A silver Honda Accord zoomed past exit 150 on the Backyard State Parkway in New Jersey just before 3 a.m. The driver was an off-duty Newark police officer, Louis Santiago. His cousin Albert Guzman was in the passenger seat.
It was the night of Halloween 2021, and Santiago was drunk, according to Essex County prosecutors.
He was staring at a cellphone when his auto allegedly drifted into the shoulder and struck a man who occurred to be walking along the darkened stretch of highway, prosecutors say.
Santiago, 25, originally considered he may perhaps have hit an animal, according to his lawyer, Patrick Toscano Jr. The target, Damian Dymka, 29, was still in the costume that he experienced worn out that night time: a black mask with gold antlers and brown fur masking his shoulders.
Dymka would be pronounced useless at the scene — but not right until much more than two hours afterwards.
In those people two several hours, Santiago drove home with Dymka’s overall body in the back seat and then returned to the crash web site obtaining under no circumstances called 911 or tried to render assist to the gentleman, prosecutors say.
“Put that overall body back again wherever you hit it,” Annette Santiago allegedly told her son when he confirmed up at their household, in accordance to prosecutors.
He’s now experiencing 12 felony fees, which include reckless vehicular murder and endangering an injured sufferer. Guzman and Santiago’s mother ended up also charged with allegedly tampering with evidence and other offenses.
Dymka’s mates and spouse and children, in the meantime, are still reeling in shock and grief. Some are tormented by haunting issues.
What if the officer had right away called 911? Could Damian have been saved?
“We can’t know that due to the fact of one human being who was very egocentric,” explained Miranda Stone, a close close friend who satisfied Dymka when they had been learners at Bergen Neighborhood College or university.
What will make the collection of gatherings so complicated to understand is not just the officer’s actions, his buddies and liked types claimed, but who Dymka was as a person.
He was type and compassionate virtually to a fault, four of them claimed in interviews with NBC News.
He was the a person anyone turned to in instances of crisis. He was the one particular who would drop every little thing to aid you.
“If items have been likely outrageous, I recall just currently being equipped to hug Damian and emotion like it’s likely to be Alright,” said Jess Valdanero, a longtime pal. “He wouldn’t let go right up until he felt like you were Okay.”
It was fitting that he labored as a nurse, spending his days aiding individuals who have been elderly or infirm at a county-operate facility in northern New Jersey.
But by final fall, Dymka was prepared for a improve.
He had made an itch to journey, and his boyfriend felt the identical way. So they hatched a prepare: They would both of those pursue bachelor of science levels in buy to become travel nurses, a occupation that would give them the flexibility to move absent from New Jersey and examine the U.S.
“We wished a fantastic way to journey the state,” said his boyfriend, Rosemberg Ochoa. “Hike national parks. Just roam all-around.”
Dymka was established to commence on the internet courses on Nov. 1 — the working day following the accident — but he never ever logged on that working day. He also did not demonstrate up for function at the Preakness Healthcare Center in Wayne, which was really uncommon.
His cherished ones would study later in the working day that Dymka was the sufferer of a deadly website traffic incident. Months would go ahead of they identified out the whole horror of what transpired in those early morning several hours.
Santiago worked a daytime change on Oct. 31, 2021.
The son of a Newark law enforcement lieutenant, he joined the pressure in 2019 and promptly made a name for himself. He received special commendations for aiding in two main drug arrests in 2020.
Following do the job that Sunday, Santiago drove to a bar in his hometown of Bloomfield to enjoy the Dallas Cowboys game, reported Toscano, his law firm.
Santiago experienced a number of beverages but not adequate to impair his driving, Toscano stated. The off-responsibility officer left with Guzman just after past simply call and headed to a friend’s house.
It’s rare for persons to be walking at any time alongside the Yard State Parkway, a significant highway that operates the length of New Jersey, but especially so in the predawn hours. How Dymka ended up there remains a secret to his loved kinds.
After allegedly striking Dymka, Santiago drove off but returned to the scene a number of occasions prior to he loaded the man’s body into his car or truck, prosecutors mentioned.
With Guzman in the passenger seat and Dymka’s physique in the back again, Santiago then drove to the property he shares with his dad and mom, prosecutors said.
According to an affidavit of probable trigger signed by a point out trooper, Guzman educated Santiago’s mom that her son had struck a gentleman even though driving drunk and the physique was in the Honda.
She went to talk with Santiago and then walked over to the vehicle to see the overall body, the affidavit claims.
Which is when she allegedly instructed him to return the useless guy to the crash scene, the affidavit suggests. Santiago’s father known as 911 though prosecutors did not element when this occurred.
Santiago received offended after acquiring out that his father had contacted law enforcement, according to the affidavit, and talked about altering his garments.
“My f—— shirt has blood on it,” Santiago mentioned, according to the law enforcement affidavit.
Prior to he took off, his mother handed him a towel so he could clean the blood off himself, the affidavit states.
Santiago arrived again at the incident web-site just before New Jersey Condition troopers confirmed up.
The troopers found Santiago standing beside his auto and Dymka’s entire body in the back seat, in accordance to the affidavit. Santiago explained what took place and admitted to hitting the sufferer with his auto, law enforcement claimed in the affidavit filed in Bloomfield Municipal Court.
He appeared intoxicated and was taken for blood screening, the affidavit claims. But Santiago, in spite of showing drunk and having admitted to going a dead entire body, was not arrested at the scene. He was not charged until a lot more than 3 weeks later on.
