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Anonymous Document Raises Questions About Investigation in Police Fire-Bombing Case

As EPD Infighting Reaches Boiling Point, Report Implicates Chief Bryan in Pushing Officer Michael Dotro as Suspect in Arson at Captain's House
Thomas Bryan
Edison Police Chief Thomas Bryan helped provide investigators with information that led to arson charges against Michael Dotro. Kaila Boulware

EDISON, NJ—An anonymous document circulated in January makes the case that county investigators and prosecutors have gone overboard in their efforts to take down one Edison police officer.

It is just the latest episode in a series of scandals that cast a shadow over the Edison Police Department (EPD), which has become known for political infighting, retaliation, corruption, and outrageous, headline-grabbing misconduct cases.

The unsigned 10-page report, titled "An Inside Look," is authored by someone claiming to be a law enforcement official.

It also includes some 61 pages of additional documents from the case against officer Michael Dotro, a fourteen-year veteran of the EPD.

Dotro, a 37-year-old resident of Manalapan, is also the landlord of a rental property on Richardson Street in New Brunswick.

He has a history of complaints for excessive force, on-duty and off, and was accused last May of lighting a homemade bomb on the front porch of one of an EPD Captain's home while the man's family slept inside.

Such an accusation would normally seem unbelievable, but over the past 25 years, Edison cops have been convicted of crimes from rape to bank robbery while a dysfunctional internal affairs apparatus failed to root out brazen wrongdoing.

The anonymous author accuses Edison Police Chief Thomas Bryan of helping to pin the horrendous crime on Dotro.

"I have been in Law Enforcement for 18 plus years and worked multiple departments," writes the anonymous skeptic. "I gained interest in this case because I met Dotro multiple times from trips to Atlantic City while he was a union delegate."

Taken together, the report and attached documents cast a new light on sworn statements made by Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office (MCPO) Detective Todd O'Malley, who allegedly did not investigate or consider anyone else besides Dotro as a potential suspect in the fire case.

Among the documents provided, which have yet to be verified, are papers that show Dotro submitted to DNA testing and that human hairs and fingerprints collected near the explosive device did not match his own DNA, dealing an early blow to the case against him.

The Star-Ledger reported on March 1 that the FBI crime lab charged with testing the evidence actually lost a second hair that had been found near the improvised bomb.

The report confirmed that the other hair did not match Dotro or his wife, and animal hair found at the fire scene did not match their pets.

The author of the anonymous document also makes the case that photos from a QuikChek security camera located nearly seven miles from the scene of the crime prove little, if anything.

According to the timestamps in the photos, which are not detailed enough to show a license plate, a vehicle resembling Dotro's is shown driving in one direction at 3:41am, and then in the opposite directions just 15 minutes later.

But according to Google Maps, the site of the security camera is a 13-minute drive from the scene of the fire, which would make for a round trip of nearly a half-hour including time required to plant and ignite the incendiary device.

Dotro's attorney Robert Norton told NJ.com's Mark Mueller that the images are of such poor quality that it is difficult to confirm the vehicle is Dotro's, and that prosecutors misrepresented the direction it was traveling in.

The author of the document also questions O'Malley's claims regarding a 2008 fire involving a vehicle and a shed belonging to Dotro's next-door neighbor who he fueded with.

It appears Dotro did get into a physical fight with his senior citizen neighbor at one point that year.  Both signed assault complaints against each other and were eventually acquitted.

However, even after speaking with the neighbor, Dennis Sassa, investigators deemed the 2008 fire accidental in nature, and determined that it started in the engine compartment of Sassa's motorhome.

Attached investigation reports from the Manalapan Fire Department and the Monmouth County Fire Marshall made no mention of Dotro, instead ruling it an accidental vehicle fire.

O'Malley had first obtained the questionable information from none other than Bryan, according to his initial report who said at the scene of the 2013 fire that Dotro "was a suspect in an arson investigation."

When it came time to ask for search warrants, O'Malley relied heavily on the 2008 fire to make his case.

"When questioned as to what he thought happened, Mr. Sassa expressed strongly that he and his wife felt that Mr. Dotro had set the fire as retaliation," O'Malley wrote in an afidavit.

Though Chief Bryan recently made headlines for traveling out-of-county to buy a bicycle while a school in Edison was on lockdown, he was "johnny on the spot" in the early morning hours of May 20, 2013.

Bryan was present as investigators began to examine the aftermath of a fire at the home of Captain Mark Anderko, his highest-ranking ally on the force.

The anonymous report claims that, within a few hours of the fire being extinguished, Bryan was already pushing a narrative that Dotro was the main suspect.

