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News from Monmouth County, New Jersey

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    Two New Jersey commercial fishermen are presumed lost at sea after their boat went missing early Thursday about 40 miles off the coast of New Jersey, according to a family member.

    Two New Jersey commercial fishermen are presumed lost at sea after their boat went missing early Thursday about 40 miles off the coast of New Jersey, according to a family member.

    The Coast Guard has been searching for the Queen Ann's Revenge and the two men - 30-year-old Paul Matos, of Bayville, and his crew member, Dennis Smalling - after a distress call was sent at 1:20 a.m. on Thursday reporting that the 46-foot vessel was taking on water.

    "Unfortunately my brother and Dennis are presumed lost at sea," Matos' sister, Milene Oliveira, wrote on Facebook. "Again thank you everyone, your words of comfort mean everything to us."

    paul-matos-navy.jpgPaul Matos, 30, in his U.S. Navy photo. 

    The Coast Guard said the search is ongoing. Rescuers tracked a signal from the vessel's emergency beacon, but there were no signs of the boat near where the signal was emanating. 

    "They went to where the signal is being emitted, but there is no visual of it," Coast Guard Petty Officer Seth Johnson said Friday.

    The Coast Guard sent helicopters, planes and ships for the search.

    The two men had set out on a multi-day fishing trip on the 46-foot boat late Monday night from what's locally known as "the clam dock" in Point Pleasant.

    Oliveira, of Tinton Falls, told NJ Advance Media on Thursday that family and friends had been holding out hope for their safe return, but that the hope had begun to fade. After meeting with Coast Guard officials on Friday morning, she shared the sad update on Facebook.

    Matos' uncle was among the commercial fishermen who ventured the 40 miles from the Manasquan Inlet on Thursday to assist the Coast Guard in the search. As he stood on his boat Friday in the marina, he expressed anguish at Matos' disappearance.

    "As long as they don't show up, we always have hope," said the uncle, who only identified himself as Fernando before being overcome with emotion. "Hope is the last thing to die. If hope dies, we might as well stay home."

    Matos' girlfriend, Amy Romano, said that before the men headed out, she had been worried about the weather during the week, which called for high winds and waves. Matos and Romano have a 5-month-old daughter.

    Desperate search continues 40 miles off coast as families of fishermen hold on to hopePictured left, Paul Matos, 30, his girlfriend, Amy Romano, and their daughter. (Family photo) 

    Matos had purchased the boat in October and was trying to forge a new business as a commercial fisherman. He had previously served in the U.S. Navy.

    Fernando said Matos tried to dodge the bad weather, but it was likely too much for the boat.

    "He knew the weather was coming, he tried to get out of it, but it was a little bit too late," Fernando said. "A lot too late."

    In her Facebook post, Oliveira wrote, "Our family wants to thank everyone who reached out to us, who prayed for my brother Paul and his crew member Dennis. We also want to thank the Coast Guard for everything."

    Spencer Kent may be reached at skent@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerMKent. Find the Find NJ.com on Facebook.

    Have information about this story or something else we should be covering? Tell us. nj.com/tips


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    The brackets are now officially out for the state playoffs and here are 15 takeaways from the seeding meeting.


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    Gov. Phil Murphy is pushing a plan he says could help New Jerseyans in the wake of the federal tax law that President Donald Trump signed into law.

    Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday continued pushing a plan he says could help New Jerseyans make up at least some of the money they're set to lose under the federal tax law President Donald Trump recently signed into law.

    But the question remains: Will the IRS allow it?

    Murphy appeared at a news conference at Marlboro town hall flanked by five mayors who promise to institute the plan, which would allow New Jersey taxpayers to pay property taxes to charitable funds set up by local governments to skirt the $10,000 cap on state and local taxes that people can deduct under the new federal law. 

    "If we do this right -- and doing it right is important -- working- and middle-class families and seniors could retain most if not all of the deduction and tax benefit they currently enjoy," said Murphy, a Democrat who is less than a month into office.

