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    More than 1,500 prized pooches competed in the March Madness Circuit dog shows at the state convention center.

    It's March Madness in Edison, but the only players on the floor of the New Jersey Convention and Expo Center this weekend were of the four-legged variety.

    More than 1,587 dogs competed over three days as part of the March Madness Circuit presented by the New Brunswick Kennel Club.

    The event encompassed both the 80th and 81st New Brunswick Kennel Club All-Breed Dog Shows, as well as the Bronx Kennel Club's show on Sunday, in welcoming breeds ranging from standard poodles to bearded collies.


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    Of New Jersey's 565 municipalities, these 67 towns saw decreases in their average property tax bills in 2017.


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    Consider adopting one of these homeless dogs and cats.

    If you're interested in helping homeless animals but aren't able to adopt one, there are a number of other ways you can be of assistance.

    Realistically, not everyone can adopt. People who live in apartments or developments that have no-pets policies fall into that category, as do people with allergies or disabilities that will not allow them to care for pets of their own. Here are some suggestions for ways people who want to help can participate in caring for homeless animals.

    * Help out at a local shelter. It's not glamorous work by any means, but it's vital and will be very much appreciated. You can do anything from help walk dogs to bottle feed kittens, help clean kennels or cat's cages or even help with bathing and grooming. Contact your local shelter to find out their policies regarding volunteers.

    * If you're handy, you can lend a hand in many ways. Shelters usually need repairs of many kinds, so fixer-uppers can help out like that. If you sew, quilt or crochet, you can make blankets for your local shelter.

    * Help out at an adoption event. Many shelters and rescue groups participate in local events by hosting a table with pets available for adoption. They also hold these program at malls, pet supply stores and banks, and can always use a helping hand.

    * For galleries like this one and for online adoptions sites, often a shelter or rescue group doesn't have the time or equipment to shoot good photos of their adoptable pets, Something as simple as making yourself available to shoot and provide digital files of pet photos can be a big help.

    * Donate. It doesn't have to be money; shelters need cleaning supplies, pet food, toys for the animals and often even things we don't think twice about getting rid of like old towels and newspapers. Every little bit helps.

    If you don't know where your local animal shelter or rescue group is, a quick online search will reveal a number of results. It doesn't take a lot of time or effort to get involved but it provides immeasurable assistance.

    Greg Hatala may be reached at ghatala@starledger.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregHatala. Find Greg Hatala on Facebook.


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    At least one tractor-trailer overturned

    A crash involving four tractor-trailers slowed traffic on the northbound New Jersey Turnpike as well as the Garden State Parkway on Monday morning.

    One of the trucks overturned near milepost 90.5 in Woodbridge at 5:32 a.m. according to State Police. All four tractor-trailers went off the road. 

    One of the drivers was taken to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick to be treated for minor injures, officials said. The other drivers were not hurt, according to State Police, who are investigating the crash.

    Earlier, traffic backed up on the Parkway where it intersects with the Turnpike just south of the crash scene. 

    Jeff Goldman may be reached at jeff_goldman@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSGoldman. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

     

     


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    NJ.com highlights the best players in N.J. from the 2017-18 season.


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    NJ.com highlights the best players in N.J. from the 2017-18 season.


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    NJ.com looks at the top returning hitters in New Jersey baseball for the 2018 season.


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    Amarlis Calderon, 33, pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter in the death of Pablo Caamano, 34, in 2016.

    A Bayonne woman has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for aggravated manslaughter in the stabbing death of an acquaintance who picked her up as she walked down a road in Woodbridge, authorities said Monday.

    Amarlis Calderon, 33, must serve at least 85 percent of her prison term before becoming eligible for parole in the killing of Pablo Caamano.

    Caamano, 34, also of Bayonne, was found dead on July 18, 2016.

    Investigators said Calderon was walking on Randolph Avenue in Woodbridge when Caamano drove by and stopped to pick her up in the early morning hours.

    pablo-caamano.jpgPablo Caamano of Bayonne was described by friends as generous and fair. Amarlis Calderon, an acquaintance, pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter in his stabbing death.  

