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Will New Jersey halfway houses truly be made safer?

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

WHAT WE THINK: David Goodell poked a hole in New Jersey’s less-than-secure system of halfway houses nearly two years ago: After slipping away, he strangled his ex-girlfriend before ramming her car into a police cruiser in Ridgefield. Yet it’s only now that anyone is demanding to know how this happened, and what can be done to keep future innocents from harm.

The scene in Ridgefield after the crash;
Goodell (insert) courtesy NJDOC

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s staff released a letter from him to the federal Bureau of Prisons, asking it to review contracts with halfway house vendors following a report in The New York Times.

Those who would exploit the situation for political gain — or their own self-aggrandizing purposes — have tried to lay the problem at the feet of Gov. Chris Christie.

They have also taken advantage of the anguish felt by one woman — Stella Tulli, of Garfield, whose sister, Viviana, was killed by Goodell.

In his letter, dated June 26, Lautenberg expressed “deep concerns about the security at halfway houses and similar residential re-entry facilities across the United States.”

“While the goal of reentry programs are commendable, I am troubled that the implementation of these programs puts residents, staffers and local communities at risk,” the Senator wrote. “I request that the Federal Bureau of Prisons carefuly examine its contracts with companies that provide reentry services and investigate the conditions at these facilities to ensure they are sa[f]e and secure.”

I can only hope that Lautenberg isn’t like other opportunists who came running after the Times story was published a week ago yesterday.

Since 2005, roughly 5,100 inmates have escaped from the state’s privately run halfway houses, including at least 1,300 in the 29 months since Gov. Chris Christie took office, according to an analysis by The New York Times. A company with deep ties to Gov. Christie  dominates New Jersey’s system of large halfway houses. There has been little state oversight, despite widespread problems, The Times found . READ MORE….

Christie, who himself has called for increased oversight of privately-run halfway houses, conducted a Town Hall meeting last week that Tulli attended.

She sat up front, her hand raised, hoping to be called upon, ready to get her point across. But she never got the opportunity.

Viviana Tulli headstone
(Donated by Kulinski Memorials)
St. Mary’s Cemetery, Saddle Brook

There are those who, without benefit of actual information, would suggest that the governor deliberately ignored Tulli, as if she were a household celebrity you couldn’t miss amid the crowd of hundreds.

Those of you who either were there or have seen a video from the event can spot countless others, as well, all hoping the same hope, all waving their hands as if it was “The Price Is Right” — only to be disappointed, like Tulli.

Were the governor to engage everyone there that day, the meeting would still be going.

For his part, Christie has emphasized that contracts between friends of his who operate the centers and the state of New Jersey have endured “no less than 18 years” through six governors from both parties. That pretty much takes politics out of the equation.

The Times story had little significant impact, apart from state legislators seeking quarterly reports — Christie said annuals would be fine — and Lautenberg sending his letter to the prison bureau.

Which leaves us exactly where we were two years ago: What to do?

Demand oversight — but oversight leading to what? Insist on sanctions or penalties when someone escapes? Make the facilities more secure? Require higher-qualified staff? Use full-fledged corrections officers? Scrap halfway houses altogether?

Or dramatically increase the threshhold for parolees to qualify?

No one is sure whether Goodell was faking or genuinely suffered a seizure when he was taken from a Newark halfway house to UMDNJ Medical Center in Newark in late August 2010.

Viviana (left) and Stella Tulli
CLIFFVIEW PILOT photo COURTESY: Tulli Family

He “absconded” soon after and a parole warrant was issued, Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli said.

As CLIFFVIEW PILOT noted in a then-exclusive report, Goodell later met up with 21-year-old Viviana Tulli at a mutual friend’s house in Elmwood Park.

He was standing outside the 2007 Nissan Versa, parked in a lot at Ridgefield Park High School, when a 911 caller reported seeing Goodell disoriented and covered in blood.

Police who responded ended up chasing Tulli’s car before the incident came to a horrifying end: In a borough cul-de-sac, Goodell aimed the vehicle directly for a vacated police car. Then he hit the gas.

As Stella Tulli told CLIFFVIEW PILOT exclusively: “The police didn’t know who he was until AFTER his arrest.”

Records show that Goodell spent less than a half-year in Northern State Prison in Newark for assaulting a police officer and threatening to kill a woman he was dating.

Born Dec. 18, 1979, the 5-foot-8 Goodell was supposed to remain behind bars until December 2011 after he was sentenced by a Passaic County judge in September 2009, CLIFFVIEW PILOT found.

Under state law, he could have been sent to prison for four years on each conviction. But he was paroled in February 2010, five months after serving what was originally a sentence of more than two years, according to records obtained by CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

Soon after, they sent him to the halfway house.

“How is it possible an inmate is in a hospital with a chaperone, a guard, whatever…and just leaves?” Stella Tulli said. “The people who are supposed to be protecting us screwed up royally.

“At the same time, I’m disgusted with the whole chain of events, the ‘dropping the ball.’ I still do not understand how he was released early.

“I still wonder how the Parole Board looked over his docket, which showed his previous assault on officers, his previous terrorist threats, his violations while being incarcerated — and still say, ‘Yes, this man can go to a halfway house’,” Tulli told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

“Where is the justice?”

Let’s see now.

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