TRENTON – A state grand jury has voted not to file any criminal charges at the conclusion of its deliberations regarding the death of Christopher Clark, 36, of Paterson, N.J., who died when three officers of the Passaic County Sheriff’s Office fired their service weapons at Mr. Clark on May 23, 2020 in Paterson. The officers were previously identified as Sgt. Americo Escobar, Sgt. Helman Fava, and Sgt. Jose Vargas of the Passaic County Sheriff’s Office.
The fatal police encounter was investigated by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) and presented to New Jersey residents called to serve on the grand jury in accordance with Directive 2019-4, the “Independent Prosecutor Directive” issued in 2019. In July 2021, OPIA issued standard operating procedures (“SOPs”) to ensure that these grand jury presentations are conducted in a neutral, objective manner, and with appropriate transparency regarding the process, consistent with the Independent Prosecutor Directive. The investigation of this fatal police encounter included interviews of witnesses, collection of forensic evidence, review of video footage, and autopsy results from the medical examiner. After hearing testimony and evidence from the investigation, the grand jury concluded its deliberations yesterday, Feb. 22, and voted “no bill,” meaning a majority of grand jurors found that the actions of the officers who shot at Mr. Clark should not result in charges against them.
According to the investigation, at approximately 1:11 a.m. on May 23, 2020, a gunshot detection sensor detected three gunshots near 30 Park Avenue. This alert was announced over Paterson Police Department radio. Officers responded and began to look for evidence of a shooting. Police found no victim at the scene but recovered three 9mm casings. They broadcast this finding at 1:14 a.m.
Officers of the Passaic County Sheriff’s Office, including Sergeants Escobar, Fava, and Vargas, responded to the area after hearing the alert over the radio. The three sergeants were together, in uniform, in a marked Ford Explorer. They drove past the area where the gunshots were detected on Park Avenue because they noticed a heavy law enforcement presence already at that scene.
After turning left onto Summer Street from Market Street, the three sheriff’s officers noticed a large group of people standing on the corner of Summer Street and Park Avenue. This group appeared to be looking across the street at an individual heading north on Summer Street who was later identified as Christopher Clark. Sgt. Fava, the driver of the vehicle, pulled up next to the group and asked if they were okay. They stated that they were, but continued to watch Mr. Clark cross the street.
Mr. Clark proceeded to the front of an apartment building on Summer Street and tried unsuccessfully to enter the building. Sgt Fava drove past initially, then returned to the area and pulled up next to Mr. Clark. Sgt. Vargas, in the front passenger seat, asked Mr. Clark if he was okay, and at the same time opened his door and approached Mr. Clark, who fled. Sgt. Vargas called over the radio that he was engaged in a foot pursuit and indicated he was headed down 16th Avenue.
Sergeants Fava and Escobar followed in the patrol car, turning left onto 16th Avenue, against the one-way direction of traffic. About mid-block on 16th Avenue, Mr. Clark tripped and fell. Sgt. Vargas unholstered his weapon at this time and ordered Mr. Clark to remain on the ground. A civilian witness reported hearing a uniformed officer shout “freeze” and seeing Mr. Clark fall. The civilian witness stated that Mr. Clark was not obeying the officer’s commands, and that Mr. Clark rolled over, faced the officer, and reached toward his waistband.
Sergeants Fava and Escobar stated that they saw Mr. Clark fall, and when they exited the vehicle, they noticed Sgt. Vargas had drawn his weapon. According to the statements of the three officers, they each saw Mr. Clark rise from the ground and saw a handgun in his right hand pointed in the direction of Sergeants Escobar and Fava. Sgt. Vargas stated that he yelled “Gun!” and fired his service weapon. Sergeants Escobar and Fava also fired their service weapons at Mr. Clark, who was fatally wounded. Paterson Police officers immediately responded. Police recovered a .45-caliber Hi Point handgun with a bullet in the chamber in the vicinity of Mr. Clark. A detached loaded magazine was found a short distance down the sidewalk from Mr. Clark. Mr. Clark was pronounced dead at the scene.
A 2019 law, P.L. 2019, c. 1, requires the Attorney General’s Office to conduct investigations of a person’s death that occurs during an encounter with a law enforcement officer acting in the officer’s official capacity or while the decedent is in custody. It requires that all such investigations be presented to a grand jury to determine if the evidence supports the return of an indictment against the officer or officers involved.
After considering the facts, evidence, and testimony from the OPIA investigation, the state grand jury found the actions of the officers were justified. An officer may use deadly force in New Jersey when the officer reasonably believes it is immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person from imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.
A conflicts check was conducted pursuant to the Independent Prosecutor Directive and no actual or potential conflict of interest was found involving any individual assigned to the investigation. Prior to presentation to the grand jury, the investigation was reviewed by OPIA Executive Director Thomas Eicher in accordance with the policies and procedures established for these presentations in the SOPs.
At the conclusion of these investigations, pursuant to the Independent Prosecutor Directive and SOPs, OPIA determines whether any principal should be referred to the appropriate law enforcement agency for administrative review in accordance with the AG’s Internal Affairs Policy & Procedures. OPIA monitors any resulting review and takes such actions as are necessary to ensure that the review is completed in a timely fashion, and that appropriate actions are taken based on the results of the review.
The Independent Prosecutor Directive is posted on the Attorney General’s website at this link:
Further information about how fatal police encounters are investigated in New Jersey under the directive is found at this link: