UNION COUNTY — Izena Wright was asleep in her apartment at 343 Liberty St. in Plainfield just after 4 a.m. on Sept. 11 when she heard what sounded like someone knocking down her front door. Clad only in a T-shirt and 7 and 1/2 months pregnant, she raced from her bedroom through the dark hall to investigate the noise, and was shocked to encounter a dozen Union County SWAT team members charging towards her, guns drawn.
What followed was a nightmare that this pregnant mother, who also had a 12-year-old daughter asleep in another bedroom, is finding very difficult to forget.
In a matter of weeks, Wright became the target of this allegedly misplaced home invasion, was handcuffed and interrogated, watched her home be ransacked, and finally saw her infant son delivered by cesarean section prematurely on Sept. 25, weighing just 2 pounds, 9 ounces.
Since then, Wright, who lived at the Liberty Street address for three years, has spent every day at her son’s bedside in the hospital, as he continues his struggle to live.
Wright’s attorney, Eugene Melody of Little Silver, handles civil rights issues, and filed a tort claim last week against the Union County Prosecutor’s Office and Union County, which put them on notice there could be a lawsuit in the future.
According to Melody, a tort claim is required when there could be a pending lawsuit against a public entity. An attorney, he added, only has 90 days to file such a claim or a lawsuit cannot be filed in the future.
In an interview with LocalSource late last week, Melody admitted quite candidly there are a lot of unanswered questions surrounding the raid at Wright’s house and he has not had any response from the Prosecutor’s Office about what transpired.
Melody explained that when Wright heard what sounded like a door slamming, she quickly got out of bed and was immediately surrounded by 12 SWAT team members in the dark hallway. They did, however, warn the pregnant woman they were police officers, proceeding to handcuff and order her to sit on the bed.
“They did identify themselves, but my client, wearing only a T-shirt, was very frightened and very embarrassed and began to feel quite ill,” he said, explaining Wright started to have problems breathing and had a pain in her side.
A diabetic diagnosed with a high-risk pregnancy to begin with, Melody said 12 SWAT team members kicking down her door at 4 a.m. was too much medically and emotionally for this mother, who began to feel faint.
An ambulance was called and both mother, and some 15 minutes later, her daughter, were led to the vehicle still in handcuffs. Melody said Wright begged the SWAT team members to take the handcuffs off her daughter, but that never happened until the mother and daughter were actually in the ambulance.
At no time did any SWAT team member explain what they were doing there nor, when they finally departed the scene, did they explain they had made a mistake.
When Wright returned the next day after being treated at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick, the mother found the lock to her front door broken and every room in her home ransacked. On the door was a Union County Superior Court ordered search warrant, issued Sept. 9, by Judge William Daniel.
Melody said the warrant explained what the SWAT team was looking for and whom, but not why they had Wright’s address on the warrant or a man’s name Wright had never heard of and who did not live there.
According to the warrant, which LocalSource obtained, the warrant was issued to search the “premises and person” living at 343 Liberty St.
The premises was described right down to exactly where the building could be found and the fact it is one of four, two-story buildings that surround the courtyard area of Liberty Village on West Fourth Street, which is a public housing complex.
The warrant, ordered by Special Services Investigation/AUC Detective Gary Webb, Jr., provided an affidavit indicating the detective was satisfied that enough “probable cause” to believe there was dangerous substances, including but not limited to heroin in the apartment.
While the location of the residence was correct, the person the Prosecutor’s Office expected to find, was not.
According to the warrant, police were looking for a Roy Schultz born May 30, 1984. The warrant also described Schultz, as a black male, 5’11, 170 pounds with a bald head.
Although there were two ways in which the SWAT team could have entered the premises, they were authorized to enter “without” first knocking or identifying themselves.
An inventory sheet attached to the warrant was supposed to have a description of the items seized, where they were found and by which member of the SWAT team. However the sheet had a line drawn across it with the words “no evidence seized” on it. This evidence sheet was signed by Webb.
Melody took issue with the fact that once the SWAT team discovered that Wright and her daughter were the only occupants of the home, he does not understand why they handcuffed the mother and her daughter and left them that way until they were both in the ambulance.
In fact, it took a full 15 minutes for the police to bring the handcuffed 12-year-old daughter to her mother who was waiting in the ambulance, according to Wright’s attorney.
Also in question is what happened after Wright and her daughter were in the ambulance.
“The SWAT team just disappeared with no explanation to my client,” Melody said, explaining he tried to contact Mary McKinley at the Prosecutor’s Office but was directed elsewhere.
“She tried to steer me to the Plainfield Police Department,” he said, adding that the entry was made by the Union County SWAT team, not the Plainfield Police Department.
As Wright waits for days on end by her premature infant’s bedside with a home allegedly wrongly raided and ransacked by Union County law enforcement officials, the Prosecutor’s Office has remained silent, both to Wright’s attorney and LocalSource.
LocalSource was able to discover that the Union County Prosecutor’s Office did indeed make arrests involving heroin possession on Sept. 11 in Plainfield.
According to a press release dated Sept. 12 from the Prosecutor’s Office, the arrests took place “shortly after 4 a.m. on Sept. 11 when members of the Prosecutor’s office Guns, Gangs, Drugs and Violent Crimes Task force were joined by members of the Union County Emergency Response Team SWAT squad, the Plainfield Police Division and the Linden Police Department.”
These forces were acting on search warrants, “several which targeted apartments at the Liberty Village housing complex.”
Arrested were Jose Otero, 27, Maritza Pineda, 33, and Andre Hendricks, 33, all Plainfield residents. A search of Hendricks home turned up a total of 125 bags of heroin and he was in possession of 44 bags of heroin.
The prosecutor’s press release regarding the arrests noted that both Otero and Pineda were arrested “during the execution of a search warrant on the 1800 block of Bradford Street, where detectives recovered 4.5 bricks, or 225 bags, of heroin with the intent to distribute within 500 feet of public housing.”
LocalSource contacted the Prosecutor’s Office in an effort to obtain an explanation for Wright’s home being erroneously targeted.
Specifically brought up was that on Sept. 12 LocalSource received a press release regarding the three people arrested Sept. 11 for possession of large quantities of heroin seized during the execution of several search warrants in Plainfield’s West End, targeting apartments at the Liberty Village housing complex. Also mentioned in the email was that “something was left out of that press release.”
“LocalSource has received reports that in the course of that SWAT team raid, an apartment was allegedly wrongly raided, possibly due to bad information, and an innocent resident allegedly suffered injuries in said raid,” the email went on, adding that we also had a copy of the warrant and had attempted to speak with Det. Gary Webb, but he declined to comment on the matter.
Union County Prosecutor’s Office spokesperson Mark Spivey did respond to this email, but made it clear the Prosecutor’s Office was not going to comment.
“The Union County Prosecutor’s Office does not confirm nor deny the existence of internal affairs investigations,” Spivey said in the email dated Oct. 3.
Confusing is why Spivey mentioned an “internal affairs investigation” when that particular issue was not brought up in the email or specifically inquired about by LocalSource.
Regional Editor Patrick Bober contributed to this article.