    Top Democrat fires first public shot at Phil Murphy

    New Jerseyeans -- who pay the nation's highest property taxes -- have long been able to deduct all their state and local taxes.

    But the new law passed by Republican-controlled Congress and signed by Trump, a Republican, caps state and local tax deductions at $10,000. That's nearly half of the $18,000 that the average New Jerseyan used to deduct.

    The plan Murphy is touting -- initially proposed by U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-5th Dist. --  would get around the federal law by allowing local governments in New Jersey to set up charitable "support funds" that residents can give money to in lieu of paying property taxes.

    That money would go toward government services, and taxpayers can write it off as a charitable donation, skirting the cap because the new law does not change deductions for charity. 

    Murphy has spent the last two days championing the plan. On Thursday, he called on the state Legislature to pass a bill cementing it into law. 

    "We think we're on stronger legal footing if we have a state law," Murphy explained Friday.

    But Murphy said local governments can also begin setting up these funds now on their own. 

    He was joined by mayors from Aberdeen, Belmar, Marlboro, Manasquan, and Ocean Township. Mayors from Fair Lawn, Paramus, and Park Ridge have also vowed to launch the proposal, Murphy's office said.

    Murphy added that 33 other states have similar programs. 

    But Murphy and some mayors cautioned that it's unclear whether the Internal Revenue Service will be O.K. with the plan.

    "I can't guarantee you success," Murphy said.

    Marlboro Mayor Jonathan Hornik, a Democrat, echoed that worry.

    "Will this idea work? I don't know. I don't," Hornik said. "But how can we not try? Anybody who's unwilling to try doesn't belong in government."

    The IRS notes on its website that charitable deductions apply only to eligible charities. But the agency declined further comment Friday. 

    Jared Walczak, a senior policy analyst at the conservative-leaning Tax Foundation, told the Associated Press that while the proposal is creative, it's unlikely the IRS will sign off.

    "IRS and Treasury officials weren't born yesterday," Walczak said. "They will see right through these proposals, recognizing the contributions for what they are: payment of taxes."

    State Sen. Joe Pennachio, R-Morris, criticized Murphy's plan Friday, calling it a "theme" that "provides false hope rather than real solutions."

    "We should focus on real solutions that actually lower the cost of government," Pennachio said.

    Murphy admitted Friday that the proposal "will not solve New Jersey's long-festering property-tax crisis."

    "That is not going to happen overnight," the governor added. "But ... while we work toward those long-term solutions, this is something we can do now."

    NJ Advance Media staff writer Samantha Marcus and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

    Brent Johnson may be reached at bjohnson@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @johnsb01. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.


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    Both men were longtime fishermen who felt at home at sea, their families said.

    In the year before he went missing in choppy waters 40 miles off the coast of Barnegat, Paul Alexandre Matos bought a house, had a daughter and got licensed to commercially fish on his own boat. 

    He had been working as a fisherman for other people, said his girlfriend, Amy Romano, but he decided last summer to strike out on his own. 

    "I think what sparked him is learning he's going to have a child," Romano told NJ Advance Media. "On other fishing boats, he can't make his own hours, and they're away for a week to two weeks at a time."

    Matos, 30, was away for just over two days when he and his crew member sent out a distress call early Thursday to the U.S. Coast Guard, concerned their 46-foot wooden fishing vessel was taking on water. The pair, who had set out Monday night from Point Pleasant, were probably fishing for fluke or porgies, two fishermen who knew them told NJ Advance Media. 

    After scouring 4,441 square miles of ocean by sea and air, the Coast Guard called off the search for the Queen Ann's Revenge on Friday evening without locating the boat or the people aboard. 

    The families of Matos and crew member Dennis Smalling said Saturday that although they had been told there was little chance the men were alive, they still desperately wanted closure and were considering raising money to send a diver in search of the boat. 

    When the distress call came from the Queen Ann's Revenge, weather reports indicated the vessel was being battered by 10-foot seas and 25 mph winds.

