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Grand Jury Declines Charges in NJ Sex Sting Killing

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Jun 29, 2011
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There will be no charges brought against a New Jersey police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man in a park last year, allegedly after the man tried to attack the officer during a sex sting.

Defarra Gaymon, a 48-year-old businessman from Atlanta, Georgia, was in the state for a high school class reunion. The fatal scuffle took place on July 16, 2010, in Branch Brook Park, which is located in Newark, NJ. According to the officer, Edward Esposito, 30, Gaymon assailed him when Esposito flashed his badge after encountering Gaymon in a wooded area of the park, which is known to be a cruising ground. After a chase, Esposito said, Gaymon threatened and then lunged at him.

An Essex County grand jury found that no criminal misdeed had taken place in the shooting, the New York Times reported on June 28.

A July 20, 2010, New York Times article described the events leading up to the tragedy. A pair of undercover police officers -- one of them Esposito -- were patrolling the park, on the lookout for public sexual activity. The patrol was part of a program targeting public sexual activity in the park. The program had resulted in about 200 arrests in the previous year and a half.

Esposito said that he had become separated from his partner at about 6:00, having lost his handcuffs while pursuing a suspect. It was while retrieving his lost handcuffs that Esposito allegedly encountered Gaymon, who, according to officials, was already displaying sexual conduct when the two encountered one another. Officials say that Gaymon then propositioned the officer, at which point the officer identified himself. Gaymon allegedly then knocked the officer down and fled, leading to the chase. When Esposito caught up with Gaymon, he allegedly threatened Esposito’s life and then reached into his pocket and lunged at the officer, who shot him in the stomach, thinking that Gaymon had a weapon.

"There was never a doubt that the use of force was an absolute last resort and justified in all aspects," Esposito’s attorney, Charles J. Sciarra, told the press.

Esposito remains confined to desk duty.

"All the people that knew him say you never met a kinder, nicer, more gentle person, and they’re stunned about what happened," the Montclair High School Alumni Association’s John Joyce told the New York Times. Gaymon had helped to organize the 30-year reunion of his class, the 2010 article said.

The police expressed their condolences over the shooting, but Gaymon’s family members reiterated their doubts. "There’s nothing threatening about his character," Kelly Gaymon Armstrong, the sister of the deceased, told the Star-Ledger. "He’s a softie. It doesn’t add up."

Said former Montclair classmate Kerry Asbury, "[Reunion attendees] were shocked to hear about the death. He wasn’t that type of guy. But we don’t know what happened."

An officer with the Newark police envisioned a situation in which "[Gaymon’s] life must have flashed before his eyes and he went into a panic."

Esposito was reportedly so traumatized by the shooting that he was treated with medication.

"This is a very sad and painful case but a grand jury -- the voice of the community -- has determined no crime was committed," Acting Prosecutor Carolyn Murray told the press, according to a June 29 Star-Ledger article. "We must respect that decision."

But Gaymon’s family still dispute Esposito’s version of what happened, and they are suing. They have declined to address publicly whether Gaymon might have been gay or bisexual, or whether he might have been an MSM.

MSM, or "men who have sex with men," frequently identify as heterosexual, despite seeking occasional sexual encounters with others of the same gender. In March of 2010, Los Angeles police arrested a number of men for public sex in parks. Many of the men were Hispanic, and claimed to be heterosexual.

"Very typically these are married man who do not identify themselves as gay," LAPD Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz told the media during a March 12, 2010, press conference. "Many of these men are Hispanic," continued Diaz. "Many are monolingual Spanish speakers."

Regardless of why Gaymon was in the park, questions linger about the level of force used in the incident.

"The bottom line is that Defarra Gaymon was a peaceful and successful man who was shot and killed while unarmed in broad daylight in Branch Brook Park," attorney Christopher Kinum said. "His wife, parents and four young children miss him immensely."

Kinum also questioned the way the case was handled.

"We don’t feel like we got a legitimate investigation out of the prosecutor’s office," he told the New York Times.

The June 28 New York Times article noted that the account of the events leading to the shooting was drawn solely from Esposito’s statements. But the Star Ledger article reported that there was another piece of evidence: A recording of a call for help Esposito made on his cell phone.

"Let me see your hands. Let me see your hands," Esposito can be heard saying on the recording, which documents a call that the young officer made to his supervisor just after the shooting. "Come on, I’m trying to get you help."

Beyond the question of whether Gaymon, who was the CEO of an Atlanta credit union, was in the park looking for sex with another man, the issue of undercover police setting up such sting operations looms large.

"Gaymon’s death sparked outrage among gay and civil rights advocates, who questioned whether the undercover operation was unfairly targeting a specific group for what amounted to a disorderly persons violation," the Star-Ledger article noted.

"The question needs to be explored as to whether Mr. Gaymon was slain because of his perceived or actual sexual orientation," said the head of Garden State Equality, Steve Goldstein.

Garden State Equality and the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey sent a joint letter last year to both the Essex County’s Sheriff’s Department and the Essex County Prosecutor’s office.

"We believe any operation targeting people based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation would be a violation of state law," the two groups wrote. "New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination expressly outlaws discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation.

"In no way do we condone any violation of lewdness statutes," the letter added. "But any sting operation targeting gay men or LGBT people specifically, or anyone perceived as such, is unconscionable-and as we strongly believe, illegal."

"Law enforcement agencies need to reconsider their methods for preventing and policing lewd behavior in our public parks," the head of the ACLU, Deborah Jacobs, said with respect to the tragedy.

Further corroboration of Esposito’s story might never be possible. No witnesses have come forward to share what they might have seen take place that evening, a prosecutor’s office spokesperson told the press.

Garden State Equality called for a federal investigation.

"First and foremost, our hearts go out to Dean Gaymon’s family. How incredibly painful it must be to lose a loved one in these circumstances and for no charges to result," said Goldstein in a June 28 statement.

"Garden State Equality calls on the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice to begin a federal civil rights investigation," Goldstein added. "Under the law, a federal civil rights investigation becomes possible when the grand jury phase is complete."

Questions about police conduct arose following a 20090 undercover sex sting in Palm Springs, when one officer joked to a decoy that he could simply ask suspects, "Are you a cocksucker?"

A June 28, 2010 Bay Area Reporter story said that the Palm Springs police department mounted the sex sting operation in the Warm Sands area over a three-day period in June, 2009, in response to reports of public sex acts.

"The arrests took place after a decoy officer coaxed each of the 19 men to expose his penis in a dark parking lot of a gay resort," the Bay Area Reporter story said. "The men are being charged with penal code section 314, a charge that will require the men, if convicted, to register as sex offenders for life. The men would be on a sex offender registry in a database accessible to law enforcement only."

A second epithet was hurled by Palm Springs Police Chief David Dominguez, reported the blog The Mad Professah Lectures on Dec. 29, 2010. According to the posting, Dominguez, after initially denying he had called the men placed under arrest during the sex sting operation "a bunch of filthy motherfuckers," eventually apologized for the slur.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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