Two former police officers have accused Princeton Township of violating a settlement agreement related to the M-16 gun trade case involving former police chief Mark Emann. The pair is seeking at least $2.5 million in damages.
Michael Henderson and Arthur Villaruz have filed a claim against the Township and County Prosecutor saying, among other things, that personal property — including numerous personal guns — confiscated from the duo’s police lockers, offices, police armory, and vehicles was wrongfully withheld from them after charges were dropped against them and they retired.
Their lawyer, Gina Mendola Longarzo of Chatham, filed a claim in January arguing that Henderson and Villaruz have suffered various damages as a result of settlement agreement violations, including: harassment, emotional distress, deprivation of continued employment, loss of reputation, loss of income, injury to personal property, and theft.
Henderson and Villaruz also claim they were not properly compensated for terminal leave, vacation time, or other time off that was owed them totaling $40,000 and $30,000 respectively. The two claim the final payments were a “substantial consideration to induce them to retire instead of fighting bogus charges.” Officials have countered that terminal leave is not given to officers who have retired as a result of disciplinary action.
A tort claim notice is not the same as a lawsuit. It is a document that describes the legal claims that the officers may bring against the Township. The notice is also supposed to describe the facts that support those claims and their damages.
Henderson and Villaruz were removed from their posts in October of 2010 along with then-chief Mark Emann, who allegedly received personal guns when he traded in a firearm that had been in police custody.
According to prosecutors, Emann traded an antique M-16 rifle to a North Jersey gun dealer in June of 2007. In exchange he received several weapons. Some went to the department’s armory, but Emann also allegedly received a rifle and a revolver for his personal use. He pleaded not guilty to theft by deception, received one year of supervision, was required to perform 40 hours of community service as part of a pretrial intervention program, and was allowed to retire on Dec. 1 of 2010 and collect his pension.
Henderson and Villaruz also retired from the police department in lieu of further disciplinary action or criminal prosecution. Lt. Henderson had worked for the department since 1985. Corp. Villaruz had been with the department since 1984 and was the police department’s firearms licensing officer.
It was never clear how the two were involved in the gun case, but according to the tort claim notice, they were charged with violating police rules and regulations regarding obedience of laws and rules, reporting violations of laws and rules, honesty, good conduct, and use of department property and equipment.
In the claim notice obtained by Planet Princeton through the state’s Open Public Records Act, Henderson and Villaruz allege that the top brass in the department, Chef Mark Emann and Captain Robert Buchanan, were looking for a way to force them out.
Henderson claims he was targeted because he raised questions about a favored officer’s conduct. The officer allegedly did not show up for work when he was supposed to sometimes and was also allegedly pulled over in his personal car several times by township police for speeding and other violations, but was only issued warnings.
Villaruz alleges he was being pressured to retire instead of seek a promotion.
Henderson and Villaruz claim they did not know Emann traded the township weapon for personal weapons until about two weeks before the prosecutor’s office suspended all three of them. Henderson claims Emann called him in to his office in mid September and asked him to help with a cover up.
“Chief Emann asked Lt. Henderson to speak to the gun dealer about the possibility of giving him money to put on credit for the Township, essentially paying for the guns several years after they were received,” reads the account in the tort claim notice. Henderson discussed the issue with Villaruz, the department’s firearms licensing officer. The two allege they were not sure how to handle the situation. They allegedly planned to talk to Buchanan about it, but he was out in late September. Then on Oct. 1 they were suspended.
Villaruz and Henderson acknowledge in the claim notice that in June of 2007 they made the trip with Emann to the Wyckoff gun dealer Police Products Corp. But they claim they thought Emann paid separately for the two personal guns he brought back that day. They said that while they also picked up personal guns from the dealer, their guns were bought directly from the manufacturer and were properly paid for. The two said they had documentation that supports the legality of the M-16 transfer, as well as proper paperwork for their own personal guns.
After all charges against them were dropped, the two said that under the settlement agreement they were supposed to receive all their personal property that had been seized by the police department and prosecutor’s office, including their personal guns. But lawyers for Henderson and Villaruz then went back and forth with officials over a period of several months to try to to get their possessions back.
In a February 2011 e-mail to lawyers for Henderson and Villaruz that was included in the claim notice, Deputy First Assistant Prosecutor Doris Galuchie asked to reschedule the meeting that was set up to retrieve the guns.
“I’m writing to ask if we can reschedule because several of the weapons neither belong to the department, nor are they coming back to Henderson or Villaruz when we run them through the NJSP database,” she wrote. “I will send you a list of the weapons next week for which your clients will have to provide some proof of ownership. Our issue is that residents are still coming forward saying that they turned in weapons over to Villaruz that were not subsequently turned over to the armory or the evidence room. As you can imagine, we certainly do not want to return anything to your clients that they did not obtain lawfully. After I receive the paperwork, we’ll reschedule ASAP.”
But the two claim that even after the prosecutor’s office gave the go ahead for their items to be returned, Township Police Chief Robert Buchanan still would not release all their property.
“Just got off the phone with prosecutor. She will meet with chief next week and persuade him to release all items for which you provided your certification,” wrote Henderson’s lawyer in a Sept. 21, 2011 email. “Chief is concerned about original ownership of some potential items and she will recommend he release all. But even if he holds certain items that concern him, she will have him release everything which is not disputed.”
It took Henderson more than nine months to receive some of his possessions. Finally in October a meeting was arranged at Township Lawyer Ed Schmierer’s office at Mason, Griffin & Pierson so he could pick up some of his items, including some guns and a package belonging to him that Buchanan had seized that had been shipped to the township after Henderson’s retirement.
Villaruz did not receive any of his personal items despite attempts by his lawyer to arrange pick-up times. Both men also said they never received a complete property inventory list of all the items that were seized.
Township Lawyer Ed Schmierer acknowledged in a phone interview Friday that property still needs to be returned to the two. He said the township hopes to return all the items by the end of the month.
“Some of the property involves weapons, and weapons have to be verified in terms of ownership. In some cases the weapons can only be released to a federally licensed firearms dealer,” Schmierer said. “We’re making good progress working through the items we have been told were theirs. A number of items were returned to Mr. Henderson. We are working on the list for Arthur Villaruz. We’ve made a commitment to ourselves and to them to get everything back by the end of the month.”
“We need to make sure everything is legitimate and it is a tedious process,” Schmierer said. “They each worked for the department for a long time. There was a lot of material there that had to be inventoried. Any request to return a weapon has to be carefully handled to make sure they are the rightful owners. There is a whole protocol to go through when dealing with weapons. Both were gun collectors. They have given us a ton of information of proof of ownership, but with each weapon we have to go back and trace it to make sure it checks out. While we are doing this we also have to consolidate the two police departments. It’s a busy time.”
Schmierer said so far all the weapons have turned out to be legitimately owned by Henderson and Villaruz.