    Romano is awaiting word on the fate of Matos with their 5-month-old daughter in the Berkeley Township home Matos had bought last March and begun to renovate. Matos had been painting, installing windows and repairing the floors, Romano said. 

    coast-guard-searches-for-fishing-boat-in-distress-off-jersey-shore-ef66b7ce17046ef6.jpgA photo of the Queen Ann's Revenge, a 46-foot fishing boat that went missing early Thursday about 40 miles off the Jersey Shore.

    Matos and Romano hit it off immediately upon meeting at the Shore in the summer of 2015, Romano said, and they soon began living together in Toms River. When Romano became pregnant, Matos told her he wanted to buy a home for their daughter to grow up in. 

    A U.S. Navy veteran who had served in Iraq, Matos had learned to fish from his father and uncle when he moved to the United States from Portugal at age 12, according to Romano. As an adult, Matos sometimes worked on his uncle's commercial fishing boat, but he bought his own vessel, the Queen Ann's Revenge, last summer and took it out to sea for the first time in November. 

    "He was used to working on 95- to 100-foot boats," Romano said. "I think a lot of us thought, too, maybe that's what went wrong -- he was treating this boat like it was a bigger boat and was pushing it a little too far." 

    Romano is now raising their daughter, Stella, without the man she said she had planned to marry. She said it hurts her to think Stella is too young to remember her dad. 

    "I have so many photo albums I was looking through today," Romano said Saturday. "I'm just going to have to show her these memories." 

    'Maybe he'll come home'

    Alice Vannote, Smalling's mother, on Saturday said she was still trying to process that the 34-year-old son who had lived with her in Point Pleasant is gone. 

    "It's maybe unnatural to a lot of people, but the hope that maybe they'll still be found alive is there," Vannote said. "The thought of them being forever at sea is just too much to bear."

    Smalling had always loved fishing, and he worked on several scallop boats, his mom said. He had only worked on Matos' boat for two months and had felt nervous about the condition of the vessel, which Coast Guard records show was built in 1957. 

    He hesitated to go on the fishing trip that ultimately caused him to go missing, Vannote said, but he was loyal to Matos and did not want to let him down. 

    "He poked his head in and told me he loved me, and as always, I said, 'Have a safe trip,'" Vannote recalled. "And then he was gone." 

    Smalling, who previously repaired antique cars, left behind a 12-year-old daughter who is still waiting for her dad to come home, Vannote said. Both of them miss the man they said would have risked his life for someone he did not even know. 

    "There's no closure," Vannote said. "I'll be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life and praying that maybe he'll come home."

    Marisa Iati may be reached at miati@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Iati or on Facebook here. Find NJ.com on Facebook

    Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips


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    A Fairview town leader led an unsuccessful fight to obtain a Civil War pension for Simon Douglas and failed because Douglas, like so many others, was never officially mustered.

     
    douglas.jpgAn undated newspaper clipping from Fairview author Michael Orecchio's collection shows former slave Simon Douglas, who died in 1950.

    By Silvio Laccetti

    Important historical material is oftentimes found in unlikely ways. Such was the case when I accidentally discovered information about Simon Douglas (1843-1950).

    Douglas was once a slave in Fairfield County, South Carolina, who, after the Civil War, settled in my hometown of Fairview, New Jersey.

    He lived to be the last Civil War soldier in the state.

    It all began with my being in the wrong place at the right time. Some time ago, I received a packet curiously displaying many 50-year-old stamps, addressed to Michael Orecchio, the deceased previous owner of my house -- where I have lived for decades. When I opened it, I realized what a treasure had fallen into my hands.

    The contents had recently been sent by University of Maine Professor Jay Hoar, who had dedicated decades of his life to researching various categories of Civil War veterans. His books included research on the last Union and Confederate soldiers of the Civil War, the nurses who worked during the conflict and the child soldiers who served.

    His packet contained a detailed biography and photographs of Douglas. The main 20th-century source of this information was a lost short history of Fairview written by Orecchio.

