TOMS RIVER-It was a sunny and warm June morning in 2004 when criminal investigators were canvassing the Dover Township neighborhoods around Chestnut Street that would eventually lead to Toms River’s enacting of a no-knock ordinance.
Police were investigating the murder of 77-year-old Shirley Reuter, a 40 plus year resident and founding member of Holy Cross Lutheran Church at her home on Chestnut Street.
Neighbors led police to identify Reuter’s murderer, 17-year-old Azriel Rashad Bridge, a Chicago door-to-door magazine salesman.
Reuter’s home was not the first Bridge went to. Earlier in the day, he was knocking on many doors in the neighborhood, meeting with rejection and refusal from many. Bridge was an aggressive salesman.
I have first-hand experience. He knocked on our door on Citta Court as he made his way up Citta Street towards Reuter’s home.
“Hi, I am selling magazines, I would like to know if you were interested…” he asked me when I opened the door a crack for him.
I told Bridge no thank you and attempted to close the door. “How do you know you don’t want them if you haven’t seen them?” he asked.
8 years removed from the United States Marine Corps, unintimidated by his aggressiveness, I bid Mr. Bridge farewell and closed the door. I later learned my immediate neighbors all did the same.
The next day, Reuter was found dead. Bridge was their suspect. Within twenty-four hours he was arrested, leading then Ocean County Prosecutor Tom Kelaher (current Toms River mayor) to issue a warning to Ocean County residents and begin his prosecution against Bridge.
“Under no circumstances should people let strangers into their homes,” Kelaher said.
That is what Reuter did. She let the young man into her home after he asked to use her bathroom and for a glass of water. Her kindness led to her death and to a series of no-knock ordinances in Ocean County municipalities.
In a thirty-two-page written statement to the police on June 11, 2004, Bridge stated he was selling magazines in Toms River on June 9, 2004, when Shirley Reuter allowed him to enter her home to use the bathroom.
While he was in the house, he saw a checkbook on a table and decided to put it in his pocket. However, the victim noticed defendant put something in his pocket and she confronted him about it.
As Ms. Reuter reached for the checkbook, Bridge stated he pushed her hard enough that “her feet actually came out from underneath her,” and as she fell, she hit her head on the corner of a table.
As the victim lay on the floor, Bridge admitted he struck her three times on the side of her face with a fireplace bellow to wake her up.
After the paddle broke, defendant used a poker from the fireplace “to poke her to see if she would wake up.” When the victim did not wake up, defendant put the bloody poker “back where it was,” and he got a knife from the kitchen, which he used to “poke” the victim in the neck. Defendant stated the victim’s body quivered “when the knife went through her throat.”
Bridge was later arrested on a warrant out of Illinois in Elizabeth.
During the police investigation in Elizabeth, Bridge initially denied having any contact with the victim, however, about an hour into the interview, Investigator Joseph Mitchell learned from another officer that on June 9, 2004, he had given his supervisor a check for magazine subscriptions written on the account of David Reuter, Reuter’s son. When confronted with this information, Bridge confessed to the murder, and he gave a detailed audio-taped statement to the police.
On the way back to Toms River, Bridge agreed to show officers the route he took that day to get to Reuter’s home and his actions inside the home.
Police had a full confession.
The problem was Bridge told the police he was 18 years old. It turned out he was just 17. Kelaher, who was seeking charges that could have led to the execution of Bridge, was forced to drop all charges and charge Bridge as a juvenile.
Then Chief of Police, Michael Mastronardy (now Sheriff) said police were alerted to Bridge knocking on doors in the Chestnut Street neighborhoods prior to the murder. Bridge’s actions were of cause for alarm to those he came in contact with.
He was later sentenced to 55 years in prison in January of 2006.
In 2007, Bridge’s lawyers claimed his confession was not legal because he was a minor and appealed the decision, but it was rejected. Defense attorney Philip Pagano also criticized police for interrogating a minor without attempting to contact the boy’s parents.
Superior Court Judge Edward J. Turnbach upheld the conviction.
“Considering the totality of circumstances, I find that the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant was apprised of his constitutional rights, that he understood those rights, and that he intelligently and voluntarily waived his rights and gave a voluntary statement,” the judge said. “The motion to suppress the statement is denied, and it will be admitted into evidence at the trial of Azriel Bridge.”
“At the time of this incident he was a juvenile, one week short of being an adult. He was born to a woman who was 15 years old at the time she gave birth. And since age nine to 16-and-a-half[,] he has been hospitalized at least nine times. All the hospitalizations were in various psychiatric units in Illinois, Hard Grove, River Edge[,] and Nolan Treatment Center.
“Under the law there is no willingness present here to cooperate with law enforcement authorities. So there is absolutely nothing present here by way of mitigation. The murder of Ms. Reuter, a 77-year-old grandmother, was particularly heinous, cruel, depraved[,] and senseless,” the judge added. “She was a stranger to the defendant. There was no reason, real or imagined, for the defendant to do what he did. Indeed, while a stranger, she allowed this young man into her house to give him a drink of water at his request. She was a good Samaritan. And you, Mr. Bridge, seeing a check[book] lying on the table, decided to [take it] and did murder her in the cruelest of manners.”
The murder motivated then mayor Paul Brush and councilman Gregory P. McGuckin to look into an ordinance solution that could protect the community against future attacks. At the time, the township did require commercial door-to-door solicitors to register with the town prior to canvassing, but there was no mechanism in place for homeowners to opt-out of the soliciting.
By August of 2004, the township had enacted a “do not knock” provision in the township code.
The township now maintains a no-knock registry which is updated each January and July. Residents who register are provided with green no-knock stickers to be placed on their dwelling to identify themselves to would-be solicitors.
Violations of the ordinance can result in fines up for to $1,250.00 and a one year revocation of the solicitor’s privilege to solicit in the town.
In recent weeks, residents have rallied to use the no-knock ordinance for a different reason, leading to a surge in applications.
In light of Lakewood based realtors’ aggressive door-to-door soliciting in North Dover and the township’s issuance this month of four more soliciting permits to those agencies, residents are feverishly lining up to be added to the registry.
At a North Dover neighborhood watch meeting this week, the township advised residents to contact the township to report those who violate the ordinance.
Today, Bridge is serving out his 55 year prison term at the Menard Correctional Center in Menard, Illinois. He will be eligible for parole on July 12, 2052 and would be discharged in 2057.