numerous counts of first-degree Aggravated Sexual Assault, second-degree Sexual Assault and various counts of Endangering the Welfare of each of the children. There was no forensic or other corroborating evidence. The children of the defendant did not wish to testify at trial. The defendant ultimately pled guilty to second-degree Sexual Assault of each of the children and was sentenced to six years in New Jersey State Prison. Under the No Early Release Act, he must serve 85% of his sentence and is subject to Megan’s Law and Community Supervision for Life.
State v. Leonardo Gonzalez – The defendant, approximately 50 years of age, was accused by a 7-year old child of sexually assaulting her by forcing her to perform fellatio upon him. The victim did not immediately disclose, but disclosed to her family at a later time. The defendant was charged with, and pled guilty to, first-degree Aggravated Sexual Assault. The defendant received a sentence of 15 years in New Jersey State Prison with a 15-year period of parole ineligibility. He is also subject to Megan’s Law and Parole Supervision for Life
Within recent years, the ECPO Special Victims Unit has extended its focus to include bias crimes involving race, religion or sexual orientation;elder abuse cases; and human trafficking, a growing crisis within the region.
HUMAN TRAFFICKING Human trafficking is modern day slavery that controls and exploits vulnerable members of our community. Victims are often lured into forced labor, sex trafficking and other forms of servitude using force, coercion, abduction, fraud and other methods. The victims range from juvenile runaways to undocumented immigrants. The New Jersey Human Trafficking statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-8, is one of the most comprehensive statutes in the country aimed at eradicating this criminal behavior.
The ECPO Human Trafficking Team is led by a senior Assistant Prosecutor and senior detective. Investigations use the full resources of the Special Victims Unit as well as the Narcotics Task Force. The team shares intelligence and conducts joint investigations with multi-county, statewide and national human trafficking entities. It is common for an operation to include the New Jersey State Police, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, NJDCF and allied professionals in the field such as Polaris. By having the Human Trafficking Team as part of the Special Victims Unit, the victims receive the best therapeutic services possible. The social services/therapeutic component of the unit is the primary component of the unit.
ELDER ABUSE Regarding elder abuse, the Elder Abuse Team is led by a senior Assistant Prosecutor, who is also a registered nurse, and a senior SVU detective, and staffed by SVU detectives and victim advocates. The team uses the services of experts in fields involving the unique medical and emotional needs of the elderly. The team investigates and prosecutes cases involving physical abuse, neglect, fraud and other crimes against those who are over 62-years old. The team also works with the Financial Crimes Unit and other units within the ECPO to enhance investigations.
In 2016, the Elder Abuse Team investigated six cases involving alleged physical abuse, sexual abuse and fraud.
BIAS CRIMES ECPO considers bias crimes (also known as hate crimes) to be serious crimes that can affect an entire community. Bias crimes are aggressively prosecuted through vertical prosecution by the Bias Crimes Unit. In 2013, the Unit was placed within the Special Victims Unit to better serve the victims through the most comprehensive investigations possible and provide the best therapeutic support for the victims.
By law, a bias crime occurs when a person, group or their property is targeted for intimidation based upon race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity. N.J.S.A. 2C:16-1. A person convicted of a bias motivated crime is subject to enhanced punishment.
The Bias Crimes Unit is led by a designated Assistant Prosecutor and detective. Bias crimes are investigated by detectives trained to conduct interviews in a sensitive manner and gather evidence to support the allegation. Victims are also referred to counseling and other assistance programs.
In 2016, the Bias Crimes Unit opened 16 cases.