Jose A. Lopez, 31, of Woodbine, pleaded guilty today to first-degree unlawful possession of a handgun by a convicted felon before Superior Court Judge Donna Taylor in Cape May County. Possession of a handgun by a convicted felon is a first-degree offense if the prior conviction was for a “violent crime” as defined by the relevant statute. Lopez has a prior robbery conviction, which made the charge first degree. Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that he be sentenced to 15 years in state prison, including 7 ½ years of parole ineligibility. Sentencing for Lopez is scheduled for July 15.
Supervising Deputy Attorney General Andrew B. Johns prosecuted Lopez and took the guilty plea for the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team.
The incident occurred at approximately 12:30 a.m. on Nov. 16, 2014 outside a home in the 600 block of Washington Avenue in Woodbine where a party was being held. Two state troopers from the New Jersey State Police Woodbine Station were conducting surveillance of the party because the State Police had received a tip that there might be retaliation at the party for an earlier shooting in Woodbine. The two troopers were not in uniform, but one had State Police markings on his jacket. Shortly before the shooting, the two troopers, who were watching the party from hidden positions across the street, called for backup from uniformed troopers because they heard a growing commotion at the party and a physical altercation began. They subsequently saw Lopez emerge onto Washington Avenue from behind the house where the party was being held and approach a crowd at the front of the house. Lopez raised a handgun and fired several shots, none of which struck any person.
The state troopers quickly drew their 9mm duty weapons and began running toward Lopez. As they were running, both troopers yelled “State Police” and “drop the gun.” Lopez allegedly turned toward the troopers, pointing his outstretched handgun at them. One of the troopers immediately fired four rounds from his service weapon at Lopez, before the weapon malfunctioned. None of the bullets struck Lopez. The troopers heard more gunfire coming from the area in front of the home where the party was being held. They did not see who was responsible for that gunfire.
Lopez ran up Washington Avenue, with the two troopers in pursuit, and ran into a wooded area behind some homes. Backup troopers arrived and helped to set up a perimeter of the woods before entering and arresting Lopez without further resistance. A .380-caliber handgun with an empty magazine was found in the woods about 40 feet from where Lopez was arrested, along the route that he had run. Ballistic analysis matched that gun to six .380-caliber shell casings found at the location where the troopers allegedly saw Lopez firing his gun.
A second man, Jermaine Russell, 27, of Woodbine, was charged in a separate indictment for allegedly having a different .380-caliber handgun in his possession at the party. That gun was found behind a residence adjacent to the party house and was linked to Russell by forensic evidence. Russell pleaded guilty on May 3 to second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun. He is awaiting sentencing and faces a recommended sentence of five years in state prison, including one year of parole ineligibility.
Under the Attorney General’s Directive on Police-Use-of-Force Investigations, the incident was investigated by the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team, made up of investigators from the Division of Criminal Justice and the New Jersey State Police Major Crime Unit. As a result of the investigation, Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice determined that presentation of the police-involved shooting to a grand jury was not required under the Directive, because the undisputed facts showed that the use of force by the state trooper was justified under the law.