    "The couple knew each other," said Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew C. Carey.

    Calderon got into the vehicle and they headed toward Exit 12 on the New Jersey Turnpike, "where they pulled to the side of the road," Carey said.

    State Police were alerted to a stabbing at 3:20 a.m. and responded to the scene along with members of the prosecutor's office, authorities said. Caamano was pronounced dead at the scene at 4:07 a.m., the prosecutor's office has said.

    Calderon, who was charged with murder, pleaded guilty on Jan. 18 to aggravated manslaughter, Carey said. She was sentenced on Friday.

    A motive has never been given as to why Calderon killed Caamano, a lifelong Bayonne resident who was described by friends as friendly, generous, outgoing and fair. 

    Matt Hojnacki, who knew Caamano for 13 years, said Caamano was successful in running his own painting business, among other endeavors. 

    "Pablo's the ultimate entrepreneur," he said a day after the crime. "He could take any situation and turn it into a positive one."

    amarlis1.jpgAmarlis Calderon is escorted into a Middlesex County courtroom after being charged in the death of Pablo Caamano in July 2016.  

    Anthony G. Attrino may be reached at tattrino@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @TonyAttrino. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

     

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    Patients will pay less to register with the program, have more locations from which to buy their medicine, and encounter fewer bureaucratic obstacles when they enroll. Watch video

    Effectively immediately, doctors in New Jersey can recommend their patients use medical marijuana to treat anxiety, various forms of chronic pain, migraines and Tourette's syndrome.

    The conditions have been added under the first stage of a wide-ranging expansion of the medicinal marijuana program announced Tuesday by Gov. Phil Murphy .

    Patients will also pay less to register with the program, have more locations from which to buy their medicine, and encounter fewer bureaucratic obstacles when they enroll, Murphy said in a press conference in Trenton.

    "Patients should be treated as patients, not criminals. We will be guided by science," Murphy said. No more would patients be "failed by a system that has been prevented from delivering the compassionate care it promised nearly a decade ago." 

    Murphy said former Gov. Chris Christie imposed a stigma on the program by making it hard for patients to qualify and cultivators to operate. Christie inherited what he called a bad law, and resisted most requests to expand the program, more than once calling them a back-door to outright legalization.

    The immediate changes, contained in a 28-page report by Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal, expands the list of medical conditions based on an advisory panel's recommendation from October.

    Chronic pain affecting internal organs and the muscular and skeletal system is expected to draw thousands of patients and swell the program way beyonds its registry of 18,874 patients.

    The program will cut registration and renewal fees from $200 to $100 every two years, with senior citizens 65 and older and veterans added to the category of patients who pay only $20, according to the report. 

    Physicians must still recommend patients to the program but Murphy abolished the public registry, which deterred many from joining in fear of the stigma associated with what is still an illegal substance. There are just 536 physicians registered in a state with 28,000 doctors.

    Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith, a 36-year-old Flemington women with ALS, said at the news conference that she consumes cannabis products from the black market. She hasn't been able to join the program because she hasn't found a doctor willing to recommend her. That could change with the end of the required registry. 

    "My doctors have refused to help me find someone," she said with the aid of Jeremy Kopecky, her boyfriend. "I'm really excited about how (Murphy) is going to change the stigma." 

     Aubrey Conway, a 33-year-old registered patient from Sayreville, described  how cannabis helped her regain her energy and strength while living with a battery of conditions such as autoimmune diseases and intractable skeletal muscular spasticity.

    Conway said she abandoned the use of steroids and pills, which made her feel worse, and researched marijuana. "Let me be clear: this was not an easy decision. I was concerned about how my children would react and how my usage would be perceived by others."

    "Medical marijuana saved my life," Conway said. "I hope it can save so many others." 