"Thomas Bryan immediately gave [the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office (MCPO)] a knowingly false statement giving them a suspect along with a motive," when investigators arrived on scene at 6:50am, the document's author claims.

Bryan told an investigator on scene that morning that Dotro was upset with Anderko over a recent transfer, and a requirement that Dotro undergo a psychological evaluation.

Dotro had been recently told that he would be temporarily be transferred to the day shift, from midnight shift, while he underwent "remedial training" and implemented a "Performance Improvement Plan."

Law enforcement sources said the fire-bombing would be extreme retaliation for a transfer from one shift to another, one of the lower forms of reprimand in a department rife with back-stabbing and personal vendettas.

According to the documents, when Dotro was interviewed by investigators, he said he had no problem with Captain Anderko, whose family was in the home at the time but escaped without injury.

"He further claimed that... his problem was with the Edison Police Chief Thomas Bryan," reads O'Malley's affidavit seeking a warrant in the case, one of several attached documents.

Days later, Dotro was charged with arson and attempted murder.  Dotro's house was searched for over 10 hours in an effort that occupied dozens of officers and a bomb dog, according to the report.

Investigators took Dotro's pickup truck as well as about 40 towels, a number of gas cans, locked safes, floor mats, computers, all of his police equipment, randomly collected pet hairs, and hair from the shower drains.

But the anonymous report shines a light on the role Bryan played in influencing the investigation, and the role O'Malley played in fabricating the case for search warrants against Dotro.

"Basically Bryan wanted to get Dotro out of the EPD and would go to any means to do it... He was attempting to have Dotro terminated and basically was doing whatever it takes to get him," reads the report.

The new revelations come amid discussions of a potential state takeover of the department's internal affairs (IA) unit, who are accused of going easy on officers favored by Bryan, while doing just the opposite for the Chief's enemies.

"When Bryan had an issue with an officer he investigated them by any means to get them indicted as he did with the wheel of death," wrote the author, alluding to allegations IA had been inappropriately investigating officers and thier families for political reasons.

The embarrassing "wheel of death" was a document that allegedly showed Bryan's former head of internal affairs targeted the political supporters of then-Mayor Antonia Ricigliano, who often butted heads with the Chief.

A cornerstone of integrity for any police department, internal affairs is supposed to impartially investigate complaints of officer misbehavior, but in Edison the unit was apparently used to gather intelligence on family members of police officers and other civilians, including Ricigliano and her top adviser.

With at least thirty Edison officers fired or forced out amid allegations of inappropriate or illegal behavior over two decades, and one out of every ten officers suing the department for unfair treatment, reforms often take a backseat.

Meanwhile, members of the public still complain of brutality not being properly investigated, making internal affairs a lightning rod for criticism and attracting the attention of federal investigators and the news media.

Many times, the IA office was used to target officers who had done nothing wrong, or had been targets of harassment by the powers that be in the department.

Joseph Tauriello attacked his wife's ex-husband at a youth soccer game in 2003, according to internal affairs and subsequent reports in the news media.

But he tells Edison Now that  "the story was twisted around by the Edison Police Department's Internal Affairs Division mainly [by then-Sgt.] Bryan."

"This was done in retaliation for my out spoken stance against them as PBA President and because my wife had filed a harrassment suit against them and the Department," Tauriello.

"I am a victim of the same non sense that is coming to a head now," he said.  "Chief Bryan and his cohorts will stop at nothing to destroy those who oppose them."

Peter Barnes, the State Senator who represents Edison, has been pushing for a new law that would create a pilot program to hand over control of police internal affairs to the state's Attorney General's Office, starting with Edison.

After the illegal investigations into civilians came to light, the IA division was briefly taken over by the MCPO.

Then-prosecutor Bruce Kaplan reminded the agency that was against the law, but cleared those reponsible of wrongdoing.

Two weeks after the matter was brought to his attention, the MCPO took over Edison's internal affairs unit for three months, before relinquishing control and sparring with the man who replaced Bryan.

Now, under new leadership, the MCPO has deepened its look into the department, starting with Dotro, but sparking other investigation by seizing and examining the cellular phones of officers who either worked with  or were friendly with him.

"As soon as most of the evidence came back as not incriminating... [the MCPO] quickly filed ridiculous Official Misconduct charges against him and his wife in order to gain leverage against them," reads the anonymous document.

By June 2014, Dotro was indicted by a Middlesex County grand jury in a ten-count indictment related to the fire.

