Q&A with John Molinelli

Q&A with John Molinelli

Bergen County prosecutor goes behind the scenes in bomb probe

Five attacks. Hundreds of police officers. Thousands of potential targets. An assailant growing steadily more daring and dangerous. And concern that he knew what an eruv was.

The attacks on northern New Jersey synagogues presented Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli with one of the highest profile and high pressure cases of his career, he said in a March 9 interview with The Jewish Standard.

The case now appears to be wrapped up, with the arrest earlier this month of 19-year-old Aakash Dalal as the alleged mastermind of the firebombing of Congregation Beth El in Rutherford, as well as thwarted blazes at two Paramus synagogues, and graffiti scrawls on synagogues in Maywood and Hackensack. Dalal’s arrest followed the earlier arrest of Anthony Graziano, who allegedly created and threw Molotov cocktails at Dalal’s encouragement. Molinelli, however, said he will not rule out the possibility that continued investigation of the defendants’ computers may reveal other co-conspirators.

Perhaps the most disturbing revelation was that between Rutherford attack, on Jan. 11, and Graziano’s arrest 13 days later, Molinelli began to worry that the next attack might be against not another county synagogue – which were all the subject of stepped-up police patrols – but against a residence in a Jewish neighborhood.

“When you start to prepare for things, you hope for the best, but you prepare for the worst,” said Molinelli. “So we were looking and were beginning to try to assemble – if he was going to hit in a residential area, where would he hit, where would he throw the Molotov cocktail?”

The prosecutor had high praise for the level of community cooperation during the investigation. He singled out two people – Etzion Neuer of the Anti-Defamation League and Joy Kurland, of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey – for special praise. “They did a wonderful job in helping to ease concerns in the community,” he said, adding that they also provided invaluable assistance to the investigation itself.

The conversation began with Molinelli acknowledging The Jewish Standard’s role in the case, which consisted of forwarding a web site comment fingering Dalal to the prosecutor’s office. “The first blog that came to our attention, that identified Dalal as a person of interest,” he said, “was your publication,” referring to The Jewish Standard.

What follows is an edited version of that interview.

Q: What do you know about Aakash Dalal?

Molinelli: I can never be overly specific about what we do, but we confirmed early on that he was somebody who had a history of certain anti-government, anti-Semitic [behavior]. He wasn’t just anti-Semitic, he’s anti everything. So I can’t really identify that it’s just about anti-Semitism….He’s just anti-government, but unlike Mr. Graziano, [he’s] a very aggressive type, one that shows an open disdain for government, for authority. Since [his arrest], we’ve read certain accounts from even his classmates in high school, even his former coach in high school, that we didn’t have when we arrested him.

Of course, Mr. Graziano never told us about Mr. Dalal; we came upon Mr. Dalal on our own….We just didn’t tell anyone that. [The investigation] took awhile because some of the investigation against Mr. Dalal was the forensic investigation on the computer, which takes time. Even as efficient as our computer crimes unit and the FBI are, it still takes time. [Graziano and Dalal] both wiped [and] reformatted their computers, did everything that people with computer knowledge do to try and stop us from finding this information. But that usually is unsuccessful….

Once we started to get some of the forensic work [back], we knew that [Dalal] had a much more significant involvement in the synagogue bombings here in Bergen County. And after we investigated further, what had been a home run turned into a real, real great case, because we were then able to solve the two spray-painting incidents, which we were really having a tough time matching people with them.

We seized, of course, spray paint cans from the Graziano house. We were sending out paint scrapings from both of the synagogues, trying to compare the paint, which you can do, from the cans that we seized. You know, it was a very difficult process.

But there was also something that was inconsistent with it. Graziano was very, in a way, a somewhat passive person in his beliefs. He kept them very quiet, he didn’t speak a lot about them, at least not to people we dealt with.

So to spray paint, we kind of wondered why, why would he do this? That’s why we never matched him up with the process. But when we arrested Mr. Dalal, that then tied both Dalal and Graziano to both of the spray-painting incidents. Which, when you consider we started this in January with absolutely no clues, nothing, and five incidents of violence, law enforcement did a pretty good job on this one.

Q: So you believe Dalal was also spray painting on the synagogues?

