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Central Jersey News from the Times of Trenton

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    Jerard Perdomo Santana and Ivan Rodriguez were gunned down earlier this year in Trenton

    A Philadelphia woman was arrested in Trenton Tuesday on an accomplice charge accusing her of taking part in the January killings of two young men in Trenton's Chambersburg neighborhood, prosecutors announced.

    Lakeisha Hill, 29, is the fourth person charged in the Jan. 22 murders of Jerard Perdomo Santana, 25, and Ivan Rodriguez, 19, who were gunned down in a car at the intersection of Ashmore Avenue and Washington Street.

    Lakeisha HillLakeisha Hill 

    The victims are also from Philadelphia.

    A law enforcement source said Hill had a role in driving the other three suspects around the time of the crime, and is dating one of the alleged gunmen.

    The U.S. Marshals' NY/NJ Regional Fugitive Task Force arrested Hill at a friend's house in Trenton Tuesday afternoon, Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri's office announced.

    Hill and the other three, all Trenton residents, are charged with being accomplices in the murders.

    Last week, Onofri's office announced charges against:

    - Tashawn Santiago, 25, who was already in the county jail on unrelated case.

    - Cecil Blake, 31, who was wounded in a Trenton shooting last month and in custody of Mercer County corrections officers at an undisclosed location.

    - Shaquille McNeil, 24, who was also arrested by the U.S. Marshals'task force at at a friend's house in Trenton.

    The four also face accomplice to the attempted murder of a 25-year-old man, who the prosecutor's office has said suffered gunshot wounds to his shoulder and hand, and drove himself to the hospital.

    Prosecutors on Friday did not say why Rodriguez and Santana were in Trenton.

    Kevin Shea may be reached at Follow him on Twitter@kevintshea. Find on Facebook.


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    Trenton recently joined a growing list of towns that have set up "safe zones" where online sellers and buyers can safely do business. Watch video

    Trenton recently joined a growing list of towns that have set up "safe zones" where online sellers and buyers can safely do business. It was a wise move and one that we encourage other towns to follow.

    The creation of safe zones began to take off in 2015 in response to an increasing number of robberies and even murders by criminals posting bogus ads on Craigslist, Facebook and other classified sties offering unbelievably low-priced goods to lure unsuspecting, cash-carrying victims to unsafe locations.

    Trenton's action earlier this month comes after 20-year-old city resident Danny Diaz-Delgado was brutally shot to death while trying to buy a PlayStation for his little brother from an online seller. Two Trenton men have been arrested and charged in Diaz-Delgado's death.

    To prevent similar crimes, Councilman Duncan Harrison spearheaded the effort to set up an internet safe exchange zone outside City Hall in a high-traffic area on East State Street where additional lighting will be installed and monitored by security cameras. The area also will be marked with signs identifying the site as a safe trading zone.

    Many other towns in New Jersey have set up similar zones. The best sites are inside police stations, where the comings and goings of police officers at all times of the day act as a natural deterrent to criminal activity. Princeton, Robbinsville and quite a few other local towns have such arrangements.

    Here's the only place you should meet an online seller

    Unfortunately, too many towns are being reactive rather than proactive in setting up such safe-trading areas. There is no reason to wait for something bad to happen before it dawns on municipal officials or police to set up a safe place to conduct private face-to-face transactions that originate online.

    And there is usually very little cost to a municipality to offer such designated zones at no charge to people who use them.

    Buyers and sellers should exercise common sense when it comes to personal online sales. Police offer the following safety tips:

    • Do not go to a transaction alone and tell a friend or family member what you are doing.
    • Do not go into someone else's house, if possible, and do not allow them into yours.
    • Complete the transaction in daylight hours and in a public area.
    • Trust your instincts. If it sounds like a scam, it probably is.
    • If somebody is not willing to come to the police department or other town-designated safe area to conduct a sale, then it is likely not a legitimate transaction.
    • Safety should always trump profit or savings when it comes to internet deals.

    Bookmark Follow on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and find Opinion on Facebook.


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    A coalition called the Stepping Up Initiative, which advocates for reforms in criminal justice approaches toward those with mental illness, estimates that 2 million individuals in that category are jailed each year across the nation.

    A lawmaker from Mercer County believes people with mental illnesses are better off participating in rehab programs than languishing behind bars - and so is the society they live in.

    Shirley Turner's logic is both practical and humane.

    "If people go into a jail cell with mental illness, they come out of the jail with mental illness," reasons state Sen. Shirley Turner.

    The longtime Democratic legislator is sponsoring a comprehensive measure that would divert nonviolent offenders with mental illness away from the state's criminal justice system and into a program aimed at treating their disorder.

    Turner envisions training police officers and other law-enforcement officers in crisis-intervention techniques to cut down on the number of people with mental illness who are arrested.

