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News from Monmouth County, New Jersey

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    The 47-year veteran of the fire department was nicknamed "Pete the Pepper."

    Englishtown Fire Chief Lou Sarti said the death of long-time firefighter Pasquale "Pete the Pepper" DiBenedetto on Thursday has left a big hole in the close-knit volunteer department in Monmouth County.

    "It's a very big loss," Sarti said of the 47-year veteran of the department. "It's a hole I don't know if we'll be able to fill. We'll never have another Pepper."

    DiBenedetto, 68, died after suffering a medical emergency Tuesday morning, hours after responding to a carbon monoxide alarm along with others in the department. Sarti said the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety has declared it a line-of-duty death because the medical emergency occurred within 24 hours of a call response.

    He declined to give details about the medical episode, but said DiBenedetto passed away Thursday.

    Sarti -- who has no idea how DeBenedetto came by the quirky nickname -- described his late colleague as a big-hearted, selfless man who helped all the younger firefighters, and anyone else who needed it.

    "He was like everyone's uncle," he said.

    DeBenedetto was the department's chief engineer, which means he took care of repairs and maintenance of the fire trucks and other equipment.

    "He was here every day," Sarti said. "He ran a farm, he did car repairs for friends, and he still made time to come to the fire station to respond to calls and take care of the apparatus."

    After calls, he liked to hang out and joke around with his good friends at the department.

    "We busted his chops because he was such a nice guy," Sarti said.

    DeBenedetto is survived by a sister and an uncle.

    A wake will be held Monday from 4 to 10 p.m. at Lester Memorial Home in Jamesburg and a funeral service at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Englishtown Tuesday at 10 a.m. A funeral reception will follow at the Englishtown Fire Department.

    DeBenedetto will be honored with a fire department procession from Lester Memorial Home to his funeral service. 

    Any emergency service agencies that plan to participate are asked to notify Sarti  at 1266@EnglishtownFD.com.

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

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    Activists from the city's largely African-American west side, which has lagged behind other parts of the booming shore resort, want a referendum on switching from an all at-large council to ward seats.


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    Residents of a Howell homeless encampment will be forced to find a new place to live following a township decision to sell a large parcel of land to a pharmaceutical executive.

    Residents of a Howell homeless encampment will be forced to find a new place to live following a township decision to sell a large parcel of land to a pharmaceutical executive.

    Howell's Township Council approved the sale of the 11-acre property to Lakewood resident Dr. Richard H. Roberts, whose $1.6 million offer was the highest bid for the land.

    The nine homeless residents will have 30 days to vacate the lot once the sale closes, which could take several months.

    Howell officials sanctioned the camp in April 2017, allowing the homeless to stay on the township-owned property, according to Steve Brigham, the founder of Destiny's Bridge, a nonprofit that runs the camp. 

    Each resident signed a release stating that they understood the camp was a temporary arrangement, there was no tenant-landlord relationship with the township, and that the municipality could close the camp at any time to sell it, Deputy Mayor Robert Nicastro said during a July 17 Council meeting.

    Most of the people who live in the tarp-covered tents on the property have jobs, Brigham said. They just don't earn enough to afford permanent housing and make too much to qualify for government assistance.

    The contract between Roberts and the township stipulated that Roberts had to help relocate the residents, Brigham said. Roberts, who could not be reached, offered each of them $1000, but the group voted to reject his offer.

    Roberts, a medical doctor, was CEO when the pharmaceutical company his father founded was sold to a Japanese company for $800 million in June 2012, and is a big political donor. 

    Nicastro said the lot is zoned for commercial use and "the town has no space to relocate them."

    Jeffrey Wild, an attorney representing the camp pro bono and the president of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness, is working to relocate the residents, Brigham said.

    Cassidy Grom may be reached at cgrom@njadvancemedia.com Follow her at @cassidygrom. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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    The theme of the entire mission was "The Glory Will Come," appropriate for Adventists, who believe Jesus' second coming is imminent.

    I was driving west on Route 33 in Neptune and stopped for a red light at Atkins Avenue when a crowd of well-dressed people exited what appeared to be an old bank. 

    There was no signage, but I suspected it was a church. 

    Another Friday, I stopped by what turned out to be the New Eden Seventh Day Adventist Church and encountered Alernst LaFleur, 17, a tall, engaging young man standing outside. He told me a two-week mission was going on every evening and invited me to join. I did on a Saturday night, the actual Sabbath for Seventh Day Adventists, and discovered that it was a Haitian community with the service in Creole. 