    Town historian Patt Mazzeo, coincidentally, had been researching Douglas for some time. At last, we had the whole story.

    Douglas came to life in the elegant prose of Professor Hoar and in that of the town elders from my childhood. Douglas' saga offers lessons for today and for many tomorrows to come.

    In his early 20s, Douglas, like many other slaves in the South, went to the front lines as a servant to his master (or his master's son). When the opportunity arose, such men crossed over to the Union lines in an act of self-emancipation.

    Professor Hoar figures that Douglas became free by 1864 and moved north with Sherman's army as a forager and a blacksmith. In 1866, Douglas settled in what was to become Fairview. It seems he liked what he found.

    Douglas married a local woman, had a son and daughter, and spent the rest of his 84 years in town. He ran his own blacksmithing business into his 90s.

    We learn more about Douglas' life and status in Fairview from a local history written in 1987 by  Orecchio, who had a long friendship with the Douglas family.

    Hoar relied on Orecchio's writings, and his compilations of letters from other townsfolk concerning Douglas, in portraying Douglas as a very modest man, unassuming, but with a strong moral sense of right and wrong. He loved to talk about horses, but rarely talked about his early life. He loved children, was very attached to his family and was a model father to his two children.

    Two events showed the great love and affection that the community held for Douglas. In his last decade of life, he was largely unemployed, sick and nearly blind, and way behind on his taxes. Yet, he and his family stood proud and never sought any public assistance, such as there might have been in 1949. So in that year, a county court judgment seized his homestead.

    Hearing the news, the town was aghast. Orecchio  organized a special fund, and in short order, the total taxes were collected from local townsfolk eager to help. The property title was restored to Douglas.

    In another matter, a town leader led an unsuccessful fight to obtain a Civil War pension for the old soldier. He failed in his effort because Douglas, like so many others, was not officially mustered.

    Hence, officially, the oldest Civil War veteran of New Jersey is George Ashby, not Simon Douglas, who actually never described himself as a vet, just a soldier. (Sgt. Ashby, 1844-1946, was also an African-American soldier and, according to mycommunitysource.com, a park is named in his honor in Monmouth County.)

    In concluding his work about Douglas and his family, Orecchio states: "My family and this community where I live are richer because the Douglases lived among us."

    The history of Simon Douglas in Fairview can inspire all of us to access the "angels of our better nature," as Abraham Lincoln adjured.

    This year, Fairview will honor the memory of its iconic citizen in a series of ceremonies. Such is the power of history to motivate, transform, commemorate and teach.

    But Douglas' story is not the only one to be found in the prolific and encyclopedic work of Professor Hoar. How many iconic figures of all ethnic and racial groups are to be rediscovered in his pages? How many documentary -- or even movie -- plots to be created? My discovery was serendipitous. But readers now know where to find material of interest. Just come to the Fairview library!

    Silvio Laccetti is a retired professor of history at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken and a long-time Fairview resident. His self-named foundation donated several of Dr. Hoar's books to the Fairview library. For more info contact him at slaccett@stevens.edu.


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    Homeless pets throughout New Jersey await adoption.

    This information on dog safety was compiled by members of the Dog Bite Prevention Coalition -- the U.S. Postal Service, American Veterinary Medical Association, American Humane Society, Insurance Information Institute and State Farm Insurance.

    If a carrier delivers mail or packages to your front door, place your dog into a separate room and close the door before opening the front door. Parents should also remind their children not to take mail directly from letter carriers in the presence of the family pet as the dog may see handing mail to a child as a threatening gesture.

    People often assume that a dog with a wagging tail is a friendly dog, but this is far from the truth. Dogs wag their tails for numerous reasons, including when they're feeling aggressive. A tail that is held high and moves stiffly is a sign that the dog is feeling dominant, aggressive, or angry.

    Dogs, even ones you know have good days and bad days. You should never pet a dog without asking the owner first and especially if it is through a window or fence. For a dog, this makes them feel like you are intruding on their space and could result in the dog biting you.

