By Andrew Ford
Published March 21, 2019 by the USA Today Network – New Jersey.
Michael Ryan spent 29 years as a public school educator, chaperoning band trips and senior proms. But his final day at work wasn’t a retirement celebration.
Instead, a Hammonton Public Schools official escorted Ryan out of the building, he said. The district suspended and later fired him following a lewdness charge he denies.
Eastampton Patrolman Michael Musser, an off-duty cop from another county, accused Ryan of committing an indecent sexual act in the parking lot of South Jersey Laundry and Dry Cleaning, less than three miles from Ryan’s school. Ryan said he never visited that laundromat.
Musser didn’t charge Ryan that day in 2015. He didn’t write anything down at the time about the episode. No license plate number. No physical description.
Weeks after the episode, Musser spotted Ryan at a ShopRite, determined “that’s the guy” and contacted local police to officially charge Ryan with a crime, according to Musser’s court testimony more than one year after the charge.
Unknown to Ryan, as he later fought to clear his name in court, Eastampton secretly determined Musser lied in a separate matter.
Township officials fired him for lying to internal affairs investigators over a sick leave issue, a document shows. The township decided it could no longer trust the officer’s word, concluding “the stain cannot be removed.”
The secrecy surrounding Musser’s firing highlights a major weakness in New Jersey’s oversight of police, one that can affect anyone’s life. Because a cop’s past is so well-hidden, neither Ryan’s attorney nor two prosecutor’s offices knew Musser had been fired for lying, a USA Today Network – New Jersey investigation found.
Ryan, 53, spent an estimated $40,000 in legal fees in appeals. Acting on a tip from a friend of the Ryans, their attorney uncovered documents that showed Musser’s dishonesty. A judge overturned Ryan’s conviction in 2018 after Musser’s lie to his department superiors came to light.
“What about the person who doesn’t have equity in their home, retirement savings, savings that they can draw from to file appeals or to hire an attorney?” Ryan asked. “What happens to them?”
Two of them went to jail.
Musser charged at least 56 other people after the dates of his lies, records show. Most were traffic offenses, but Musser charged two people with crimes. Both were represented by public defenders, both faced additional charges and both took plea deals, court records show. One was sentenced to 180 days in jail. The other was sentenced to five years in state prison, where he remains today. A spokesperson for the public defender’s office declined to comment on these cases.
In an apparent breakdown of state policy, a spokesman for the county prosecutor’s office that sent those two men to jail said the office didn’t know about Musser’s dishonesty until this month, after a Network reporter inquired.
The prosecutor’s office had no record of telling the two men they jailed about Musser’s past. A spokesman said the office is reviewing those cases to determine if they should be told.
The Network revealed last summer 20 officers on duty with documented histories of lies or bias. But there may be more secretly troubled cops accusing citizens of crimes, the Network found.
While departments have sustained tens of thousands of cases of police misconduct in recent years, records show, New Jersey prosecutor’s offices can show few records for problem police officers who triggered notifications in court:
- Thousands of sustained internal affairs investigations. More than 22,000 internal affairs complaints were sustained against police officers between 2011 and 2017, records show. More than 90 officers were convicted of crimes in Superior Court. Other sustained internal affairs findings include: 59 improper arrests, 37 improper entries, 103 improper searches, 1,639 issues with the officer’s demeanor and more than 19,000 “other rule” violations. Details about police misconduct are hidden by state law and available statistics don’t track officer credibility issues.
- Few troubled officers outed in court. From 2010 to 2017, six prosecutor’s offices produced records showing they told defendants about credibility issues for a total of 20 police officers.
- Lacking policy for notifications. Seventeen of New Jersey’s 21 county prosecutor’s offices have no policy addressing their responsibility to reveal in court a police officer’s credibility issues in keeping with decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. There’s no statewide policy.
- State considers certification for cops. In addition to leaving the state’s 21 county prosecutors in the dark about troubled cops, the absence of state oversight of police officers leaves New Jersey unable to contribute to a national list of bad cops. New Jersey remains one of just four states without a way to ban bad cops, though New Jersey passed laws this year to license “pool and spa service contractors” and “drama therapists.” The state attorney general said recently he’s considering the kind of certification system that many states use to keep track of cops and root out rogue officers. He also pointed to changes including an internal affairs reform and mandatory random drug testing of police officers, which he implemented last year following recommendations in the Asbury Park Press series ‘Protecting the Shield’.
“That’s the guy”
Ryan, his wife and two kids live on a quiet Hammonton street, a South Jersey town of about 14,000 people that boasts it is the “blueberry capital of the world.”
Ryan had no prior criminal record in New Jersey, records show. He said he was never disciplined in his work with Hammonton Public Schools where he was hired as a chemistry teacher and rose to serve as guidance supervisor for the district.
