A Newark police officer was charged with reckless vehicular homicide, prosecutors said on Wednesday, accusing the man of hitting a pedestrian with his personal car and briefly taking the body home, where he discussed with his mother what to do with it.
The officer, Louis Santiago of the Newark Police Department, was off duty when his Honda Accord drifted into the northbound shoulder of the Garden State Parkway around 3 a.m. on Nov. 1, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office said in a news release issued on Wednesday. His car struck Damian Z. Dymka, 29, a nurse from Bergen County.
Neither Mr. Santiago nor the passenger in his car, Albert Guzman, both 25, called 911 or rendered aid to Mr. Dymka, the prosecutor’s office said. Instead, Mr. Santiago drove away and returned to the scene multiple times before loading the victim into the Honda and driving to the home he shared with his parents in Bloomfield, N.J. The two men then discussed what to do with the body with Mr. Santiago’s mother, Annette Santiago, 53, according to prosecutors.
“There is an allegation that he went to his house and talked to his mother, but we cannot comment on that because we have seen no evidence of that to date,” a lawyer for Mr. Santiago, Patrick P. Toscano Jr., said in an interview on Thursday.
The prosecutor’s office said Mr. Santiago eventually returned to the scene. Mr. Santiago’s father, Lt. Luis Santiago of the Newark Police Department, called 911 at some point to report that his son had been in an accident.
When the state police arrived, they found Mr. Dymka’s body in the Honda’s back seat. He was pronounced dead at the scene around 4 a.m., said Katherine Carter, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office, adding that he had died of blunt force trauma.
Mr. Santiago was charged on Nov. 18, surrendered to the State Police on Tuesday and was arraigned the next day, according to Mr. Toscano. He said that Mr. Santiago had cooperated with the State Police.
In addition to vehicular homicide, Mr. Santiago faces charges including leaving the scene of a deadly accident, endangering an injured victim and two counts of official misconduct.
“We believe he has been tremendously overcharged here,” Mr. Toscano said. “There is maybe probable cause for two or three charges, certainly not 12 or 13.”
The Newark Police Department suspended Mr. Santiago, his lawyer said.
Mr. Toscano said that, in the early hours of Nov. 1, Mr. Santiago had recently finished a shift and was driving to a friend’s home. Mr. Toscano said Mr. Dymka had been walking against traffic in a werewolf costume, adding that it was not clear why he was walking along the highway.
That day, the State Police took a blood sample from Mr. Santiago and released him, Mr. Toscano said, adding that he had not seen any evidence that his client had been drinking before the crash.
The Newark Police Department on Thursday referred questions to the prosecutor’s office, which directed further questions to the State Police. A spokesman for the State Police did not immediately respond to questions about what took place in the weeks after Mr. Dymka died and before charges were filed.
Mr. Guzman and Ms. Santiago were also arrested, charged and released on conditions, the prosecutor’s office said.
They each face charges including hindering apprehension and conspiracy to desecrate human remains and tamper with physical evidence.
Mr. Guzman’s lawyer, Dennis Carletta, did not respond to emails or phone calls on Thursday. Mr. Santiago’s mother does not yet have a lawyer, Mr. Toscano said.
Ms. Carter, the spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office, said that Mr. Santiago’s father had not been charged and that, as of Thursday, “there’s not a basis” to file charges against him.
Mr. Dymka was a nursing supervisor at the Preakness Healthcare Center in Wayne, N.J., according to the center’s website. A GoFundMe page organized after his death said that he had been a nurse before and during the coronavirus pandemic.