    ALL DOGS are capable of biting. There's no one breed or type of dog that's more likely to bite than others. Biting has more to do with circumstances, behavior, and training.

    Dogs have a language that allows them to communicate their emotional state and their intentions to others around them. Although dogs do use sounds and signals, much of the information that they send is through their body language, specifically their facial expressions and body postures. You can tell how a dog is feeling (sad, tired, happy, angry, scared) by looking at the position of a dogs' ears, mouth, eyes, and tail.

    Dogs are social animals who crave human companionship. That's why they thrive and behave better when living indoors with their pack -- their human family members. Dogs that are tied up or chained outside are frustrated and can become aggressive because they are unhappy. They can also become very afraid because when they are tied or chained up, they can't escape from things that scare them.

    Greg Hatala may be reached at ghatala@starledger.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregHatala. Find Greg Hatala on Facebook.


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    Where were the landing spots after upsets within the ranks?


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    See which underdogs could make a run in the state tournament.


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    New Jersey rainfall totals from the big weekend storm, with county by county numbers.


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    Ocean County is becoming a hotbed of resistance to Gov. Phil Murphy's drive to legalize recreational marijuana Watch video

    The Toms River Township Council is poised to ban the sale or cultivation of recreational marijuana, joining other municipal and county governments that have taken counter-measures in the face of Gov. Phil Murphy's push to legalize casual weed use in New Jersey.


    The council is scheduled for a public hearing at its 6 p.m. meeting Tuesday at Town Hall, which could be followed by a vote on second reading of an ordinance that would, "establish prohibitions on the sale, dispensation, and cultivation of marijuana in the Township of Toms River."

    The measure was approved 6-0 with one abstention when introduced on first reading Jan. 23.

    The sponsor of the measure, Council President George Wittmann, said it was not an attempt to ban possession or use of marijuana, a prohibition Toms River would not have the authority to impose if a legalization bill were approved by the legislature and signed by the state's new Democratic governor, who has pledged to do just that.

    Rather, Wittmann said, the ordinance is an effort to minimize marijuana's availability in the township, where the year-round population of more than 91,000 triples during summer and local police already have their hands full dealing with other tourist-related excesses.

    "It's intended to keep you from opening a shop," said Wittmann.

    Whittann, a Republican, said the ordinance had been drafted by the assistant township attorney, Anthony Merlino, to avoid any conflict with existing or state law, including the possible legalization of marijuana for recreational use. He said it was modeled after similar measures adopted by Point Pleasant Beach and Berkeley Township, other Ocean County shore towns with similar concerns. 

    Ocean County is becoming a hotbed of resistance to legalization of recreational marijuana. Last week, the Board of Freeholders approved a non-binding resolution opposing the legalization, after their Monmouth County counterparts approved a similar measure in January.

    Asbury Park is one shore town to embrace recreational marijuana sales, joining Jersey City in declaring themselves open for pot business if legalization occurs.

    On Feb. 21, the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office and county Health Department will co-sponsor a conference on legalization at Eagle Ridge Country Club in Lakewood.

    Toms River Councilman Maurice Hill, a dentist and retired rear admiral in the Navy Reserves, said he planned to attend the conference along with Councilwoman Laurie Huryk, who is a nurse and the one council member who abstained from last month's vote.

    Hill, a Republican, voted in favor of the ordinance, but he said he would suggest tabling it Tuesday night until after the conference. Huryk, a Democrat, did not respond to a request for comment.

    Hill made clear that he does not oppose medical marijuana, and that his opposition to its recreational use is also largely health-related.

    "You're introducing a foreign substance into your lungs," said Hill, who said he also frowns on cigarette smoking.

    The proposed Toms River ban on pot sales cuts across local party lines, and Huryk's two fellow Democrats voted with their four Republican colleagues to introduce the ordinance in January.

    A spokesman for Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato said his office was concerned with precisely how being under the influence of marijuana would be defined.