Eastampton patrolman Michael Musser testified in court he saw someone committing a lewd act in September 2015 in a car parked at the Hammonton laundromat while he was off-duty, doing laundry. He said he looked the suspect in the eye and “remembered” part of the car’s license plate number.
Musser testified he didn’t immediately report the incident that “shocked” him to the local police. When he was pressed in court he testified he “wasn’t a hundred percent sure on the exact date.”
But he testified he saw Ryan in the grocery store parking lot weeks later, snapped a photo of Ryan’s license plate and contacted local police to accuse Ryan of a crime.
“I don’t forget cars, I don’t forget faces,” Musser told the Network in a telephone interview.
About one year after Ryan was charged, a municipal court judge convicted Ryan of lewdness, finding that Musser’s identification of Ryan “is accurate and one which was to be believed,” a court transcript shows. The judge sentenced Ryan to one year of probation and charged him $664 in fines and court costs.
After the conviction, Ryan’s school district fired him, cutting off his $112,000 salary. He struggled to find new employment while plagued by a record of sexual misconduct and toxic online search results, including news stories mentioning his conviction.
“It was like hitting a brick wall,” Ryan said. “Under no circumstances could I support my family.”
Ryan had no way to know at the time, but as his character was being publicly demolished, Musser was secretly being investigated by his police department.
Musser was accused by his department of misusing sick time, then lying about it, misconduct that would lead to his firing. New Jersey law broadly hides government records of police misbehavior and the department’s conclusion that Musser was dishonest was kept secret. A township hearing officer’s finding Musser should be fired was also kept secret.
“No amount of retraining will cure the ill,” the hearing officer concluded. “There is only one appropriate penalty to protect the taxpayers. Termination.”
Musser denied the department’s claims of misconduct in an interview with the Network.
“It was just a whole bunch of bulls—,” he said.
Musser’s problems weren’t revealed through official channels to Ryan, he said. Three legal experts told the Network that Musser’s dishonesty is the kind of material that should be disclosed to defendants.
Ryan’s attorney uncovered records of Musser’s dishonesty attached to Musser’s lawsuit publicly challenging his firing in Superior Court.
Ryan’s attorney was able to convince a judge to overturn Ryan’s conviction based on newly discovered evidence in March 2018. With little explanation, the state dropped Ryan’s charge in November.
In a statement, Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner said his office “reviewed the newly discovered evidence and dismissed the charges.”
Unknowingly facing a dishonest cop
Musser’s case shows a failure to follow existing state policy and a gap in state protocol.
One year passed between the dates of Musser’s dishonesty and the day the town fired him. Meanwhile, he was out on patrol and filing charges, records show.
Police departments are required to turn over to prosecutor’s offices information about issues with an officer’s credibility, including false reports.
But that didn’t happen for Musser until after the Network came asking, according to Joel Bewley, a spokesman for the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office.
Bewley said in an email the office was notified of the township’s actions against Musser “earlier this month,” which is after the Network filed a records request related to Musser. It’s also at least five months after a Burlington County judge upheld Musser’s firing for dishonesty in a public court action that was covered by local news media and picked up by the Associated Press.
The prosecutor’s office is reviewing the two cases involving people jailed after charges by Musser to “determine whether disclosure obligations exist,” Bewley wrote in an email. The office also plans to reinforce state policies on the reporting of these types of issues with police departments in their county.
Eastampton Police Chief Joseph Iacovitti said Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office was made aware of the department’s investigation of Musser.
“They were definitely brought in for it,” he told the Network.
He declined to answer follow-up questions about when the department notified the prosecutor’s office.
Ryan’s case fell through a loophole.
Musser charged Ryan while he was off-duty in another county. State policy doesn’t call for departments to reach outside their county. Musser’s department didn’t bring the information about Musser to Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, the agency pursuing Ryan, the prosecutor’s office argued in court. Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office didn’t ask about Musser. And neither the department nor the prosecutor’s office told Ryan, his wife said.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal recently told the Network his office is working on a statewide policy to address issues with a prosecutor’s obligation to turn over information that would be helpful to a defendant. That can include material about a police officer’s credibility, in keeping with court precedent established over about 50 years, starting with the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland.
Grewal has the support of the state’s largest police union, the New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association.
“…we asked the AG’s office for a statewide policy because of the inequity in how the different prosecutors office’s treat Brady,” NJSPBA President Pat Colligan said in an email. “We are waiting for a statewide policy. I know a working group is in place and they are working on it.”
‘They’re trying to tarnish my reputation’
Musser, 48, served Eastampton for 13 years. He said he uses sick time “appropriately” and “no” he wasn’t dishonest about sick time or during an internal affairs investigation.
He described an occasion in which he stopped a man attempting to hang himself, providing an image of a lifesaving award Musser won.
He’s now fighting Eastampton before the appellate division. “They’re trying to tarnish my reputation and make it like I’m this bad cop,” Musser said. “But like I said to you, I’ll give you the shirt off my back. I’ve helped so many people.”