    And the number is astonishing.

    The murder he didn't do: Why the innocent confess to guilt

    A coalition called the Stepping Up Initiative, which advocates for reforms in criminal justice approaches toward those with mental illness, estimates that 2 million individuals in that category are jailed each year across the nation.

    Turner's office cites federal data indicating that more than half the men and nearly three-quarters of the women incarcerated in this country have a mental illness. Nearly one in four has been jailed three times or more.

    Her proposed legislation would create a process to help the courts identify and assist perpetrators who stand to benefit from behavioral-health services, as well as facilitate coordination among the state's mental-health officials and those involved in the criminal justice system.

    Turner likens the approach to the drug courts that have had much success in New Jersey by providing an alternative to incarceration via treatment and rehabilitation to non-violent offenders. Eligible participants are required to attend therapy sessions, undergo random drug testing and meet with their probation officers.

    Since 2002, the initiative has "graduated" more than 5,000 men and women, many of whom have found jobs and obtained drivers licenses.

    Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, himself a recovering addict, is an outspoken supporter of recovery programs.

    The New Jersey resident noted in a letter posted on the website of the National Alliance on Mental Illness that after the court system in Miami-Dade County in Florida launched a mental-health diversion program in 2000, the county was able to close an entire jail.

    Savings to the taxpayers: $12 million a year. Recidivism rates for program participants: down from 75 percent to 20 percent.

    Many of the details of Turner's plan have still to be worked out, but common sense tells us that rehabilitating people with mental illness rather than locking them up is not only more compassionate, but also more effective.

    Let's hope it gets the same reception from her colleagues in the Legislature.

    Bookmark Follow on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and find Opinion on Facebook.


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    Sometimes a double-take isn't enough.

    In the 1984 film "Revenge of the Nerds," the character Booger, played by Curtis Armstrong, is a college student who loves to eat and isn't particularly concerned about appearances. He wears a Greasy Tony's T-shirt in the film, with the slogan "No charge for extra grease" clearly visible.

    courtesy jay riback revenge of the nerds.jpg 

    The original Greasy Tony's restaurant was located at the intersection of Easton Avenue and Somerset Street in New Brunswick. I saw the movie shortly after it came out. At the time, I was living in New Brunswick. Still, I didn't notice the shirt.

    MORE: Vintage photos around New Jersey

    Photographs, like films, often have interesting elements that go unnoticed. Sometimes, a second look reveals something interesting, unique, humorous or unusual. Sometimes, a closer look at a picture leads to more questions than answers.

    Here's a gallery of vintage photos from New Jersey you'll want to take a closer look at. And here are links to other similar galleries you'll enjoy.

    Vintage photos from N.J. that might make you do a double-take

    Vintage N.J. photos that deserve a second look

    More vintage N.J. photos that deserve a second look

    Greg Hatala may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GregHatala. Find Greg Hatala on Facebook.

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    A few teams are making a late push to be included among the state's elite.

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    "Caged," currently receiving its world premiere at Trenton's Passage Theatre, is a play that suggests descriptors like raw, authentic, and gripping

    "Caged," currently receiving its world premiere at Trenton's Passage Theatre, is a play that suggests descriptors like raw, authentic, and gripping, and while all those terms apply to this play whose life began in the classroom of a prison filled with twenty-eight inmates, the best adjective for "Caged" is human.

    From institutionalized racism to addiction to the prison-industrial complex, this is a play about a great many large, pressing social challenges, but at its core it is a play about one family and its struggles to remain united as their world steadily crumbles. Impactful, warm, and unrelenting, this play that began as an experiment turns out to be an excellent examination of the human cost of a harsh and inhospitable world.

    At the center of the play is Omar Moore (Brandon Rubin), recently returned to Newark from the south to help take care of his sick mother (Monah Yancy), as well as his younger brother, Quan (Ural Grant), and sister Sharonda (Nicolette Lynch), all of whom chip in to raise Omar's infant son whose mother, a junkie making cash turning tricks, is not welcome in the home. Omar's responsibilities in the house only increase because his father Jimmy (Will Badgett) is an addict and hustler who cannot be counted on to provide or contribute.

    A former drug dealer, Omar gets back into the game after losing his warehouse job, and soon finds himself in prison where he must learn to negotiate an entirely different society with rules--both written and not--that directly impact his safety. All this unfolds while he tries to manage the raising of his baby and the wellbeing of his family from behind a glass partition during visiting hours.

