New Jersey prosecutors concluded that Nadine Menendez, Senator Bob Menendez’s wife, should not be charged after she killed a pedestrian with her Mercedes-Benz.
Tracey Tully and
Tracey Tully reported from the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office in New Jersey and Nicholas Fandos from New York.
A week after a fatal car crash involving the soon-to-be wife of Senator Robert Menendez, a prosecutor’s office in New Jersey filed an official account of the incident that contained apparent factual errors quickly noted by relatives of the pedestrian who was killed.
But the seven-page report, which concluded that the driver, Nadine Arslanian Menendez, should not be charged, was never corrected — raising new questions about whether the incident was handled properly by the authorities.
Investigators from the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office incorrectly described key elements of how the December 2018 crash in Bogota, N.J., took place. They bolstered the conclusion that she was not at fault, writing that the pedestrian, Richard Koop, stepped into a busy thoroughfare going south from behind a parked car, “which may have obstructed his view, as well as that of the driver of the Mercedes-Benz.”
“It is my opinion that the driver of the Mercedes-Benz could not avoid the collision with the pedestrian attempting to cross the roadway,” the lead investigator, Dennis DeAngelis, wrote on Dec. 20, according to a copy of the report obtained by The New York Times through a public records request.
But other records — including video of the collision, photos of the damage to Ms. Menendez’s Mercedes-Benz and an Uber receipt showing where Mr. Koop, 49, had been dropped off moments before he was struck — indicate that he was crossing the street northbound directly to his home and did not step out from behind a parked car.
In fact, the conclusion reached by Officer DeAngelis, a member of the Woodcliff Lake Police Department who at the time also worked for the prosecutor’s fatal accident task force, contradicts Bogota police officers who interviewed Ms. Menendez soon after the crash.
Ms. Menendez, who was dating the senator at the time of the crash, told officers that Mr. Koop had “jumped” onto her windshield. In their report, Bogota officers noted that Mr. Koop had been traveling northbound toward his home when he was struck.
Sheri A. Breen, a lawyer for Mr. Koop’s family, documented the discrepancies in a letter to the prosecutor’s office in March 2019. “It appears to the family of Richard Koop that the Bogota PD is protecting the driver, a woman who has many high-profile friends,” she wrote at the time.
In an interview on Thursday, Ms. Breen said that the prosecutor’s office acknowledged her letter but did not reopen the investigation.
The documents prepared by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office are among a trove of records seized in recent days by the New Jersey attorney general’s office as it scrutinizes the actions of the local police in suburban Bogota, N.J., and the county investigators. The prosecutor’s investigative report was reported by The Record of New Jersey.
Officer DeAngelis, who is now a Woodcliff Lake sergeant, has not returned calls seeking comment. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office, Elizabeth Rebein, said on Thursday she was unable to comment because of the attorney general’s inquiry.
The attorney general’s public integrity unit opened its review last week after The Times and The Record first revealed Ms. Menendez’s involvement in the fatal crash, nearly five years after it happened. The articles filled in key details in a federal indictment charging the Menendezes with accepting bribes in exchange for official acts by the senator, a Democrat. Prosecutors said one of the first bribes was a new Mercedes-Benz convertible to replace the car that was damaged in the Bogota crash.
On Thursday, prosecutors unveiled a new charge accusing the couple of conspiring to have the senator act as a foreign agent for Egypt.
The Times initially cited Bogota police records that showed that Ms. Menendez was never tested for alcohol or other substances before the department absolved her of wrongdoing. The Times also found other apparent departures from protocol at the crash site, including the presence of a former top Hackensack police official, Michael Mordaga, who showed up at the behest of a friend of Ms. Menendez’s.
An autopsy report showed that Mr. Koop had alcohol and marijuana in his system.
The newly released documents from the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office add some insight into how law enforcement officials initially handled the case, but they also leave other questions unanswered.
Officer DeAngelis, a member of the office’s Fatal Accident Investigation Unit, wrote that he arrived at the scene within an hour of the collision.
He estimated that Ms. Menendez was driving between 22 and 27 miles per hour — below the 30 m.p.h. speed limit — when she struck Mr. Koop just after 7:30 p.m. His calculations relied on the distance that he believed Mr. Koop’s body traveled after being hit: 37 feet.
The report does not address whether Ms. Menendez had been using her phone at the time of the crash. Bogota police reports indicated that authorities sought a subpoena to review the records, but neither the police nor the prosecutor’s office disclosed what they found.
“That leaves a huge hole in this,” said Brian Higgins, a former director of public safety in Bergen County who is now a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “What was she doing at the time she was traveling?”
Mr. Higgins, who reviewed the Bergen County records at the request of The Times, said it was also unclear to him what evidence Officer DeAngelis used to infer that Mr. Koop had entered the street from the sidewalk near his house.
He said the method Officer DeAngelis used to determine Ms. Menendez’s speed was valid in the absence of other evidence like skid marks, a computerized car component that recorded velocity, or paint transfer between cars.
And it is likely, he added, that Mr. Koop’s intoxication could have contributed to the collision.
Mr. Mordaga was not the only previously unidentified person to show up at the scene. Christopher Kelemen, Bogota’s Republican mayor, acknowledged on Thursday that he had been on hand that night and was visible in dashcam footage released by the police.
Mr. Kelemen said he was home watching television the night of the collision when his children informed him there had been a bad car crash in the borough. He said he did not interfere with the police response and only learned the identity of the driver involved when contacted by a Times reporter in recent weeks. He did not disclose then that he had been at the scene of the crash.
“I didn’t speak to anybody, and I just stayed behind the yellow lines like everybody else did,” Mr. Kelemen said in an interview. “I don’t get involved in any type of police work; that’s not what this mayor does.”
Tracey Tully covers New Jersey. She joined The Times in 2018 as a senior editor. She previously covered city and state government at The Daily News, the Albany Times Union and the Jersey Journal. More about Tracey Tully
Nicholas Fandos is a reporter on the Metro desk covering New York State politics, with a focus on money, lobbying and political influence. He was previously a congressional correspondent in Washington. More about Nicholas Fandos