3 suspects arrested, cop shot at New Jersey shopping center

Anthony Johnson reports on the botched drug deal in a NJ mall parking lot, and explores whether public parking lots are the new preferred place for drug dealers.
April 24, 2014 5:38:24 AM PDT
Police arrested three men after an undercover drug operation went bad Tuesday at a New Jersey shopping center, leaving a police officer and a suspect shot.

The scene played out around 1:45 p.m. in the parking lot of a strip mall in Garfield, as gunshots rang out and shoppers scrambled for cover.


Authorities said an undercover officer working with the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office Narcotic Task Force was engaged in a drug operation, a planned marijuana buy, at the time. But officials don't believe the alleged sellers had any intention of completing the purchase. Instead, Bergen County prosecutor John Mollinelli says the motive was robbery.

"In my judgment, this was a planned theft," he said. "They set this transaction in order to do a drug transaction, but with no intention of carrying it out."

The sale was taking place in a lot next to a Wal-Mart, Marshalls and Applebee's. One suspect was a passenger inside the vehicle with the undercover cop when a second suspect came up to the driver's side door and pointed a gun at the driver.

"A gunman walked up to the car and said, 'Give me everything you have,'" Mollinelli said.

A struggle ensued, and the gunman fired two shots into the officer before his backup team intervened and shot the suspect.

The alleged gunman, Raphael Pena, was arrested at the scene, as was Melvin Guzman, Jr., the man in the vehicle with the officer. Pena's getaway driver fled the scene, but state police arrested Patrick Morrell on the Garden State Parkway near the Essex toll plaza in Bergen County.

The gunfire stunned shoppers.

"We were really close," Brianna Colon said. "We heard three or four popping noises and before you know it, we were walking and we see a guy on the ground and his leg was bleeding and the side of his head."

The officer was struck in the left side and the ankle. He was alert, conscious and talking after arriving at Hackensack University Medical Center, officials said. He had surgery on his ankle and is in stable condition.

Pena was wounded and was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital in Paterson. He also had surgery, but his injuries were not considered life-threatening, officials said.

The officer's name is being withheld due to his undercover status, but authorities say he is a nine-year veteran of the Paramus Police Department and was on loan to the narcotics task force.

Molinelli called the incident an "an average street drug buy," and praised the work of the task force officers.

"This is what they do, every day, every night, 365 days a year," he said.

Pena is expected to be charged with attempted murder, among other charges.