Molinelli: Yes he was. He was with Mr. Graziano on both occasions. He was not with Mr. Graziano during the firebombing incidents; Graziano did those alone. But he was with Mr. Graziano in the spray-painting incidents. And the interaction between Dalal and Graziano is one of, ‘You better do a better job. Okay, you did the spray painting, now do more.’ And that’s why you see this progressive change, this increase in violence levels, in every new site.

The incident that would have taken place at the JCC in Paramus was not as severe as Rutherford, because Rutherford was an occupied building. But [it would have been] more severe than the [Congregation K’hal Adath Jeshurun] Arnot Place incident in Paramus. So if you take the very first spray-painting, then he moved to the second spray-painting incident, then Arnot Place in Paramus, which was his first involvement with one or two very crudely made bottles filled with accelerants, to the [Paramus] JCC, where now he had a considerable number of Molotov cocktails and spray cans, but only because a police officer interrupted him did he stop, leaving everything behind.

And then he goes on to Rutherford, and you can see how he’s progressing to Rutherford and why he chose Rutherford – because Rutherford was an old wooden structure.

When I went inside the Congregation Beth El in Rutherford, I remember walking up the stairs to meet the rabbi, and when you walk in old houses, you hear that creak that is very unique to homes built in the late 1800s….

Q: Does Dalal have any prior arrests?

Molinelli: I’ll just say no. I normally can’t answer if he did, but I’ll be perfectly honest with you. Neither one of them have any priors.

Q: I was reading that the defense attorney for Dalal was saying, it’s not a crime to be sending texts back and forth. What’s the line that turns egging someone on into a criminal offense?

Molinelli: When Dalal’s defense attorney made that statement, he was not then, nor is he yet, fully aware of all the discovery in the case. So I’m not going to hold him to what he said. Because based upon what he knew then…, he probably was under the impression that all we were talking about was just communication back and forth. But there’s a lot about this case that he did not know then – and probably still does not know because we really don’t share discovery until there’s an indictment.

…[E]gging someone else on to commit a crime, that’s a crime. It’s conspiracy, particularly when you’re giving advice on how to do it, when you’re educating the person how to do it, when you’re enticing them to do it. It’s not a hard line.

You can always argue, “Well, I was only kidding.” That might work with one instance, maybe, and if right after it happened we start seeing e-mails back from Dalal saying, “My God, what did you do, I was only kidding, you fool, you could have killed someone,” that’s a much different scenario….

Over the course of five incidents, I don’t have a concern of a jury’s review of this type of case as being one of kidding around. There’s no kidding around here.

Q: What’s the time-frame going forward?

Molinelli: I can’t say. I’m not the one that’s actually going to be presenting it. But there’s no reason why sometimes by the summer, mid-summer – let’s just say by the fall, there should be presentments to a grand jury. And then it’s up to them whether to indict or not.

Q: Then assuming there’s an indictment?

Molinelli: That’s up to the court. I’ve got cases in this building right now, where I have a judge telling me it has to go out right away, that are 11 months old, and I’ve got a major case that is now two years old that I can’t seem to get the court to start. So it’s all up to the court, timing, availability of counsel. I know that [public defender Robert] Kalisch, who is a good lawyer, has indicated something about a defense of insanity for Mr. Graziano. That certainly would really delay things somewhat because now you’re involving doctors and psychiatric reports. I don’t know if that’s his intention after the Dalal arrests, but that’s certainly – he tends to be very aggressive, tends to do a very good job in defending his clients. He’s a very good representative of the public defender’s office.

Q: Tell me about the interruption at the Paramus JCC. What happened there?

Molinelli: The JCC was going to be a site for a firebombing. He had many Molotov cocktails set up. He put cans or spray cans in front of the building and was prepared to start the fire. We think a Paramus police vehicle came close and he stopped and ran away, leaving both his bike and all his Molotov cocktails. It was his intention to go back, but we caught him shortly after the Rutherford incident.

He welcomed the publicity after the Rutherford incident, but I’m not sure he realized just how fast law enforcement can move. I don’t think he thought he would be caught, at least that quickly.

Q: And that was really because of the cameras at Walmart?