    "The prosecutor, his position has always been one of concern: if it was legalized, what measurement would be used for people who are operating a vehicle, especially a commercial vehicle, buses, trucks, whatever," said the spokesman, Al Della Fave. "How are we going to measure it?"

    Likewise for the legalization proposal on the state level. Some Democratic lawmakers have resisted the governor's legalization drive, which Murphy and fellow proponents say would generate tax revenues, reduce police and court costs, and eliminate an injustice in which minorities are prosecuted for marijuana crimes at a higher rate than whites for comparable levels of use.

    Whittman said he had "mixed feelings" about the broader legalization question.

    Apparently, so does New Jersey. A recent poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University  found that 42 percent of respondents believed the state should legalize marijuana for recreational use.

    Steve Strunsky may be reached at sstrunsky@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveStrunsky. Find NJ.com on Facebook.


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    Our reporters' picks for clutch situations.


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    The man was arrested for grabbing a gym member a year later, the lawsuit claims.

    A former employee of LA Fitness in Holmdel has sued, claiming she was fired after reporting a colleague groped her, but the man kept his job even after he was arrested.

    Nikki Cordero of Newark claims that George Walker Jr., the gym's manager of personal trainers when she worked there in 2016, made inappropriate comments to her -- including offering to suck her toes -- and eventually grabbed her breast at the gym, according to the lawsuit filed in Superior Court in Newark.

    Walker was arrested in March 2016, but later released and gym management transferred him to an LA Fitness gym in Clark.

    Five weeks later, Cordero was terminated for what the company called "performance-based" issues, the lawsuit claims.

    After she was fired, Walker returned to work at the Holmdel gym, the lawsuit said. On July 11, 2017, he was again accused and arrested for criminal sexual contact for allegedly fondling a woman who was working out, the lawsuit said.

    The lawsuit said women working or exercising at the gym dealt with sexual harassment from Walker and the gym manager at the time, Ryan Farley, including "persistent stalking, inappropriate ogling, sexual propositioning, sexually explicit comments and questions, and unwelcome physical touching and sexual assault."

    Cordero is suing Walker, Farley, Human Resources Director Lina Anderson, and the Holmdell LA Fitness, claiming the company failed to enforce a sexual harassment policy or investigate complaints, and ignored Walker's "repetitive" harassing behavior.

    "Defendants joined the harasser and sent the message to all women who were employed or worked out at the Holmdel Gym that they supported Defendant Walker's unlawful and criminal behavior," the lawsuit said.

    A staff member who answered the phone at the gym Tuesday said she could not comment and had no information on the lawsuit. Messages left for LA Fitness' corporate office were not returned. Walker and Farley could not be reached for comment.

    The Asbury Park Press reported that Walker and Farley are no longer associated with the gym. They also reported that the charges against Walker from the incident with Cordero were dismissed. Attempts to confirm that information with Holmdel police were unsuccessful Tuesday morning.

    In the lawsuit, Cordero said she began working at the gym on March 9, 2016 and soon witnessed Walker and Farley commenting on the bodies of gym members and making comments like "I'd hit that."

    She started wearing baggy clothing to avoid attention from Walker, the suit claims, but it didn't work.

    On March 27, 2016, Cordero claims, Walker asked her if she got a pedicure and then commented, "Let me know when you get your toes done so I can suck them."

    She said she rebuffed him but Walker approached her from behind, put his hands on her waist, and then grabbed her breast while saying he had dreamed about having sex with her.

    Cordero said she shrank away from him and objected, before leaving the gym and contacting Farley and her mother. Her mother called the police, and Walker was arrested later that day on a charge of criminal sexual contact and ordered to stay away from Cordero, the suit said.

    The lawsuit said that Cordero had been anxious and upset, but returned to work on March 29, 2016. She learned that Walker had been transferred to the Clark gym and filed a complaint with Anderson in human resources, the suit said. She repeatedly inquired about the status of the complaint and never learned if it was investigated, Cordero said.

