A silver Honda Accord zoomed previous exit 150 on the Backyard State Parkway in New Jersey simply earlier than 3 a.m. The motive force was an off-duty Newark police officer, Louis Santiago. His cousin Albert Guzman was within the passenger seat.
It was the evening of Halloween 2021, and Santiago was drunk, in line with Essex County prosecutors.
He was observing a cellphone when his automobile allegedly drifted into the shoulder and struck a person who occurred to be strolling alongside the darkened stretch of freeway, prosecutors say.
Santiago, 25, initially thought he could have hit an animal, in line with his lawyer, Patrick Toscano Jr. The sufferer, Damian Dymka, 29, was nonetheless within the costume that he had worn out that evening: a black masks with gold antlers and brown fur protecting his shoulders.
Dymka can be pronounced useless on the scene — however not till greater than two hours later.
In these two hours, Santiago drove residence with Dymka’s physique within the again seat after which returned to the crash website having by no means known as 911 or tried to render support to the person, prosecutors say.
“Put that physique again the place you hit it,” Annette Santiago allegedly instructed her son when he confirmed up at their residence, in line with prosecutors.
He’s now going through 12 felony costs, together with reckless vehicular murder and endangering an injured sufferer. Guzman and Santiago’s mom had been additionally charged with allegedly tampering with proof and different offenses.
Dymka’s family and friends, in the meantime, are nonetheless reeling in shock and grief. Some are laid low with haunting questions.
What if the officer had instantly known as 911? Might Damian have been saved?
“We are able to’t know that due to one one who was extremely egocentric,” mentioned Miranda Stone, an in depth pal who met Dymka after they had been college students at Bergen Group School.
What makes the sequence of occasions so troublesome to understand is not only the officer’s actions, his associates and family members mentioned, however who Dymka was as an individual.
He was variety and compassionate nearly to a fault, 4 of them mentioned in interviews with NBC Information.
He was the one everybody turned to in instances of disaster. He was the one who would drop all the pieces that can assist you.
“If issues had been going loopy, I keep in mind simply having the ability to hug Damian and feeling prefer it’s going to be OK,” mentioned Jess Valdanero, a longtime pal. “He wouldn’t let go till he felt such as you had been OK.”
It was becoming that he labored as a nurse, spending his days serving to individuals who had been aged or infirm at a county-run facility in northern New Jersey.
However by final fall, Dymka was prepared for a change.
He had developed an itch to journey, and his boyfriend felt the identical means. So that they hatched a plan: They might each pursue bachelor of science levels as a way to turn out to be journey nurses, a job that might give them the liberty to maneuver away from New Jersey and discover the U.S.
“We wished a good way to journey the nation,” mentioned his boyfriend, Rosemberg Ochoa. “Hike nationwide parks. Simply roam round.”
Dymka was set to start on-line courses on Nov. 1 — the day after the accident — however he by no means logged on that day. He additionally didn’t present up for work on the Preakness Healthcare Heart in Wayne, which was extremely uncommon.
His family members would study later within the day that Dymka was the sufferer of a deadly visitors accident. Weeks would cross earlier than they discovered the total horror of what transpired in these early morning hours.
Santiago labored a daytime shift on Oct. 31, 2021.
The son of a Newark police lieutenant, he joined the drive in 2019 and rapidly made a reputation for himself. He obtained particular commendations for helping in two main drug arrests in 2020.
After work that Sunday, Santiago drove to a bar in his hometown of Bloomfield to look at the Dallas Cowboys recreation, mentioned Toscano, his lawyer.
Santiago had just a few drinks however not sufficient to impair his driving, Toscano mentioned. The off-duty officer left with Guzman after final name and headed to a pal’s home.
It’s uncommon for folks to be strolling at any time alongside the Backyard State Parkway, a serious freeway that runs the size of New Jersey, however particularly so within the predawn hours. How Dymka ended up there stays a thriller to his family members.
After allegedly hanging Dymka, Santiago drove off however returned to the scene a number of instances earlier than he loaded the person’s physique into his automobile, prosecutors mentioned.
With Guzman within the passenger seat and Dymka’s physique within the again, Santiago then drove to the house he shares together with his dad and mom, prosecutors mentioned.
In response to an affidavit of possible trigger signed by a state trooper, Guzman knowledgeable Santiago’s mom that her son had struck a person whereas driving drunk and the physique was within the Honda.
She went to talk with Santiago after which walked over to the automobile to see the physique, the affidavit says.
That’s when she allegedly instructed him to return the useless man to the crash scene, the affidavit says. Santiago’s father known as 911 although prosecutors didn’t element when this occurred.
Santiago acquired indignant after discovering out that his father had contacted police, in line with the affidavit, and mentioned altering his garments.
“My f—— shirt has blood on it,” Santiago mentioned, in line with the police affidavit.
Earlier than he took off, his mom handed him a towel so he might clear the blood off himself, the affidavit says.
Santiago arrived again on the accident website simply earlier than New Jersey State troopers confirmed up.
The troopers discovered Santiago standing beside his automobile and Dymka’s physique within the again seat, in line with the affidavit. Santiago described what occurred and admitted to hitting the sufferer together with his automobile, police mentioned within the affidavit filed in Bloomfield Municipal Courtroom.
He appeared intoxicated and was taken for blood testing, the affidavit says. However Santiago, regardless of showing drunk and having admitted to transferring a useless physique, was not arrested on the scene. He was not charged till greater than three weeks later.
Policing specialists mentioned it was curious that the troopers didn’t give Santiago a breathalyzer take a look at on the scene. Had they finished so, and had Santiago failed, he could have been arrested on the spot.