    Get ready for massive expansion of N.J.'s medical marijuana program

    Patients may not have to drive so far to get to a dispensary, which has long been a complaint. The state's five dispensaries in Montclair, Egg Harbor, Woodbridge, Cranbury and Bellmawr may apply to open satellite retail locations and add a new cultivation site. A sixth dispensary in Secaucus has not opened yet.

    Ken Wolski, the executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said he approved of the recommended changes to the state's program, but said he sees this as "just the beginning."

    His main concern: "Is supply going to be able to meet the demand?"

    Julio Valentin, CEO of Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, said the proposed changes to New Jersey's medical marijuana program would allow him to serve "thousands more patients."

    "Altogether, I think it's a step in the right direction," Valentin said. "I think what helps everyone is that it opens up to more debilitating disabilities."

    Valentin and Greenleaf have already been planning an expansion of their current production facility, he said. The work should be done within two months and then he'd be ready to ramp up cannabis production, he added.

    Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge has an additional 20,000 square feet in which it can boost production in its current facility, General Manager Aaron Epstein said recently.

    Compassionate Care Foundation of Egg Harbor also has room inside the 80,000 square-foot facility to double growth in 90 days, and "double it again in another 90 days," said David Knowlton, board president. 

    The Murphy administration will also license more companies to grow, cultivate and sell medicinal marijuana. Deputy Health Commissioner Jackie Cornell said she expects the process, from rule-making, to licensing, coinstruction and approval, to take a year.

    Murphy also announced he was elevating the program to its own division within the health department, and putting Jeffrey Brown, formerly of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, a policy and consumer advocacy group, in charge as assistant commissioner.

    Murphy said he recommends legislators change the the law to allow patients to buy up to four ounces instead of two ounces a month, allowing hospice patients to buy an unlimited supply, and permitting adults to buy edible products, which Christie limited to just minors.

    Are you interested in the N.J. cannabis industry? Subscribe here for exclusive insider information from NJ Cannabis Insider.

    Payton Guion may be reached at PGuion@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @PaytonGuion. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

    Susan K. Livio may be reached at slivio@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.


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    A New Brunswick property owner's February bill was six times higher than normal.

    Mark Van Burik thinks there's no way the tenants of his four-family New Brunswick property could have used $8,117 worth of water in three months, but that's exactly what his most recent bill says. 

    Water for his property on Comstock Street, which he rents to 13 Rutgers University students, usually costs him around $500 each quarter. 

    In February, the damage came in at 16 times that amount. 

    "The house would have floated down the street and into the Raritan River with that kind of a leak," said Van Burik, who is fighting the city on the bill. "To top it off, my tenants were basically all gone for close to a month of this billing period, due to the RU winter break."

    City officials said Van Burik's meter was tested and found to be accurate when it was installed in June and again in March after he complained about his bill. A testing certification form obtained through a public records request showed the meter's accuracy tested between 97 and 99.5 percent. 

    The Sensus iPERL meter was installed on Van Burik's property as part of an effort to upgrade New Brunswick's water technology with 2,000 new meters, city spokeswoman Jennifer Bradshaw said in a statement. Sensus meters, which Bradshaw said New Brunswick has used for five years, are "smart meters" that use magnetic technology to read water flow. 

    After the city installed the new meter on Van Burik's property last year, his next bill was for roughly the amount of money he expected. So when he got his Feb. 13 invoice, he walked through the building to make sure there were no leaks.

    He found none, and told the council at its March 13 meeting that there must be some mistake. 

    "There was some discussion about ... how would I know that the tenants did not use that much water," Van Burik said in an email the next day. "Councilman (Kevin) Egan said maybe they had a water ballon fight. That would have been an epic balloon fight." 

    Egan did not respond to a request for comment. 

    Van Burik continues to negotiate with the city in hopes of avoiding paying the full $8,117, which was due March 13.

    "I have no problem paying for what I use," he said in a phone interview. "I'm not trying to get out of my water bill. I just don't want to pay for some error somewhere." 

    New Brunswick water utility employees read the meters roughly every 90 days and bill quarterly, Bradshaw said. 