    "Caged" originated in a class run by Chris Hedges at Rahway's East Jersey State Prison, where students serving a combined 515 years behind bars wrote and shared their stories of family, crime, abuse, racism, incarceration, guilt, and violence before collaborating on crafting those stories into a cohesive play. The script has been revised and honed since then, in large part by Boris Franklin, an inmate in the class who has since been released and now joins the cast at Passage (and entirely holds his own with his professional cast mates). Credited to what has been dubbed The New Jersey Prison Cooperative as playwrights, "Caged" is now a refined and focused story of Omar and all the forces swirling around his life and decisions. Omar and his family may not capture the entirety of the rich stories of all twenty-eight inmates and countless others like them, but he does exemplify vividly the humanity underlying a person who the system would so readily reduce to an ID and case number.

    "Caged" shows clear traces of Cooperative students' reading of August Wilson, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin and others. Like those writers, this play does not look for excuses or assign blame, but rather considers the complex nexus of forces that limit the options and influence the decisions of men like Omar. Under the direction of Jerrell L. Henderson, Rubin and the rest of the cast show clearly that these characters are both uniquely realized individuals and figures recognizable from so many life stories in contemporary America. Ultimately, there is not much to this plot that should be surprising to anybody who has paid attention to the challenges of ghetto life and the destructive cycles of the drug trade and mass incarceration, but the story gains greater resonance emerging from the stories of The New Jersey Prison Cooperative. This is a story we've heard before, but not quite as vividly and not quite as unvarnished.

    "Caged" may have begun as a pedagogical experiment, but the result is completely at home on a professional stage. It is a finely crafted story of human life and struggle, told with clarity and empathy.


    Passage Theatre

    20 E. Front Street, Trenton

    Tickets online ( or by phone (609) 392-0766. Running through May 20.

    Patrick Maley may be reached at Find him on Twitter and Instagram @PatrickJMaley. Find on Facebook.

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    Which teams have the best chance to take home a title in 2018?

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    Allegiant still operates flights to and from from Newark Liberty International Airport

    Less than two years after announcing flights from Trenton-Mercer to three Florida airports, Allegiant Airlines has stopped flying from Mercer County.

    "The suspension of our service was simply due to a lack of demand in the area," Allegiant spokeswoman Krysta Levy said.

    The last day of service was April 29. Allegiant was only flying to and from Punta Gorda.

    Last August, the discount carrier said its flights to Orlando and St. Petersburg-Clearwater would stop this past January.

    At it's height flying to and from the Mercer County-owned airport, the Las Vegas-based airline operated flights several times a week to Orlando's Sanford International Airport, and twice weekly to Punta Gorda and the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport.

    Allegiant still operates flights to and from from Newark Liberty International Airport.

    Meanwhile, Frontier Airlines continues to expand at the airport. In February, the discount airline from Denver announced four additional nonstop flights.

    "Allegiant, like all ultra-low cost airlines, makes business decisions based on the fluidity of the market," Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes said, and touted Frontier's recent additions.

    "Despite their exit, we are pleased that Frontier Airlines is reporting increased passenger numbers out of Trenton-Mercer Airport," the county executive said.

    Allegiant has landed - in Mercer CountyAn Allegiant jet at Trenton-Mercer Airport. (File photo) 

    Kevin Shea may be reached at Follow him on Twitter@kevintshea. Find on Facebook.

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    More than 100 buildings throughout Trenton are scheduled to be razed in the coming months, targeted by the Urban Blight Reduction Program to help bring new life to the city and its neighborhoods.

    It was once someone's home, but now it sits empty and abandoned, sheetrock and peeling wooden slats hanging haphazardly where doors and windows used to be.

    It's an eyesore, a safety hazard and a blight on the neighborhood - and soon, officials hope, it will be gone.

    More than 100 buildings throughout Trenton are scheduled to be razed in the coming months, targeted by the Urban Blight Reduction Program to help bring new life to the city and its neighborhoods.

    The program represents a $11.5 million partnership among the city, the governor's office, Greater Trenton, and the New Jersey Housing Mortgage Finance Agency.

    Its leaders recognize that only by revitalizing these neighborhoods can they hope to bring in the dollars needed for new investment.

    Their goal is to tear down unsafe, vacant and obsolete buildings in the city's four wards. Only those properties with one to four units that are owned by Trenton and located in the designated strategic area will be targeted.

    Opportunity zones could spur urban revitalization

    Residential properties with commercial space will also face the wrecking ball.

    It's not the first time the city has tried to tackle the thousands of vacant and dilapidated buildings scarring its landscape.

    In 2015, for example, the nonprofit Center for Community Progress announced that it would provide up to 200 hours of technical assistance to help city officials collect and share data about these properties across municipal departments.

    The summer before, the locally based Isles, Inc. mustered interns and volunteers to conduct a block-by-block survey that turned up some 6,300 neglected buildings within Trenton's borders.

    Every one of them represented not only a fire risk and a blot on city streets, but also a potential venue for drug dealers and vandals.