    After speaking with three elders, I was warmly welcomed and a pastor was sent to sit next to me and translate the  mission sermon, which lasted 50 minutes.  Yes, 5-0, the longest sermon I ever sat through.

    Well, it was a mission and the preacher, the Rev. Jean Robert Louissain, was a pro. He started out softly but toward the end built up to a rousing crescendo often punctuated with "Amen" from the congregation.

    The technologically advanced church had three oversized TV screens not only with the hymn words but also notes to follow the sermon, which Louissain controlled with a remote. 

    I was grateful to Mr. Michael Calderaro, my St. Peter's Prep French teacher, that I was able to piece together some of the words until the Rev. Jimmy Jean Baptiste, a pastor who is completing his training, translated parts of the sermon. 

    The theme of the entire mission was "The Glory Will Come," appropriate for Adventists, who believe Jesus' second coming is imminent.

    "Jesus Christ set to return," Elder Nate Denis, 31, keyboardist during the service, said.

    In his sermon, Louissain gave a historic sweep of Christian history with many Bible quotations. He also claimed that the Catholic church had gone astray when it lost sight of Biblical foundations. 

    According to Louissain, in the Dark Ages, people were not able to read the Bible.

    He also brought in the indulgence controversy and said that without putting money in the box in front of a church, one could not get their sins forgiven.

    At the conclusion of his sermon, Louissain placed a huge wrapped box with a slit on the top in the center of the aisle and invited people to place their prayer requests in, and many did. Another man said a long prayer over it while people either knelt or bowed their heads. 

    Almost two hours after the mission started, it was over and people streamed out immediately.  I was surprised that there was no other collection.

    About 150 people had attended, mostly on the younger side with most being first- and second-generation Haitians. They all dressed neatly: some men in suits and ties and women in fine dresses and hats. There had to be about 25 children, some very young, and they were so well behaved. They gathered before and after in a room upstairs for an age-appropriate prayer. 

    As people entered, their attendance cards were checked and they were each given a prayer sheet, which also inquired if they had any requests from the church.

    Jean Joseph, 48, has belonged to the church for 19 years. He immigrated to the U.S. on July 4, 1999, and is now the congregation's music director. He opened the service by leading the hymns.  

    Adventists follow a strict regimen of what can be called good living and watch what they eat, like no pork or lobsters, he noted.

    "We stay away from foods that adversely affect us," Joseph, an IT specialist, told me. 

    LaFleur, a senior at Ocean Township High School, said that while his friends go out on Saturday nights, "I can't do that."  He hopes to study computer science at M.I.T. and made sure the computerized screens, mics and tech were in sync.

    He summed up his Adventist faith by stating: "The world is different than it seems." 

    And the spirit, warmth and vitality on a rainy summer Saturday night reveal the world they await to come -- a new Eden. 

    If you go ...

    New Eden Seventh Day Adventist Church, 1144 State Route 33, Neptune, holds Bible study at 9:30 a.m. Saturdays followed by worship at 11. For information, call 732-361-3820.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: The Rev. Alexander Santora is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph, 400 Willow Ave., Hoboken, 07030, FAX: 201-659-5833; Email: padrealex@yahoo.com; Twitter: @padrehoboken.


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    He's the manager of a Boston Red Sox AA affiliate

    Darren Fenster never had a backup plan, so the plan had to find him. Then again, it didn't have to look very far.

    Baseball was his passion, growing up in Monmouth County and onto Rutgers University where he would become an All-American shortstop and Big East Conference Player of the Year. Drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 2000, he reached AA ball and worked his way to the 2005 major league spring training camp.

    A knee injury ended his season, and one year later, again at the Royals' spring training camp, the injury ended his career.

    Fenster, now 39, sat in the visiting team dugout the other day, a few hours before the start of the Trenton Thunder game against the Portland Sea Dogs - he's the manager of Boston's AA affiliate.

    The previous four years he managed its Class A team in the South Atlantic League.

    This is his seventh season in the Red Sox organization. He broke into the MLB system as a hitting coach with the Greenville, South Carolina, where last year he managed the team to its first league championship. In his first year as a manager, in the Gulf Coast League in 2013, he led Fort Myers to a division title.

    None of that was even a dream in early spring of 2006. That's when former Rutgers coach Fred Hill reached out to Fenster and asked if he would be interested in helping out the Scarlet Knights.

    "I thought, 'Why not?' Fenster said, looking out at the field as Trenton took batting practice. "I did not have a Plan B.