After being charged with arson and five counts of attempted murder, Dotro was arrested again in September 2013, and charged with additional 17 crimes including buying marijuana while on duty, carrying illegal weapons, and slashing a woman's tires.

In October 2014, both Dotro and his wife were indicted for additional crimes including criminal mischief, conspiracy, and official misconduct, a charge that is typically only charged against public officials.

New Prosecutor Andrew Carey, an appointee of Governor Chris Christie, has tried to set himself apart from previous prosecutors by targeting corruption.

A spokesperson for his office ignored most of Edison Now's questions about why Dotro's wife was indicted for a crime that only public officials can be charged with under the law.

"The grand jury charged Ms. Dotro 'as and accomplice' in the official misconduct count," was the only statement provided by MCPO spokesperson James O'Neill.

O'Neill did not answer questions about whether their position has any basis in law, or whether MCPO officials had suggested to the grand jurors that it would be appropriate to hand up an indictment on that charge.

"We don't think there's sufficient evidence to tie Mr. Dotro to the arson, and it is our belief that because of the lack of evidence, they've brought additional indictments which would not normally be prosecuted but for the fact it is the Edison Police Department and Mr. Dotro," Robert Norton, Dotro's attorney, told NJ.com.

"The Prosecutor's Office had much to lose as well," argues the author of the newly-released documents, hinting the MCPO might have been hoping to use the arson case to open up a wider investigation into Edison Police Department.

"With Dotro's cell phone they can piggyback to other officers cell phones and cast a web over the entire deparmtment."

Indeed the MCPO rounded up the phones of more than a dozen officers who communicated with Dotro, and eventually leveled unrelated criminal charges against three additional officers.

A fourth officer was charged administratively, and remains on paid suspension, after authorities discovered an array of racist text messages from him, including some about his co-workers.

Also indicted were the three officers charged with conspiring to help Dotro get back at a North Brunswick police officer who lives in Edison and arrested one of Dotro's relatives for driving drunk.

Though the document is largely silent on the additional charges against Dotro, the author argues, "One thing the facts will prove is that Michael Dotro did not commit this arson at the Anderko residence."

Still, despite the concerns raised about the investigation, there is significant circumstantial evidence that could implicate Dotro.

Dotro and his wife both told investigators that they fell asleep watching TV.  But the NJ.com article says that authorities claim to have recovered a text message from the wife asking her husband where he was.

The NJ.com article also says that the Dotros discussed that text message in a phone call while he was in jail.  Middlesex County Jail records all of its inmates' phone calls.

Another woman, who is believed to have been Dotro's former mistress, said that Dotro bragged about lighting something of his neighbor's on fire, perhaps a reference to the incident with Sassa.

The woman also claimed Dotro offerred to help her get back at someone who was bothering her in a similar fashion.

According to court records obtained by NJ.com, "Dotro asked [his then-girlfriend] if she wanted to get back at the man, and suggested that they set his car on fire by putting a gasoline-filled container with a lighted fabric wick under the man's car."

Dotro's attorney objected to the grand jury having been allowed to hear the testimony as "improper." 

While the author of the anonymous document does not address Dotro's former girlfriend, it does attempt to refute similar statements made by Kortney Stryker, the wife of a Woodbridge Township police officer.

"The unnamed source is Kortney Stryker, a former drug dealer and stripper who was given immunity from [drug distribution charges] to make a statement against Dotro," reads the document.  

Stryker is married to Dennis Benigno who, according to the document, "is currently trying for a position on the Middlesex County Narcotics Task Force."

"She told them what they wanted to hear in order to save herself and to protect Benigno's reputation."

The documents "conclusion" states that other important evidence was ruled out, and the victim, Captain Mark Anderko, was never a suspect.

"After Dotro VOLUNTEERED his DNA and was EXCLUDED why wasn't DNA taken from anyone in the Anderko family?" asks the author of the document.

Anderko saw a complaint against him sustained by the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office after he accepted several hundred dollars worth of beauty supplies from a warehouse in Raritan Center around the same time of the fire.

"He claimed they were samples but later went to try to pay the owner after the owner complained on him and attempted to press charges on Anderko... Those charges seem to have disappeared," writes the anonymous source.

He eventually wrote a check to the company, and despite the accusations, and was promoted to Deputy Chief by Ricigliano, while he remained out on paid leave for several months following the fire.

Anderko also received a $250,000 settlement for his lawsuit over being demoted by Ricigliano.

"Thomas Bryan continued to give the Prosecutor's Office reasonable suspicion to continue to investigate Dotro by reporting confidential IA files to investigators," reads the report.