    Clearly, these are not the blocks where developers are rushing to invest either their efforts or their big bucks.

    In addition to launching the blight reduction program, city officials are taking additional steps to spruce up our streets and polish our image.

    The Division of Real Estate in Trenton's Department of Housing and Economic Development has started foreclosure proceedings on additional properties, with an eye on either putting them up for sale at auction or demolishing them.

    These efforts are clearly just a start. It took years for once proud neighborhoods to deteriorate this badly, and it will likely take years to remediate the damage.

    But progress has to start somewhere. The 100 buildings soon to be torn down mark an excellent place to begin.

    Bookmark Follow on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and find Opinion on Facebook.


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    N.J.'s track & field world is in the final stretch as we approach postseason meets.

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    What's hot on the diamond from the past week.

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    What teams are gaining steam at the right time?

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    TCNJ's president is retiring after 19 years. First, she had to splash around in the campus fountain. Watch video

    For nearly 20 years, R. Barbara Gitenstein has been the upstanding, buttoned-down president of one of New Jersey's most prestigious public colleges.

    But she's retiring at the end of this year. So, what the heck, right?

    Gitenstein, the 70-year-old president of The College of New Jersey, had some fun over the past few months checking off the unofficial campus "bucket list" for graduating students. 

    Riding the campus lion statue? Check. 

    Sliding down a hill on a dining hall tray? Check. 

    Jumping into the campus fountain? Well, you can watch the video above to see how that went. 

    Gitenstein hopes the video, produced by students, will inject some levity into the stress of finals week, she said. 

    "The bucket list is a rite of passage for students," she said, "so I thought it would be a fun way to say goodbye and thank the TCNJ community for 19 wonderful years."

    Adam Clark may be reached at Follow him on twitter at @realAdamClarkFind on Facebook


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    Nick Candelori, a member of Engine Co. 1, was named Firefighter of the Year - a title bestowed upon him by his peers. Watch video

    They went into burning houses to rescue residents and prevented an emotionally distressed person from falling into the Delaware River as she dangled from a bridge.

    And they ran across from their firehouse and entered the fray as a pit bull viciously attacked two people.

    Those were among the rescues the past few years that Trenton firefighters were honored for Thursday night at a ceremony at fire headquarters.

    And Nick Candelori, a member of Engine Co. 1, was named Firefighter of the Year - a title bestowed upon him by his peers.

    During he ceremony, two companies had to leave to answer a fire call, and returned a short time later to rejoin the ceremony. Mayor Eric Jackson spoke at the event.

    The awards:

    - Firefighter George Espinal, a valor award, for locating a drowning man in the Delaware & Raritan Canal in December 2017. Espinal, a diver with Rescue Co. 1, got to the victim in under a minute after arriving, and brought him to shore in critical condition. The man later passed away. Several other companies were given unit commendations for their actions at the scene.

    - Firefighter Ryan Aquilino, a valor award, for saving a woman from falling off the Trenton Makes bridge and into the Delaware River in September 2017. Aquilino and other firefighters, and police officers and Trenton EMS, were trying to talk the suicidal woman from jumping when she let go. Aquilino, who was not tethered, launched himself over the railing to grab her, and pulled her back with Trenton police officers. Firefighters at the scene received unit commendations.

    - Firefighters John Snee and Miguel Ortiz, valor awards, for their rescue of a man from the rear of a burning Chestnut Avenue home in July 2017. Snee and Ortiz, of Ladder Co. 2, were gearing up and putting on their breathing masks when Snee spotted a man inside and went in. Moments from being engulfed, Snee and Ortiz pulled the man out and carried him to the front through a side yard, and delivered him to an EMS crew.

    - Unit commendations were awarded to Engine Co 1, Ladder Co. 1, Rescue Co 1 and Engine Co. 10, all under the command of Deputy Chief Anthony Moran, for their efforts in removing a man a man who fell into the Assunpink Creek in June 2017.

    Expo preview

    - Firefighters Kevin Beyrouty and Willie Smith, valor awards, for restraining a vicious dog that attacked two people across the street from their firehouse, Engine Co. 7, on Hamilton Avenue in July 2016. Beyrouty and Smith, and two other members of their company rushed to help and treat the victims as well when the attack subsided. The company was also honored with a unit commendation.

    - Battalion Chief John Barone (then a captain) and firefighters Frank Wilcox and Dave Houseworth, valor awards, for their rescue of a woman trapped in the bathroom a burning apartment on Fairway Drive in June 2016. The trio, of Rescue Co. 1, while being protected by a hose line deployed by Engine Co. 10, navigated intense heat and smoke to make the save. Engine 10 received a unit commendation.