    Fenster11.jpgFenster in action. (Sea Dogs photo) 

    "Todd Frazier was a sophomore on that team, and we had ten or twelve guys who wound up playing professionally. I already had relationships with them when I was still a player, working out in the offseason. The players just gave me almost a second purpose in the game, a reason to stay on the field.

    "So I took to it pretty quickly, and without choosing it. By happenstance I was in the right place at the right time. Coach Hill saw something in me; that I'd be a pretty good coach, before I was even ready to look at life beyond baseball.''

    Hill, now 84, is still in the game, an assistant at Kean University for manager Neil Ioviero; another former Rutgers player.

    Why Fenster in 2006?

    "First of all,'' Hill said over the phone, "he's very intelligent, and he loved the game. He was a very, very good player, so he could back up his words he was saying. He's a very, very good teacher, and he listens to his players.''

    Austin Rei is one of them. A 24-year-old catcher with the Sea Dogs, the third round selection of the Red Sox also played for Fenster in A-ball.

    "He loves the game, and that's probably one of the biggest compliments you can probably give a manager,'' said Rei, standing in the hallway outside the Sea Dogs clubhouse some two hours before the game. "He takes everything extremely serious, all the way down to the final details; sometimes the fine details more than anything else.

    "He has great passion and he tries to instill that in all his players. He wants to make sure you get everything out of your talents, which is every coach's wish for his players. It's really cool to see someone care about their players that much. Leading is not just telling you, 'You need to move the runner over.' It's teaching us to be good men and everything like that.''

    Thunder infielder Wendell Rijo knows. Approaching the dugout he caused his former manager to break into a smile. "Que' pasa, mi amigo!'' Fenster yelled. The brief exchange alternated between Spanish and English. Rijo played for Fenster two years ago before being traded to the Yankees organization.

    "I wouldn't say I'm fluent, but I'm conversational,'' Fenster said about is bilingual skills. "Just the fact that I try and learn, I know they appreciate the effort. It kind of helps build relationships. I'd like to think I'm going in the right direction in terms of my own personal growth, so I can continue to impact these guys.

    "I've grown as a man as much as anything else. When I started out I had a huge ego. I was very close-minded. Over the years there has been a growing and understanding how everybody is different. There are different demographics, backgrounds, guys who went to college, guys with who knows what their education level is, and everything in between.

    "If you have one approach for 25 guys with completely different backgrounds, you're gonna hit on some and miss on more. I was the guy who tried to umbrella everybody. Now, you understand you have to have more than one approach.''

    Like any coach in the game, Fenster would love to get to the top level, in this case Fenway Park. Unlike players, moving up the ladder is not something you can really work at; it is not a natural progression.

    "It's something very much out of your control,'' he said about advancing. "But I'm making a living in a game I kind of grew up in. My worst days are probably better than most people's best days. I am very, very fortunate to be where I am. Professionally I've never been in a better place.''

    A place he never planned on being.


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    Former Neptune High School football player died in Kansas after practicing for first time at college

    A former Neptune High School player who had been offered a scholarship by a community college in Kansas died after the team's first day of practice Wednesday, according to multiple reports.

    Braeden Bradforth, 19, was an incoming freshman slated to play defensive tackle at Garden City Community College, in Garden City, where he died.

    GoFundMe page has been set up for Bradforth's family to help return the player's body to New Jersey. The family is awaiting the results of an autopsy, according to the fundraising site.

    Bradforth's coach told Sports Illustrated at least one doctor believed the player's death likely was the result of a blood clot entering his heart.

    Bradforth was found in a dorm room on campus around 9:30 p.m. by one of his teammates, who asked a coach for help, according to the Garden City Telegram. The coach reportedly then called a trainer, who requested an ambulance.

    According to the Telegram story, Bradforth was then taken to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead around 11:30 p.m.

    "Braeden will be missed not only by his family but by everyone whose life he touched," the family said in a statement on the GoFundMe page. "He always took great pride in his family, friends, and community, always looking for ways to help others."

    As of Sunday afternoon, the page had received over $9,000 in donations to help his family.

    In a statement to NJ Advance Media, Garden State's Coach Jeff Sims said the team "are all saddened by the loss of Braeden."

    "In dealing with his family you can tell the quality family he came from - our students have used Braeden to inspire themselves to appreciate their families, friends, and opportunities that they are fortunate to have in their lives," Sims said. 

    At the college, the coach said, Bradforth's impact will be felt not on the football field, "but through the young men and women that came together to heal, love and believe in their futures because of Braeden's inspiration."