Bryan claimed Dotro had 11 complaints over the last 2 years, according to the document.  But in reality, it was 11 complaints over 10 years, with just two in the past four years, still a significant number, but not as bad as what the Cheif allegedly indicated.

Dotro was far from perfect, with a record of significant and persistent misconduct, even by Edison's standards.

But the document says that the prosecution also tried to pin other crimes on him that he had nothing to do with.

Those crimes included a burglary at the home of a North Brunswick police officer, an unsolved theft of a police vehicle, and a fire at a Edison police sergeant's home in 2012.

"Dotro was the prime suspect in the disappearance of an patrol vehicle but when evidence revealed the chief's son was involved all allegations were swept under the carpet," reads the document.

The police car was found almost a week later, and the case was never exactly solved.  Several officers were prepared to admit to moving the car as a practical joke, but decided against it when they learned they would face punishment. 

In 2006, Dotro was accused of assaulting a township resident during an arrest, sparking protests that argued the excessive force was racially-motivated.  The victim was of Indian descent, one of the largest minority groups in the town.

One month later, Dotro coordinated with his brother, an attorney who works for the federal government's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, to have the same individual arrested and deported.

The second arrest was made in front of Edison Town Hall at a protest against Dotro, but the Mayor and Police Chief claimed to have no knowledge of ICE's plans.

Both Dotros found themselves under investigation after the incident, but Edison's internal investigation found no wrongdoing.

"While the arrest of [the man] served a legitimate law enforcement purpose, the timing and the environment of the arrest was inappropriate," according to a joint statement from Mayor Jun Choi and his Police Chief George Mieczkowski.

The most recent accusations against Dotro are just the latest in a cavalcade of sometimes unbelievable stories involving the department that polices Middlesex County's largest municipality.

"An internal power struggle has exploded into open civil war, with officers plotting against one another and the chief," reported the Ledger's Mark Mueller in December 2012.

In 2013, an acting Captain, two lieutenants, a sergeant, and three patrolmen filed a lawsuit alleging they were subject to unfavorable employment evaluations, job transfers, demotions, and disparate treatment due their targeting.

Mueller's reporting helped shine a light on growing dissent amongst the sizable force, as evidenced by a growing number of lawsuits against Bryan and the Township.

One of those lawsuits, filed by a former Captain who says Bryan forced him out of the job he held for 35 years, has proceeded to a fascinating trial that is currently playing out before Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Douglas Wolfson.

Bryan supposedly investigated and charged Captain Michael Palko for a "threatening" comment made on an NJ.com article that was traced to his home.

Palko's wife admitted to comments that called Mayor Choi a "douchebag," but said the the allegedly threatening comment from the same screenname that discussed taking out "knives" and having to "bury" people, according to NJ.com.

She said the problematic comment must have been made by someone else, possibly a family friend and police officer named Frank Todd, who was one of two officers that later filed a complaint about it.

In recent years, more than a dozen lawsuits were filed by Edison police officers against their bosses, and a police union complained to the FBI of illegal secretive surveillance equipment installed at key locations inside the municipal building, at Bryan's request.

Bryan had wrongly told the union that new cameras installed with audio recording capabilities were not actually recording audio, perhaps running afoul of federal wiretapping laws.

Bryan, a former internal affairs commander who served in that division for fourteen years, has come under fire, but has also led the charge against certain officers.  He says disgruntled subordinates once arranged for a "crack whore" to call his home and speak to his wife and children.

The dysfunctional internal affairs division continues to leave bad officers on the job, leading to high-profile negative attention on the department's "astonishing" record of misconduct and even a star-studded film about police corruption that bared the name "Edison Force."

Anthony Sarni is currently facing charges he propositioned a woman for sex while in uniform, who he had just met on the job. He is just the latest Edison cop to be accused of wrongdoing in a variety of matters unrelated to Dotro.

Charles Fekete was jailed in 1991 after being convicted of rape. He too had been the subject of numerous internal affairs investigations.

Robert Spinello used his service weapon to rob a bank in January 1999, making off with $3,500.

Another officer, Wayne Seich, pleaded guilty to simple assault after he injured his 71-year-old female neighbor, who had complained to his superiors about the way he parked his patrol car on the block.

Since Mueller's epic report, titled "Betraying the Badge," journalists and residents have uncovered other cases of police misconduct, including an officer who left his squad car running in his own driveway while he watched last year's Super Bowl.

But it's far from the first time Edison cops have been caught in embarrassing situations. Ioannis Mpletsakis re-joined the Edison force two years after he fled the scene of an accident while off-duty, and completely naked.

