NJ mayor chased a car thief — and the crash killed a teen and Rutgers official
🚨 A Rutgers administrator and a teen driver died in a head-on crash in Princeton in 2021
🚨 The adult victim's husband filed a lawsuit against people he said were responsible for her death
🚨 Court documents say Princeton Mayor Mark Freda had joined the high-speed chase
PRINCETON — It started with a car theft in a leafy suburban town in North Jersey and it ended with the death of a teenager and a university administrator in an affluent town in Central Jersey.
What happened between those moments is now under scrutiny as survivors of the victims seek accountability.
What is now known, according to a family's lawsuit, is that the Princeton mayor — who is not a police officer and has no law enforcement authority — joined a high-speed chase in 2021 that resulted in a double-fatal crash.
The mayor's involvement — which is being revealed publicly for the first time by New Jersey 101.5 as a result of the litigation — raises questions about his judgment and once again brings attention to rules governing police pursuits, which the state has struggled to balance between the desire to fight crime and the safety of bystanders.
Innocent woman loses her life
Jodi Marcou, 61, had worked as a highly regarded fundraising coordinator at Rutgers University-New Brunswick in New Brunswick since 2018. She had a son who was married and a daughter who was about to get married. Marcou and her husband shared their home with two dogs in the Kendall Park section of South Brunswick, which they had called home for 24 years.
On the afternoon of Nov. 7, 2021, while driving on Route 27, she was hit by a Jeep that crossed over the yellow lines near Carnegie Drive in Princeton. The vehicle was driven by a 15-year-old girl named Damajia Jenay Horner.
Both died in the crash.
The Jeep had been stolen from Pequannock. At the time of the crash, the teen had been fleeing from police, who had been called by a Clover Lane resident reporting that three people were trying to steal his vehicle from his driveway.
Police followed the teen in the Jeep as well as a Range Rover that had been stolen from a driveway on Dodds Lane.
Sometime during all this, Princeton Mayor Mark Freda flipped on the blue lights of the vehicle he was driving at the time and joined the police chase, according to a lawsuit filed by Marcou's husband. The lawsuit did not disclose if it was his personal vehicle or a first aid squad vehicle he was driving.
The Mercer County Prosecutor's Office never revealed Freda's involvement in the chase. Investigators at the time said police ended what they considered a potentially dangerous pursuit on Snowden Drive. The Jeep crashed with Marcou's Acura and the Range Rover was later found abandoned in Newark.
Victim's husband sues
David Marcou initially filed a lawsuit against Elhajjmalik Diallo, who was accused of ordering the teen girl to steal the Jeep. The teen's mother and Hanover Insurance also were named defendants in the lawsuit.
As the lawsuit proceeded, Marcou's legal team learned that Mayor Freda, current president of the Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad, had joined the pursuit in his first aid vehicle. Freda was added to the lawsuit on July 21.
"Freda had no formal authority in activating his blue lights and in conducting any form of pursuit or at speed chase of the vehicle Defendant Horner was operating and was not authorized to conduct such light activation or any form of speed chase or pursuit," according to the lawsuit.
The actions of Freda were in violation of township, First Aid/Rescue and police policies, according to the lawsuit.
Freda is a 45-year veteran of the Princeton Rescue and First Aid squad and a life member. The Democrat was first elected mayor in 2020.
The owner of the Jeep, Arbina Asani, was also faulted by the lawsuit for leaving the keys in the vehicle, making it easier to steal.
Freda and his attorney did not respond to New Jersey 101.5's request for comment.
"Unfortunately, because there is active litigation, on the advice of our attorney I am unable to provide a comment at this time," Princeton Municipal Administrator Bernard Hvozdovic told New Jersey 101.5.
Rules for chasing criminals
New Jersey has struggled to find the right balance between the pursuit of justice and public safety.
In 2016, after a drug suspect fleeing police struck and killed a Trenton woman, her family called on lawmakers to ban high-speed chases in residential neighborhoods.
The family's attorney, Robin Lord, said at the time that police were "brainwashed" into pursuing all suspects even though the state's guidelines limited pursuits when it involved high-level first and second-degree felonies.
The policy then, and now, called for law enforcement to gauge the level of risk to the public. In many cases involving police pursuits, law enforcement officials have publicly said that officers chose to call off a pursuit because of the danger posed to the public.
In 2021, then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal updated the pursuit policy to limit car chases, allowing them only as a last resort if police believed that not giving chase would result in serious harm to someone.
But in April 2022, current Attorney General Matt Platkin issued a new update to the policy, this time allowing police to chase cars that had been stolen. The change followed criticism from law enforcement agencies and lawmakers who pointed to dramatically rising rates of car theft since the pandemic.
On Monday, under the new policy, a woman passenger was killed when the vehicle that Long Branch police were chasing from a reported home invasion crashed into a tree.
Remembering the victim
David Marcou seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages, medical expenses, reasonable attorney's fees and funeral expenses.
A bench in South Brunswick's Memorial Park was dedicated in Jodi Marcou's memory in May, according to TAP into South Brunswick. She was a member of the Human Relations Commission.
"Jodi will always be remembered for volunteering her time to help anyone in need," her obituary says. "She loved to meditate, play cards and Mahjong. Jodi's favorite activities included hiking with her husband and walking with friends. Her family and friends were her world. She had a deep love for the wellness of animals."