    Chris Franklin can be reached at cfranklin@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @cfranklinnews. Find NJ.com on FacebookHave a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips

     

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    Some of the thousands of animals awaiting adoption throughout New Jersey.

    Here is this week's collection of some of the dogs and cats in need of adoption in New Jersey.

    We are now accepting dogs and cats to appear in the gallery from nonprofit shelters and rescues throughout New Jersey.

    If a group wishes to participate in this weekly gallery on nj.com, please contact Greg Hatala at greghatalagalleries@gmail.com.

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


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    One N.J. county has preserved nearly as much land about the size of Washington, D.C.


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    The car struck The Original Mulligan's Restaurant & Grill on Squankum Road, Farmingdale.

    A popular eatery was deemed safe to remain open on Sunday after a car crashed into one of the business's entrances, authorities said.

    The car struck The Original Mulligan's Restaurant & Grill on Squankum Road in Farmingdale.

    The fire department arrived about 3 p.m. to find the vehicle wedged into an entrance vestibule, according to Squankum Fire Company No. 1.

    No injuries were reported.

    The fire department said on Facebook that the pub remained open as the crash "was only (in) one of their entrance vestibules."

    The building department "deemed the rest of the building safe," the fire department said.

    A Howell police spokesman was not immediately available to comment on the accident Monday.

    Anthony G. Attrino may be reached at tattrino@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @TonyAttrino. Find NJ.com on Facebook.


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    This is the last of the final round trip reports in our search for N.J.'s best hot dog joint.


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    William McMahon allegedly tried to find a child who wanted to have a 'sleepover with him'

    A 64-year-old Keansburg man was arrested over the weekend after attempting to meet someone he thought was a 14-year-old boy for sex, authorities said.

    Instead of a teenager, William McMahon was met outside an indoor entertainment center in Freehold Township on Saturday by investigators from the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office and the Department of Homeland Security and taken into custody.

    'Predator hunter' Facebook video leads to luring charge against sex offender

    He was charged with luring, attempted sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child, the prosecutor's office said in a statement. 

    McMahon previously had multiple online conversations with an undercover detective posing as a boy. The detective replied to a posting by McMahon seeking a child to have a "sleepover" with him, authorities said.  In other chats, McMahon made it clear he intended to have sex, according to the prosecutor's office. 

    McMahon remains held at the Monmouth County jail ahead of a detention hearing on Thursday morning.

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

     

     


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    State officials and environmentalists are blaming old sewer systems in North Jersey and New York for needles and other trash that closed 13 Shore beaches in July.


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    The teller surrendered about $700 before Bardis fled the scene on a white motorcycle, authorities said.

    A 31-year-old man was charged last week in connection with a July 31 bank robbery in Ocean Township, authorities said.

    Spiros Bardis, of Bradley Beach, allegedly entered the Bank of America around 10 a.m. wearing a motorcycle helmet and passed a note to a teller, demanding money. The teller surrendered about $700 before Bardis fled the scene on a white motorcycle, according to Chris Swendeman, a spokesperson for the Monmouth County Prosecutor's office. The bank is located at 1100 State Highway 35.

    The Monmouth County Correctional Institution has held Bardis since his arrest and if he is convicted of robbery, he will face up to 10 years in prison.

     

    Cassidy Grom may be reached at cgrom@njadvancemedia.com Follow her at @cassidygrom. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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    The mailbox, which stands over 2 feet tall, violates zoning laws, officials said.

    An adorable, free neighborhood library that popped up on a Point Pleasant Boro street will have to be moved, thanks to complaints form a neighbor would took issue with the structure. 

    Grace and Peter Hagemeyer opened the library July 29 on Hardenburg Avenue, inviting neighborhood kids for a ribbon cutting ceremony to mark the occasion. They stocked it with books, hoping people passing by would grab a good summer read. 

    "We thought it was a really fantastic idea," Grace Hagemeyer said in a phone call with NJ Advance Media Tuesday morning, explaining that she had seen other little libraries in Point Pleasant and surrounding shore towns. "We have three children who love to read. It's so cool to think that kids would be running back and forth with books, trading with each other." 

    But one neighbor saw an eyesore instead of the quaint bookcase, and went so far as to call the police to report it. 

    "I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that this is such a problem," she said. "It's a waste of time, it's a waste of resources. Police should not be knocking on people's door because they want to give away books," when they have more important jobs to do protecting the public, she added. 

    The issue, Hagemeyer said, was that the mailbox stood more than 2 and a half feet tall, meaning it would have to be placed 10 feet from the property line. Another issue, she was initially told, was that such libraries are not allowed because they're not mentioned in the land-use ordinance. 

