PASSAIC — The Passaic County prosecutor said the police shooting of an unarmed city woman “appears to be justified” after she used her car to ram police vehicles and strike an officer during a low-speed chase.
Michele M. Moleti, 34, who was hit by six of the estimated 20 bullets that police fired into her mother’s 1999 Nissan Altima, remained under armed guard Thursday at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson. Her condition was listed as “guarded,” less dire than “serious,” police said.
It was unclear Thursday precisely why Moleti, a former Clifton High School softball star who has had recent run-ins with the law, led police on a slow pursuit through Clifton and into Passaic. That pursuit ended in what was the third shooting involving Clifton police this year.
Residents of the neighborhood near Clifton’s Weasel Brook Park said that they had noticed an unfamiliar car parked in front a fire hydrant on Clinton Avenue as early as 4 p.m. Wednesday. Shortly after 9:20 p.m., Clifton police responded to a report of a suspicious vehicle parked in front of 204 Clinton Ave.
Two patrol cars approached and boxed in the car with Moleti in it. Officers got out and saw Moleti asleep at the wheel, said Passaic County Prosecutor James Avigliano in a news conference Thursday. The officers attempted to wake her. When she did not respond, they tried opening her door with a Slim Jim, a police-issued lock-picking device.
Moleti stirred and locked the door. The officers tried to unlock the door again, but Moleti pushed the button down again.
At some point, she started her car and tried to pull out, smacking the patrol cars behind and in front of her. Police said one of the officers was hit as she was trying to get out. Neighbors on Clinton Avenue said they watched Moleti barely miss hitting an officer as she struck the car and tried to drive off.
The police jumped in their cruisers and started to follow her. One pulled in front of Moleti after she turned on Westervelt Avenue, but she kept driving. They proceeded to make two circuits around a wedge-shaped block bounded by Clinton, Westervelt and De Mott avenues.
“It was like Keystone Kops,” said Michael David, a 64-year-old resident, who ran outside after hearing the commotion on his quiet street.
Meanwhile, neighbors said, a firetruck and an off-duty probation officer living on Clinton Avenue joined the chase. They sped after Moleti after she took off on De Mott Avenue.
The chase continued through local roads and then onto the southbound lanes of Route 21, Avigliano said. Moleti exited in Passaic, where a pair of Clifton narcotics detectives stationed themselves to join the pursuit. The officers notified Passaic police and the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department, who left the pursuit in Clifton’s hands, Clifton police Capt. Robert Rowan said.
Police used their vehicles to box Moleti in at the intersection of Gregory and Main avenues.
The officers stepped out of their cars and approached Moleti. But she allegedly rammed one of the vehicles and hit one of the narcotics detectives. The officers drew their service weapons and fired into the car. Avigliano said as many as 20 shots were fired at Moleti.
Six bullets pierced her neck, chest and arm. But she did not stop. Police followed her as she drove away. She drove to Lafayette Avenue, turned into a driveway and came to a stop. Police wrestled her out of the vehicle.
Twenty minutes after it started, the chase ended about one block away from the apartment on Boulevard that Moleti shares with her mother.
“I’m just as baffled as everybody else right now that this happened, and I haven’t gotten any answers from the police yet,” her mother, Rose Moleti, told WABC-TV in New York.
Avigliano, whose office is leading the investigation of the shooting, would not release the names of the four Clifton police officers involved. They remain on duty, said Chief Robert Ferreri. Detective Capt. Robert Rowan said all four men are veterans of the force. Two of the officers were treated and released from St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center on Wednesday night, one for a hand injury and one for a leg injury, authorities said.
Avigliano would not comment when asked if Moleti was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the pursuit.
He said at minimum, she’ll be charged with eluding police, attempt to commit aggravated assault or homicide and resisting arrest.
“Police cannot use deadly force unless their life is in danger,” Avigliano said.
The prosecutor said his shooting unit will investigate to determine whether police acted justifiably. In June, Clifton police shot Garfield resident John Kubasta six times after he drove away from a traffic stop and led police on a chase. In April, police shot Aleksander Malek after he wielded a machete and a pipe. Both men survived the shootings.
Terence Persaud, an emergency medical technician who lives at the Lafayette Avenue home where Moleti stopped, said he awoke to find his yard full of uniformed and plainclothes police officers. He saw Moleti on the ground, her hair shaking wildly as police circled her.
“She was yelling and screaming with the cops,” said Persaud, 40. “They were trying to calm her down.”
His neighbors described hearing the pops of gunfire shortly before Moleti’s car and the police behind her descended on the avenue. On Thursday afternoon, evidence of the struggle remained, with shattered glass lying in Persaud’s driveway. Surgeon’s gloves and a dozen alcohol packets littered Lafayette Avenue.
Jeffrey Meano, who said he and Moleti dated for seven years, said family tragedies have haunted her. Her father, Ronald, died during her junior year of high school. Her brother, Mark, died last year at age 35. Illnesses took other family members and her own dreams of becoming a teacher were frequently frustrated.
“She wasn’t a dangerous person. She was a person who was depressed,” Meano said. “Every time she turned around, she was getting hit.”
Moleti was once a standout high school softball player. Meano said she went to Rutgers on an athletic scholarship before transferring to Montclair State. Recently, she found herself in trouble with police, getting arrested three times in a year and a half.
Edgewater police arrested her in June 2006 on charges of cocaine possession. In December of last year, Cliffside Park police charged her with theft after she was allegedly caught on surveillance video stealing $280 in cash from The Club House Cafe, where she worked as a bartender, Capt. Michael Russo said.
Earlier this year, Nutley police arrested her for making a terroristic threat, a charge that was later downgraded to harassment, said Paul Loriquet, spokesman for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.
All three cases are pending.
“She was no crazy person, no convict,” Meano said. “Just a normal kid who has had some bad turns and was in a cloudy place.”
–Staff writers Heather Haddon, Suzanne Travers and the Associated Press, NorthJersey.com