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NORTH BRUNSWICK, NJ—Carolyn Sheldon, a 76-year-old Towship resident, became the 45th and final person killed on the highways of Middlesex County in 2016 on December 28.
The crash occurred at Finnegans Lane and Route 1, a particularly dangerous intersection where residents have been complaining about the lack of safety.
The intersection, located near the border of North Brunswick and South Brunswick, plays host to two gas stations and an office building that is home to one of the county's most powerful law firms.
According to the Home News Tribune's Suzanne Russell, police say Sheldon was actually struck by two different vehicles.
"[Captain Cory] Harris said Sheldon was initially struck by a 2016 Toyota driven by Sergio Benitez, 43, of Union City, who was traveling in the right lane," reported Russell, noting that "Benitez stopped and remained at the scene."
But, according to the report, another vehicle also struck Sheldon, but police told the Home News that that driver did not stop.
"Police are looking for that vehicle, which is described only as an SUV. Police will be checking surveillance footage in the area in hopes of identifying the other vehicle, Harris said," read the report.
Sheldon was among seven people who died from vehicle-related fatalities in the county during December, according to NJ State Police (NJSP) statistics. It was the most fatalities the county saw in a single month since July, when eight people died in motor vehicle crashes.
According to NJ.com, 2016 was the deadliest year for the state's highways since 2011, with 607 killed statewide in crashes.
In Middlesex County, there were 44 crashes that killed 48 people according to the stats, which curiously omitted at least one fatal crash in Woodbridge Township. Of those, at least 10 were pedestrians.
It's not clear why the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office (MCPO) issues press releases for some fatal crashes and not others.
For instance, the Woodbridge crash occurred one day earlier and claimed the life of a woman on Route 9 in Woodbridge. There were no criminal charges, but the MCPO issued a press release.
In December, the MCPO also did not issue any releases on a fatal December 5 crash in Monroe Township, a December 9 crash that killed a pedestrian in Highland Park, and a December 20 crash that killed two people in East Brunswick.
During 2016, the MCPO only issued press releases in about 18% of the fatal crashes in Middlesex County, with eleven press releases covering eight fatal incidents, including the deaths of four pedestrians.
When the MCPO does not announce the crash, local police departments often do make efforts to publicize the incidents.
In New Brunswick, the sole fatal crash of 2016 claimed the lives of two young men in a vehicle that was speeding down Route 18 before it crashed into the Raritan River on July 25. As television stations and other journalists inquired about the incident, the city's police department publicized the report with a press release of its own.
However, the crash investigation report for that incident was omitted from the hundreds of others posted to the city's website for reasons unknown.
In the incident that claimed Sheldon's life, local police eventually used social media and the department's Nixle emergency alert system to request the public's assistance. But the MCPO never issued any public statements.
In the case of the North Brunswick crash, the message came over the local department's Nixle emergency alert system. The message was simple, emailed with the subject line "Advisory: Active Police investigation in the area of Route 1 North and Finnegans Lane. Please avoid the area until further notice."
But the rest of the message was rather strange, apparently the result of an error:
$$(Agency)$$ advises you to AVOID Location due to a current traffic issue.
A $$(Situation)$$ near $$(Specific Location)$$ has closed $$(Impacted Roads)$$ and will require a detour of traffic for the next $$(Timeframe)$$.
$$(Suggested alternate routes (if desired))$$.
$$(Additional traffic information (if desired))$$.
For full details, view this message on the web.
By the following morning, the Township was requesting help with the case, posting the following message to Facebook and Nixle:
The North Brunswick Township Police Dept. Traffic Safety Unit is investigating a motor vehicle crash involving a pedestrian. The crash occurred on December 28, 2016 @ 10:25 pm. at the intersection of Rt 1 North and Finnegan's Ln.. If you were traveling in this area during the time and witnessed the crash, please contact Ptl. D. Katsoulis at 732-247-0922 Ext 317. Thank you for your assistance.
Though the MCPO has removed all of our reporters from their media email list, their releases are posted on social media and the county website.
Anyone traveling in the area during that time who may have witnessed the Route 1 crash is asked to contact Patrolman Dimitrious Katsoulis at 732-247-0922, ext. 317.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.