    She said if a resident has a question about his bill, an employee visits the property to read the meter. If that reading doesn't resolve the issue, Bradshaw said, the city contracts with a third-party agency to test the meter. 

    "In the event of a bill that presents higher than the consumption logged by the meter, we adjust and provide an amended bill," she said. "In the event of an underestimation, we do not charge the customer for the difference."

    Adriano Colleoni, whose mother owns property on Commercial Avenue, said they also received water bills from the city that were significantly higher than normal. Although he said a typical water bill for their eight-tenant rooming house is between $700 and $1,000, they received bills last year for $4,300, $3,700 and $3,400. 

    The city installed a new meter at their property last fall, and their next bill returned to normal. Colleoni is now seeking an $8,000 refund for the amount he believes he was overcharged on his three previous bills.

    Bradshaw said Colleoni's old meter was tested by a third party and was found to be reading lower than the actual amount of water passing it through it. She declined to specify the status of the city's conversations with Colleoni about getting a refund.

    A request for other complaints made to the city about higher than expected bills returned a Jan. 26 letter from a property owner who said the December water bill for his Hamilton Street property was $2,238 -- six times his most recent previous bill. 

    Bradshaw said that property owner's meter was tested and found to be working property. She said the city has been talking with the property owner, who could not be reached for comment, to try to resolve the issue. 

    Marisa Iati may be reached at miati@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Iati or on Facebook here. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

    Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips 

     

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    Christopher Koller of Piscataway was convicted of murder in the death of Beth Marie Bezek of Raritan.

    A jury on Tuesday found a Piscataway man guilty of throwing a woman to her death from a third-floor window in 2016.

    beth-bezekselfie.jpgBeth Marie Bezek

    Christopher Koller, 40, was convicted of murder following a month-long trial in the death of Beth Marie Bezek, 31, of Raritan, according to Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew C. Carey.

    Koller was also found guilty of hindering his own apprehension and distribution of cocaine, the prosecutor said.

    Bezek was visiting Koller on Nov. 1, 2016 in his Piscataway home when he threw her out of his third-floor window, Carey said.

    After the killing, Koller drove to New Brunswick where he placed an anonymous 911 call from a payphone saying a girl was lying injured on Pond Lane in Piscataway. Police found the victim dead outside Koller's home shortly after 1 a.m., Carey said.

    No motive was given for the killing.

    Bezek was a lifelong resident of Raritan. She graduated from Bridgewater-Raritan High School in 2004 and attended Raritan Valley Community College. She held a variety of interests, including drawing, sketching, "anything involving the great outdoors, and spending time with her friends and family," according to her obituary.

    koller2.jpgChristopher Koller appears in a New Brunswick courtroom in 2016 shortly after the murder of Beth Marie Bezek. (Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com) 

    Public records and court testimony revealed Koller has a criminal history in three states, including assault charges in Pennsylvania and New York.

    Koller faces a potential 30-year prison sentence.

    Carey said the prison term is subject to the state's No Early Release Act, which requires convicted defendants to serve no less than 85 percent of their prison terms. In addition, Koller faces up to 18 months for hindering and up to five years on the drug charge.

    Anthony G. Attrino may be reached at tattrino@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @TonyAttrino. Find NJ.com on Facebook.


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    The 15-year-old was wearing all black when he was last seen

    Edison police are looking for a 15-year-old township boy who has been missing since Saturday.

    missing-teen-edison.jpg Deya Alasmar, 15, of Edison, has been missing since Saturday. (Edison police) 

    Deya Alasma was last seen wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, black sweatpants and a pair of black Nike Air Jordan sneakers, police said in a statement Tuesday night. He is 6 feet tall and weighs about 180 pounds.

    Lt. Robert Dudash confirmed Wednesday morning that police are still looking for the teen.

    Anyone with information about Alasma's whereabouts is asked to call Edison police at 732-248-7400.

    Jeff Goldman may be reached at jeff_goldman@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSGoldman. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

     


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    Who are the top catchers in N.J.?