Molinelli: It was good police work that went to the Walmart, that found a receipt for someone who just happened to buy everything that was used in the Rutherford bomb, and then having Walmart have the cameras that showed him. Definitely a huge help in the case. Because once we broadcast the person’s picture, in a very, very short period of time – when you get a lot of tips calls saying, “it’s Anthony Graziano,” it does tend to have credibility when a lot of people called in. They all wanted that $10,000 [reward], I think. Though I do think that some people called in over a true desire for Mr. Graziano to be stopped. A lot of them, the second question was, “What about the money?”

There are two who will share in the money.

Q: The first two?

Molinelli: They actually called kind of independent of one another, but they each had equally credible evidence. So to try to distinguish between them would be impossible.

Q: Evidence?

Molinelli: Information that this is the person in the picture.

If we had a tip with evidence of what happened, we would be much more interested in that person. But none of them had that.

Q: What do you make of the community response?

Molinelli: I can’t compliment enough the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federation [of Northern New Jersey] in Paramus. Those two, Etzion Neuer from the Anti-Defamation League and [the JCRC’s] Joy Kurland, they did a wonderful job in helping to ease concerns in the community, which I appreciated very much.

There was a lot of pressure on our office. But the last thing you want to do is just run out and grab someone because the public demands that there be an arrest. That takes education, it takes a bit of compassion. And fortunately education, patience, and compassion are three traits of our beloved Jewish community here in Bergen County. And Joy and Etzion did a great job of facilitating that. They held at least three or four events that I know of. I attended one of them, the one out in Randolph, and they had the same message: “Look, let law enforcement do their job. We have the FBI; we have the attorney general’s office; we have the prosceutor’s office; we have to work with them.”

Etzion did a great job getting it from a thousand-dollar reward up to a $10,000 reward. That was really through his efforts.

And that is a wonderful thing to have, when you have a community working with you. Because, unfortunately, I have some cases in the office where the community works against me. And when they do that, what happens is it raises the public’s concern…, and then when the public begins to get concerned over an issue when they should not, but they’ve got these red herrings out there, these issues being throwing out that have nothing to do with the case but gives them cause for concern…, that’s the last thing that I need. I’m not suggesting you as a member of the media do that, but there are some members of the media that get their message across by making people afraid of something.

I think that the media and the Jewish community did an exemplary job in helping to alleviate the concerns by telling people, “look, you’re at risk, be more cautious, be more aware, if you suspect something, call, but let’s let the process move ahead. So trust in your government officials, this is what they’re paid to do, they do a very good job at it, and let them get it done.”

And, of course, the arrests were made. I am very, very comfortable with them.

The last thing you want to do is create this lynch mob environment, and the first person who might remotely be connected with an incident now becomes the target, now has their picture on the front of the paper. Look, the job of a prosecutor is not just to go out and make that arrest. It’s to make sure that what law enforcement is doing is thorough, is correct, is accurate….

I have some murder cases I solve in less than ten hours. I have murder cases that are now over a year, and I haven’t solved them yet. I have an idea how it happens, we often have ideas of who did it, but I can’t stand before a jury and say, “this man stands accused of murder because I think he did it.” That doesn’t go very far with our law and rightfully so.

We have this document, it’s called the Constitution. Sometimes law enforcement might think it gets in the way, but I don’t. That’s what makes us as strong as we are. So I have this obligation and I accept it. I have to make sure what I do is fair to everyone, including the person who is accused. Including Mr. Graziano and Mr. Dalal themselves. They will get a fair trial.

Q: Is there a tension between the motto, “If you see something, say something” and what we were taught as five year olds about the boy who cried wolf?

Molinelli: I’m a little older than you. When I was five, it was “duck and roll” [regarding the potential of an atomic bomb attack].

The boy who cried wolf. I think you should always err on the side of caution, but be realistic in terms of what you are perceiving and what you say. But I don’t think there’s a police chief –

The local police, by the way, is still the best first call. We have ideas about a county prosecutor, we have ideas about the FBI and the Secret Service. They’re all wonderful, exceptional, professional law enforcement organizations. but if something happens in your town, that first phone call is your local police. [The local police] knows your town better than anybody.

For example, you see something suspicious across the street and you call the FBI. Well, now you’re involving two or three FBI agents. They start putting in their tips program, they start running intelligence….