“In the event that they haven’t any good rationalization, just like the breathalyzer didn’t work, or they didn’t have it for no matter cause, then the one rationalization that involves my thoughts is that they engaged in what we check with as ‘skilled courtesy,’” mentioned Nancy Haberfeld, a professor of police science on the John Jay School of Prison Justice in New York Metropolis.
She described that as “mistaken, unethical and fairly probably in direct violation of their departmental SOPs,” or commonplace working procedures.
A New Jersey State Police spokesman referred inquiries to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Workplace. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s workplace, Katherine Carter, mentioned it was a state police matter.
Toscano, Santiago’s lawyer, mentioned the narrative launched by prosecutors misconstrues Santiago’s actions that day.
“This isn’t a cover-up. There was no tried cover-up,” Toscano mentioned. “It was a horrible, horrible accident, however there was not one iota of cover-up right here in any respect.”
After realizing he had hit an individual, the off-duty officer known as his father from the scene, Toscano instructed NBC Information, and the elder Santiago instantly known as New Jersey State Police.
Santiago put the sufferer within the again seat with the intention of driving him to the closest hospital, Toscano mentioned. However then he realized that the person was useless, Toscano mentioned.
Santiago drove residence with the physique to not cowl up the crime, Toscano mentioned, however to talk together with his father about what to do subsequent. The lawyer couldn’t say why Santiago didn’t simply name his father once more.
“His phrases to me had been, ‘I panicked. I didn’t know what to do,’” Toscano mentioned.
Santiago’s father had already left for the accident scene by the point the son returned residence, Toscano mentioned. The daddy had contacted his son’s boss, Newark Chief of Police Lee Douglas, who additionally confirmed up on the crash website, Toscano mentioned.
Dymka, who was born in Poland and grew up in Garfield, N.J., was pronounced useless on the scene at 5:27 a.m., roughly two and a half hours after he was hit. The reason for loss of life was blunt drive trauma, in line with the spokeswoman for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Workplace.
No precise time of loss of life was launched, and the state health worker’s workplace didn’t reply to requests for remark.
Louis Santiago was indicted on 12 felony offenses: reckless vehicular murder, strict legal responsibility vehicular murder, leaving the scene of a deadly crash, endangering an injured sufferer, desecrating/transferring human stays, conspiracy to desecrate human stays, hindering one’s personal apprehension, conspiracy to hinder prosecution, tampering with bodily proof, obstructing the administration of legislation and two counts of official misconduct.
He was additionally hit with 9 non-indictable offenses, together with DWI and unlawful window tinting, in line with the prosecutor’s workplace.
He has pleaded not responsible. His blood alcohol outcomes haven’t been launched.
The Newark Police Division suspended Santiago, his lawyer mentioned. A division spokesperson declined to remark.
Toscano, a former first assistant prosecutor within the Essex County Prosecutor’s Workplace, mentioned he was shocked by the variety of costs leveled towards his shopper.
“Possibly there was possible trigger to cost two or three offenses, however to cost a legislation enforcement officer with 12 or 13 was blatant and intentional overkill,” Toscano mentioned.
Toscano added that Dymka’s loss of life is weighing closely on the younger police officer and the remainder of his household.
“These are good folks,” Toscano mentioned, earlier than referring particularly to Santiago. “He speaks in regards to the sufferer on a regular basis. He speaks in regards to the sufferer greater than the fees towards him.”
Annette Santiago, 53, was charged with conspiracy to desecrate human stays, hindering apprehension, and conspiracy to hinder apprehension and tamper with bodily proof. She pleaded not responsible.
Her lawyer, Vincent Scoca, declined to remark.
Guzman, 25, was charged with the identical offenses. He pleaded not responsible, and his lawyer, Dennis Carletta, didn’t reply to requests for remark.
Dymka had spent a lot of the evening at a Halloween social gathering at Membership Feathers in River Edge, New Jersey’s oldest homosexual nightclub, the place he was a daily.
“All of us cherished him,” mentioned proprietor Paul Binetti. “He was at all times humorous and bubbly and energetic. If you happen to wanted fun, you’d go to him.”
Binetti mentioned Dymka confirmed up with a gaggle of associates in costume round 9 p.m. Over the subsequent few hours, he drank and danced inside however spent a lot of the evening chatting with folks on the wood wall exterior the membership, Binetti mentioned.
Dymka was buzzed however not wasted when he left round 1 a.m., Binetti mentioned. He hopped into an Uber with a pal however by accident left his telephone behind.
“He gave everyone a hug and a kiss like he did each evening, and acquired in his Uber,” Binetti mentioned. “That was the final time we noticed him.”
Binetti mentioned he was surprised and horrified when he discovered late the subsequent day that Dymka had been killed.
“Accidents occur. That was not an accident what he did afterwards,” Binetti mentioned, referring to Louis Santiago.
“No matter this cop did, whoever was concerned with him, must pay for his or her actions.”
Dymka’s dad and mom had been nonetheless too grief-stricken to talk about the tragedy, in line with Ochoa, his boyfriend.
Ochoa mentioned Dymka went to the pal’s home in Bloomfield, however the pal, who was consuming that evening, wasn’t clear on the circumstances of Dymka leaving or how he ended up strolling alongside the Backyard State Parkway at 3 a.m.
“I simply do not know,” he mentioned.
For Ochoa, it has been not possible to make sense of what occurred to his boyfriend — a proficient artist, a cat lover, and above all a caring soul.
“I don’t perceive how this might occur to anybody, and I particularly don’t perceive the way it might occur to any person like Damian,” Ochoa mentioned.
“He would run right into a constructing on hearth if there was somebody he cherished in it. He was simply that particular person.”