• Lynda Cohen

Prosecutor’s apparent lie raises questions about leadership

Updated: Mar 24

The Atlantic County prosecutor’s claims that certain old homicide files were marked as “non-important murders,” or NIM, was not true, records maintained by his own office show. Prosecutor Damon Tyner declined to comment after a public records request by BreakingAC found no such files exist. Now it seems his fabrication has brought to light concerns from those under him about his own “questionable acts” and their possible impact on officer safety. “Follow-up conversations I have had with staff there have all indicated that this acronym never existed and cannot be found on any of the files in Major Crimes,” the detectives’ union President Christopher Rizzo wrote in an email obtained by BreakingAC.

Response to an Open Public Records Act request revealed no such files exist.

But on July 8, Tyner told more than 100 people gathered at Atlantic City’s Dolphin Field that he had been surprised to find out the meaning of NIM — which claimed was written on old homicide files for victims that were black or Hispanic. “Non-important murders,” he said at the time to gasps and exclamations from the crowd. “It wasn’t important,” he continued. “It wasn’t important to the people who were there. To the people that were part of the system, it wasn’t important.” BreakingAC’s report of Tyner’s allegations created what he has called a “firestorm,” and angered the men and women who worked these cases. “It’s just hard to believe that those words were said with no backup,” said Jim Barber, a retired Atlantic City officer who investigated homicides as a member of the Major Crimes Unit under previous prosecutors. “Was he given this information? I don’t know. I’m just lost for words.” While Tyner has declined to comment, his brother Michael Graham —who he hired to work in the office — confirmed NIM files never existed. “Of course, there were never any files,” Graham said after confronting this reporter about writing the original story. Graham worked the Major Crimes Unit for years under previous prosecutors while an Atlantic City police detective. Tyner sent an email promising his sworn officers an explanation after “the firestorm” caused by what he dubbed “the incomplete and/or one-sided reporting of comments that I made to a group of residents.” The email sent at 10:33 p.m. July 18, seemed to be in response to concerns the president of the officers’ union expressed to his members in an email sent just hours earlier. “These alleged statements are defaming to the reputation of the agency, which he heads,” Rizzo, the president of Mainland PBA Local 77, wrote in an email sent at 4:34 p.m. July 18, and obtained by BreakingAC through a records request. “Since then I have been contacted by several of you regarding this article,” Rizzo continued, “and informed about other recent situations involving possible questionable acts by the prosecutor, and possible officer safety concerns as a result of his alleged actions.” That email was later forwarded to Graham by a union member. Graham forwarded it to his brother around 7 p.m. Three-and-a-half hours later, Tyner called for the meeting.

“My first obligation is to explain myself and the context (i.e. the complete version) that those remarks were made to each of you,” he wrote in announcing a meeting for July 23. But a recording of that meeting a source provided to BreakingAC shows Tyner failed to address his NIM comments or a video taken of his speech that was added to the story after his email promising an explanation. Instead, he talked about things he said the story failed to mention, including his connection to the community. Tyner claimed that those comments resulted in several calls to his office about old cases. It’s possible those calls may have been of a different nature. Some residents have confirmed to BreakingAC that they called with concerns that open homicide cases of their loved ones may have been on the NIM list. A list fabricated by Tyner. The meeting with his detectives ended with Tyner asking if there were any questions. That was met by silence. Allegations of questionable practices within the office date back to an October letter calling for an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office written by former acting Atlantic County Prosecutor Diane Ruberton — who Tyner fired — along with retired Lt. Heather McManus and current Chief Assistant Prosecutor Donna Fetzer. That was followed by a pending civil suit filed by the three women. Now, the PBA has been notified about ongoing issues within the office, according to the email.

“I don’t feel it’s proper for me to discuss the nature of those allegations at this time,” the PBA president said when asked to elaborate on these issues. But he did address NIM. Rizzo, who worked in the Prosecutor’s Office for a time under the late Ted Housel, said he saw firsthand the extensive hours spent working homicide cases. “These individuals are called to work at all hours, often late at night or on holidays, requiring them to suddenly and unexpectedly leave their loved ones for extended periods of time to investigate these tragic incidents,” he said. That was also the experience of Denise Buchanan, who worked in the Prosecutor’s Office for 36 years, retiring Aug. 1, 2017. “There were numerous holidays, birthdays, weekends, etc., that were missed by all the Major Crime staff,” said Buchanan, who was in the unit for about 25 years. “No one complained. They were doing their job.” Those she worked with included Graham, Tyner’s brother, who was assigned there as an Atlantic City police detective. Graham said his brother was addressing a group that does not trust law enforcement when he invoked the non-existent NIM designation, and Graham took offense that the story was reported beyond that group. But after Tyner addressed the group July 8, he confirmed them to BreakingAC. “The prosecutor needs to set the record straight,” Buchanan said. “A statement from him should be made as soon as possible to ensure the public that detectives in his office and local law enforcement in his county are doing everything to solve cases.”

Prosecutor Damon Tyner has declined to comment after his office and brother confirmed there were no files marked NIM.


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