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    The Woodbirdge man said he was bored after work and signed up to play a slots game

    A New Jersey man who signed up for internet gambling Monday night because he was bored after work won nearly $194,000 on his very first spin of an online slots game.

    Anibal Lopes, of Woodbridge, said he had just created an account on the playsugarhouse.com website on his smartphone. Choosing a slots game called Divine Fortune, the 33-year-old won its Mega Jackpot on his very first spin.

    N.J. online gamblers: You can soon face off against players in 2 other states

    "I thought, 'This is not happening,' " he said. "I couldn't believe I won that much money. I told my wife: 'I don't feel well. My legs are shaking.' She said, 'We need to get you to the emergency room.' I told her, 'No, I'm not sick; I just won close to $194,000!'"

    The progressive jackpot had been building since it was last hit in September.

    The website, run by Rush Street Interactive, is affiliated with Atlantic City's Golden Nugget casino.

    Lopes said he played other gambling sites in New Jersey sporadically since online wagering became legal in 2013, but stopped for a number of years.

    The construction company superintendent plans to use the money to pay bills, repair his house, and set up a savings account for his 6-year-old son.

    He usually visits Atlantic City about six times a year, but now says he prefers the convenience of gambling from his phone without having to make the nearly four-hour round trip from his home.

     

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    According to the superintendent's email, asbestos was found in four classrooms at an elementary school.

    Students at Indiana Avenue Elementary School in Woodbridge and Iselin Middle School will be on a split schedule on Thursday and Friday after asbestos was found on desks in three classrooms and the media center at the elementary school.

    Superintendent Robert Zega informed parents about the split schedule in a letter sent home on Wednesday. A copy of the letter was shared with NJ Advance Media by a person using the news organization's news tip line.

    District officials are holding a community meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Iselin Middle School to answer questions. Zega's letter said lab results did not show how much asbestos was found. The superintendent did not return a request for comment Wednesday afternoon. 

    Previously, the elementary school was closed from Feb. 26 to March 2 while mold found in at the school was removed, according to emails and documents on the district's website. After spending a week at home, the elementary school students attended classes at the middle school for two weeks on a split schedule with middle school students.

    Taylor Tiamoyo Harris may be reached at tharris@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @ladytiamoyo. Do you have a story we need to know about? Send us your tips. Here's how.
     

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    Most of the "statements" we made with clothing and hair styles in the 1980s are best left unrepeated.

    "They seek him here, they seek him there; his clothes are loud, but never square." -- Ray Davies, the Kinks, "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" 1966

    Then came the 1970s. Ruth La Ferla, writing in the New York Times on March 18, 2015, quoted designer Betsey Johnson as saying about the decade: "Stylistically, it was a free-for-all."

    Image38.jpgClearly, even the scarecrow had better fashion sense than me. 

    If the '70s was considered a fashion free-for-all, the 1980s was nothing short of chaos. Think fanny packs, parachute pants, rat-tails, mullets, acid-washed jeans, neon ... and the list goes on and on.

    According to marieclaire.co.uk, "Clothes were used to define personalities and make big statements in the 1980s. Shoulders were padded right up to your ears, courtesy of Lady Diana and the cast of Dynasty. Meanwhile Boy George and the Blitz club crew were giving peacock punk a whirl. No doubt about it, it was a crazy era for all things a la mode - the later 1990s fashion was significantly calmer by comparison."

    Personally, I think most of the "statements" we made with clothing and hair styles in the 1980s are best left unrepeated.

    Here's a gallery of what people in New Jersey have worn through the years ... the '80s, the '70s, the '60s ... back more than a century. And scroll down for links to more galleries of folks and fashion.

    Vintage photos of what people wore in N.J.

    Vintage photos of fashions and styles in N.J.

    (hit a reload on this page ^ to view the gallery)

    Vintage photos of styles and fashions in N.J.

    Greg Hatala may be reached at ghatala@starledger.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregHatala. Find Greg Hatala on Facebook.


