Princeton Mayor Mark Freda has been named as a defendant in a lawsuit related to the 2021 vehicle theft and crash on Route 27 that killed a Newark teen and a Kendall Park woman. The lawsuit, first reported by NJ 101.5, alleges that Freda, who is a volunteer firefighter and the president of the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, flashed his blue lights and chased the car thief shortly before the fatal crash.
In the fall of 2021, there was a string of auto thefts and attempted vehicle thefts in Princeton. The Littlebrook neighborhood was targeted in November of that year.
At about 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 7, three teens wearing black hoodies pulled up to a house on Dodds Lane in a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee and successfully stole an unlocked Range Rover that was parked in a driveway.
The teens then headed over to the 100 block of Clover Lane and attempted to steal two sports cars, including a 2021 Ferrari convertible. The homeowner said the teens drove by the house a few times. The resident called the Princeton Police and then called the mayor.
The mayor and the police each arrived at the scene and the three teens drove by again. Two of the three teens were in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which had been stolen in Pequannock Township, and one was in the SUV they stole from Dodds Lane. The teens saw the police and then sped away.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee was driven by 15-year-old Damajia Horner of Newark. Her passenger was a 14-year-old boy. Horner headed for Route 27 in the Jeep, drove erratically at a high speed, and crashed head-on into a 2016 Acura RDX near Carnegie Drive. The Acura was driven by Jodi Marcou, 61, a resident of Kendall Park who worked at Rutgers University. Both Horner and Marcou died as a result of injuries sustained in the crash. The 14-year-old passenger in the Jeep was taken to Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton for severe injuries.
In June of 2022, Marcou’s husband, David Marcou, filed a lawsuit in Middlesex County on behalf of his wife’s estate naming Demajia Horner, her mother Jennifer Horner, Elhajjmalik Diallo, and Arbina Asani as defendants. The lawyer for the estate is Nicholas Leonardis of Stathis & Leonardis in Edison.
According to the lawsuit, the actions of the defendants were careless, reckless, and negligent, and led to the crash, injuries, and death of Jodi Marcou. The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, attorney fees, hospital fees, funeral costs, and costs associated with the mental health and suffering of the family after the loss of Jodi Marcou.
The lawsuit names Demajia Horner’s mother, Jennifer Horner, alleging she didn’t properly supervise her daughter, leading the daughter to “consort” with others and commit crimes like car theft.
Elhajjmalik Diallo, who was 19 at the time of the crash, allegedly hired the teens to steal the vehicles in Princeton. He is named in the lawsuit because according to the suit, he should have known Demajia Horner was too young to drive.
Arbina Asani was the owner of the Jeep Grand Cherokee that was stolen by the teens in Pequannock Township. She is named in the lawsuit for allegedly leaving her Jeep Grand Cherokee unlocked with the key fob in the vehicle, making it easy to steal, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit cites the NJ Punitive Damages Act, claiming Horner and Diallo acted with malice and “wanton and willful disregard of people who might be harmed” by their actions.
In court filings, the lawyer for Asani has denied that Asani has any legal liability in the case and alleges that Marcou was guilty of contributory negligence for not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash, and therefore contributed to or caused her own injuries.
The insurance company
The Marcou family had an insurance policy with Hanover Insurance. The family was seeking benefits from the insurance company because the death of Jodi Marcou was caused by an uninsured driver. The company was named as a defendant in the lawsuit for allegedly refusing to pay benefits and denying claims.
Hanover Insurance turned around and filed a third-party complaint in March of 2023 against Princeton Mayor Mark Freda, the Municipality of Princeton, and the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad. The complaint alleges that it was Freda, acting as mayor of Princeton and president of the Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad, whose actions caused the fatal crash. The complaint alleges that Freda was pursuing Horner leading up to the crash and that he may bear some liability for the crash. The suit then refers to a supplemental report from Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office Detective Ryan Minnick.
Based on the information obtained by Hanover Insurance, the estate of Jodi Marcou amended its lawsuit on June 28 of this year, adding Freda, the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, and the Municipality of Princeton as defendants in the lawsuit.
