Seven get 5-20 years’ jail time in ’99 torture case Mentally disabled Middletown man was subjected to humiliating abuse

Staff Writer

By marilyn duff

Seven get 5-20 years’ jail
time in ’99 torture case
Mentally disabled
Middletown man
was subjected to
humiliating abuse

FREEHOLD — In the first prosecution of its kind, a state Superior Court judge last week doled out sentences of five to 20 years to seven people who pleaded guilty in the January 1999 torture of a mentally disabled Middletown man.

A former Middletown school district special education aide and her live-in boyfriend, whose Keansburg apartment was the setting for the torture on Jan. 30, 1999, were sentenced to 20 years each for kidnapping. A third defendant with a history of mental illness received 15 years for kidnapping.

The then 23-year-old victim, whose name has been withheld, was picked up at approximately 7 p.m. from his shift at an area McDonald’s restaurant and lured to the Keansburg apartment, where he was bound to a chair, tortured and then dumped in a wooded area off the Henry Hudson Trail in Union Beach.

He was employed through The Arc of Monmouth County, the Tinton Falls-based Monmouth unit of the Association for Retarded Citizens.

"This is the first case in the United States where the bias element has been used with regard to a mentally handicapped person," Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Jacquelynn Seely, who prosecuted the case, said in a phone interview Friday. She said the only similar case she is aware of occurred in Toronto.

Under the law in New Jersey, sentences for bias crimes can be enhanced or extended significantly. In this case, although all seven pleaded guilty to a bias crime, the prosecution did not seek the longer sentences.

"I’m absolutely satisfied with the outcome and the sentencing," Seely said. "It sends a very strong message that we will protect those in our community who are incapable of protecting themselves," and that people who prey on them will be subject to stiff penalties.

On Thursday, state Superior Court Judge Francis P. DeStefano, sitting in Freehold, sentenced Jennifer Dowell, 24, and Brandon Cruz, 25, who shared the Keansburg apartment where the abuse took place, to 20 years each for kidnapping.

Dowell, who worked as a special education aide in the Middletown school district from September 1997 to the time of her arrest, was sentenced to a concurrent seven-year term for aggravated assault. Cruz was sentenced to a concurrent eight-year term on the aggravated assault charge.

Jessica Fry, 24, of Red Bank, who also pleaded guilty to kidnapping, was sentenced to 15 years and a concurrent six years on the aggravated assault charge.

Under the state’s No Early Release Act, they must serve 85 percent of their sentences for the aggravated assault charge. In Dowell’s case, that adds up to five years, 11 months and 16 days before becoming eligible for parole, Seely said.

All three, unable to make bail, had been incarcerated since the time of their arrests two and a half years ago, about two weeks after the January 1999 incident.

Seely had asked that Fry receive a 20-year sentence on the kidnapping charge, the same as Dowell and Cruz. She said she believes that DeStefano gave the lighter sentence "because of Fry’s history of mental illness."

All three could have been sentenced to a maximum of 30 years on the kidnapping charge, she said.

Also sentenced, after pleading guilty to conspiracy and bias assault, were David Allen Jr., 26, and Daniel Vistad, 25, both of the Belford section of Middletown; and William D. MacKay, 24, and Christol Lavary, 21, both of Atlantic Highlands.

All four had been free on bail.

Allen was sentenced to eight years on the conspiracy charge, MacKay to seven years, and Lavary and Vistad, five years each.

Each was sentenced concurrently to nine months on the bias assault charge.

The case was unusual for several reasons, including the number of defendants, the mental levels of some of them and their "complete disregard for humanity," Seely said.

"You have people who have grown up with troubled pasts who make the right choices. These people did not," she said.

Initially there were eight defendants. A ninth person was also arrested in connection with the incident.

At the time of their arrests, bail was set at $115,000 and $110,000 for Dowell and Cruz, respectively; $75,000 each for Fry and Allen; $50,000 for Vistad and Lavary; and $45,000 for MacKay. Bail for the ninth person arrested was $10,000.

The eighth defendant, a Lincroft woman, 21 at the time of her arrest, pleaded guilty and was placed in a pretrial intervention program.

"She wasn’t present for the actual abuse," said Seely, whereas "these seven all made a conscious decision" to participate.

The majority of the indictment focused on the Jan. 30, 1999, assault at the Keansburg apartment which Cruz and Dowell shared, but the conspiracy charges included two earlier incidents, one in Holmdel and one in Middletown.

When the group of nine was rounded up and arrested in February 1999, First Assistant Prosecutor Robert A. Honecker Jr. said the victim had arranged to be picked up by one of his assailants at the end of his shift at approximately 7 p.m. on Jan. 30.

After arriving at Dowell and Cruz’s Hancock Street residence in Keansburg, they and the other defendants proceeded to torture and humiliate him.

The victim did know his assailants, but they were not learning disabled, Honecker said at the time.

While at the apartment, the group tore off the young man’s clothing and forced him to dress in women’s underwear. They also pushed him down and made him lick a spilled drink off the floor.

In addition, they shaved his entire head, then bound him to a chair and used his mouth as an ashtray, Honecker said.

After the prolonged torturing, the group forced him out into the parking lot and into a car and drove him a short distance to a wooded area of the Henry Hudson Trail known as the pit, where they continued to beat and torture him.

After they left, the victim was able to drag himself to the security office at the International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. building on Rose Lane in Union Beach.

The Union Beach first aid squad was called at about 11 p.m. and transported him to Bayshore Community Hospital, Holmdel, where he was treated for cuts on his head and arm, welts and bruises on his back and a swollen right eye. He was then released.

Within hours, he reported the incident to the Keansburg Police Department, and after an extensive two-week investigation, the police arrested nine suspects, charging them with kidnapping, aggravated assault, criminal restraint and making terroristic threats.

Karen Kondek, district communications director, said at the time of Dowell’s arrest that when Dowell was hired by the Middletown school district in September 1997, a criminal background check and reference checks did not reveal any potential problems.

The district was not informed by the police of the allegations against Dowell, Kondek said. "We found out about this on the day she went to jail … the morning the first article appeared in the newspaper," she said.

The county prosecutor’s office was moving toward pursuing a hate-crime prosecution in February 1999.

"If we can prove to the courts that these crimes were motivated, in part, because of the victim being handicapped or disabled, we will move at sentencing to enhance the sentences," Honecker said at the time.