PENNS GROVE, N.J. - FOX 29 Investigates is looking into the fears of residents and merchants in a New Jersey town. They believe their police dispatch system needs to get scrapped.
They say moments of terror during an armed robbery have exposed serious flaws. Investigative Reporter Jeff Cole has the story.
For nearly 30 years, the One Stop Deli has offered groceries, snacks and gossip along Route 130 in Penns Grove.
"We do a good business there," said owner Irene Scarpaci. "I mean, we make a living, and we're part of the Penns Grove community."
But now fear is served up, as well – fear of masked robbers barreling in, waving a gun.
"It's hard to sleep now because of it. It's hard to eat now because of going through the situation alone," clerk Ron Rothfuss said.
Surveillance video shows Rothfuss with the pistol in his face just before 2 a.m. on Dec. 17. 2015.
A worker in the kitchen hit a panic button to a private security firm when the bandits rolled in.
Rothfuss just wanted to survive.
"A lot of things are going through my mind at that time," Rothfuss said. "We're getting robbed, and the first thing that comes to mind after that is safety, because, yeah, I don't want to go home with a bullet hole."
The robbers swiped smokes and cash. They ran out the back door.
Rothfuss called Penns Grove police and alerted dispatcher Michelle Alexander.
"Ah, yes, this is Ron from One Stop Deli. Yeah, we just got held up," Rothfuss said.
"Ron, you say you got help up at One Stop?" Alexander asks.
"That is correct," Ron said.
"Is the person there?" Alexander asks.
"No, they're gone," Rothfuss said. "It was three younger males, and they were armed."
At about the same time, workers with Sonitrol – the security firm monitoring the deli – called to dispatcher Alexander.
"No one's answering," the Sonitrol employee says on the call. "This guy's filing a police report. He's on the phone with the police."
But police say because she was on the phone with Rothfuss…
"You have any clothing description? Our guys are en route," Alexander tells Rothfuss.
…She let the phone ring.
"I'm calling the number it's just ringing," the Sonitrol employee says on the call recording. "Yeah, it's just ringing Cath."
Eventually, Alexander does answer the security company's call, saying, "Penns Grove Police, Alexander."
After identifying himself, the Sonitrol employee tells her, "I've been calling for a few minutes, all it did was ring."
Deli owner Irene Scarpaci was angry. The calls from the security company she pays to watch over her business and workers rang repeatedly before Alexander finally picked up.
"My husband went to the dispatch station to get an explanation," Scarpaci said.
"And what did they tell him?" Cole asked her.
"That sometimes the phone doesn't work," Scarparci said.
We received that same stunning explanation from the Penns Grove's Police Chief. He said they were having trouble with the phone at the dispatch desk and a nearby sergeant's desk.
The chief said he didn't know about it, but now both phones have been replaced.
The confusion on the morning of the armed robbery once again calls into question the tiny borough's refusal to enter Salem County's 9-1-1 system.
The county's 9-1-1 dispatch center places at least seven and up to nine state-trained and certified dispatchers at phone lines and monitors 24/7.
Eight of the county's nine law enforcement agencies are part of the system.
Penns Grove is the lone resister.
Records show officials have been talking about joining Salem County 9-1-1 since 2010 but have complained the county has failed to turn over budget information.
The county says it would like the borough in.
In a phone call, longtime Penns Grove Mayor John A. Washington said he thinks his dispatch is faster.
Deli owner Scarpaci believes the mayor is endangering the public.
"We need to go to the 9-1-1 call center not only for the community but for the officers, too," Scarpaci said, "because they have to deal with this every single day."
It's not the first time FOX 29 Investigates has found trouble in Penns Grove. Last year, we reported that
Councilman Carl Washington – who back then oversaw police – was driving around on a suspended license. He locked himself in the clerk's office when we tried to question him.
The councilman said he didn't know he was suspended and later got his license back.
And there's something else about that armed robbery.
Penns Grove police say dispatcher Michelle Alexander – who the mayor tells us is his goddaughter – will be reprimanded for failing to properly handle the multiple calls the morning of the robbery.
Police wouldn't say what the punishment would be. But they claim her actions did not result in a delay in getting officers to the scene.
"I'm Jeff Cole from FOX TV," Cole said, but Alexander refused to answer our questions.
We wanted to know more about why she struggled to handle the calls the morning of the robbery.
"Yes, I don't have time to talk, sir," Alexander told us.
"Can you tell me what happened then, Michelle?" Cole asked her.
"I'm calling the police if you guys won't get away from me," Alexander said.
"Listen, can you please answer that question, what happened that day?" Cole asked.
"I'm calling the police," Alexander said as she went inside.
As for the clerk, Rothfuss, he's back working overnight at the One Stop, keeping a sharp eye on the front door.
"They stole more than just money that night," Rothfuss said.
"What else did they steal?" Cole asked.
"My peace of mind," Rothfuss said.
Three teenagers were arrested last month and charged with the One Stop Deli robbery and two others.
Meanwhile, Penns Grove's mayor says, under pressure from the state, he expects to join the county 9-1-1 system this year, Cole reported.