Hamilton Police Officers and Another Correctional Officer Indicted on Official Misconduct Charges in the Same Incident
TRENTON – A state grand jury on Monday, April 24, voted to file criminal charges against three Atlantic County Correctional Officers in connection with the death of Mario Terruso, 41, of Mays Landing, who died after he was lodged in the Atlantic County Justice Facility on September 15, 2019. The grand jury also returned charges against five Hamilton Township Police Officers for their conduct in dropping off Mr. Terruso at the jail instead of transporting him to a hospital for treatment of medical and behavioral symptoms observed during his arrest.
Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin today announced that the grand jury returned an indictment against Atlantic County Correctional Sgt. Eric Tornblom and Correctional Officer Mark Jenigen charging them with manslaughter. The grand jury also indicted Sgt. Tornblom with aggravated assault and charged Tornblom, Jenigan, and Correctional Lt. Jesse Swartzentruver with official misconduct in connection with their treatment of Mr. Terruso in the jail.
In addition, the grand jury indicted Hamilton Police Sgts. Michael Schnurr and Nicole Nelson, along with Hamilton Police Officers Servando Pahang, Cory Silvio, and William Howze, on official misconduct charges in connection with their handling of Mr. Terruso on the day that he died. An investigation by the Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) found the Hamilton Township (Atlantic County) officers allegedly opted against getting medical help for the victim, instead bringing him to the Atlantic County Justice Facility, where he experienced a medical episode as correctional officers were trying to restrain him. He later died at a hospital.
“Mario Terruso was in desperate need of medical help. He pleaded for that assistance, but he never got the help he so desperately needed,” said Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin. “In New Jersey, our police officers show compassion and provide help to people dealing with problems and distress on a daily basis, dutifully and often quietly doing the work that makes theirs such a noble profession. But for Mr. Terruso, those sworn to protect him are the very people alleged to have abused him in his time of need – leading the Grand Jury to determine that two of the officers involved are criminally responsible for his death.”
“The municipal police officers who Mr. Terruso initially encountered brushed aside department policy, and the victim’s medical needs to avoid being inconvenienced,” said OPIA Executive Director Thomas Eicher. “They improperly and unlawfully passed the buck to the county correctional system. It was there where Mr. Terruso was forcibly restrained and punched by those who should have been getting him the medical care he so desperately needed.”
The death in custody was investigated by OPIA and presented to 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 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 officer-involved death 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 on Monday, April 24, 2023, and voted “true bill,” determining that criminal charges against the officers were warranted.
According to the investigation, Mr. Terruso was detained by officers from the Hamilton Township Police Department in Atlantic County shortly after 1 p.m. September 15, 2019, after police responded to a report of an individual trespassing at a residence.
A homeowner called 911 and told dispatchers that a man, later identified as Mr. Terruso, allegedly entered his unlocked home and was behaving erratically, picking up a knife and claiming people had been shooting at him, which was untrue. The homeowner declined to press charges, but officers took Mr. Terruso into custody because of an outstanding child support warrant.
The investigation found that while Mr. Terruso was handcuffed in a police vehicle, officers concluded he was exhibiting signs of narcotic use, paranoia and hallucinations, for which he needed a medical and mental health evaluation. Mr. Terruso himself stated that he had been throwing up and asked to go to the hospital. Hamilton Police policy dictates that, if an arrestee is sick or injured incidental to arrest or prior to arrest and needs medical attention, officers are responsible for taking the arrestee to a medical facility or requesting medical assistance at the scene.
The Hamilton officers and their supervisors allegedly decided to take Terruso to the county jail instead of the hospital because it was a Sunday afternoon and the Hamilton police officers would have to sit and wait at a hospital while medical staff completed an evaluation. When they brought him to the jail, the Hamilton officers allegedly hid any information from the jail staff about Mr. Terruso’s physical and mental state, including the arrestee’s request to go to the hospital because he had been vomiting.
While incarcerated at the jail, Mr. Terruso showed signs of medical distress and, as the day progressed, his condition deteriorated, with officers and medical staff noticing that Mr. Terruso was making gagging and hacking sounds and spitting up a black substance. A drug test revealed he was positive for methamphetamine and ecstasy, and at approximately 6:30 p.m., medical personnel wanted Mr. Terruso to be taken to a local hospital. They asked officers to assist while they obtained Mr. Terruso’s vital signs.
Mr. Terruso was initially compliant, but struggled with corrections officers who were trying to prepare him for transportation to the hospital. The victim, while restrained in handcuffs and leg irons, was allegedly forcibly taken to the ground, struck by Sgt. Tornblom in the head four times and restrained face down while officers attempted to place him in a soft restraint wrap. Before officers completely applied the restraint system, Mr. Terruso became listless and his heart stopped.
Medical assistance was rendered by corrections officers and emergency medical personnel, who arrived at approximately 7 p.m. Mr. Terruso left the jail in an ambulance at approximately 7:25 p.m., and arrived at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, Mainland Campus, in Galloway at approximately 7:50 p.m. He was pronounced dead at 2:19 a.m. the next day, September 16, 2019.
The involved members of the Atlantic County Division of Adult Detention have been indicted on the following offenses: Tornblom and Jenigen were each charged with second-degree manslaughter and second-degree official misconduct. Tornblom is facing an additional second-degree official misconduct count, as well as one count of third-degree aggravated assault. Swartzentruver has been charged with second-degree official misconduct.
The members of the Hamilton Township Police Department involved in this death in custody have been indicted as follows: Schnurr, Nelson, Pahang, and Silvio have been charged by indictment with two counts, second-degree official misconduct and conspiracy to commit official misconduct. Howze was charged with one count of second-degree conspiracy to commit official misconduct.
Each second-degree count could carry a five- to 10-year prison term with a $150,000 fine upon conviction. Official misconduct in the second degree carries a statutory mandatory minimum, five-year period of parole ineligibility. If they are convicted and sentenced to prison on the manslaughter charge, Tornblom and Jenigen would have to serve 85 percent of the sentence, during which they would be ineligible for parole. Third-degree crimes can carry a prison sentence of three to five years and a $15,000 fine.
The charges are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.
A 2019 law, P.L. 2019, c. 1, requires the Attorney General’s Office to conduct investigations of a person’s death 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.
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.
The Independent Prosecutor Directive is posted on the Attorney General’s website at this link: https://www.nj.gov/oag/dcj/agguide/directives/ag-Directive-2019-4.pdf
Further information about how fatal police encounters are investigated in New Jersey under the directive is found at this link: https://www.njoag.gov/independent-prosecutor/
For Jenigen: Katie Hartman, Esq.
For Silvio, Schynurr, Nelson, Howze, and Pahang: Jeffrey Catrombone, Esq.
For Tornblom: none currently listed
For Swartzentruver: Bonnie Putterman, Esq.