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State of New Jersey v. Fred Belen and Alexander Lara

July 5, 2012


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Indictment No. 11-04-0912.

Per curiam.


Submitted May 30, 2012

Before Judges Nugent and Carchman.

By leave granted, the State of New Jersey appeals from an order of the Law Division granting defendants Fred Belen and Alexander Lara's motion to sever certain counts from a twenty-six-count indictment. The indictment resulted from a series of seven robberies that had occurred on four non-consecutive days over a period of several weeks. The motion judge determined that the matters should be severed into four separate trials. We affirm.

These are the relevant facts that evolved from the grand jury proceedings that resulted in the defendants' indictments. At approximately 9:00 p.m. on May 15, 2010, while walking on Richie Avenue in Collingswood, Mark Tomaszewicz noticed a white sport utility vehicle (SUV) pull up adjacent to him. A black male wearing a dark shirt exited the front passenger side of the vehicle and approached Tomaszewicz from behind. The male pointed a "dark colored handgun" at Tomaszewicz, demanding his wallet; Tomaszewicz complied. After taking the wallet, the robber got back into the passenger seat of the vehicle, and drove in the direction of Route 30 east toward South Park Drive. Although Tomaszewicz could not provide a detailed description of the assailant, he stated that at least one other person, the driver, was in the vehicle.

Approximately ten minutes later, the Collingswood Police Department received a call regarding a second armed robbery that occurred on South Park Drive near Cooper River Park. According to Investigator Peter Longo of the Major Crimes Unit of the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, one could drive from Richie Avenue to Cooper River Park "probably in less than ten minutes or so[.]" The victims of the second robbery were Catherine Lynch and Kevin Impellizeri, who were walking near the Marina parking lot on Cooper River. A white SUV pulled up to Lynch and Impellizeri, and a black male alighted from the front passenger seat, pointed a black handgun at them, and said something to the effect of "give me it all." Lynch turned over her purse, and Impellizeri turned over his wallet. They described the gunman as black, about five feet, ten inches to about six feet tall, with short hair and wearing a black t-shirt. They also described the driver as a heavy-set, black man wearing a white t-shirt. Shortly thereafter, the Delaware River Port Authority police stopped a white SUV entering Philadelphia, believing the vehicle may have been related to the robberies, but neither Lynch nor Impellizeri could positively identify that car or its occupants.

Two days later, at approximately 11:00 p.m., Haddon Township Police officers were dispatched to a robbery on Route 130 at a Citgo gas station. Gurbachen Singh was assisting a customer when he observed a white Ford Explorer SUV with a New Jersey license plate, which he was able to identify, pull into the station. A black male wearing a black scarf on his head with eyeholes cut in the scarf exited the passenger side of the vehicle, approached Singh, and demanded money. The customer made a similar report to the police, and also stated that the driver of the white Ford Explorer was a black male.

Additionally, the vehicle's license plate number was captured on surveillance video. The police traced the license plate number to a 2000 Jeep Cherokee. The registered owner of the Cherokee informed the police that she had sold the vehicle to a used car dealer in Collingswood, which, in turn, the police discovered had then been sent to an auto repair shop in Camden. The police later found the Jeep on an open part of the repair shop's lot, with the license plate missing.

On May 25, 2010, at approximately 9:30 p.m., the attendant at the U.S. gas station on Route 70 in Pennsauken, Kapil Arand, saw a white SUV pull into the lot and park behind the attendant's booth. Because Arand thought it was strange that the vehicle did not pull up to the air hose or gas pump, he walked toward the vehicle to make inquiry. As he approached, Arand noticed a black male wearing a ski mask crouch down between the SUV and the booth. Concerned about being robbed, Arand ran to a nearby Wendy's restaurant. While feeling safe, Arand looked back and saw the initial suspect and the driver, who was also wearing a mask, enter and search the attendant's booth. Later, because there was no surveillance camera at the station, Arand could neither discern the license plate number, nor determine whether the suspects had taken anything.

At approximately 10:20 p.m. on May 31, 2010, Camden County Park Police responded to a call reporting an armed robbery. The victim, Rafael Rosada, was walking his dog near the Newton Creek Park in Collingswood shortly after ten o'clock when a white SUV (Ford Explorer) pulled up to the curb just ahead of him. Rosada reported that as he walked past the vehicle, one black male and one dark-skinned Hispanic male exited the vehicle. The driver grabbed him and restrained him from behind, while the passenger pointed a silver handgun at him and took his wallet from his pocket.

Shortly thereafter, at about 10:30 p.m., the Park Police received another report of a robbery on North Park Drive in Cherry Hill near Cooper River Park. The victim, Aswin Patel, was walking on the road when a white SUV pulled up. A dark-skinned male, wearing a striped shirt and brandishing a silver handgun, exited the passenger side of the vehicle and put a gun to Patel's head, ordering Patel to give him everything he had or he would be shot. The gunman then took Patel's money, threw Patel's keys into the grass, got back into the passenger side of the vehicle, and left.

About five minutes after Patel reported the robbery, the Park Police received a third robbery report, also on North Park Drive. While loading his car after a picnic, Rubin Aguilar was approached by a white SUV whose headlights were not illuminated, even though it was past 10:00 p.m. A male, wearing a grey ski mask, exited the SUV holding a silver-colored gun and placed the gun to Aguilar's head, ordering him to turn over everything. The gunman then pushed Aguilar to the ground, put the gun to his head, and stated he was going to kill Aguilar. Aguilar reported hearing three clicks of the gun, as if the trigger was being pulled, but no shots were fired.

Aguilar's friend, Carmen Denato, was nearby and observed the robbery. Denato yelled at the suspect, attempting to scare him off. Another witness, Terry Craig, who not only heard Denato and Aguilar yelling about the suspect and the gun, but also saw the suspect drive away, got into his own car to follow the suspect. While he was driving after the suspect, he called the police. During his pursuit, Craig flagged down a sheriff's van and advised the officer what had happened.

The sheriff's officer then proceeded to track down the suspect, and several minutes later pulled over a white Ford Explorer that was heading from Route 130 to the Admiral Wilson Boulevard overpass. The officer was able to identify the license plate number. The tags on the SUV had a different license plate number from the one identified during the Citgo gas station robbery. Both defendants were inside the Ford Explorer; Belen was in the passenger seat, and Lara was behind the wheel in the driver's seat. The officer found a pair of gloves and a grey knit ski cap with eyehole cutouts on Belen's lap. Under Belen's seat, the officer found a loaded, silver and grey Ruger handgun and $80. Inside the car was also a black piece of cloth with three hole cutouts, for two eyes and a nose, as well as an uncut ...

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