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    A cell phone video recently obtained by NJ Advance Media shows a portion of the incident involving Isiah Benbow and two Piscataway officers on Feb. 12, but questions still remain about how the encounter escalated to an arrest. Watch video

    It appears there may be at least some truth to a 19-year-old's narrative about a rough arrest in Piscataway in which he says police "slammed" him to the ground unprovoked, kneed him in the head and picked him up by his hair while he was cuffed.

    A cell phone video recently obtained by NJ Advance Media shows a portion of the incident on Feb. 12 involving Isiah Benbow and two Piscataway officers and corroborates pieces of his story.

    Questions still remain, however, about how the encounter escalated to an arrest.

    One of the officers involved, Todd Ritter, was criminally charged with assault and falsifying documents after authorities reviewed a police car video from Benbow's transport to the station. The previously released police recording shows the officer punch the 19-year-old in the back seat while he was cuffed. 

    The Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office was aware of the cell phone video and is still investigating "all the circumstances of the arrest," spokeswoman Andrea Boulton said. Piscataway police did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

    The blurry vertical cell phone video from inside a house begins with officer Christopher Mahaley grappling with Benbow in the street. The officer can be seen pushing Benbow back toward the house and taking him down in a front yard, near the curb.

    The officer wrestles with Benbow for about 10 seconds before rolling the man over onto his stomach, but it is unclear what exactly happens between the two.

    Benbow claims he was kneed in the head and that Mahaley said he was "going to f--- me up and everything."

    Mahaley said on his use of force form that Benbow had resisted arrest and threatened or attacked officers. The officer then used a compliance hold and hands or fists during the arrest. 

    The video also shows Ritter, who has been standing next to the two watching the arrest, help Mahaley cuff the man. Ritter then tries to pick the 19-year-old up by his hair, but drops him when he's about halfway up. 

    Officer Mahaley, who has been on the force for 24 years and has an annual salary of $120,948, pension records show, has not been accused of any wrongdoing. 

    There are no police videos from the arrest, according to Piscataway Lt. Frank J. Hackler. The police video obtained by NJ Advance Media through a records' request starts as Benbow is put in the back seat of the cruiser.

    Benbow and his father, Ike, told NJ Advance Media Tuesday that police were called, probably by a neighbor, after hearing them argue on the front lawn. The father said the incident wasn't physical just a "normal" father-son yelling fight.

    When police arrived, the 19-year-old had already left the house and was around the corner "walking it off." 

    Benbow said the officers approached him and started to "harass" him. 

    "I asked if I was under arrest and they said 'No,' so I started to walk away," Benbow said of the moments before his arrest. 

    Ritter's use of force form says Benbow also spit, kicked and threatened officers. 

    Benbow denied all the allegations made by the officers on the forms, which are required to be filled out every time an officer uses any type of force, ranging from a compliance hold to firing their weapon. 

    After his arrest on obstruction and resisting charges, Benbow can be seen in a police video thrashing in the back seat of the police car, kicking the glass between the front and back seats, yelling at and eventually threatening Ritter.

    "You think it's funny?" Benbow asks after telling the story of his arrest. "He got mad because I said something, and he gone and slammed me. ... I said I can't breathe, then he threatened and said he was going to f--- me up and everything."

    "I'm gonna break it," Benbow yells. "... Why you gotta lie? ... I'm gonna kill all you all [expletive], watch!"

    Ritter -- who joined the force in 1996 and earns $120,948 annually, according to state pension records -- has been charged with assault and two counts of filing false reports to cover up the incident in the police car.

    Craig McCarthy may be reached at 732-372-2078 or at CMcCarthy@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @createcraig and on Facebook here. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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    Prosecutors say he admitted working as muscle for a New Brunswick man accused of running the prostitution ring

    The network of brothels stretched from the outskirts of Newark to the tributaries of the Delaware Bay, staffed by undocumented sex workers and guarded by gang members. When rivals infringed on its operators' territory, they dispatched gun-toting enforcers to send a message -- and left at least two bodies in their wake.

