A silver Honda Accord zoomed previous exit 150 on the Backyard State Parkway in New Jersey simply earlier than 3 a.m. The driving force was an off-duty Newark police officer, Louis Santiago. His cousin Albert Guzman was within the passenger seat.
It was the evening of Halloween 2021, and Santiago was drunk, in keeping with Essex County prosecutors.
He was observing a cellphone when his automobile allegedly drifted into the shoulder and struck a person who occurred to be strolling alongside the darkened stretch of freeway, prosecutors say.
Santiago, 25, initially thought he could have hit an animal, in keeping with his lawyer, Patrick Toscano Jr. The sufferer, Damian Dymka, 29, was nonetheless within the costume that he had worn out that evening: a black masks with gold antlers and brown fur masking his shoulders.
Dymka can be pronounced useless on the scene — however not till greater than two hours later.
In these two hours, Santiago drove house with Dymka’s physique within the again seat after which returned to the crash website having by no means known as 911 or tried to render support to the person, prosecutors say.
“Put that body back where you hit it,” Annette Santiago allegedly advised her son when he confirmed up at their house, in keeping with prosecutors.
He’s now going through 12 felony fees, together with reckless vehicular murder and endangering an injured sufferer. Guzman and Santiago’s mom have been additionally charged with allegedly tampering with proof and different offenses.
Dymka’s family and friends, in the meantime, are nonetheless reeling in shock and grief. Some are affected by haunting questions.
What if the officer had instantly known as 911? May Damian have been saved?
“We can’t know that because of one person who was incredibly selfish,” mentioned Miranda Stone, an in depth good friend who met Dymka after they have been college students at Bergen Group School.
What makes the sequence of occasions so tough to grasp is not only the officer’s actions, his buddies and family members mentioned, however who Dymka was as an individual.
He was variety and compassionate nearly to a fault, 4 of them mentioned in interviews with NBC Information.
He was the one everybody turned to in instances of disaster. He was the one who would drop all the things that can assist you.
“If things were going crazy, I remember just being able to hug Damian and feeling like it’s going to be OK,” mentioned Jess Valdanero, a longtime good friend. “He wouldn’t let go until he felt like you were OK.”
It was becoming that he labored as a nurse, spending his days serving to individuals who have been aged or infirm at a county-run facility in northern New Jersey.
However by final fall, Dymka was prepared for a change.
He had developed an itch to journey, and his boyfriend felt the identical means. So that they hatched a plan: They’d each pursue bachelor of science levels as a way to change into journey nurses, a job that will give them the liberty to maneuver away from New Jersey and discover the U.S.
“We wanted a great way to travel the country,” mentioned his boyfriend, Rosemberg Ochoa. “Hike national parks. Just roam around.”
Dymka was set to start on-line lessons on Nov. 1 — the day after the accident — however he by no means logged on that day. He additionally didn’t present up for work on the Preakness Healthcare Middle in Wayne, which was extremely uncommon.
His family members would study later within the day that Dymka was the sufferer of a deadly site visitors accident. Weeks would move earlier than they discovered the total horror of what transpired in these early morning hours.
Santiago labored a daytime shift on Oct. 31, 2021.
The son of a Newark police lieutenant, he joined the power in 2019 and rapidly made a reputation for himself. He acquired particular commendations for aiding in two main drug arrests in 2020.
After work that Sunday, Santiago drove to a bar in his hometown of Bloomfield to look at the Dallas Cowboys sport, mentioned Toscano, his lawyer.
Santiago had just a few drinks however not sufficient to impair his driving, Toscano mentioned. The off-duty officer left with Guzman after final name and headed to a good friend’s home.
It’s uncommon for folks to be strolling at any time alongside the Backyard State Parkway, a serious freeway that runs the size of New Jersey, however particularly so within the predawn hours. How Dymka ended up there stays a thriller to his family members.
After allegedly putting Dymka, Santiago drove off however returned to the scene a number of instances earlier than he loaded the person’s physique into his automobile, prosecutors mentioned.
With Guzman within the passenger seat and Dymka’s physique within the again, Santiago then drove to the house he shares together with his dad and mom, prosecutors mentioned.
Based on an affidavit of possible trigger signed by a state trooper, Guzman knowledgeable Santiago’s mom that her son had struck a person whereas driving drunk and the physique was within the Honda.
She went to talk with Santiago after which walked over to the automobile to see the physique, the affidavit says.
That’s when she allegedly instructed him to return the useless man to the crash scene, the affidavit says. Santiago’s father known as 911 although prosecutors didn’t element when this occurred.
Santiago obtained indignant after discovering out that his father had contacted police, in keeping with the affidavit, and mentioned altering his garments.
“My f—— shirt has blood on it,” Santiago mentioned, in keeping with the police affidavit.
Earlier than he took off, his mom handed him a towel so he might clear the blood off himself, the affidavit says.
Santiago arrived again on the accident website simply earlier than New Jersey State troopers confirmed up.
The troopers discovered Santiago standing beside his automobile and Dymka’s physique within the again seat, in keeping with the affidavit. Santiago described what occurred and admitted to hitting the sufferer together with his automobile, police mentioned within the affidavit filed in Bloomfield Municipal Courtroom.
He appeared intoxicated and was taken for blood testing, the affidavit says. However Santiago, regardless of showing drunk and having admitted to shifting a useless physique, was not arrested on the scene. He was not charged till greater than three weeks later.
Policing specialists mentioned it was curious that the troopers didn’t give Santiago a breathalyzer take a look at on the scene. Had they performed so, and had Santiago failed, he could have been arrested on the spot.