    On May 10, 2016, Cordero learned she was being fired. When she complained that it was unfair given the incident with Walker, Anderson allegedly told her it "shouldn't have affected your work."

    Cordero claims that Walker went back to work at the Holmdel gym, and by July 11, 2017, had been charged with another crime for grabbing a female gym member "below the waist."

    Cordero claims she was subjected to a hostile workplace and that her firing was retaliatory. She is seeking back pay, future pay, damages and attorneys' fees. She also wants a judge to declare the defendants violated the Law Against Discrimination and order them to take corrective action.

    Rebecca Everett may be reached at reverett@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccajeverett. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

    Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips


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    A look at all four state tournament brackets.

    The NJSIAA tournament brackets are set, with play to begin on Monday, Feb. 19. Take a look at all four brackets below.

    NOTE: Brackets are not official until Wednesday at noon. Dates listed for all rounds are "Play by" dates- actual dates, times, and locations will be added as soon as they're known. 

    Public A

    Public B

    Public C

    Non-Public

    Matt Stypulkoski may be reached at mstypulkoski@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @M_Stypulkoski. Like NJ.com High School Sports on Facebook.


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    A section-by-section look at the key players in this year's state tournament.


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    The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has just added Republican U.S. Rep. Chris Smith to its roster of targets for 2018, identifying him as one of dozens of potentially vulnerable incumbents to oust come November.

    U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, the longest-serving member of New Jersey's congressional delegation, has been considered unbeatable since constituents in the state's Fourth District (parts of Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean counties) first sent him to Washington in 1981.

    But now the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has just added the 19-term lawmaker to its roster of targets for 2018, identifying Smith as one of dozens of potentially vulnerable incumbents to oust come November.

    Fueling the Dems' exuberance over the upcoming midterms are widespread voter disgust with the direction the country is taking, and the knowledge that the party in the White House historically loses congressional seats during off-year elections.

    With a White House awash in scandals and investigations, and their president overturning the norms of civilized political discourse, GOP incumbents in one of the bluest of blue states face an energized Democratic electorate.

    Polls indicate that the challengers stand a fair chance of flipping seats once believed to be firmly in the red camp.

    Few can match Jersey's disdain for President Trump

    High on the Dems' hit list is Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-3rd), who has drawn particular fury over his role in helping save the GOP health care bill, and for voting for the Republican tax bill that gutted a vital tax break for New Jersey residents.

    MacArthur backed President Donald Trump 93 percent of the time last year, more than any other lawmaker from New Jersey, according to polling expert Nate Silver.

    Democratic leaders also have set their sights on Leonard Lance (R-7th), a one-time moderate who has moved further and further to the right as his party has become more and more extreme in the past few years.

    Moreover, they hope to claim seats held by Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th), both of whom have announced their retirements.

    The Cook Political Report, which offers nonpartisan elections analysis, said that strong Democratic fundraising late last year signaled that this may indeed be a year for widespread Democratic rejoicing.

    U.S. Rep. Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), who chairs the DCCC, issued a guarded statement, noting that "We have a long way to go and won't take anything for granted, but are on track to take back the house in November."

    There's much at stake for the Garden State when a new Congress is installed come January: the future of infrastructure projects, the looming threat of off-shore drilling along our coastline, how the state will fare in the coming 2020 Census, among other matters.

    By enabling Trump, Republican lawmakers have soiled the GOP brand. The party of Christine Todd Whitman and Tom Kean Sr. has become the party that excuses the inexcusable. If the New Jersey branch of the party wants to remain a red voice in a blue state, it can start by going back to its roots.

    Bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.

     

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    Students from Bear Tavern Elementary School helped a couple get the honeymoon they deserved 60 years ago.

    The "phenomenal" job Mercer County students did to help a couple have the honeymoon they were denied 60 years ago because they were black have been rewarded themselves.

    Classmates from Bear Tavern Elementary School in Hopewell Township and their families are being treated to a Poconos resort vacation all because of their efforts to right what they saw as wrong committed at a time when segregation was still the norm.

