GARFIELD, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Two of the three men charged in the shooting of an undercover New Jersey police officer in a shopping center parking lot pleaded not guilty Wednesday in their initial court appearances.
The two uninjured suspects – 19-year-old Melvin Guzman of Garfield and 21-year-old Patrick Morel of Clifton – wore orange prison jumpsuits and had their hands shackled as a prosecutor from the attorney general’s office laid out probable cause.
“Attempted robbery of an undercover,” the prosecutor said.
Bail was continued at $750,000 for each defendant.
The courtroom was packed with law enforcement, WCBS 880’s Jim Smith reported.
The third suspect, 25-year-old Passaic resident Rafael Vasquez, remains hospitalized with a gunshot wound. His bail was set at $2 million.
All three defendants face robbery, aggravated assault and weapons charges. Vasquez is also charged with attempted murder.
The undercover officer from the Paramus Narcotics Unit was hit in the right hip and ankle after gunfire erupted Tuesday afternoon across the parking lot from a Marshall’s department store in Garfield, authorities said.
The undercover cop and his partner were posing as prospective drug buyers when a $400 marijuana deal in the parking lot went wrong, Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli said.
Paramus Police Chief Kenneth Ehrenberg said these suspects were no ordinary drug dealers.
“This was about a crew of armed robbers. Whether it was marijuana, heroin or any other objects that were sent there, there was going to be no marijuana delivered to our guys,” he told Smith. “The sole purpose was, the pretext was that the marijuana would be delivered there for the sole purpose of robbing our undercover agent.”
The cop was in the driver’s seat of a car with a suspected drug dealer in the passenger seat when a second man approached the vehicle and demanded that the officer “give him everything,” Molinelli said.
“Started to actually physical put his hands on the undercover officer to a point where the undercover team moved in and the minute that happened, that’s when the gunshots started,” Molinelli said.
The alleged shooter, Vasquez, shot the officer twice during a scuffle, authorities said. The officers returned fire as the backup team rushed in to help and fired several times at the suspect.
“I saw all these cops come out of nowhere, the state troopers, the Bergen police, Lodi, so many cops. I’ve never seen so many cops before in my life,” said witness Jamie Thompson.
Molinelli said he believes the injured officer had been set up for a robbery by the suspects.
“In my judgment, this was a planned theft. They set this transaction in order to do a drug transaction but with no intention of carrying it out,” said Molinelli.
He said the officer was not armed or wearing a bulletproof vest since he was participating in an undercover operation.
“He was wide open,” Molinelli said.
Vasquez was also struck several times, but survived. He was taken to the hospital with non life-threatening injuries.
He and Guzman were arrested at the scene. Molinelli said police recovered the suspected shooter’s weapon as well as drugs and money.
Morel, who police said had driven the other two to the scene, took off but was taken into custody at the Essex Toll Plaza on the Garden State Parkway, authorities said.
The injured undercover officer’s name is not being released, but authorities said he is a nine-year veteran of the Paramus Police Department and was on loan to a Bergen County narcotics task force.
He was taken to Hackensack University Medical Center where he underwent surgery for his injuries.
Speaking Tuesday, Molinelli praised the work of the officers.
“This is what they do,” he said. “Every day, every night, 365 days a year.”
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