‘Listen to what he is telling you’: Hate crime trial begins against former N.J. police chief

Prosecutors say Frank Nucera Jr. was motivated by racial animus when he allegedly slammed a handcuffed black teenager into a door during a 2016 arrest.

(Township of Bordentown)

(Township of Bordentown)

The former Bordentown Township police chief’s own words — captured in dozens of secret recordings by fellow officers — tell you everything you need to know to convict him of a federal hate crime, a prosecutor told jurors during opening arguments in Frank Nucera’s long-anticipated trial on Friday.

“Listen to what he is telling you about himself and about his motives” when he uses the N-word, says he’d like to unleash a police dog on black civilians, and admonishes black people to “stay the [expletive] out of Bordentown,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Lorber said in a federal courtroom in Camden.

But in his opening statement, Nucera’s defense attorney said the government cannot prove a claim central to its case: that Nucera slammed a handcuffed black teenager into a door during a 2016 arrest at a Bordentown hotel, causing facial injuries. Prosecutors say the alleged assault against Timothy Stroye, then 18, was motivated by racial animus.

“Not a single audio or video recording will show that Frank Nucera ever put a hand on” Stroye, defense attorney Rocco Cipparone said. He criticized the government’s case as “all talk, no proof of action.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Nucera’s case has thrown an unflattering spotlight on the Burlington County town of roughly 12,000 residents, where Nucera led the police department and also served as business administrator before retiring amid an FBI investigation in early 2017.

His indictment attracted national headlines for its lurid allegations and as an apparent example of racially biased policing. Nucera, 62, is the first police officer charged with a federal hate crime in at least a decade, according to CNN.

Among the most chilling accusations in Nucera’s indictment is an alleged conversation recounted by Sgt. Nathan Roohr, who admits he started recording Nucera even before the 2016 incident at the hotel.

When Nucera suspected that a previously arrested black individual had slashed the tires of a police vehicle, Roohr says Nucera stated: “I wish that [N-word] would come back from Trenton and give me a reason to put my hands on him, I’m tired of ’em. These [N-word] are like ISIS, they have no value. They should line them all up and mow ’em down. I’d like to be on the firing squad, I could do it.”

But that conversation apparently wasn’t caught on tape. And Cipparone, the defense attorney, wondered aloud Friday if it was a mere coincidence or if the exchange never happened.

More broadly, Cipparone cast the prosecution as biased and lacking credibility. He said the case was initiated by a self-interested Roohr who wanted to force Nucera out of the department for financial reasons, and investigated by FBI agents who had clashed with Nucera in the past.

He told jurors the government wanted them to confuse criminal justice for social justice. Yes, Nucera’s language was “ugly and disgusting,” he conceded. And yes, he may have deserved to lose his job and face public scorn.

But “criminal justice cannot punish words,” Cipparone said.

Nucera faces up to 20 years in prison and could lose his $8,800 monthly pension if convicted. The trial is expected to last two or three weeks.

The first witness called to the stand Friday was current Bordentown Township Police Chief Brian Pesce, to whom Roohr first reported Nucera’s alleged misconduct.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal