TOMS RIVER, N.J. (AP) — Ignoring the hard stares burning into him from dozens of police officers, a man accused of killing a New Jersey policeman turned away from a judge Tuesday and mouthed “I love you” to his relatives.
Jahmell Crockam is charged with murder and weapons offenses in the shooting death of Lakewood Patrolman Christopher Matlosz on Friday. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
But as Superior Court Judge Wendel Daniels read the charges during Crockam’s first court appearance, the 19-year-old appeared utterly unconcerned, turning his head away from the judge and toward relatives sitting in the back of the courtroom. Three times during the five-minute appearance, he mouthed “I love you” to his family.
Authorities said Matlosz was on patrol Friday afternoon when he came upon Crockam on a residential street in an area where there had been several drive-by shootings. They said the two spoke to each other for a while in a nonconfrontational manner before Crockam suddenly pulled a gun out and fired three shots into the officer, who slumped behind the wheel of his cruiser, his gun still in its holster.
Crockam was arrested Sunday morning in Camden after police received a tip he was hiding in an apartment there, about 60 miles from the crime scene.
Crockam was wanted for possession of an illegal rifle and hollow-point bullets from a December case, but it remained unclear whether the officer knew that when he approached him, authorities said.
He also had a separate arrest warrant from a 2009 case involving illegal “dum-dum,” or hollow-point, bullets, the judge said.
Aside from his whispered greetings to relatives, Crockam uttered just a single word, answering “Yes” when the judge asked if he understood the charges against him.
He was represented during the hearing by a public defender, Frank Gonzalez, who said Crockam will plead not guilty at his formal arraignment, which has not yet been scheduled. Crockam’s $5 million bail will be informally reviewed by the court within 24 hours, and a formal bail hearing may be scheduled within the next two weeks.
Gonzalez said he has spent considerable time speaking with Crockam since his arrest Sunday morning.
“He seems calm,” Gonzalez said.
“We just have to keep an open mind,” the lawyer said. “Let’s just let the process run its course.”
Security in the courtroom and outside the building was extraordinarily tight. Five hours before the hearing began, law enforcement officers were seen peering from a pedestrian walkway down at the courthouse, scanning the area for threats. About a dozen sheriff’s officers ringed the courtroom.
Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford did not directly address rumors that street gangs have threatened to kill police officers in retaliation for Crockam’s arrest, a purported threat that drew a harsh response from the state policemen’s union over the weekend.
At a Monday night vigil that drew hundreds of mourners, a dozen sheriff’s officers wearing helmets and body armor brandished machine guns around the perimeter.
Authorities will not say whether Crockam is a member of a gang. But Ford said officers need to be careful regardless.
“The job of being a police officer is potentially dangerous and they should always be on high alert,” she said. “There are obviously rumors going around. We are taking it seriously.”
At an appearance in northern New Jersey on Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie expressed sympathy for the slain officer’s family and commended law enforcement officers for apprehending a suspect.
“It’s an awful tragedy for the officer’s family, his fiancee, for the people of Lakewood,” Christie said. “Any time you lose the life of a law enforcement officer, it’s an awful tragedy and it is an offense to the idea of what a civilized society is supposed to be. You’re not supposed to kill law enforcement officers, you’re supposed to honor them.”
The slain officer’s fiancee and mother attended Monday night’s candlelight vigil, but did not attend Tuesday’s court appearance.
At the vigil, friends and co-workers spoke of Matlosz’s warm smile, his distinctive shaved head, his penchant for texting jokes to sleeping colleagues at 3 a.m., and the time he turned out the lights on a fellow officer while he was in the shower.
His wake will be held Wednesday. Thousands of police officers from around the country are expected to attend his funeral on Thursday.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)