    - Battalion Chief Todd Willever and firefighters Dominic Stillitano and Paul Belardo, an EMS award, for the CPR they performed on a woman at a Kingsbury Towers apartment in April 2016. The firefighters, from Engine Co. 3, arrived at an EMS call before ambulance crews and found the woman inside a 17th-floor apartment, face down, not breathing and without a pulse. They revived her and by the time paramedics reassessed her condition, she had a pulse, and was taken a a local hospital for treatment.

    - Ladder Co. 1, a unit commendation, for rescuing four people from a burning home on Prospect Street in April 2013. 

    Kevin Shea may be reached at Follow him on Twitter@kevintshea. Find on Facebook.

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    Hamilton High School West students celebrated their prom on Friday at The Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village dancing the night away.

    It was a night to remember for Hamilton High School West students as they celebrated their prom at The Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village on Friday night.

    Prom-goers arrived dressed to the nines as they socialized, posed for photos and danced the night away.

    Check back at for other local high school prom coverage. And be sure to check out our complete prom coverage at

    Are you one of the people pictured at this prom? Want to buy the photo and keep it forever? Look for the blue link "buy photo" below the photographer's credit to purchase the picture. You'll have the ability to order prints in a variety of sizes, or products like magnets, keychains, coffee mugs and more.

    Michael Mancuso may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @michaelmancuso on Instagram @michaelmancuso and Facebook @michaelmancuso

    Follow on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

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    Steinert High School students celebrated their prom on Friday at The Princeton Hyatt dancing the night away.

    It was a night to remember for Steinert High School students as they celebrated their prom at Hyatt Regency Princeton on Friday night.

    Prom-goers arrived dressed to the nines as they socialized, posed for photos and danced the night away.

    Check back at for other local high school prom coverage. And be sure to check out our complete prom coverage at

    Are you one of the people pictured at this prom? Want to buy the photo and keep it forever? Look for the blue link "buy photo" below the photographer's credit to purchase the picture. You'll have the ability to order prints in a variety of sizes, or products like magnets, keychains, coffee mugs and more.

    Michael Mancuso may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @michaelmancuso, Instagram @michaelmancuso and Facebook @michaelmancuso

    Follow on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

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    From 2013-15, 269 kids and young adults from ages 10 to 24 committed suicide, and 2,731 were treated in the ER for self-inflicted injuries.

    These weren't "weird" kids. They had friends, played sports and seemed fine. Until they killed themselves.

    "I think that's what parents think - my kid is safe because she's a cheerleader, they are popular, they are active," said Dianne Grossman of Rockaway, whose 12-year old daughter committed suicide after being bullied last year. "I want people to know their children think this (suicide) is an option."

    Grossman and Rachelle St. Phard of East Windsor, whose 18-year-old son took his life two years ago, say they live with regret and frustration for not seeing the signs their children were suffering. 

    On Wednesday, the two women -- now public speakers to prevent teen suicides -- endorsed a new strategy they hope will train a broader array of adults at school to spot a student in crisis.

    7 teen suicides have superintendents 'calling for action' 

    The Codey Fund for Mental Health, led by Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex and his wife, Mary Jo, announced they are dedicating $80,000 to launch a pilot project that will train non-teaching school employees, such as cafeteria and janitorial employees, secretaries and security guards, how to spot the signs a child may be unstable or the target of bullying.

    The Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris will do the training, which will begin in the West Orange school district, Codey said.

    Codey, a former governor, also pledged he would introduce a bill that would create a $1 million competitive grant program next year, which would pay for school districts to hire more mental health counselors. The legislation would also create a task force to study the most effective ways of intervening to prevent teen suicide.

    Codey said the idea of training non-educators made sense to him, recalling the thoughtful conversations he would have as a child with the school lunch lady who would save him an ice cream sandwich. Codey said he asked his sons whether they had a similar confidante; the school security guard was a trusted listener.

    "New Jersey must act now to better equip all school employees to help identify at-risk students and prevent teen suicides and other mental health related incidents in their schools," Codey said as he announced the effort at Liberty Middle School in West Orange.

    "School workers such as secretaries, security guards and teacher's aides need the tools and training to recognize bullying, early warning signs and symptoms of mental health issues, and the proper steps to resolve conflict and prevent potential disasters."

    More than 2,700 youth ages 10 to 24 were treated in New Jersey emergency rooms for self-injuries and suicide attempts from 2013 to 2015, Codey said, citing the most recent New Jersey Youth Suicide Report. During that three-year period, 269 youth committed suicide, including 26 in Bergen County, and 20 each in Monmouth and Morris counties, the report said.

    Although suicide is the the third most common cause of death for teens in the state, New Jersey's suicide rate -- 5.5 deaths per 100,000 -- is far below the national average of 8.5 deaths, according to the report. Teen suicides have increased 16.6 percent from 2007 to 2016.