Another, David Yanvary, pleaded guilty to shoplifting $42 worth of merchandise from the supermarket he worked at part-time.

Thomas Wall retired but avoided criminal charges after he showed up to trade drugs for sex, only to encounter Woodbridge police ready to bust him in a sting operation.

Wall convinced the Woodbridge cops he was doing his own undercover work and left a free man.

Other Edison officers knowingly wrote bad checks, worked at brothels, or sufferred from drug problems of their own.

Bryan blames his opponents on the force, painting them as opponents of "reforms" he has brought to the department in his fourteen years in IA, and his six years as Chief.

Bryan's opponents say, however, that he rewards and protects his friends while targeting those who opposed Jun Choi, an important political figure who overthrew a longstanding power structure to achieve the Township's highest office and helped Bryan achieve the top job in the department.

Choi supported Bryan's promotion to Chief in 2008, bypassing more senior commanders.  Bryan's promotion came around the same time that the department reached a divisive crossroads when racism reared it's ugly head.

After Patrolman Joseph Kenney complained Sgt. Alex Glinsky refused to help him rescue victims from a raging car fire that claimed two lives, battle lines were drawn.

Kenney spoke up the next morning during roll call, saying that Glinsky said he would not help with the rescue because the victims were of Indian descent, a growing, and often oppressed minority in Edison.

"You were derelict in your duties, not only as a sergeant, but as a human being by not trying to save those men," Kenney said, according to published reports.

Instead of looking into Glinsky's behavior and apparent racism, recently-minted Chief Bryan and his allies in internal affairs pushed insubordination charges against Kenney for speaking up.

But Kenney prevailed, winning on a technicality and garnering support from cops and others in the community throughout the controversy.

One month later, Kenney filed a discrimination lawsuit against Edison Township, claiming they were attempting to force him into retirement in retaliation for the controversy.

The case was settled for a whopping $250,000. 

Meanwhile, Glinsky retired after leaving a pornographic photo of himself on a computer at headquarters, downloading pictures of nude women, and using adult dating websites while on the job.

In 2009, another shake-up affected the department, as Choi was defeated by Antonia Ricigliano, who became Mayor in January 2010. 

After losing to Ricigliano, but before leaving office, Choi approved the promotions of several of Chief Bryan's favored commanders, including Anderko, a move that was later rolled back by Ricigliano, who also serves as Edison's Public Safety Director.

That was just the beginning of a rocky relationship between Bryan and Ricigliano.  Tensions reached their boiling point in March 2011, when Ricigliano suspended Bryan for allegedly disobeying her.

One of the men Choi had passed over for the Chief position, Deputy Chief Mel Vaticano, was put in operational control of the department.  He immediately transferred Bryan's men out of internal affairs and replaced them with his own.

Vaticano's internal affairs team discovered the poster-sized "wagon wheel," full of bullet points about each officer with information unrelated to police work, including their family members' workplaces.

The chart allegedly showed which officers made political contributions to Ricigliano and how much they gave, according to the Star-Ledger's coverage.  Others included on the chart were the Mayor, a union attorney, and a former Assistant Prosecutor, all of which were not proper subjects for internal affairs investigations.

Also on Formica's desk were dossiers on various government workers, including the former business administrator, a former assistant public safety director, and former council president Bill Stephens.

"They were running a real J Edgar Hoover operation," one source told the Star-Ledger.

On the defensive, police chief Thomas Bryan gave the Star-Ledger an unlikely explanation for the so-called "Wagon Wheel of Death," a chart put together by Lt. Gregory Formica depicting a number of officers who supported Ricigliano.

Bryan told the state's largest newspaper that the FBI had asked Edison police to conduct the investigations into civilians.

The federal agency responded by saying they "[do] not task other individuals to conduct investigations on our behalf," speaking generally.

Vaticano pushed for Bryan to be charged criminally for allegedly attempting to take internal affairs files out of headquarters during the power struggle.

But then-Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan took Bryan's side in the dispute, calling Vaticano's accusation baseless, according to the Ledger.

Now, Kaplan is out of the picture, having been made a judge by Governor Christie and Andrew Carey appears to have a good working relationship with Bryan, back in power and bolstered by the defeat of Ricigliano in the 2013 election.

The new Mayor of Edison, Thomas Lankey, also supports Bryan, as he does many other allies of former Mayor Choi.

One thing is for sure.  The ongoing drama at the Edison Police Department is far from over.

The case against Dotro and his wife has yet to go to trial, and the anonymous documents circulated in January promise a follow-up.

"Multiple questions arose during this investigation and as additional facts come to light it will be distributed in a Part 2 of this document."