    Free little libraries have popped up all over the country, in both urban and suburban areas where foot traffic draws eager readers to browse the collections of about a dozen books. A national nonprofit, Little Free Library, has partnered with some 70,000 small book nooks in 85 different countries. 

    "This whole thing got blown out of proportion because a neighbor for whatever reason, called the police department," Frank Pannucci, the borough administrator, said Tuesday morning. "There's nothing wrong with [the library] itself." 

    Pannucci informed the Hagemeyers Tuesday morning that they can keep the little library if they move it back the 10 feet, and confirmed to NJ Advance Media that the second violation regarding land use restrictions wouldn't apply. 

    "The real issue is that it's got to be out of 10 feet out of the way," he added. "You can't have the little free library there, because you're going to have kids walking down the street. It's causing a hazard." 

    Pannucci said he doesn't know anything about the other little libraries in town, and for now, they're likely safe. 

    "Unless somebody makes a complaint about it, we're not going out hunting for them," he said. 

    As she got the news that the library could stay, albeit behind her fence, Hagemeyer was happy, although she would've preferred to keep it in sight of those strolling by. She hopes those looking for a good read will still come past the fence to borrow books. 

    "I'm so excited right now," she said. "We're okay with moving it. We're kind of welcoming."

    Amanda Hoover can be reached at ahoover@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandahoovernj. Find NJ.com on Facebook

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    Monmouth County's largest lake is still off limits after officials noticed dangerous algae in it over a week ago and said the water was unsafe.

    Deal Lake, Monmouth County's largest lake, is still off limits after officials noticed dangerous algae in it over a week ago and said the water was unsafe.

    The Monmouth County Department of Health first urged people not to canoe or kayak in Deal Lake on July 26, according to a press release, and spokesperson Lori Palmer said Tuesday that the advisory stands. The blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, that is living in the lake can cause rashes, eye irritations and headaches, health experts said.

    "It looks like algae but it can produce toxins that are harmful to pets or humans," public health coordinator Christopher Merkel told NJ Advance Media.

    Swimming has never been allowed in the 158-acre lake, but there is nothing to stop people from hopping in. Officials posted signs warning people not to touch the water and they continue to test if the bacteria levels are once again low enough for recreational use.

    The lake has 12.5 miles of shoreline and borders seven municipalities --  Allenhurst, Asbury Park, Deal, Interlaken, Loch Arbour, Neptune Township and Ocean, according to past NJ Advance Media reports.

    Cassidy Grom may be reached at cgrom@njadvancemedia.com Follow her at @cassidygrom. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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    Steven A. Segovia admitted to engaging in consensual oral sex with one of the clients, but has denied engaging in inappropriate sexual contact with another.

    A Massage Envy therapist accused of sexually touching two of his clients has permanently lost his license, according to officials. 

    The Attorney General's office filed a complaint with the state's Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy against Steven A. Segovia in early July, after former clients who saw Segovia at Massage Envy locations came forward and accused him of touching them sexually.  

    Segovia has agreed to the permanent revocation of his license in order to resolve the allegations against him, according to the Attorney General's Office. He admitted to engaging in consensual oral sex with one of the clients, but has denied engaging in inappropriate sexual contact with the other levying allegations against him, authorities said.

    The alleged conduct took place in the fall of 2013, at Massage Envy locations in Manalapan and Freehold. 

    Regulations strictly prohibit those with licenses from engaging in any sexual contact with clients, even consensual acts. But abuse by such licensees isn't unusual, as at least 180 women had accused therapists employed at Massage Envys across the country of sexual assault as of last fall. 

    When the allegations against Segovia arose last month, Massage Envy said he was no longer employed by the mega chain. 

    Segovia will also reimburse the state $5,000 for costs accrued during investigation and prosecution of the case. 

    Amanda Hoover can be reached at ahoover@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandahoovernj. Find NJ.com on Facebook

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    A man wanted for leaving a caged dog to drown in the rising tide surrendered Tuesday, days after prosecutors released his photo in connection with the shocking animal abandonment case.

    A man wanted for leaving a caged dog to drown in the rising tide surrendered Tuesday, days after prosecutors released his photo in connection with the shocking animal abandonment case.

    Aaron D. Davis, 36, of Long Branch, was charged Friday with animal cruelty and and abandonment, according to a release from the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office.

    Davis left the dog, now named River and adopted by the woman who saved him, in a cage near the bay front in Highlands, prosecutors allege.