    Mallory Grossman was a 12-year-old cheerleader and gymnast who made bracelets and sold them to raise money so children with cancer can attend camp.

    She was also bullied by classmates, in school and on social media, her mother said. She committed suicide 11 months ago. The Grossmans are suing the Rockaway school district for failing to protect their child after they were repeatedly warned.

    "I did not believe for a second my daughter would hurt herself. I had no reason to. The signs she experienced are the same signs other tweens go through --moodiness, mad at their parents, slamming doors, loss of appetite, sadness," said Dianne Grossman, adding, "I suffered from the disease every parent suffers from: 'not my child syndrome.' "

    "This is why we have to treat mental illness with the same compassion we have for cancer and car accidents. we have to. It is destroying lives. It is destroying childhoods," she said.

    Rachelle St. Phard said she, too, had no idea her son, Coby, an 18-year-old high school soccer star and future college player, was in so much pain. He took his own life in March 2016. 

    Coby.pngJacob "Coby" St. Phard died March 6, 2016. (Martin Griff/The Times of Trenton)

    "I lost my son in 2016 very unexpectedly. He was bright, outgoing and everybody's friend," she said. "Mental illness does not always look like darkness. We need to be alert."

    "You need to have a conversation about it. It's in their heads. Open the lines of communications before it gets to a crisis," St. Phard said. "Do it before your child is in trauma."

    The training program for non-educators "is not going to be one thing that will be the singular answer to ending suicide," said Marvin Gorsky, senior director of Clinical Services of the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris. "We are suggesting this one tiny piece that becomes a part of the social safety net in the child's universe."

    If you are in crisis and need immediate help, please call the New Jersey Suicide Prevention Hopeline at 1-855-654-6735 or visit

    Susan K. Livio may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio. Find Politics on Facebook. 

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    A law shifting the enforcement of animal-control laws from the non-profit New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to county prosecutors and municipal police departments carries risks of its own. Watch video

    Pretty much everyone agrees that animal-control efforts in New Jersey left much to be desired: complaints against abusers going ignored, spending for legal bills outstripping spending for actual animal care, poor record keeping and worse.

    But the solution the state Legislature arrived at - a law shifting the enforcement of animal-control laws from the non-profit New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to county prosecutors and municipal police departments - turns out to carry risks of its own.

    Many counties are simply not ready. Some police departments have not yet designated a humane law enforcement officer; others have no training protocols in place for those officers.

    Where will we shelter the animals who have been mistreated or neglected? And who will pay?

    These are among the challenges municipalities are grappling with as they stare down an Aug. 1 deadline for having new arrangements in place.

    The new animal cruelty laws many aren't ready for

    "We believe the law needs to be revisited in order to address these real-world, day-to-day concerns," Angelo J. Onofri told Assembly members back in March.

    The Mercer County prosecutor and head of the County Prosecutor's Association of New Jersey is among a growing number of professionals and private citizens seeking to delay implementation of the new policies until next year.

    It's a reasonable request, given the responsibilities involved and the costs the counties are inevitably facing.

    Under the bill former Gov. Chris Christie signed in January, each of the state's 21 county prosecutors is required to form an animal cruelty tax force. Helping them will be municipal humane-law enforcement officers appointed in each community.

    But many people are justifiably worried that the burdens already placed on local cops will prevent police from handling the added duties.

    Amy Guidroz, who has been rescuing animals for three decades, cited the case of a Hillside family who called the local police several times about two dogs left outside in bad weather - only to be told the department was too busy to investigate.

    "Hillside police are hopping 24/7," Guidroz said. And that's equally true throughout the state.

    For his part, Hillside Police Chief Vincent Ricciardi acknowledged that numerous issues have not been resolved, such as storing the animals, supplying the manpower to oversee investigation, and training officers.

    He's not against the new policies, the chief says - he just wants some clarification. And that's why it makes enormous sense to push back the Aug. 1 deadline.

    It took decades and repeated efforts by the State Commission of Investigation to realize how miserably the non-profit NJSPCA was doing its job.

    Now we owe it to our four-legged friends to invest more time to ensure that the remedy is not worse than the problem it's meant to address.

    Bookmark Follow on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and find Opinion on Facebook.


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    The percent of DWI charges that are dismissed each year has more than doubled over 10 years.

    If a New Jersey police officer makes a driving while intoxicated (DWI) arrest today, the driver has a better chance of getting out of the charge compared to a decade ago, statistically speaking.

    Conviction rates are generally high in the Garden State -- in 2008, 85 percent were found guilty of their DWI charges, and had to accept license suspensions, big fines and more.

    But over the last 10 years, that rate slid to 71 percent, according to data from the state judiciary. At the same time, the percentage of DWI charges that were dismissed has more than doubled to 24 percent in 2017. Most of the time, those drivers are pleading to a different charge, like reckless driving.