    Wilmer Chavez-RomeroWilmer Chavez-Romero. (Cumberland County Jail) 

    This description of a statewide criminal enterprise emerges from the alleged statements of a New Brunswick man now facing federal murder and racketeering charges for what he said -- according to federal prosecutors -- were acts of violence in Trenton meant to intimidate competitors.

    In a brief filed in U.S. District Court earlier this month, the U.S. Attorney's Office said Wilmer Chavez-Romero freely detailed his involvement in the prostitution ring to county and federal investigators during interviews that directly implicated him in two fatal shootings less than six months apart.

    Prosecutors now say those murders were committed as part of Chavez-Romero's work as an enforcer for Juan Fredy Hernandez-Zozaya, a New Brunswick man indicted in 2015 on charges he ran at least eight brothels throughout the state -- including the one on Elmer Street in Bridgeton where authorities say Chavez-Romero worked as the "house manager."

    Other brothels were in Orange, Lakewood, Asbury Park and New Brunswick, authorities allege.

    Hernandez-Zozaya has pleaded not guilty to the charges and his case remains pending in U.S. District Court.

    The alleged prostitution ring has been publicly linked to at least two other killings in Bridgeton.

    Chavez-Romero, who was indicted in October 2016 on charges that included two counts of murder in aid of racketeering, has himself been in federal custody since September 2014, when he was arrested on a complaint accusing him of importing undocumented workers for "immoral purposes."

    His first arrest came in November 2012 when the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office and Homeland Security Investigations -- the investigative arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- raided the Bridgeton brothel, where investigators discovered two female prostitutes and a male customer, as well as a .38-caliber handgun.

    Enforcer for N.J. brothels killed 2 in Trenton, feds say

    Prosecutors say Chavez-Romero was arrested as he tried to flee the scene. In an interview with a county detective, he allegedly described himself as a "muscle man" and enforcer for Hernandez-Zozaya who had helped drive competing brothels out of town.

    Almost two years later, prosecutors say, Chavez-Romero -- now facing state weapons and prostitution charges -- agreed to meet in the presence of his attorney with federal agents and an assistant U.S. attorney investigating Hernandez-Zozaya.

    This time, prosecutors say, he went into detail of his crimes, admitting to robbing a Trenton brothel with a club in the summer of 2012, before returning that September with a gun. Chavez-Romero reportedly admitted that one man was fatally shot and another wounded during that robbery.

    Court documents refer to the deceased victim only as "N.R.G.," but the Times of Trenton at the time identified him as Neemias Reyes-Gonzales, 36.

    The government's brief states Chavez-Romero put himself at the scene of the killing of a man referred to as "B.E.," the operator of a rival brothel, during a confrontation in Trenton in January 2013 -- just two months after he first met with investigators.

    During the confrontation, Chavez-Romero reportedly told investigators, the rival brothel operator -- identified as Benito Escalante, 26 -- pulled out a handgun, put it to an enforcer's head and pulled the trigger.

    But the gun's safety was on, and Chavez-Romero's associates opened fire and killed the man, prosecutors say.

    In a Feb. 15 motion to suppress Chavez-Romero's statements as evidence, his federal public defender argued a county detective's questioning about his immigration status -- Chavez-Romero said he was out of compliance -- amounted to psychological coercion, and that his prior attorney's decision to allow Chavez-Romero to meet with federal investigators amounted to ineffective counsel.

    Prosecutors have argued Chavez-Romero had waived his Miranda rights prior to both interviews with investigators, and that he was not legally entitled to an attorney or an immunity agreement during his second interview.

    U.S. District Judge William H. Walls, who is presiding over the case in Newark, has yet to rule on the defense motion.

    Court records indicate Chavez-Romero's state gun charge was dismissed and his prostitution charge downgraded to a disorderly persons offense in September 2014. His trial on the federal charges is scheduled to begin June 5.

    Matt Gray contributed to this report.

    Thomas Moriarty may be reached at tmoriarty@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ThomasDMoriarty.

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