FOX 29 Investigates: City Worker's Burglary Charge Dropped

- It was supposed to be a simple cleanup of a property in a Gloucester City, N.J., where the lawn was too long. But then a city worker climbs through a side window and stuff was taken.

Prosecutors filed charges. But did anybody feel the heat? Jeff Cole and FOX 29 Investigates have this report.

The moment was captured by a quick-thinking neighbor with her hair-trigger cell phone.

On the floor of a trailer from Gloucester City's Public Works Department sat a mirror – a Guinness beer mirror – just carried out of the house next door. It's one of Aaron Ellin's prized possession.

"I was just floored at the whole situation, that they ever broke in to begin with," said homeowner Aaron Ellin.

It wasn't the only item taken from his tiny home on Somerset Street in October, Ellin says. His guitar was hauled out, and his rock band glassware.

"The main thing was my Pink Floyd glasses. They have a lot of sentimental value," Ellin said.

Who was the burglar? Whose handprints were left on the side window where he climbed in? According to Gloucester City Police, it was Michael B. Johnson, a tax-dollar-paid employee of Gloucester City Public Works.

He was one of a crew of four sent to cut and clean the yard when the city claimed Ellin failed to do it.

"Hey, how are you doing? Are you Michael?" Cole asked.

"Yes, I am," Johnson replied.

At first, he tried to put us off.

Cole: "Why did you go inside the place? What happened?"
Johnson: "Well, you can go to 512 Monmouth St. and they'll have the whole story there."
Cole: "What's 512 Monmouth St.?"
Johnson: "That's my bosses place."

That address is for the Municipal Building in this city of 11,000. We did go there for answers but, first, back to Somerset Street.

Nicole Nardi is the mother of Aaron Ellin's two children. They lived in the small home for five years. She admits the lawn should have been cut, but is outraged by what happened afterward.

Cole: "When they're done they go in the house?"
Nardi: "They sure did."
Cole: "Why?"
Nardi: "I don't know still. I'm still not sure. I guess they figured it was vacant and they decided they wanted to help themselves to whatever they saw fit or liked."

According to police reports, Public Works employee Johnson used a chair to enter the house through that window.

Witnesses told police Johnson was seen leaving the home with the mirror and the guitar. When he was spotted in a shed out back, a neighbor confronted him saying the owner "was coming back."

Cole: "Why did the Guinness mirror end up in the public works vehicle and the guitar?"
Johnson: "…Like I said, you can go to 512 Monmouth Street, and they'll have everything there."
Cole: "What will they tell me? They'll explain what happened there?"
Johnson: "Yes."
Cole: "Were you trying to steal that stuff?"
Johnson: "No."
Cole: "I mean, you're a public works employee, you wouldn't do that, right?"

Johnson said "hello" and "yes" as he answered a call on his cell phone.

He did return the items to the house. He later wrote in a statement that his former boss at Public Works wanted them to lock windows and doors in vacant properties and added "they could grab stuff for use in the breakroom."

In a statement, the current head of Gloucester Public Works, Alex Tedesco, wrote that isn't the policy now and he "wasn't aware of any such directive in the past."

Tedesco also writes he told Ellin the city would like him to file a police report, and Ellin says he received a text from Tedesco – who thought Aaron's name was "Jim" – urging him to do just that.

Tedesco did not return our repeated calls for comment.

Johnson was charged with burglary in the third degree.

Cole: "They charged you. They said they thought you were going to steal the stuff, and there was the mirror in the back of the public works truck. I mean, that belonged to the owner of the house."
Johnson: "And, at the time nobody knew that."
Cole: "They didn't know that it belonged to the owner?"
Johnson: "It was supposed to be an abandoned building."
Cole: "It was supposed to be abandoned?"
Johnson: "Yes."
Cole: "But that doesn't give you the right to walk in there and take the stuff though, right?"
Johnson: "No, it doesn't."
Cole: "So why'd you do it?"
Johnson: "We didn't. Like I said…"
Cole: "Sure you did."
Johnson: "Like I said…"
Cole: "It was out in the truck."
Johnson: "Call my lawyer, he'll call you."

The case was sent to the Office of the Camden County Prosecutor, where it was dismissed.

A spokesperson writes its public corruption unit did see the picture but found insufficient evidence "to prove the burglary charge beyond a reasonable doubt."

The police chief tells FOX 29 Investigates he was never told why the burglary charge was dismissed. He says sometimes police don't hear.

Nardi demanded a meeting with prosecutors, saying, "I was told that he had no intent and that they couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he broke in, I guess? I'm still kind of confused on it."

Oh, by the way, there's something else about Johnson.

"He just so happens to be the son of a councilman, as well," Nardi said.

That's right, his dad is Councilman James "Bowie" Johnson, the former head of Public Works, a prominent Democrat and a member of council's Public Works Committee.

Councilman Johnson did not return our request for comment.

And there's more: It's 5 p.m. in February 2016 when a Gloucester City police officer was called to the mini mart on Monmouth Street for a report of shoplifting.

According to the police report, a white male bought a $2.99 jar of Heinz Brown Gravy but stuffed a second in his pocket and walked out.

Security video showed it was Public Works employee Michael B. Johnson, who told police he only had money for one jar.

The city's chief of police says Johnson was not charged because the shopkeeper just wanted payment and an apology.

But the chief says he did tell city leaders.

When asked about allegedly stealing some gravy, Johnson said, "I was never charged with anything."

We pressed him about the incident.

Cole: "You took two bottles of gravy?"
Johnson: "No! That's not – that's not true, either."
Cole: "What happened? What…"
Johnson: "You can call my lawyer."
Cole: "Well, tell me about the mini mart thing though. It said that you took a bottle of gravy and put another in your pocket, and then you went and paid the next day?"
Johnson: "Nope."

Johnson remains a public works employee. His lawyer declined comment.

Ellin had to pay more than $1,300 to the city for that "cut and clean." He's angry about it.

And we asked the Camden County prosecutor if any elected official called to discuss Johnson's burglary charge? The answer was no, Cole reported.

If we hear anything new about this case, we'll bring the update straight to you.

Have a tip for the FOX 29 Investigates team? Email us at fox29.undercover@foxtv.com or like Jeff Cole's Facebook page and send us a message!

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