But if you call the local police department, “I want to report suspicious activity, the house across the street from me has lights going on and off, and people are coming in and out, and the house is dark,” [you get an answer like] “Sir, they had an electrical problem in the house, those are electricians coming in and out. The reasons the lights are going on and off is because they’re having problems with their electricity. And the reason why I know that is they came in and applied for a permit today and they told us the lights would be going on and off.” Now, the FBI doesn’t know that. But your local department knows that, which is why always make that first call [to them]. And don’t worry about being the person who cried wolf. If you see something, say something. Call the local police, because they know your town better than anyone.

Q: What’s the line where a case goes from the town to the county prosecutor?

Molinelli: Under attorney general directives, any bias intimidation event that happens in the county, we have to be immediately notified. The local police still investigate it, but we have to be notified because we at times will exercise a greater level of control over it.

Now, in the Maywood and Hackensack incidents, we were notified. We actually went to the scene because it’s a bias intimidation offense.

Bias intimidation always is a crime that’s on the books now, but is committed for reasons based on religion, race, creed, sexual orientation. A lot of people think that making a comment or saying a racial or an ethnic slur is a bias crime. It is not. A bias crime requires two things: It’s an underlying crime. And in the Maywood and Hackensack incidents it was “malicious damage to property.” It’s a crime. It’s a disorderly person, but it’s still a crime.

And if you normally spray-paint somebody’s house, you know, “Giants rule!” something like that, that’s malicious damage. It’s a disorderly person’s offense. But if you do it because of the person’s religion, in this case at a congregation, with anti-Semitic pro-Nazi remarks…, we automatically have to be notified. We also notify the [state] attorney general’s office. There’s an automatic notification process.

When the [Arnot Place] incident in Paramus occurred, then it became our direct investigation. It was still a bias intimidation, but now the underlying offense was arson. Under the attorney general directives, we are the first investigating authority on all arsons in Bergen County. And that’s the same as every other prosecutor’s office in the state. That’s when we took over the investigation. We took the Maywood spray-painting, we took the Hackensack spray-painting, and we now had three cases.

And then Rutherford.

Q: Do you have any sense of whether the group of people was any wider? Did Dalal and Garziano have any other friends?

Molinelli: Don’t know. Don’t know that yet. I have not nor will I rule it out. This case always has a continuing life, long after people go home. Obviously, people should feel much more secure in their homes right now, but we will continue to look to see whether or not there are more individuals involved in the process. Hopefully not, but we don’t assume the negative, either.

Q: So you’re continuing to analyze their computers?

Molinelli: Correct.

Q: How did this case compare to the challenges of other cases?

Molinelli: In terms of the pressure on law enforcement, I equate it very closely to the shooting of police officer Mary Ann Collura in Fair Lawn several years ago, in that someone had shot and killed a police officer, which is one of the ultimate offenses against all of us, it’s against the fabric of law enforcement, it’s against the fabric of our security. When a police officer is shot and killed, it raises the level of effort because it goes to the very heart and foundation of what we in law enforcement do….[T]he pressure on the office was substantial, because something bad has happened.

In this case, the pressure was equal. Yes, something bad had happened, but there was the risk of its continuing. Pressure was there. Whenever someone’s out there and causing past harm and future harm to people, the pressure – and rightfully so – the pressure is high….

In this case, how widespread was the pressure? We had 71 synagogues and community centers in this county. I know that because that’s how many we had to sweep with the dogs. Not to mention well-recognized residential neighborhoods where there was a high density of people of the Jewish faith, which in my judgment were potential targets. Certain areas of Passaic Park and Passaic. Certain areas of communities that surround us were potential targets. We weren’t just limiting it to congregations and temples and Jewish community centers. If there were well-defined, well-recognized neighborhoods where a lot of people of the Jewish faith resided, we felt that was a potential target.

We were actually – if I could ask you to take something back to your community, one thing I didn’t know and I wish I would have known: I wish I would have known, or had a better idea how to go out into the community on a localized basis and find those residential neighborhoods where there were higher concentrations of people of the Jewish faith living.

I had people with me. I had Joy, I had Etzion. We knew certain areas.

But, for example, I would have liked to have known where all the installed eruvs are, in all of Bergen County. Because there, I know, there is something even an educated non-Jewish will know, that Jewish people reside, because they will understand why there is this eruv….[F]or somebody who does not know what they are, you can look up and not know what you’re looking at. But for somebody who does know what they are, you know what it is. So you immediately know, this is an area where people of the Jewish faith live.