    Jennifer Vaz saw the black wire cage half-submerged along the bank and quickly called the Monmouth County SPCA. An animal control officer arrived and helped Vaz remove River in the nick of time.

    An investigation determined that Davis had abandoned River "in an attempt to drown the animal," according to a release from the prosecutor's office.

    Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni said Tuesday that River is "doing fine, has a clean bill of health."

    If Davis is convicted on the animal cruelty charge, he could face time in prison.

    Davis was being held at Monmouth County Jail and is scheduled to appear in Monmouth County Superior Court on Wednesday. 

    Chris Sheldon may be reached at csheldon@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrisrsheldon Find NJ.com on Facebook.


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    A former Monmouth County resident and his girlfriend were murdered last month by ISIS militants during a bike trip in Tajikistan. Watch video

    Islamic State-aligned militants murdered a one-time New Jersey resident and his girlfriend, a former Congressional aide, late last month in a remote part of Central Asia while the pair were on a 10,000-mile cycling trip.

    Jay Austin, whose path to a Master's degree from Georgetown University included time at a Monmouth County elementary school, was a sustainability advocate who left the federal government to dive headlong into the Tiny House movement, according to stories about the killings that ran on NYTimes.com, WashingtonPost.com and npr.com. 

    Austin and his girlfriend, California native and fellow Georgetown alumn Lauren Geoghegan, who interned with Rep. Adam Schiff, were among a group of cyclists who were run down with a car and then stabbed by the group of militants.

    Four people, including Rene Wokke from the Netherlands and Markus Hummel from Switzerland, died in the July 29 attack. NPR reported that three others survived.

    A grainy purported video of the murders, which occurred south of the Tajikistan capital in an area close to the Afghanistan border, was posted to the Internet.

    The U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan said that the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Tajikistan had "detained one suspect and killed at least three other suspects."

    ISIS released a video shortly after the attack showed the killers joining hands and pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the terrorist group's leader.

    Authorities in Tajikistan, however, blamed a banned political party, not ISIS, for the attack, the Washington Post reported.

    Austin had worked for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in a job The Post described as "chief idea implementer."

    However, he told Reason.com that public housing was "a failed experiment" and calling HUD "The Death Star." He quit the agency and eventually left behind his 145-square-foot home to become a full-time traveler.

    "Everyone should try it at some point in their life," Austin said in the article. "A month, a half-year, a week without a structure, without a stable place to call home."

    Geoghegan worked in Georgetown's admissions office before joining Austin on the epic trek that, according to his first Instagram post, was expected to last a "few years."

    She and Austin completed a bike trip through Iceland before deciding to leave the monotony of their jobs and travel the world by living off their savings.

    HEY FRIENDS! Big news. In 6 weeks, @lauranne09 and I are quitting our jobs and leaving DC to go bike around the world for the next few years. [?] [?] [?] I'm really excited, but also terribly sad to be leaving so many beautiful, familiar faces for so long. [?] I'd love to see y'all (if you're in DC) or catch up on the phone (if you're not) before heading out, so let me know if/when you're around! [?] DETAILS: We leave July 6[?]. We're flying into South Africa and plan on biking north through eastern Africa, then onwards to Europe and Asia (and, if we make it this far, Australia and the Americas). We'll mostly bike, but there may be a few boats or planes involved in crossing oceans. [?] [?][?] We'll be carrying a few panniers with a tent and stove and everything else we'll need for the journey. [?][?] We're blogging at simplycycling.org, and I'll be posting photos here as cell service allows. [?][?] More soon! Lots of love, Jay

    A post shared by Jay Austin (@simplycycling) on

    Austin and Geoghegan's journey started in Cape Town and continued through Egypt, Morocco, Spain, France and other countries.

    "We set sail today," Austin said in his blog. "We lift our anchor and raise our sail and let the cool ocean breeze pull us from the safety of the familiar shore. We sail toward adventure, maybe; discomfort, definitely."

    The pair definitely encountered discomfort as they braved everything from a polar vortex in Italy to almost being run over in Spain.

    Many of the blog posts detailing these incidents ended in cliffhangers. The same was true in the last blog post in which Austin described an encounter they had in Kyrgyzstan where two men got out a sedan and blocked their path after the couple refused to stop for a photo.

    "Lauren's in front and she threads her way in between the two men," the post stated. "She keeps going. I make to follow. I gnash on my pedals, lean to the left, and get in between them. And then the man on the right pushes me off my bike."

    The couple had planned to possibly bike through Australia and the Americas in a trip around the world.