    So why are more DWI charges getting dismissed now?

    Experts in New Jersey DWI law said there are several contributing factors, but the most supported theory is that the number of people being arrested for driving under the influence of drugs is going up.

    "The state has a harder time proving those cases," said retired municipal Judge H. Robert Switzer. Most DWIs still involve alcohol, he said, but "what's happened in the last 10 to 20 years is an exponential increase in the amount of people driving under the influence of drugs."

    Whether the increase in DWI drug arrests is due to more drug use or better detection by police, drugged driving cases present several problems for prosecutors trying to convict. One of the biggest is that there is no equivalent of a breath test for those suspected of driving while high, Switzer said.

    NJ Cannabis Insider: Get a free look

    It's a topic that's been on a lot of minds in law enforcement and state government, as New Jersey inches closer to legalizing marijuana. The state is training more officers to be drug recognition experts -- so they can opine whether a driver is under the influence of a particular drug -- and companies are rushing to create and sell the first breathalyzer for pot.  

    According to interviews with four DWI attorneys, two traffic officers and Switzer, dismissals are also up because attorneys are more able to get breath test and blood toxicology results thrown out, in some situations, compared to a decade ago.

    The vast majority of people get their DWI charges dismissed when they plead to another charge. Most come with shorter suspensions, but refusal to take a breath test has penalties almost as severe as a DWI.

    Plea deals aren't allowed in DWI cases, so the outcome is called an "alternative disposition."

    "The goal is to get rid of the DWI or reduce the suspension time," said Cherry Hill attorney Evan Levow.

    For a first offense DWI, depending on the blood alcohol reading, a driver faces a suspension of three months to a year, plus thousands in fees and surcharges, Levow said.

    The analysis of court data also showed that the percentage of DWI cases ending in not guilty verdicts has stayed right around 5 percent over the last 10 years.

    The number of new DWI cases has declined over that period, which may be due to increased awareness about the risks of driving while intoxicated or the rise of ride-sharing apps, some attorneys theorized.

    Why drug cases are harder to prove

    If you fail a field sobriety test and then at the station, blow a 0.0 on the breath test, you're probably going to meet a drug recognition expert, or DRE. The officer is called in to run tests, from blood pressure to pupil size. They compare the results to a matrix of drug symptoms and decide what type of drug you might be on.

    And while that may sound like a pretty good system, there are many reasons a judge could be skeptical about the conclusions, Levow said.

    The urine test, for example, doesn't actually prove the person was driving high.

    "A urine test only shows the presence of the drug in the body but not how much," Switzer said. "It could be a trace amount or a large amount. It could be up to 30 days old" with some drugs.

    A blood test could provide more evidence of the level of drug in the body, Levow said, but they're rarely done except in fatal or serious crashes.

    John Menzel, an Asbury Park attorney, said he sees many cases where people are charged with DWI when the only drug in their system was legally prescribed. Sometimes a driver might legitimately be affected by the medication -- perhaps if he or she popped an extra Xanax due to stress -- but they might not, he said.

    "If someone looks a little off or odd to the officer and they see prescription drugs somewhere, like in a purse," he said. "They jump to the conclusion that the driving they saw was due to drugs."

    He said medical records and doctor's opinions about the driver's ability to drive on the medication can weaken the prosecutor's case.

    Why are there more drugged driving arrests?

    Experts say they believed there are now more arrests for driving under the influence of drugs -- mostly marijuana or prescription drugs -- but they had different theories on why.

    It wasn't possible to get court data to confirm an increase in DWI drug arrests, because the cases are charged under the same statute regardless of whether they involve alcohol or drugs.

    Most data on drugged driving comes from blood tests after fatal crashes, though this doesn't give a full picture of the amount of people driving high.

    In New Jersey, there has been a small increase in the percentage of drivers tested after fatal crashes who had drugs or medication in their blood, according to State Police data.

    Detective Nicholas Schock, president of the New Jersey Police Traffic Officers Association, investigates fatal and criminal car crashes for the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office.

    "There's definitely been an increase in the ones that are narcotics related," he said Wednesday.

    Toms River Police Lt. Christopher Dudzik, president of the New Jersey Association of Drug Recognition Experts, agreed with Judge Switzer's statement that there are just more people driving after using drugs.

    "Hands down, we've been definitely seeing more of it," he said. "There's definitely been more, between the opioid epidemic and marijuana."

    Will legalization make roads more dangerous?

    Most experts agreed that another thing driving the arrests is law enforcement's heightened focus and training on spotting drugged drivers.

    While officers in the field are the ones making these arrests, Dudzik said, their investigations can now rely on more DREs than before. There are roughly 400 DREs in New Jersey today -- more than any other state other than California. He said that's compared to about half that 11 years ago, when he got certified.

