Sussex commissioner cites false facts to push anti-hate resolution

Part of being an elected official is providing factual information to your constituents, not fairytales that align with your narrative. Doubling down on inaccurate information even after being corrected by law enforcement is unseemly.
“The problem with Fantasia's argument? Key facts appear to be wrong, based on statements from law enforcement and a review of the cases.”

NEWTON — During a heated discussion about anti-hate resolutions last week, the head of the Sussex County Board of Commissioners brought up two instances of vandalism and a reported shooting near the home of Sheriff Michael Strada last summer.

Board Director Dawn Fantasia cited the incidents and mentioned antifa and Black Lives Matter on Wednesday night during an anti-hate resolution discussion. That came amid a debate with local residents over an earlier proposal to condemn white supremacy, neo-Nazism, white nationalists and the riot by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capital Jan. 6.  

Why, Fantasia asked, didn't the first resolution note the "10 shots" fired at Strada's house while he was inside with his family or the letters "BLM" found spray-painted on a street sign near his home and on the sheriff's street. She said three people had been arrested for the shooting and said one was affiliated with "a group," though she did not name it. 

"I was contacted more than once again, wondering why, when three arrests were made this summer, including 10 shots fired at the head of our law enforcement in this county, 10 shots fired at the home, three individuals arrested on two separate days," Fantasia said at the meeting. "One turned himself in and [was] affiliated with a specific group."

The problem with Fantasia's argument? Key facts appear to be wrong, based on statements from law enforcement and a review of the cases. 

No arrests have been made in connection with the June 1 incident outside Strada's home. Neither State Police nor the Sussex County Prosecutor's Office have stated 10 shots were fired, nor has anyone confirmed the finding of bullets or casings near the site, a State Police spokesman said last week.

"No arrests have been made at this time and it remains under investigation," Trooper Alejandro Goez, said in an interview. 

While an arrest was made for the BLM graffiti on the street sign, police haven't made any connection with the attack at Strada's home, Goez said. Strada, in an interview last week, reiterated that shots had been fired but said he was unaware of any arrests as well.

At the meeting, and in a county news release the next day, Fantasia said some residents had told her the original anti-hate resolution was too "narrow" and asked why it didn't condemn the shooting at the sheriff's residence. 

"Ten shots fired at the head of our law enforcement in this county, 10 shots fired at the home, three individuals arrested on two separate days," Fantasia said at the meeting, adding later "If that's not hate to you, I don't know what is." 

The all-Republican board ended the virtual meeting, which drew 60 residents, without voting on either resolution. 

In June one arrest was made in connection with the BLM spray-painted street sign, at the corner of Halsey Road and Garrett Drive, a few hundred feet from Strada's home. Jacob Drelich, 20, of Hampton, turned himself in to authorities and admitted he defaced the sign, police said. 

Drelich was charged with criminal mischief and has a court hearing in Andover Joint Municipal Court next month. But State Police and the Prosecutor's Office said Drelich is not connected to the alleged shooting incident.

On Friday, when asked to explain the misinformation, Fantasia texted a response to the New Jersey Herald.

"I was mistaken in stating that three individuals were arrested in connection with multiple incidents at/near the home of the Sussex County Sheriff," the text reads.

"To correct, there were two arrests made in relation to multiple incidents at/near the home of the Sussex County Sheriff. Of these arrests, one individual admitted to a role of defacing property," she texted.

Police said that is also wrong. 

Goez said he does not have any information about the letters BLM spray-painted on any roadway in Hampton and could only confirm Drelich's arrest. 

The county, the day after the meeting, released a statement through its spokeswoman that repeated Fantasia's assertions.

"Residents also asked for anti-hate resolutions after the arrests of three individuals who fired approximately 10 gunshots at the home of Sheriff Michael Strada, while he, his wife and children were in the home, with those individuals having also spray-painted “BLM” on a sign outside of their home and on the street," according to the statement distributed to the media and posted on the county's website and Facebook page.

The first anti-hate resolution was introduced on Jan. 27. It would have the five-member county board  "condemn white nationalism, white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other groups and individuals who seek to divide our community and incite hatred."

The resolution was read at that meeting by Kristy Lavin, a Democratic activist in Vernon. It closely mirrored a statement adopted a few days later by the Vernon Township Council.

Lavin e-mailed a copy of the resolution to the commissioners' office on Jan. 28. It has not been posted for reading on the county's website, but there is an audio recording of the meeting posted.

At Wednesday's meeting, Fantasia read a second anti-hate resolution which listed "hate groups." Fantasia mentioned antifa and Black Lives Matter during her talk, but the groups are not listed in the resolution.

Fantasia said the second resolution would be posted to the county's website the next morning. As of Friday afternoon, neither of the resolutions had been posted. 

Instead, the county issued the six-page news release Thursday night that also cited vandalism that hit Space Farms Zoo and Museum in the fall. According to the release, county residents had reached out to commissioners and wanted to know why the vandalism to the zoo's billboard on Route 23 in Wantage had not been considered a hate crime.

"Anti-police and anti-President Donald Trump profanities were spray-painted onto a billboard for Space Farms, the business owned by the family of New Jersey Assemblyman Parker Space, R-24th Dist," the statement said.

In the fall, police said the sign had been spray-painted with obscene messages and some profanity supporting violence against police officers. They did not immediately link the incident to a "hate crime," although Space said at the time that "a charged political environment has contributed to a spate of threats against him and other conservative Republicans and supporters of President Donald Trump."

The commissioners did not take formal action on either anti-hate resolution Wednesday night, saying they wanted to read Fantasia's draft more closely.

Thursday's release states that Fantasia's explanation was to craft a resolution that was“inclusive of hate of all kinds." That should cover both "violent demonstrations from white supremacist groups" and "antifa riots," the release attributes to Fantasia. 

“Some of these things are absolutely outrageous and deplorable and of course, no sane individual in their right mind would ever support something like that and I certainly would denounce that, but the need to name each and every group seemed very prevalent,” said Fantasia through the release. 

Commissioner Sylvia Petillo offered to help come up with a resolution during the meeting and recalled the 1967 riots in Newark, where she grew up.

"I saw what that type of hatred can do to a city," she said adding that even today there are still standing empty buildings that were gutted by the fires. She said people in the city from all races formed their own alliances to discuss issues and some of those groups remain in place.

She also noted last summer's "peaceful" protests in Newark as she offered her help to organize discussion groups or coalitions in the county, using Newark as a model.

"Racism comes from the heart. It's a hatred that builds," Petillo said, adding of the Newark violence, "I don't ever want to live through that again." 

Editor's Note: Changes to this story were made to clarify that antifa and Black Lives Matter were not named in the Board of Commissioners' resolution.