    The last photos Austin shared on Instagram were of the Ak-Baital Pass, a mountain pass in the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan.

    "With the steep grades and thin air (and intermittent snow), this was probably the hardest climb of my life," Austin said in the July 25 post. "Really glad I did it. No need to ever do it again."

    Those were the last words he would ever publish during his trip as he and Geoghegan were killed four days later in the Danghara district.

    A memorial created for Austin and Geoghegan at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan  was filled with flowers, a photo of the pair and of course, a bicycle.

    Cyclists2.jpgA memorial was created for Lauren Geoghegan and Jay Austin at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan. (U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan Facebook) 

    Chris Sheldon may be reached at csheldon@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrisrsheldon Find NJ.com on Facebook.


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    Some districts are warning of devastating budget cuts. Is the state to blame?

    In Haddon Township, students won't get new science equipment. In Toms River, officials are tapping reserves to stave off budget cuts. In Jersey City, the school board is eliminating 25 jobs. 

    Across New Jersey, more than 150 districts have spent the past month scrambling to offset reductions in state funding announced in July, after they had already passed their budgets for the coming school year. The worst part, they say? Their state aid is set to get slashed again and again under a new state law. 

    "This is a disaster," Jersey City School Board President Sudhan Thomas said at a special meeting last week to discuss the more than $3 million in lost state aid. "War has been declared on this district."

    The combined $32 million in aid reductions are part of a complex school funding deal that increases New Jersey's education spending by more than $300 million for the upcoming school year and changes how some aid is distributed. 

    That plan pumps millions more into both urban and suburban districts long underfunded by the state. But it comes with a catch: Some of the dollars headed to those underfunded districts is money taken away from others.  

    Find out if your district is losing aid

    State officials say those districts should lose money now because they were winners for far too long, collecting more than their fair share of state funding over the past decade. Local school leaders, however, argue the state is effectively robbing Pemberton to pay Paulsboro and setting up districts for devastating cuts in the years to come. 

    The fallout underscores a practical and political reality of the latest school funding deal: Even if some districts were getting extra funding for all those years, the state was never going to be able to reduce it without affecting kids and angering school officials. 

    "You spend what the state gives you," said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University. "No one ever says, 'Well, we don't really need that money.'" 

    Less money, more problems 

    Can the school districts that are losing aid still get by without those state dollars?

    State officials say they should be fine. Local school chiefs disagree. And the answer isn't so simple, said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. 

    New Jersey's school funding formula tells the state exactly how much each district should spend, how much of a district's funding should come from the state and how much the district should generate in local property tax revenue. 

    There are 172 districts losing state aid, and all of them have been receiving more than the formula says they need, with some collecting millions and millions in aid for roughly a decade. 

    Of those districts, 153 have been spending at or more than the state says they should in order to provide a quality education, according an Education Law Center analysis. 

    Those districts are better positioned to survive the state's seven-year phase-out of extra aid, but that doesn't make budget cuts any less painful, and any reductions could quickly drop them below their target spending level, Sciarra said. 

    The districts in a more perilous position are the 19 that are seeing their state aid reduced even though they weren't spending what the state says is needed, he said. 

    That group of districts hasn't generated enough local tax revenue to cover their responsibility for funding their schools, and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney has characterized them as using the state as a piggybank. 

    "They can undertax locally because they get our money," Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said during budget negotiations. "Our money is leaving."

    Sciarra argues those districts have been miscast by politicians. 

    Some of the districts haven't been able to raise enough tax revenue because of the state's 2 percent cap on property tax hikes, Sciarra said. When chunks of their state aid disappear, they'll be left with little ability to make it up, he said. 

    "This is the point we have been trying to make all along," said Sciarra, who opposed the state aid cuts.  

    An uncertain future 

    School officials in Toms River are already warning of "dramatic budget cuts" after this school year. 

    The district received about $18 million in extra state aid last school year toward its $228 million budget, but still spent about $25 million less than the state says it needs to, according to an Education Law Center analysis. 

    Now, the state is phasing out that $18 million, beginning with a nearly $1 million reduction this year, followed by incrementally larger reductions through 2025. 

    District officials said property tax hikes won't be enough to avoid budget cuts. 

    "Make no mistake," Superintendent David Healy wrote in a letter to parents. "Our district will be nothing short of gutted and fully decimated if something does not change with regards to the allocation of school aid." 

    Neighboring Brick Township Public Schools is also spending below its goal and facing annual state aid cuts moving forward. Officials say the state funding formula doesn't accurately capture ratables lost in Hurricane Sandy and expects Shore towns to generate an unrealistic amount of property tax revenue.

