Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman announced that three men were indicted today on first-degree charges related to an incident in which an undercover police officer was shot and wounded during an alleged armed robbery attempt outside a Marshall’s store in Garfield exactly one year ago today.
The Division of Criminal Justice obtained a 10-count state grand jury indictment charging the following men with conspiracy (2nd degree), attempted robbery (1st degree), unlawful possession of a weapon (2nd degree), possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose (2nd degree), possession of a weapon while committing a drug offense (2nd degree), and three counts of aggravated assault (2nd, 3rd and 4th degree):
- Rafael Vasquez, 26, of Passaic,
- Melvin Guzman, 20, of Garfield, and
- Patrick Morel, 22, of Clifton.
Vasquez also is charged in the indictment with first-degree attempted murder, and Morel is charged with third-degree eluding police. In addition, Vasquez was charged today in a separate state grand jury indictment with possession of a weapon as a convicted felon.
The attempted robbery and shooting occurred during a buy-bust operation conducted by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office Narcotics Task Force. An undercover officer working for the task force allegedly arranged to buy marijuana from Guzman on April 22, 2014 outside a Marshall’s store in Garfield. It is alleged that the defendants had made plans to rob the undercover officer, bringing a handgun and a bag of oregano, instead of marijuana. Guzman and Vasquez were inside in a car driven by Morel when the officer arrived about 1:30 p.m.
Guzman got out of Morel’s car and got into the passenger seat of the undercover officer’s car. Shortly afterward, however, Vasquez allegedly exited the back seat of Morel’s vehicle, approached the driver’s side of the undercover officer’s car and brandished a .380-caliber handgun, ordering the officer to give him all of his money. The undercover officer and Vasquez got into a struggle as members of the task force converged on the scene, identifying themselves as police officers. During the struggle, Vasquez allegedly shot the undercover officer in the hip and ankle. Vasquez then allegedly pointed his gun at the approaching officers while attempting to flee. Two task force officers fired their guns, wounding Vasquez in the left shoulder, ear, and hip. Vasquez and Guzman were arrested at the scene. Morel fled in his vehicle and was later apprehended on the Garden State Parkway without incident.
“Police officers put their lives on the line each day to protect all of us,” said Acting Attorney General Hoffman. “We must do our part to make them safer by aggressively prosecuting anyone who threatens them with a deadly weapon.”
“This undercover officer was fortunate to escape with his life,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “These defendants demonstrated that they pose a grave threat to the community, and we intend to keep them behind bars where they cannot do any further harm.”
Deputy Attorney General Anthony P. Torntore presented the case to the state grand jury for the Division of Criminal Justice. It was investigated by detectives of the State Police Major Crime Unit and detectives of the Division of Criminal Justice assigned to the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team. Deputy Attorney General Vincent J. Militello also was assigned to the investigation. Under an Attorney General directive, the Shooting Response Team is dispatched to the scene to investigate when state troopers, county investigators, or county task force officers are involved in a shooting.
The first-degree charges carry a sentence of 10 to 20 years in state prison, including a period of parole ineligibility equal to 85 percent of the sentence imposed. The attempted robbery charges carries a fine of up to $500,000, and the attempted murder charge carries a fine of up to $200,000. Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000. The charge of possession of a weapon as a convicted felon carries a mandatory minimum term of parole ineligibility of five years, and the other weapons charges carry a mandatory minimum term of parole ineligibility equal to one-third to one-half of the sentence imposed or 3 ½ years, whichever is greater. Third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine of up to $15,000, while fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
The indictments are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The indictment was handed up to Superior Court Judge Pedro J. Jimenez Jr. in Mercer County, who assigned the case to Bergen County, where the defendants will appear in court for arraignment at a later date.