“Discovery has revealed that Mark Freda…engaged in a pursuit of the vehicle being operated by deceased Defendant Horner, and initiated an emergency signal light during the pursuit,” reads the amended lawsuit. “This discovery was only recently revealed to the plaintiff during the course of ongoing discovery.”
The report from the prosecutor’s office
Minnick wrote that he received a report at about 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 7 of 2021 from the Princeton Police Department dispatch that there was a serious crash near 697 Princeton Kingston Road (Route 27) and that two people were dead on the scene. Minnick arrived at the scene of the crash at 2:30 p.m. and was told the Jeep Cherokee was traveling eastbound on Route 27 when it crashed head-on with the Acura RDX.
In his report, Minnick notes that Princeton Police Officer Luis Martinez was investigating the attempted theft of a Ferrari from Clover Lane when he spotted the stolen Land Rover Range Rover and Jeep Cherokee traveling west on Clover Lane. Minnick wrote that Martinez followed the Range Rover and attempted to conduct a motor vehicle stop, but the driver would not stop and a short pursuit ensued. Martinez ended the pursuit due to safety concerns.
The crash on Route 27 was reported to police at about 1:09 p.m.
“While on the scene, I observed the Jeep Cherokee underneath the Acura RDX. Roadway evidence suggested the Jeep Cherokee was traveling eastbound in the westbound lane of Route 27 at a high rate of speed when it struck the Acura RDX head-on,” reads Minnick’s report.
According to the report, there were several witnesses to the crash, including Freda. Minnick and a detective from the prosecutor’s office interviewed Freda, who said he went to the Clover Lane home after the homeowners had contacted him about the attempted Ferrari theft. The excerpt of Freda’s statement from the report:
“Freda stated while at the residence, he observed the black Jeep Cherokee drive past the residence traveling south. Freda then said that he observed the grey Range Rover driving behind the black Jeep Cherokee. Freda then indicated that there was a Princeton police officer on the scene (Patrolman Martinez) taking the theft report, who also observed the Range Rover and black Jeep Cherokee. The officer entered his vehicle and attempted to follow the vehicles. Freda stated he entered his vehicle, a red 2019 Ford Expedition, and proceeded north on Clover Lane. He then made a left onto Overbrook Drive and stopped at the intersection of Snowden Lane and Overbook Drive so that he could contact police in the event that he observed any of the involved vehicles in the area. After not observing either vehicle, Freda stated he turned left onto Snowden Lane. While on Snowden Lane, he observed both vehicles make a right onto Snowden Lane from either Braeburn Drive or Leabrook Lane and proceed south on Snowden Lane. Freda said he followed the vehicles but could no longer see the Range Rover once Snowden Lane curved left at Franklin Avenue. Freda continued southbound on Snowden Lane and said that he observed the Jeep Cherokee come upon multiple stopped vehicles in the southbound lane at the intersection of Snowden Lane and Princeton Kingston Road (Route 27). Freda stated he then observed the Jeep Cherokee rapidly accelerate and enter the northbound lane of Snowden Lane and pass the stopped vehicles and make a left turn onto Princeton Kingston Road (Route 27). Freda stated he then followed the Jeep Cherokee and drove around the vehicles stopped at the traffic light. Freda stated he did not recall if the traffic light was red or green at this time. Freda further stated he continued on Princeton Kingston Road (Route 27) and that there were several vehicles between his vehicle and the Jeep Cherokee. Freda indicated his speed was approximately 55 mph and that the Jeep Cherokee was traveling at a high rate of speed. While on Princeton Kingston Road (Route 27) Freda said he observed the Jeep Cherokee overtake an eastbound vehicle and begin to swerve left and right. Freda did not believe the driver of the Jeep Cherokee had control of the vehicle. Freda then said he observed a collision between the Jeep Cherokee and a westbound vehicle on Princeton Kingston Road (Route 27). Freda stated he was in the area of Riverside Drive East and Princeton Kingston Road (Route 27) at the time of the collision. Freda stated he reported the collision to 911. Additionally, Freda stated his vehicle is equipped with blue emergency lights due to the fact that he is a member of Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad. Freda stated he activated his emergency lights when he realized there was a collision and positioned his vehicle across the roadway in an attempt to stop traffic. Freda stated that he remained on the scene to assist with the collision.”
