Monday, April 12, 1999

Replaying a shooting

A news story about an extraordinary effort by state troopers to understand the circumstances of a racially charged police shooting.


In silver shadows on the strangely stilled roadway, the minivan backed toward the squad car. A man jumped away, fell to the pavement with a gun drawn, scrambled to his feet, stumbled again, darted out of the way.

His partner readied to fire at the van as it nudged the police car, pushing it backward to a grassy strip left of the shoulder while curving slowly backward across three lanes toward the concrete median barrier.

Forensics expert Henry Lee ordered it done again. And again.

Five video cameras and a bevy of law enforcement officials looked on early yesterday at milepost 62.8 of the New Jersey Turnpike as investigators attempted to re-create the contested events in a nearly year-old police shooting that helped spark months of controversy over the New Jersey State Police and alleged race-based car stops and arrests.

From 11 p.m. Saturday until 5:15 a.m. yesterday, authorities took the extraordinary step of closing a 13-mile southbound stretch of the turnpike east of Trenton and diverted traffic onto nearby Route 130.

Under tall light towers that made the highway seem like a movie set, officials reenacted the crucial moments of the April 23 traffic stop, when two state troopers fired 11 shots into a Dodge van carrying four unarmed young minority men to college basketball tryouts. Three of the young men were wounded.

A state grand jury has been investigating the case to determine whether the two troopers, John Hogan and James Kenna, were justified in their use of force.

Attorneys Johnnie Cochran, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufield - members of O.J. Simpson's defense team - are representing three of the victims. The lawyers say they aim to challenge the state police over an alleged pattern of race-based traffic stops on the turnpike.

Officials gave no details about the reenactment, and media representatives were kept about 400 feet away. Reporters, photographers and camera operators watched from a dark rural overpass while officials, working from photos and diagrams of the crime scene, laboriously measured and marked the pavement just in front of the green sign that reads: "Exit 7A, 2 Miles. I-295, Trenton, Hamilton, Shore Points."

Directing activity was Lee, Connecticut commissioner of public safety and formerly that state's lab director. He is also another veteran of the Simpson case.

James J. Gerrow Jr., the special deputy attorney general in charge of the probe, said in a statement that the "on-scene forensic analysis" was part of "the most extensive and exhaustive investigation conducted of a police-involved shooting incident in the state of New Jersey."

John Hagerty, a spokesman for the state police, said the traffic diversion caused no tie-ups.

The demonstration, which will be shown to the 23 members of the grand jury, will attempt to clarify the two conflicting versions of the incident.

According to state police, the troopers stopped the van for speeding. As the officers walked up to the van on the shoulder, it went into reverse, striking Hogan in the leg. Kenna fired two shots into the van, and the van continued backward across the southbound lanes.

A Honda, going south, collided with the van and burst into flames, according to police. The occupants escaped with minor injuries. According to other accounts, the Honda swerved to miss the van and hit the median barrier.

The van's 22-year-old driver, Keshon L. Moore, shifted into drive and headed back to the shoulder, both sides said. The officers shot nine more times, striking Moore's three passengers.

The van wound up in a drainage ditch to the right of the road.

The occupants of the van denied that they were speeding or intended to harm Hogan. Moore said he was unfamiliar with the gear controls of the rented minivan.

The four New Yorkers - three black, one Puerto Rican - were heading to a college basketball tryout in North Carolina. After the shooting, police searched the van for drugs or guns. All they found, according to the men's attorneys, were a Bible, a book of political philosophy, and a John Steinbeck novel.

In the reenactment, which began about 1:15 yesterday morning, a Dodge van equipped with a padded bumper pushed into a state trooper patrol car at the very spot of the episode.

Officials appeared to be trying out a variety of speeds, presumably to test whether the van would have been moving fast enough to pose a threat to the troopers.

There was also a second van - a metallic blue-gray Dodge Caravan with a smashed rear door, a shattered rear window, and tape marking the pathway of bullets.

It was Exhibit A: the van driven by Moore.

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