    This is "a story that restores our faith in humanity," said Steve Harvey, host of the daytime talk show, "Steve."

    It was on Harvey's show Tuesday that a segment highlighted the story of The Rev. Gilbert Caldwell and his wife Grace of Asbury Park and their encounter with racism in a northern vacation spot.

    But thanks to efforts of the students decades later, the Caldwells were able to fulfill and dream and, in turn, the schoolchildren were recognized in an extraordinary way, proving taking a stand for what is right can reap them rewards.

    The Caldwells visited the Bear Tavern Elementary School on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday in January 2017 where they were part of a black history assembly. They told of working with King and their efforts in the Deep South to overcome racial injustice.

    But it was one of the Caldwells' personal stories that especially touched the students -- how they had traveled in 1957 from their then-home in North Carolina to the Mount Airy Lodge in the Pennsylvania Poconos for their honeymoon and were turned away because they were black.

    Hearing this story, the fifth-graders felt they needed to do something.

    "This assembly certainly moved a lot of people," said fifth-grade teacher Christina Virtucio. "What stood out was the piece about the honeymoon.

    "They couldn't even understand how anyone could treat someone like that because of the color of their skin."

    What they should do soon became part of their curriculum. Numerous discussions and decisions took place and they decided they needed to right a wrong -- through writing.

    They found out the Mount Airy Lodge was long closed so the class wrote individual letters to the Mount Airy Casino Resort -- a Poconos vacation spot that has no connection to the hotel that turned away the Caldwells.

    One of those letters so touched management at Mount Airy Casino Resort the Caldwells were given a free stay there in December and finally enjoyed a proper honeymoon in Pennsylvania's Poconos.

    On Tuesday's "Steve" show, the Caldwells appeared with Steve Harvey who told their story and how the how the Bear Tavern students, who joined in via Skype, had changed the couple's life.

    "I think it's absolutely phenomenal what you young people did," Harvey told the students.

    "I don't know if you understand this, but you really made a super stance here. You put a mark in America that needed to be shown up. For you all to write these letters, that's crazy good. I've got to tell you that. That's just crazy good."

    Their reward then came. Harvey announced each of the 30 students involved in the letter-writing campaign their parents would be receiving a two-night stay at the Great Wolf Lodge, also a Poconos resort. Teacher Virtucio is included.

    The students back at Bear Tavern erupted in cheers.

    "I'm just incredibly proud of the students and their worth ethic, empathy and compassion," Virtucio said.

    Bear Tavern Elementary School Principal Christopher Turnbull said he was impressed how the class members reacted to this real-world situation.

    "One thing we talk about every day is that we, as individuals and as a group, have the ability to impact our community and change other peoples' perception of what is possible," he said.

    Bill Gallo Jr. may be reached at bgallo@njadvancemedia.com. Follow Bill Gallo Jr. on Twitter @bgallojr. Find NJ.com on FacebookHave a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips


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    Six teams won state titles. Where did they land?


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    For that price, buyers can go for a townhouse in Rumson or a tiny condo in Jersey City.


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    The woman was beaten and strangled by the 23-year-old in December 2015

    A 23-year-old man was convicted Tuesday of beating and strangling a Long Branch woman more than two years ago. 

    Christopher Aparicio-Reyes, of Long Branch, was found guilty of killing Jennifer Pizzuto, 40, on Dec. 13, 2015, the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office said.

    Pizzuoto was found dead in a second-floor bedroom in Aparicio-Reyes' apartment on Rockwell Avenue in Long Branch.

    Police arrested Aparicio-Reyes at a friend's apartment on 6th Avenue the next day.

    Aparicio-Reyes, who was convicted of first-degree murder after a four-day trial in Freehold. He faces 30 years to life when he is sentenced May 8.

    Jeff Goldman may be reached at jeff_goldman@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSGoldman. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

     


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    Picks and previews for all 12 meets of the indoor track state championships


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