    The district will get by this year by using $1.3 million from its reserves and leaving six teaching jobs and two administrative positions vacant, Superintendent Gerard Dalton said.  

    After that, he said, he's not sure what will happen. 

    "We are worried about the future," he said. 

    In Cumberland County, Commercial Township spent about $500,000 less than the state recommends last year. Now, it's losing about $1 million in state aid right away with more money disappearing down the road. 

    The district just eliminated seven positions, including five layoffs, interim Superintendent Jean Smith said.  

    "Devastating is the word I would use," Smith said. 

    Murphy's proposed budget didn't reduce funding to any district, but he agreed to the changes as part of a compromise with Sweeney, who had pushed for a redistribution of school aid. 

    Dan Bryan, the governor's spokesman, pointed to the fact that the state has attempted to soften the blow on some districts.

    For instance, the state will allow some urban districts to raise taxes beyond the 2 percent cap to offset state aid reductions. And Murphy agreed to allow Jersey City to create a special 1 percent payroll tax paid by employers to generate extra revenue for its public schools. 

    "Gov. Murphy signed landmark school funding legislation that sets the state on the path to a fairer and more equitable educational system," Bryan said. 

    The state will also offer emergency aid for districts that are able to demonstrate fiscal distress, Department of Education spokesman Mike Yaple said. 

    Even though the state aid reductions weren't Murphy's idea, he can expect to take the blame for them, Harrison said, even in districts that are spending more than the state expectation. 

    "The reality is that if you try to level the funding, the schools that are receiving a disproportionate amount of money and see their aid reduced are going to have to belt tighten," Harrison said. "And that is not going to be politically popular." 

    Adam Clark may be reached at adam_clark@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @realAdamClarkFind NJ.com on Facebook

    Olivia Rizzo may be reached at orizzo@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @LivRizz. Find NJ.com on Facebook

     

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    Authorities say they swiped a Bentley, Alfa Romeo and Audis and a Benz in 4 counties

    Authorities say they've busted a crew of car thieves that targeted expensive vehicles in affluent towns - including one set of wheels that sells for just under $200,000.

    The six alleged thieves - four have been arrested, two are sought - are from Newark.

    They stole vehicles in Bergen, Burlington, Somerset and Monmouth counties, including four in one day in Holmdel, the Essex County Prosecutor's Office said Tuesday evening.

    Dante Jones, 18; Kevon Wright, 18; Omari Shomari, 18; Ismeal Merrill, 25;  Muhammad Merrill, 21; and Layquan Davis, 18, are charged with second-degree conspiracy to receive stolen property.

    All have been arrested except for Ismeal Merrill and Shomari, who remained fugitives Tuesday night.

    They're charged with stealing the following cars in July, all which had their key fob left inside the vehicle, were parked in the driveway. They were all later recovered in Newark.

    - a 2017 Bentley Continental from Monmouth Beach, on July 11

    - a 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio from Moorestown, on July 16

    - a 2015 Land Rover Evoque from Warren, on July 17

    - a 2018 Audi Q5 from Hillsdale, on July 19

    - a 2017 Mercedes Benz C300 from Holmdel, on July 24

    - a 2016 Land Rover Range Rover from Holmdel, on July 24

    - a 2018 Audi from Holmdel, on July 24

    - a 2018 Ford F150 from Holmdel, on July 24 

    The Bentley Continental typically sells for just under $200,000.

    In all, the eight vehicles are worth about $500,000, according to Assistant Prosecutor Joseph A. Giordano, who is handling the case.

    "As we celebrate National Night Out Against Crime today, everyone should be mindful that they can decrease the rate of auto burglaries and theft in this state by locking their vehicles and taking their car keys or fobs with them,'' Acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert D. Laurino said in an announcement.

    Muhammad Merrill appeared before a judge Tuesday, who ordered he be detained until trial, while Davis and Wright were released under home confinement, the prosecutor's office said.

    Jones has a detention hearing scheduled for Wednesday.

    In addition to the stolen property charge, Davis was charged with possessing 200 grams of marijuana and one deck of heroin, and both Merrills are also charged with credit card thefts. The prosecutor's office said they used credit cards belonging to the Alfa Romeo owner at a WalMart in Kearny. 

    The New Jersey State Police Auto Theft Task Force started the investigation with assistance from the Essex County Prosecutor's Office Special Prosecutions Unit.

    Kevin Shea may be reached at kshea@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @kevintshea. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

     


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