The afternoon of Dec. 10, 2019, was as harrowing as any day in recent memory. At The Observer’s office, a mere 7 miles away from it all, we sat and sometimes stood, in stunned disbelief, listening to the Jersey City Police Department on a police scanner app after an alert came in about a possible shooting in the city’s Greenville section.
For hours, live and in real time, we heard the echoes of gunshots being fired. Some of those sounds came from radios operated by officers who were inside Sacred Heart School, a Catholic elementary school that is directly across the street on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive from one of the scenes of carnage.
We later learned all of the chaos was the result of Jersey City Police Department Det. Joseph Seals, a resident of North Arlington, being fatally shot in the head as he stood in Bay View Cemetery, on Garfield Avenue, in the second-largest city in New Jersey, as he pursued leads in another case.
Following the shooting of Det. Seals, the two suspects, a woman and a man whose names we will not mention, calmly got into a stolen U-Haul van and drove about a mile from Garfield Avenue over to JC Kosher Deli, on MLK Drive, and took the lives of several others, including Harrison’s Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, a clerk in the store whose young daughter is a student in the Harrison school system.
It was all happening in a neighborhood, Greenville, known affectionately by its residents as “The Hill.” This is a neighborhood that has not seen growth the way other Jersey City locations have — think the Downtown Waterfront. Instead, much of Greenville has been ignored for decades upon decades. It is the city’s highest-crime area. Poverty is abundant. The average income is about $33,000 a year, well below the city’s overall average.
However, of late, reports estimate that about 100 Jewish families now call Greenville home. Most other residents of “The Hill” are black.
When it was over, hours later, following some of the most intense police action imaginable — an incident that brought to Jersey City several Kearny police officers who are part of the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office’s SWAT Team — it left so many wondering how this could happen.
And yet it did. And so many people offered words of love and tribute to both Det. Seals and Mr. Rodriguez. It couldn’t be more clear — both were treasured human beings in life, both will be forever missed and we wake up today to a world that is less because of their loss.
Det. Joseph Seals, father of 5
Seals, 40, joined the Jersey City Police Department in 2006. He was the father of five children. Reports say he was on a mission as a detective in the Cease Fire Unit of the JCPD — to get as many illicit guns off the streets. The unit was instituted to investigate non-fatal, gun-related crimes.
His chief, Michael Kelly, says he was able to get dozens of them off the streets.
“He was the leading police officer getting guns off the streets,” Chief Kelly said.
In North Arlington, many mourned his loss, including the borough’s Mayor, Daniel H. Pronti, himself a retired police officer with the Montclair Police Department.
“As many of you already know, the Borough of North Arlington, the City of Jersey City and the Seals Family suffered a terrible loss,” Pronti, who called Seals his friend, said. “As police officers, we are expected to be prepared for any situation life throws at us. Each day, when an officer leaves their home, their family, their community, they leave knowing the type of work they do and the risks involved.
“Those who are friends, family, community and acquaintances of police officers, rarely think of the most severe, ultimate sacrifice, which may occur. Today, we are all facing exactly that. The Seals Family is and will always be a part of our community. Joe was a friend to me and to many of you. I want you all to keep the Seals Family in your thoughts and prayers as they try to go on with their lives, mourning the loss of their husband, father and son. Rest Easy, Brother Seals. End Of Watch: 12/10/19.”
Rozita Momeny, in response to the mayor’s comments, replied to his words on Facebook. She beautifully summed up what most must have been thinking.
“My deepest and heartfelt sympathy for the Seals family on this immeasurable loss,” she wrote. “Words may not express the extent of the sorrow that we all feel here in North Arlington as a community, but I pray that the outpouring (of) love and support of all of us here and everyone in the city of Jersey City comfort the family and friends of our hero. Rest in peace, Det. Joseph Seals.”
Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, who is in charge of the investigation into the shootings, was also clearly shaken by the events of that day.
“We stand with Jersey City as we mourn today’s terrible tragedy,” Grewal said. “The Attorney General’s Office is leading the criminal investigation and any public statements about the matter will be issued by our office. We continue to work closely with our federal, county and local partners and we remain grateful for the outpouring of support from law enforcement across the region and the nation.
“We recognize the fear that communities rightfully feel after traumatic incidents such as these, and we are committed to providing all resources necessary to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our fellow residents.”
The shooting, though it has had a tremendous local impact, has spread to all corners of America. Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle D. Giffords, of Arizona, who herself was shot in the head at a grocery store in Casas Adobes, Arizona, in 2011, also commented on the shooting.
“Our hearts broke for a Jersey City neighborhood terrorized by gunfire. Today, we face the reality that this was an act of hate,” Giffords said. “We stand with every person who lived through this waking nightmare and with the courageous first responders who brought it to an end. We also can’t shy away from the fact that tragedies like these keep happening.
“America’s strength is rooted in our diversity. We pride ourselves on being a country where how you pray or who you are won’t make you a target. But this fundamental strength is under attack by hateful, bigoted individuals made dangerous by easy access to firearms. This horrific act is another reminder for our elected leaders of the urgent need to make it harder for dangerous people fueled by hate to access firearms and murder innocent people.”
Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, father, husband, hard worker
Mr. Rodriguez, an immigrant to this country, worked extremely hard to provide for his family. To accomplish this, he took a job as a clerk at Jersey City Kosher Deli. He was loved by the people for whom he worked. And, there are reports he took a bullet so that other lives might be saved.
He and his family lived in an apartment on Harrison’s south side. When it was learned that he lived in Harrison, the community instantly came together to help the family. Among other things, the Harrison Education Foundation immediately started a fundraising campaign where all cash raised would be given to the family.
Several Harrisonians who said they knew Mr. Rodriguez recalled a very positive man who loved his family more than anything else.
Ricardo Rodriguez is a neighbor to the family, but is not related to them. He says Douglas Miguel always took the time to say hello when they would pass each other on the street.
“He always took the time to say ‘hello,’” Ricardo said. “Even if he was in a rush to get to work, he would always stop. It is so tragic that this happened to all of the victims, but especially to him. He loved living here. He always says good things. I feel so bad for his family. I don’t know how they will go on without him.”
And in perhaps the most stunning of all comments made following this awful tragedy, it is the ones made by Mr. Rodriguez’s widow, Martha Freire, that stand out the most. At a candlelight vigil hosted by New Jersey City University late last week, Ms. Freire showed a compassionate side that is almost impossible to believe following all she’s been through in the last few days.
“I forgive the killers — I forgive them both,” she said in Spanish, translated by a family friend. “I want to love the memory of my husband. I do not want to waste my time hating anybody.”
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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.