On the evening of Aug. 24, the Kearny Police Department received multiple calls from residents concerned about a plane that was circling the town, reportedly at too low an altitude.
Somehow the KPD was able to identify and contact the pilot, a 23-year-old Rutherford man, who came into headquarters to give a statement.
He admitted he had been flying a rented BT/13A fighter plane and did circle Kearny at 1755 hours, but insisted his altitude was 1,200 feet, “200 feet above the minimum.”
“The plane was Army surplus and is one of the noisiest in the air,” he stated, noting, “This, I believe, is what caused all the excitement.”
He also discussed his qualifications as a pilot: “I was in the Army Air Corps and flew 70 missions overseas and managed to get a few Krauts too.”
(Apologies. We are just quoting.)
Confused? Wondering why you heard no plane?
That’s because the incident happened on Aug. 24, 1946.
We found out about it last week when we visited a treasure trove of local law enforcement history: The KPD’s evidence room. Or, more precisely, rooms.
There are two of them, both under the charge of Officer Tom Wilgus. One contains records and evidence from the late 1970s to the present. The second, records/evidence going back to at least 1929. (Of the latter, in a not-so-readily accessible location, Wilgus said he wondered how many of his colleagues “even know that it’s here.”)
Actually, the second room’s contents date beyond the ‘20s if a case involved a homicide. “Homicides we keep forever,” Wilgus said.
If you wonder what an evidence room looks like, think of any “Cold Case” episode: Floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with boxes, each labeled with a case number. The main room, the one with the newer cases, also contains a testament to New Jersey’s ongoing drug problem: Dozens and dozens of cubbyholes, each holding several evidence bags, each of those containing evidence from an individual narcotics arrest. It’s scary.
When he approved our visit to this domain, KPD Chief John Dowie lent us a copy of the “New Jersey Law Enforcement Handbook: Attorney General Guidelines, Directives & Procedures.” It was the 985-page Volume 3. (How many volumes are there? How much of this info must police officers know? All of it? God bless ‘em.)
In this tome, no fewer than 25 pages are devoted specifically to the rules governing property and evidence: policies, training, security, supplies, documentation, periodic audits, and on and on.
As Dowie wrote in a report to the Town Council, “Storing and cataloging the hundreds of pieces of evidence collected by the Department each year [e.g., weapons, drugs, currency, jewelry, tools, prisoner property, etc.] is a full-time job when you consider that we must not only store it but must adhere to state-mandated retention schedules and prosecutorial directives . . . .”
The chief also noted that the officers “are responsible for the ‘unbroken chain of custody’” to ensure that “potential evidence in a criminal prosecution is unimpeachable.”
Needless to say, we were loathe to touch, or even breathe on, anything in the evidence room containing the more current records. There, though, we did see an interesting artifact, a completely rusted-over handgun acquired in 1998 but thought to date to the late 1800s. Its ammunition wasn’t bullets but black powder.
Wilgus said it had been found in an attic when a house was sold. “We actually get a lot like that,” he noted, explaining that after someone dies or a house is being sold, a family member might come across an old weapon in an attic or basement and turns it over to the police.
The evidence/property officer also is entrusted with found property — bicycles, jewelry, whatever — which honest Kearnyites bring into HQ. “People have even turned in $20 bills they found,” said Wilgus. Such property is kept for six months, during which time the KPD tries to locate the rightful owner. If those attempts are futile, the finder is contacted and can claim it if they wish.
Regarding our visit to the evidence room with the boxes going back to 1929 and not remotely involving current cases: That was mesmerizing. Because there, we actually got to look at some old files (such as the low-flying-plane report from 1946).
Also from ‘46 was a murder file (“Homicides we keep forever”), complete with photos of the corpse and the blood-smeared murder scene. (Hey! You would have looked at them too. Besides, they weren’t in color.)
The victim, a man from Hightstown, and the accused, a man from Miami, had been involved in a knife-fight at the Theobald Industries bunk house.
Obviously, back then some businesses provided housing for (probably transient) workers. Considering that Theobald Industries was an animal-byproducts rendering plant, we presume a lot of its workers were transients.
The record shows the alleged killer was found not guilty after a trial in Hudson County court. But we couldn’t find out why.
We also reviewed an array of fascinating mugshots, many of which could have come from “Boardwalk Empire.” One of our favorites accompanies this story and dates to a 1929 break-and-entry/ larceny case. We don’t know the outcome, so even though the crime occurred more than 80 years ago, we will not use the suspect’s name.
Besides, he was only 15 years old.