They came together to remember a man who touched their lives with his actions. In the process they gave a little something back to those who loved him most.
Dozens of people – family and friends, young and old, and those who were touched by his presence – gathered on Ocean Gate Avenue in front of the Ocean Gate’s Municipal Building to honor the memory of Patrolman Jason C. Marles on the first anniversary of his death.
“We are not here to remember how he died,” Ocean Gate Police Chief Reece Fisher said, “but to celebrate how he lived.”
And how he lived was evident to anyone who listened for 30 seconds: Marles was kind. He was caring. And he made people feel as though each and every one of them was important to him.
“We raise our children and teach them love and compassion, and we never know if they learn it,” said Sheldon Marles, Jason Marles’ father, told the crowd that had gathered at the municipal building. “Apparently Jason did.”
Jason Marles was killed a year ago as he made his way to his Point Pleasant Beach home after working a double shift that included time on a drunk driving detail. The 32-year-old father of two was northbound on the Garden State Parkway when the Jeep he was driving was rear-ended by a BMW SUV driven by Erick Uzcategui of Manchester, near the Toms River toll plaza.
Uzcategui, 32, whose blood alcohol content was measured at almost twice the legal limit of .08, according to the Ocean County Prosecutor’s office, awaits trial on charges of vehicular manslaughter and drunken driving, to which he has pleaded not guilty. Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor Steven N. Cucci has said Uzcategui admitted to police that he had five vodka drinks and used cocaine at a motel in Seaside Heights prior to the accident.
The crowd stood quietly and respectfully behind police barriers, listening to the speeches and the prayers. Marles’ patrol car sat on the sidewalk as it had a year ago, a 12-by-18-foot U.S. flag flying over it, bunches of flowers on the windshield, candles and a grave blanket on the concrete in front of it.
“He talked to me on a personal level and he talked to my kids,” said April Sicknick, a five-year resident of Ocean Gate, as she clutched a candle and a rose in one hand and the hand of Dominick Spina, a former borough resident, with the other. “He touched our lives in a way that will never be forgotten.”
Marvin Machado, a Bayville resident who was a year behind Marles at Central Regional High School, said he and Marles had reconnected through Facebook and had become close again in the year preceding Marles’ death.
“We hung out a lot before he passed,” Machado said.
Aaron Liotti, who grew up with Marles, wrote a song in the officer’s memory that he performed at the vigil.
“Jay always loved when we would hang out and play music,” said Liotti, who spends a lot of time writing music. “It seemed only fitting.”
The vigil also included a procession of marked and unmarked police cars, representing a number of towns, including Berkeley, Pine Beach, Beachwood, Island Heights, Seaside Heights, Seaside Park, Bay Head, Bradley Beach and Evesham Township, as well as representation from the Ocean Gate EMS and First Aid squads, the Ocean Gate Fire Department, and the Bayville Fire Company, which displayed the flag. Bagpiper Bob Sinnott of the Shamrock and Thistle Pipes and Drums played "Amazing Grace" as he walked ahead of the officers' cars.
Melissa Delconte, who went to Central with Marles, said she saw Marles often when they both worked the midnight shift.
“He’d come in and read the paper while he stood there instead of buying it,” said Delconte, who works at the Wawa on Route 9 in Bayville, “so one day I took him a paper and a cup of coffee.” Her brother, a Berkeley police officer, was close friends with Marles, she said, “so I knew him pretty well.”
“I was at work when I got the call that Jay had been killed,” she said, her voice trailing off with the memory.
It’s a memory that many are still trying to put out of their heads.
“Yesterday was a very tough day,” said Lisa Maydish, who knew Marles from the time he was a teenager, and remembers the shock of the phone call informing her that he had been killed. “We knew what he had been doing and that it was important to him. The irony of it was not lost on anyone.”
Patrolman Kevin Frizziola, president of the Ocean Gate PBA, said that as officers, they want to touch people’s lives and help to make them better.
“You can tell from the number of people here that Jason has achieved that goal,” he said.
“Jason Marles was a father to Taryn and Landon. He was a son, he was a brother, he was an uncle,” Mayor Paul Kennedy said. “But most of all, he was Jay.”
And Jay wore his heart on his sleeve, his mother, Pat Engrassia, said.
“There wasn’t a day that went by that we didn’t tell each other 10 times a day, ‘I love you,’ “ she said. “He would tell me things and my husband would say, ‘Don’t tell her that, she’s your mother.’ But that’s how close we were, and I’m so glad we were.”
“Obviously Jay had such an impact,” said Joe Engrassia, Marles’ stepfather, who’s also a sergeant in the Seaside Heights force. “That’s what gets us through.”
“We appreciate all the support over the last year,” he said.
Among those in the crowd showing their support was Officer Lynn Miller from the Lakewood Police Department, who said she was there on behalf of the department because their department was struggling with the loss of Officer Christopher Matlosz, who was shot to death last January while he was on duty.
“We know what you’re going through,” Miller said, noting that Ocean Gate’s response has helped the Lakewood department figure out how to cope with the loss of Matlosz.
Also on hand was Karen Montenegro, whose daughter, Kyleigh Sousa, was killed in May 2010 in Arizona. Montenegro, of Point Pleasant, has formed a support group called “Mothers of Angels,” for mothers whose children have been murdered.
It was the multitude of faces in the crowd and the reaching out of the community that comforted Marles’ family the most.
“This is a small town of 2,200 people,” Sheldon Marles said. “I’ve never felt so much love and so much support. People walk up to you on the street and tell you how sorry they are.”
“We really appreciate it,” he said.
Joe Engrassia, who teaches cadets who are working to become police officers, said the most important thing they tell the cadets is to get home safe every night.
“Jay didn’t listen,” he said, wiping a tear from his cheek while people admired the artwork on the back window of the SUV he and Pat own – a pair of wings with the words “In Loving Memory of Our Son Ptl. Jay Marles” flanked by two Ocean Gate police insignia. Its license plate reads simply, “JMARLES.”
“I’m sure he was trying,” Joe Engrassia added.
The vigil also included a second unveiling of a street sign on West Arverne Avenue, renaming the street for Marles, The idea was the brainstorm of students at Ocean Gate Elementary School, where Marles was a fixture.
“Ocean Gate will never forget about Officer Jay,” one girl said through tears.
Kennedy said the borough also will be creating a park that will bear Marles’ name, which drew applause.
Pat Engrassia said the biggest thing she hopes people learn from her family’s tragedy is to never neglect to say I love you.
“I posted this on Facebook yesterday,” she said as she thanked the crowd for showing its support of her family. “Just take a look around you and thank God for what you have next to you, because you never know when that will be gone.
“Always tell those you love that you love them, and don’t go to bed angry, because tomorrow might not come.”
“It didn’t for Jay and I,” she said.