Minnick wrote that on Nov. 12, 2021, detectives canvassed the area of Clover Lane and Snowden Lane in an attempt to locate video surveillance that may have captured any events related to the crash. Detectives received video surveillance from two homes on Snowden Lane. The state police were also able to recover vehicle data from the Jeep. The data from the Jeep showed that the vehicle was traveling at about 99 miles per hour 2.3 seconds before the crash, and slowed to 89 miles per hour at the time of the crash.
In the report, Minnick then goes on to note that on Nov. 23, Freda provided a signed statement to the prosecutor’s office through his lawyer, Darren Gelber, saying he had turned his blue lights on earlier than he said in his original statement. The report notes that Freda believed he may have provided some incorrect information in his initial statement due to the traumatic events of the incident. Following is the excerpt from Freda’s supplemental statement included in Minnick’s report:
“I was on my way home on Snowden Lane when the two vehicles that had shortly before fled from Clover Lane, sped onto Snowden Lane from a side street. Both vehicles rapidly entered Snowden Lane and traveled south. I decided to try to get close enough to see where they were headed so I could call 911 and provide the operator with their direction of travel. At some point on Snowden Lane, I activated the blue light on my windshield. The two cars sped away. I came within view of one of the cars as it approached the intersection of Nassau St. (Rt. 27) and Snowden Lane. I was about to call 911 when the car passed the stopped cars at the intersection. I decided to get to Route 27 to see which way they were going in order to call 911. I entered Rt. 27 and headed north towards Kingston. I believe I passed two cars and then returned to the proper traffic lane as I called 911. There was at least one vehicle in front of me, maybe more, in my lane of traffic. While on the phone with 911 the car (the black Jeep) began to swerve from one side of the road to the other. I cannot recall if this was due to them passing a car or not. The last time they swerved they were involved in the collision. I reported this to 911. My vehicle was just about at Riverside Drive East at that point. I pulled up to the accident scene attempting to block oncoming traffic behind me from entering the accident area. Shortly after the second vehicle (silver or gray Land Rover) pulled up and sped off.”
Minnick then said he reviewed body-worn camera footage, motor vehicle camera footage, and surveillance footage from the incident over the next few months.
Footage showed Officer Martinez involved in a brief pursuit of the stolen Range Rover that ended at about 1:08 p.m.
A home security camera on Snowden Lane showed the stolen black Jeep Cherokee traveling southbound seven minutes and 26 seconds into the footage. The footage only briefly captured the black Jeep Cherokee and then the frame skipped.
The footage then shows Freda’s red Ford Expedition heading southbound on Snowden Lane toward Route 27 at the seven-minute, 32 seconds mark, or just six seconds after the Jeep Cherokee passed by. There is no note in the report indicating any blue emergency lights were flashing from the vehicle at the time. The stolen Range Rover then passes by at the eight-minute, eleven seconds mark, or 45 seconds after the Jeep. A Princeton Police vehicle with its emergency lights on is seen in the footage passing by four seconds later.
Freda is being represented by Lawrence Magro of J.P. Nolan and Associates of Woodbridge. Magro filed an answer to the Hanover Insurance complaint on Aug. 10 denying any claims and asking for the case to be dismissed.
“The defendant is not guilty of any negligence that was the cause of injury or damage,” reads the court filing.
Freda’s lawyer also says in the filing that the suit was filed beyond the statute of limitations, Freda did not take any action that makes him liable in a tort claim, the accident was caused by people he had no control over, and the complaint is barred by the charitable immunity statute and New Jersey Good Samaritan Act.
Lawyers for the municipality and the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad have also filed answers in the lawsuit, claiming they are not responsible for the individual actions of third parties named in the lawsuit.