TOMS RIVER – Toms River, Beachwood, and Berkeley are quiet, suburban communities. They are not the towns that people think about when they think about dangerous criminals. However, one officer has seen his fair share.
Eric Harris retired from Toms River police after 18 years serving in Toms River and Beachwood. In his relatively short tenure, he has been on a lot of tough calls.
Eric Harris started as a police officer in Beachwood in 2001. He was commended by the borough council in 2002 for his work stopping a bank robber by chasing the man into the woods.
Another tough case happened in 2005, when he was 25 years old. In the early morning hours of April 26, a Mitsubishi Mirage had been reported stolen, and Harris located it. In fact, it was a teenager who had taken the vehicle without permission. The teenager, and his teenaged passenger, led him on a chase throughout the area. Eventually, though, the driver made the mistake of driving into the Sonata Bay development in Bayville, and wound up in a dead end where garbage containers are stored.
Harris got out of his police vehicle and approached the car. That’s when the driver hit the gas and ran him down. He dragged him 70 feet, and only stopped because the car had been entangled in a fence. After rocking back and forth, on top of him, the car wouldn’t budge. The two teenagers inside fled on foot and were later caught by Berkeley Police.
Harris had fired his pistol at one point in the altercation, but no one was injured.
Two officers who were on duty came to his aid. One of them was his father, Sgt. Bruce Harris. The other was a family friend, Cpl. Mert Crosby of Pine Beach, who described himself as a second father to him. The two men lifted the car off of Harris to pull him out.
He received third degree deep tissue burns from being dragged. The injuries were so bad that there had been talk of amputation. Ultimately, he had to undergo surgery to graft and close the wounds to both of his arms.
The driver, Lawrence Henninger Jr. of South Toms River, 16 at the time, was indicted on charges of attempted murder, three counts of aggravated assault, eluding, leaving the scene of an accident with injuries, resisting arrest, and unlawful taking of a motor vehicle. The 15-year-old passenger, known only as “C.C.” from Lacey Township, was charged with joy riding and obstruction of justice.
The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office had worked to have the driver tried as an adult. At the time, the prosecutor was Thomas Kelaher, who is now the mayor of Toms River.
“All they had to do was stop,” Kelaher said at the time, and the whole incident could have been avoided.
He was later commended by the Beachwood Borough Council for his actions. His two saviors were also commended by their towns.
In November of 2006, a year and a half after the other incident, his cruiser was struck by a drunk driver while performing his job. He had just responded to a hit and run. A South Toms River man was walking drunk in the southbound lane of Route 9 at 2:30 a.m., wearing dark clothing in the rain. A limousine driver saw him, and veered out of the way, as did the car behind him. The third car did not. Fortunately, his injuries were not life-threatening.
Harris responded to that incident. While blocking off Route 9, his cruiser was struck by a drunk driver. The driver’s Jeep pushed the cruiser more than 40 feet on wet roads. Also fortunately, he was only feeling soreness from the incident.
In another publicized case, he was one of the officers who responded to a Walnut Street apartment complex after a man had fired off some rounds into the air in an altercation. In another case, his hand suffered a minor injury when he was one of the officers responding to a fight at the Office Lounge.
Last year, he pulled over near a Jeep on Haines Road to tell the driver, Timothy Sauers, that he was parked illegally. When the driver gave him his identification, Harris returned to the vehicle to process it. With this, he learned that the driver was wanted on charges in a neighboring town. Two other officers arrived as back-up.
What Harris didn’t know at the time was that the driver, while sitting in the Jeep, texted his ex-girlfriend that he was with a cop and that an encounter was about to take place, and that she’d see it on the news. He got out of his vehicle and pulled a gun.
Harris yelled “gun,” dropped to the ground, and drew his weapon. The other two officers braced themselves behind a cruiser. The three of them fired on Sauer. Sauer was hit several times, but survived. He dove into the Toms River to escape. He was found and was brought to the hospital. He explained later that he was tired of his life and wanted to end it.
After investigating, it turned out that the gun was a pellet gun, but one that was made to look so real that it even had a slide and a pistol grip that qualified it as a handgun under state law. A recent investigation determined that the officers acted appropriately in firing their weapons.
At a recent Township Council meeting, Harris was given a Valor Award for his actions. The other two officers who backed him up, Sgt. Timothy Sysol and Officer Lawrence DiFabio, were given the Class A Award.
The meeting for his reward was also the meeting for his retirement.
“He’ll always be a member of our family,” Police Chief Mitchell Little said at the council meeting.
Harris took a moment to address the crowd as well. A line of officers snaked around one side and the back of the meeting room.
“It’s been a rough road,” he said. It felt like a black cloud followed him everywhere he went, he joked somberly. “(Retirement) is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and I’ve done a lot of hard things.”
In Harris’ absence, the council appointed a new officer to keep the department at current levels. That officer is William Resetar. He comes from a line of similar jobs, including being a cadet in the Lanoka Harbor First Aid Squad, a founding member of one of the first EMS bicycle teams in the state, and a Class I or II officer in Beach Haven, Deal and Naeptune. Most recently, he was a dispatcher in Toms River.