Policing professionals reported it was curious that the troopers did not give Santiago a breathalyzer check on the scene. Had they done so, and experienced Santiago unsuccessful, he may have been arrested on the place.
“If they have no very good explanation, like the breathalyzer did not do the job, or they didn’t have it for no matter what motive, then the only clarification that comes to my mind is that they engaged in what we refer to as ‘professional courtesy,’” stated Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at the John Jay Faculty of Criminal Justice in New York Metropolis.
She described that as “wrong, unethical and rather probably in immediate violation of their departmental SOPs,” or regular running strategies.
A New Jersey Condition Police spokesman referred thoughts to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Business office. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office environment, Katherine Carter, mentioned it was a condition police issue.
Toscano, Santiago’s law firm, stated the narrative launched by prosecutors misconstrues Santiago’s actions that day.
“This is not a address-up. There was no attempted go over-up,” Toscano explained. “It was a awful, awful incident, but there was not a person iota of protect-up right here at all.”
Immediately after realizing he experienced hit a individual, the off-duty officer referred to as his father from the scene, Toscano informed NBC News, and the elder Santiago immediately referred to as New Jersey Condition Law enforcement.
Santiago set the target in the back seat with the intention of driving him to the closest clinic, Toscano explained. But then he recognized that the gentleman was dead, Toscano said.
Santiago drove property with the physique not to go over up the crime, Toscano reported, but to discuss with his father about what to do up coming. The law firm could not say why Santiago didn’t just call his father once again.
“His phrases to me have been, ‘I panicked. I did not know what to do,’” Toscano explained.
Santiago’s father had by now left for the incident scene by the time the son returned home, Toscano claimed. The father experienced contacted his son’s boss, Newark Main of Police Lee Douglas, who also confirmed up at the crash internet site, Toscano stated.
Dymka, who was born in Poland and grew up in Garfield, N.J., was pronounced useless at the scene at 5:27 a.m., around two and a half hrs just after he was hit. The trigger of loss of life was blunt pressure trauma, according to the spokeswoman for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Business office.
No real time of demise was produced, and the state medical examiner’s workplace did not respond to requests for comment.
Louis Santiago was indicted on 12 felony offenses: reckless vehicular homicide, strict legal responsibility vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of a deadly crash, endangering an hurt target, desecrating/relocating human continues to be, conspiracy to desecrate human remains, hindering one’s have apprehension, conspiracy to hinder prosecution, tampering with actual physical evidence, obstructing the administration of regulation and two counts of formal misconduct.
He was also hit with 9 non-indictable offenses, which include DWI and unlawful window tinting, according to the prosecutor’s office.
He has pleaded not guilty. His blood liquor outcomes have not been unveiled.
The Newark Law enforcement Division suspended Santiago, his attorney claimed. A division spokesperson declined to comment.
Toscano, a previous first assistant prosecutor in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Business office, explained he was shocked by the selection of expenses leveled towards his shopper.
“Maybe there was possible lead to to cost two or 3 offenses, but to cost a law enforcement officer with 12 or 13 was blatant and intentional overkill,” Toscano reported.
Toscano extra that Dymka’s loss of life is weighing heavily on the youthful police officer and the relaxation of his family.
“These are excellent persons,” Toscano stated, right before referring exclusively to Santiago. “He speaks about the target all the time. He speaks about the sufferer extra than the expenses versus him.”
Annette Santiago, 53, was charged with conspiracy to desecrate human remains, hindering apprehension, and conspiracy to hinder apprehension and tamper with physical evidence. She pleaded not guilty.
Her lawyer, Vincent Scoca, declined to comment.
Guzman, 25, was charged with the same offenses. He pleaded not responsible, and his law firm, Dennis Carletta, did not answer to requests for remark.
Dymka experienced put in a lot of the night time at a Halloween party at Club Feathers in River Edge, New Jersey’s oldest gay nightclub, where by he was a regular.
“We all beloved him,” stated operator Paul Binetti. “He was often amusing and bubbly and energetic. If you needed a chuckle, you’d go to him.”
Binetti reported Dymka confirmed up with a group of pals in costume all over 9 p.m. Over the subsequent number of hours, he drank and danced within but used a great deal of the evening chatting with people on the wooden wall outdoors the club, Binetti claimed.
Dymka was buzzed but not squandered when he left all over 1 a.m., Binetti said. He hopped into an Uber with a pal but unintentionally left his cellular phone powering.
“He gave everybody a hug and a kiss like he did each individual night time, and obtained in his Uber,” Binetti claimed. “That was the past time we saw him.”
Binetti mentioned he was stunned and horrified when he uncovered out late the next working day that Dymka experienced been killed.
“Accidents happen. That was not an accident what he did later on,” Binetti claimed, referring to Louis Santiago.
“Whatever this cop did, whoever was included with him, desires to spend for their steps.”
Dymka’s moms and dads ended up continue to too grief-stricken to converse about the tragedy, according to Ochoa, his boyfriend.
Ochoa claimed Dymka went to the friend’s residence in Bloomfield, but the friend, who was drinking that evening, was not distinct on the situation of Dymka leaving or how he finished up strolling along the Backyard Condition Parkway at 3 a.m.
“I just have no notion,” he stated.
For Ochoa, it has been difficult to make sense of what happened to his boyfriend — a talented artist, a cat lover, and over all a caring soul.
“I really don’t realize how this could transpire to any individual, and I exclusively never fully grasp how it could occur to any person like Damian,” Ochoa mentioned.
“He would run into a constructing on hearth if there was somebody he beloved in it. He was just that particular person.”