    Other factors

    When defending drunk driving cases -- which are still the majority of DWIs -- attorneys now have more ammunition to shoot down evidence, the attorneys said.

    "Lawyers are becoming more adept and more sophisticated at defending against the Alcotest," said Joseph P. Rem Jr., an attorney in Hackensack.

    The Breathalyzer that was used in New Jersey until around the mid-2000s was a simple test where a liquid changed color, he said.

    But the Alcotest, he said, is a "biochemical laboratory run by a computer" and it's more difficult to keep calibrated, among other issues.

    "It's been a 10-year battle and case law resulted in more defenses for the accused drivers," Levow said.

    The state Supreme Court has ruled that the Alcotest results should be accepted as evidence, but prosecutors must prove the test was done correctly, including with a calibrated machine and by a certified officer. If any part is missing, Levow said, the results can be thrown out and then the prosecutor just has observations of drunkenness.

    Robert Ramsey, an attorney who also wrote a book on the state's DWI laws, said defense attorneys are also helped by the Supreme Court's rulings that police cannot take blood from a defendant without their consent or a warrant, in most cases.

    Even if they can collect blood, Ramsey said the scandal at the New Jersey State Police drug lab has created an "enormous delay" that can make toxicology results take as long as six months.

    According to DWI research provided by Levow, only 5 percent of DWI cases in New Jersey involve blood draws.

    Will the trend continue?

    If more people are getting arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana these days, a good breath test for pot could mean big changes.

    Hound Labs of California has been testing a machine it says can detect trace amounts of THC in a driver's breath within two or three hours after use. It could be on sale in the end of June at the earliest, the company told NJ Advance Media.

    Training more DREs also might help prosecutions, as Switzer said the availability of DREs has been an issue for some departments.

    "Now with legalization, I would predict an increase in people driving under the influence of marijuana compared to other drugs," Switzer said.

    And while some might worry about the rise in dismissals, Menzel said the outcomes are just products of a justice system that's working as it should, requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

    "Due process is a process," he said.

    Rebecca Everett may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @rebeccajeverett. Find on Facebook.

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    At the event this coming weekend, you can give a DNA sample to help identify a loved one, and hear about others' similar experiences Watch video

    Last May, Marie Himebaugh captivated a room at Rutgers University, telling a crowd how she has coped with the loss of her son Mark, who went missing almost 27 years ago.

    He'd be 37 today.

    The audience? Mostly, loved ones of people who have gone missing, there to file a report, maybe submit a DNA sample. And they hung onto every word from Mrs. Himebaugh.

    "You could hear a pin drop," said Sgt. Joel Trella of the New Jersey State Police.

    Out of about 1,000 active cases in the state, more than 900 are classified as long-term missing persons cases, meaning someone has been missing for 30 days or more.

    At the same time, the State Police knows of about 310 unidentified deceased individuals, and expects some overlap between the two groups. There may be others who went missing and haven't reported it, or relatives haven't given DNA that could help determine if their missing loved one is one of the 310.

    So the State Police decided to hold an event to get all the different components of a missing person search together in one place, and are inviting anyone to come visit.

    After an event last year that was largely attended by north and central Jersey residents, this year's event will be held at Rowan University in Glassboro in hopes of getting a bigger crowd from South Jersey, along with Delaware and Philadelphia.

    "Hopefully we can attract some new families who have never had the opportunity to provide biometrics," Trella said. "Or if they've never reported someone missing they can do that at our event as well."

    This year, Marge Petrone, the mother of Richard Petrone -- who went missing with Danielle Imbo after visiting a bar on South Street in Philadelphia in 2005 -- will speak at the event.

    "We want her to bring to other families in the area and say, this is how I feel about this, this is how I've dealt with this for the past 13 years," Trella said. 

    Law enforcement are not checking IDs or immigration status at the door, Trella said. They just want to help people file missing persons reports, and help take steps toward solving the case.

    "We don't want to turn anyone away," Trella said.

    For those concerned about handing over DNA to police, Trella wanted to stress that it will only be sent directly to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System lab in Texas, where workers will search for a match. That's all it'll be used for, he said.

    You can pre-register for the event here.

    Those attending are encouraged to have at least two biological relatives (a mix of male and female) to help ensure an accurate DNA match if one can be found, along with dental records, photos and other documents that could help them identify a missing loved one.

    The event is Saturday, May 19 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. in Rowan University's Chamberlain Student Center.

    r5.JPGDanielle Imbo, left, and Richard Petrone, right, in this undated photo circulated by investigators after their 2005 vanishings. 

    Joe Brandt can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JBrandt_NJ. Find on Facebook.

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