“If they have no good explanation, like the breathalyzer did not work, or they didn’t have it for whatever reason, then the only explanation that comes to my mind is that they engaged in what we refer to as ‘professional courtesy,’” mentioned Nancy Haberfeld, a professor of police science on the John Jay School of Felony Justice in New York Metropolis.
She described that as “wrong, unethical and quite possibly in direct violation of their departmental SOPs,” or normal working procedures.
A New Jersey State Police spokesman referred inquiries to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Workplace. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s workplace, Katherine Carter, mentioned it was a state police matter.
Toscano, Santiago’s lawyer, mentioned the narrative launched by prosecutors misconstrues Santiago’s actions that day.
“This is not a cover-up. There was no attempted cover-up,” Toscano mentioned. “It was a horrible, horrible accident, but there was not one iota of cover-up here at all.”
After realizing he had hit an individual, the off-duty officer known as his father from the scene, Toscano advised NBC Information, and the elder Santiago instantly known as New Jersey State Police.
Santiago put the sufferer within the again seat with the intention of driving him to the closest hospital, Toscano mentioned. However then he realized that the person was useless, Toscano mentioned.
Santiago drove house with the physique to not cowl up the crime, Toscano mentioned, however to talk together with his father about what to do subsequent. The lawyer couldn’t say why Santiago didn’t simply name his father once more.
“His words to me were, ‘I panicked. I didn’t know what to do,’” Toscano mentioned.
Santiago’s father had already left for the accident scene by the point the son returned house, Toscano mentioned. The daddy had contacted his son’s boss, Newark Chief of Police Lee Douglas, who additionally confirmed up on the crash website, Toscano mentioned.
Dymka, who was born in Poland and grew up in Garfield, N.J., was pronounced useless on the scene at 5:27 a.m., roughly two and a half hours after he was hit. The reason for demise was blunt power trauma, in keeping with the spokeswoman for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Workplace.
No precise time of demise was launched, and the state health worker’s workplace didn’t reply to requests for remark.
Louis Santiago was indicted on 12 felony offenses: reckless vehicular murder, strict legal responsibility vehicular murder, leaving the scene of a deadly crash, endangering an injured sufferer, desecrating/shifting human stays, conspiracy to desecrate human stays, hindering one’s personal apprehension, conspiracy to hinder prosecution, tampering with bodily proof, obstructing the administration of regulation and two counts of official misconduct.
He was additionally hit with 9 non-indictable offenses, together with DWI and unlawful window tinting, in keeping with the prosecutor’s workplace.
He has pleaded not responsible. His blood alcohol outcomes haven’t been launched.
The Newark Police Division suspended Santiago, his lawyer mentioned. A division spokesperson declined to remark.
Toscano, a former first assistant prosecutor within the Essex County Prosecutor’s Workplace, mentioned he was shocked by the variety of fees leveled in opposition to his shopper.
“Maybe there was probable cause to charge two or three offenses, but to charge a law enforcement officer with 12 or 13 was blatant and intentional overkill,” Toscano mentioned.
Toscano added that Dymka’s demise is weighing closely on the younger police officer and the remainder of his household.
“These are good people,” Toscano mentioned, earlier than referring particularly to Santiago. “He speaks about the victim all the time. He speaks about the victim more than the charges against him.”
Annette Santiago, 53, was charged with conspiracy to desecrate human stays, hindering apprehension, and conspiracy to hinder apprehension and tamper with bodily proof. She pleaded not responsible.
Her lawyer, Vincent Scoca, declined to remark.
Guzman, 25, was charged with the identical offenses. He pleaded not responsible, and his lawyer, Dennis Carletta, didn’t reply to requests for remark.
Dymka had spent a lot of the evening at a Halloween get together at Membership Feathers in River Edge, New Jersey’s oldest homosexual nightclub, the place he was a daily.
“We all loved him,” mentioned proprietor Paul Binetti. “He was always funny and bubbly and energetic. If you needed a laugh, you’d go to him.”
Binetti mentioned Dymka confirmed up with a gaggle of buddies in costume round 9 p.m. Over the following few hours, he drank and danced inside however spent a lot of the evening chatting with folks on the picket wall exterior the membership, Binetti mentioned.
Dymka was buzzed however not wasted when he left round 1 a.m., Binetti mentioned. He hopped into an Uber with a good friend however unintentionally left his cellphone behind.
“He gave everybody a hug and a kiss like he did every night, and got in his Uber,” Binetti mentioned. “That was the last time we saw him.”
Binetti mentioned he was surprised and horrified when he discovered late the following day that Dymka had been killed.
“Accidents happen. That was not an accident what he did afterwards,” Binetti mentioned, referring to Louis Santiago.
“Whatever this cop did, whoever was involved with him, needs to pay for their actions.”
Dymka’s dad and mom have been nonetheless too grief-stricken to talk about the tragedy, in keeping with Ochoa, his boyfriend.
Ochoa mentioned Dymka went to the good friend’s home in Bloomfield, however the good friend, who was consuming that evening, wasn’t clear on the circumstances of Dymka leaving or how he ended up strolling alongside the Backyard State Parkway at 3 a.m.
“I just have no idea,” he mentioned.
For Ochoa, it has been inconceivable to make sense of what occurred to his boyfriend — a proficient artist, a cat lover, and above all a caring soul.
“I don’t understand how this could happen to anyone, and I specifically don’t understand how it could happen to somebody like Damian,” Ochoa mentioned.
“He would run into a building on fire if there was someone he loved in it. He was just that person.”