I didn’t know that the person who’s throwing these firebombs wouldn’t know that. Okay, he knows we’re looking at him, he’s gone to congregations and temples, and he knows we have the eye out for him, he knows we’re sweeping, we’ve got the dogs and stuff like that. Okay, what’s he going to do next?

He’s going to go to Teaneck where along this three-block area that has an eruv….And then he’ll just pick a house. God forbid he picks a house. With eight children.

So that’s how you have pressure.

It’s very comparable to the Collura shooting in the need to work professionally and quickly, and the need to deal with a community that is a bit alarmed….

Q: When you had a fear that the next target might be residential, how did you respond?

Molinelli: I didn’t have a direct fear. When you start to prepare for things, you hope for the best, but you prepare for the worst. I didn’t have anything that would indicate he would look at a residential area, but I didn’t want to have something happen and then have people say, we didn’t think of it.

Sure, there are certain areas of Teaneck and Englewood and Fair Lawn and Passaic Park that we can define but otherwise, it was a lot more difficult than one would think. Unless you go to the local synagogue, the local rabbi, and say, could you please tell us, should we have a concern in your community, other than your temple, should we have a concern? We knew where the rabbis lived. That we knew very early on. We knew that, and that’s where the local police did a great job. In each community that had a synagogue or a congregation or a center, they were all instructed to go on high alert on that facility, as well as the rabbi’s residence.

We also went on a higher alert for certain facilities attributed to the Muslim community, because while we felt that this person was anti-Semitic, we didn’t discount the fact that he was like Mr. Dalal, more of an agnostic, hardline, anti-government kind of individual, where today it’s people of the Jewish faith, and tomorrow he would be burning crosses on an African American’s lawn, or throwing a Molotov cocktail through a mosque. We didn’t assume anything. We prepare for the worst and we hope for the best. That’s a common approach for law enforcement.

Q: Have you found any manifesto from Dalal?

Molinelli: We have indications but I’m reluctant to share them with you. I’m not sure how real they were. There’s a bit of narcissism we have to deal with here, and I take that into consideration….

Q: How big an office do you have?

Molinelli: 120 detectives. Total [just in] Major Crimes, about 30.

On this case, just in my office I had 60 detectives. But if you were adding all the police officers countywide that were protecting synagogues and the rabbis, the FBI staff, the [state] attorney general’s staff, the dogs from all over the state – probably in the hundreds, if you add them together….In the hundreds, easily.

Q: Is there any news on the Cantor case? [Robert Cantor, a 59-year-old software engineer, was found shot to death in his basement in Teaneck at around 1 a.m. on March 8, 2011.]

Molinelli: There’s always news. It’s important that when we do an investigation that we do it without necessarily anything getting out. Somebody is on the loose and…when someone is on the loose, the last thing I want to do is to tell you what I know about the Cantor case. Because if I tell you what I know about the Cantor case, you’re going to very eloquently type out a nice story and then people will read about it. Well, guess who else will read that story? The person who committed the murder. So why should I let the person who committed the murder know what I know…?

My job right now is to find out who killed Mr. Cantor and then to insure that that person is arrested, and then is prosecuted vigorously, and thoroughly, and fairly.

They [Cantor’s family and friends, some of whom even hired a private investigator last summer because they were not satisfied with the official investigation] think they know who it is. I’m not going to arrest somebody because they think so. “Ladies and gentlmen of the jury, I’ve arrested Mr. Jones for killing Mr. Cantor. I’m not prepared to tell you what the proofs are yet, but they think he did it.”

…What’s the jury going to do?

….I’m okay with criticism, because it’s our human nature. It doesn’t actually bother me. My skin is about 30 miles thick. It better be. Because if you don’t have thick skin, this is the last job that you want….

Q: How much bias crime is there in Bergen County?

Molinelli: Fortunately, I don’t think we have a lot. We’re lucky. But it exists. And it’s usually either anti-Semitic or anti-gay, usually. Both are equally repugnant in my mind, but fortunately, [it’s] a small number, not a big number. And very fortunately, [it’s] rarely violent. Usually, malicious damage, spray painting, throwing a rock at a window. Usually.

The firebombing incident in Rutherford definitely was the most severe incident that ever happened in this county, and I think statewide as well, which is why the state, even the governor, was very much aware of what was going on….

Q: Thank you.

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