WESTFIELD — With the community still reeling after the home invasion and sexual assault that took place October 19 on Longfellow Avenue, and the subsequent arrest of a suspect in the case, Mayor Shelley Brindle and Police Chief Christopher Battiloro took time during Tuesday’s town council meeting to address the event.
“I want to thank everyone for their thoughtful outpouring of compassion for our fellow resident and neighbor on Longfellow Avenue who suffered an unthinkable home invasion and sexual assault last Tuesday,” said Mayor Brindle. “As I said last week, this series of events has left all of us very shaken as we try to process how this could have happened to our neighbor in the middle of the afternoon, right in her own home.”
Mayor Brindle said she had recently met with the victim, at which time she conveyed the support of the community. She also expressed gratitude to the Westfield Police Department, in partnership with the Union County Prosecutor’s Office and New Jersey State Police, for making an arrest days after the heinous act was committed.
“Through their extraordinary police work, the Westfield Police Department (WPD) had the suspect under surveillance within 24 hours of the assault, and with the arrest has brought this case one step closer to the justice that the victim deserves,” the mayor remarked.
The suspect, Terrence Rhue, 22, of Plainfield, has been charged with first-degree aggravated sexual assault, first-degree robbery, second-degree burglary, third-degree possession of a weapon for unlawful purposes and fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon in connection with the attack on a female resident.
Chief Battiloro addressed the case Tuesday in front of the public and the governing body, where he commended the efforts of his department. He specifically highlighted the outstanding work of his detectives, in conjunction with other law-enforcement agencies, in identifying a suspect “in a little over 24 hours” and “putting him under surveillance while a case was built, an eventual search warrant was issued and an arrest made.”
He also shared a personal reaction to the events, expressing deep sympathy for the victim and acknowledging the impact on a community shaken by what the chief called “the most despicable crime.”
“I can tell you this, no one in this police department is celebrating the arrest of Terrence J. Rhue. There’s absolutely nothing we can do to fix what happened to our victim. To replace what was so wrongly taken from her. Or to make her feel safe and whole again,” said Chief Battiloro. “Each and every one of us that has been involved in this investigation is grateful to have been assigned a role, to have played a part, and to have done our jobs.”
The chief said the events that took place on October 19, “demonstrates that violent crime can and does exist absolutely everywhere, regardless of geography or demographics, and can occur at any time.”
Chief Battiloro said he does not have answers as to why “this happened in Westfield, or why in that neighborhood, or on that street, or why our victim was targeted,” adding, “We may never have answers.”
He said he also is “very much aware of the extraordinary fear” the recent crime has “created in our community,” noting, “it undoubtedly impacted each and every one of us.”
Chief Battiloro also stood behind decisions he made to withhold information from the public while law enforcement was pursuing the suspect and building a case.
With his detectives and detective supervisors working “tirelessly around the clock,” the chief explained, “immediate and critical decisions had to be made,” ultimately impacting the department’s “ability to successfully investigate this matter, and to maintain the confidentiality and integrity of that investigation.”
Moreover, the chief said he fully stands behind the decision to lift the “shelter in place order” at two area schools after it was determined “with certainty” the suspect had fled the area, and was no longer in Westfield and did not present a threat to residents. The chief explained his decision was informed after a “thorough search of the crime scene was conducted,” involving police officers, a county police dog and a WPD drone.
The chief also defended his decision to withhold certain information regarding the case. This information was “deemed absolutely essential for us to withhold,” he explained, as its disclosure to the public could have interfered with investigators’ ability to “quickly, properly and with certainty, identify our suspect,” said Chief Battiloro. If that information was made public, the chief said, it could have “negatively” and “irrevocably” impacted the investigation.
During the end of his remarks, the chief emphasized Friday’s arrest is not a time for celebration, but rather “a time for us to come together as a community” and “to look out for and love one another.”
Standing before those in attendance, Chief Battiloro asked the public for its “trust, faith and confidence” in the police department.
“I cannot always promise arrests in these types of situations, but I can promise you — you will always get our absolute best,” said Chief Battiloro. “As chief of police, it’s my job to deliver that to you. And once again, our officers did not fail you.”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Gerald Robinson of Tice Place spoke about the stalled negotiations between the town and the Westfield Senior Citizens Housing Corporation (WSCHC). Currently, the town and the WSCHC “are in litigation stemming from WSCHC’s desire to build 31 additional units and its request for a new land lease which led to a dispute about funds owed to the town,” as previously reported by The Westfield Leader.
Mr. Robinson, a longtime Westfield resident, said he has been involved with the WSCHC for the last eight years.
“I’m here tonight to respond to Mayor Brindle’s attack on Westfield Senior Citizens Housing, with the accusations that the organization owes the town rent and that it has not paid,” said Mr. Robinson.
“From the start of Westfield Senior negotiations, on a new lease with the town, well over three years ago, Westfield leaders have made it clear they have only one priority: money,” remarked Mr. Robinson. “The town’s intentions and sarcastic comments have been made clear behind closed doors in these negotiations, and now publicly. After seeking to tarnish Westfield Seniors’ reputation, the town is now taking more drastic action by threatening to terminate Westfield Seniors’ lease right at Christmastime.”
Mr. Robinson also accused the town of creating “additional uncertainty for seniors.”
In response to Mr. Robinson’s comments, Mayor Brindle said, “this isn’t something we want to litigate publicly, nor do we have any intention to. It wasn’t until Senior Housing took out a full-page advertisement with all kinds of claims, that the town felt compelled to respond.”
In separate council business, Councilman Michael Dardia, chair of the Public Safety, Transportation and Parking Committee, announced that a crossing guard will be reinstated at the intersection of Sycamore Street and Central Avenue effective Monday, November 1, and will remain there for the entirety of the remaining school year.
The plan to provide coverage for the intersection, while the town is experiencing a shortage of crossing guards, calls for the morning shift of the crossing guard at Dorian Road and Trinity Place to be shortened and for that person to make their way to the intersection at Sycamore and Central, where the guard will remain for the rest of the morning hours.
As per the plan announced Tuesday by Councilman Dardia, the guard at Dorian Road and Trinity Place would be at their post from 7 to 7:40 a.m. before driving five minutes to the post at Sycamore Street and Central Avenue, where the guard will stand duty from 7:45 to 8:45 a.m.
The guard will then return to Sycamore and Central in the afternoon, from 2:45 to 3:35 p.m., and not Dorian and Trinity. The afternoon posting at Dorian and Trinity is being eliminated, according to Councilman Dardia.
“Later in the day, we looked at the afternoon shift and decided it would make sense to eliminate that afternoon shift at Dorian and Trinity and move that guard exclusively to the Sycamore and Central location,” said Councilman Dardia.
The councilman said the crossing-guard change is a temporary one, stating that it will be in effect for the remainder of the school year and that the town intends to hire a third party to come in and conduct a full assessment of all the guard posts throughout the town. The anticipated timetable given by the councilman as to when the assessment would take place is the spring.
“We do expect a third party will be hired to do a full assessment of all the guard posts throughout the town. To see which makes sense, to make suggestions around safe walking routes throughout town,” said Councilman Dardia. “We hope to put those recommendations into place at the start of the next school year.”
Councilman Dardia said the decision was a byproduct of community engagement and transparency.
Councilman David Contract, the architect of the plan, followed his council colleague’s comments.