LAKEWOOD, N.J. (AP) — The young police officer eased his cruiser down the street on the afternoon of Jan. 14, 2011, rolling up alongside a younger man he wanted to speak to about something.
It was, as a friend of the officer would later recall, “the intersection of good and evil.”
Within moments, Patrolman Christopher Matlosz was mortally wounded, shot three times at close range. Just over 38 hours later, a SWAT team arrested 19-year-old Jahmell Crockam in the bedroom of a Camden apartment, where authorities say he had fled after the killing.
Jury selection begins Tuesday in Ocean County in the murder case against Crockam.
The 27-year-old police officer, who had transferred off the night shift a week earlier, was to be married in the near future and had just returned from a trip to Florida with his fiancée to plan their wedding party.
“This past year, I could have curled up into a ball and died,” said his fiancee, Kelly Walsifer. “I was very angry. I asked: ‘Why me? Why Chris?’ But Chris was alive in me, and I knew I needed to live. It’s been a hard year for everyone, and this is going to be another hard year to overcome.”
Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford said at the time that Matlosz never saw it coming. She said the officer was conducting “a routine stop” of the suspect, chatting with him for a few minutes, leading authorities to believe the two may have been acquainted with each other before the shooting.
“This was an encounter that was between the officer and the person, not hostile,” she said. “The individual stepped back and suddenly pulled out a handgun and shot the officer.”
Matlosz never had time to go for his own gun, which was still in its holster as the suspect ran away, police said. Ford termed the shooting “a heinous, execution-style killing.”
Crockam, now 20, faces murder and weapons charges, among others. He could be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted. His lawyer, Mark Fury, declined to comment in detail in advance of the trial.
“Obviously, this is a very serious crime,” he said. “But everybody is entitled to their day in court, and he is going to take advantage of that right.”
Opening statements are not expected until late January or early February.
Prosecutors plan to present testimony from at least one witness who claims to have seen Crockam shoot the officer. Another witness will reportedly testify that Crockam said he would kill a police officer rather than go to prison, and others are expected to say that Crockam told them he had shot the officer.
At the officer’s funeral a year ago, a church bell tolled and a drum corps tapped out a doleful beat outside the church when word spread among those in attendance: An email on cellphones announced that Crockam and another man had been charged in another, unrelated murder. That case will be prosecuted after the trial starting Tuesday.
Matlosz’s brother, Adam, plans to attend every day of the trial.
“It’s going to be particularly graphic,” he said. “I’m trying to prepare myself for that, although how, I’m still not sure.”
Adam Matlosz, who has his brother’s badge number, 317, tattooed on his neck, said: “The past year has been complete hell. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him. And twice a day, at 3:17, it makes me think of him.”
Laura Quinones of Lakewood used to have coffee with Matlosz at a nearby convenience store most days.
“He was a beautiful person, a good friend to everybody,” she said. “He was always funny, smiling and telling jokes. He was so loved by the people he met.”
At a memorial service Saturday marking the one-year anniversary of Matlosz’s death, Walsifer spoke directly to the slain officer.
“Chris, I know you can hear me,” she said. “I want you to know I love you. We all love you, and I miss you more than words can say.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)