April 5, 2008
Home invader gets 14 years

Thief stole money, bound WWII combat veteran, 84


Joseph Kaminsky didn't talk about his service in the Marines in some of the fiercest battles in the South Pacific during World War II, and only in this century did he mention to his family that he was part of the honor guard on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's funeral train in 1945.

Kaminsky was awarded commendations from his 26 1/2 years with the New Jersey State Police, but he kept them in a closet with his uniform, said his nephew, Charles Kovacs.

He asked for nothing and did what was expected of him, Kovacs said of his uncle.

So when the 84-year-old had to call the police for help on Oct. 31, 2004, as he lay on his kitchen floor where an intruder had bound him with duct tape, it was with embarrassment, according to police officers who testified at earlier hearings.

Kaminsky died at age 85 of unrelated causes on Jan. 27, 2006, a little more than a year after he was beaten, bound with tape and robbed in his home in a Lakewood retirement community.

But as the man responsible was sentenced Friday by Superior Court Judge James Den Uyl to 14 years in prison for rob-bery, a cadre of uniformed veterans and state troopers sat silently in court to represent their comrade.

"I'm here because this man violated my fellow veteran, beat the hell out of him and stole everything in his home," Bill Munn of Stafford said outside the courtroom.

He was referring to the defendant, Ryan McErlean, 38, a repeat offender from Manasquan.

Munn, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, sat in Den Uyl's courtroom during the sentencing wearing his uniform from American Legion Post 232 in Barnegat, along with two other post members in uniform. Four state troopers also sat in court in uniform, as well as a Marine veteran in civilian clothes.

Kovacs, who was unable to attend the sentencing hearing, said in a telephone interview earlier this week that his uncle didn't talk about his service in the Marines or his career with the State Police. But he wrote in his diary about firefights in Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Peleliu, all sites of intense combat in the South Pacific during World War II.

Only during the last years of his life did Kaminsky tell Kovacs' father that he was part of the honor guard on Roosevelt's funeral train, Kovacs said.

When Kaminsky returned home from the war, he joined the State Police and served with distinction for 26 1/2 years, retiring as a lieutenant in 1972, said Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor Michel A. Paulhus.

Kovacs remembered his uncle riding a three-wheeled motorcycle for the State Police. Upon retirement, Kaminsky and his wife, Marge, moved from Roselle to Lakewood, he said.

His uncle never asked for anything, Kovacs said. "He didn't want to bother anyone."

As an octogenarian, during a snowstorm in February 2003, Kaminsky wouldn't wait for his nephew to come over to shovel his walkway, Kovacs said. Instead, he shoveled it himself, but fell and broke his leg, Kovacs said.

As a result, Kaminsky had a rod in his leg and needed a walker, Paulhus said. He lived alone after his wife died in May 2004.

McErlean, meanwhile, was a career criminal, arrested 29 times as an adult, beginning at age 18, Paulhus said. The arrests resulted in five felony convictions and nine municipal court convictions, primarily for drug offenses, Paulhus said.

McErlean, a father of 11- and 16-year-old boys, has suffered from drug addiction most of his life, said his attorney, Clifford Lazzaro. For seven days straight in 2004, McErlean hadn't slept and was doing crystal methamphetamine and drinking, Lazzaro said. Then he committed the robbery at Kaminsky's house.

On Oct. 29, 2004, Kovacs' wife, Michelle, brought McErlean to Kaminsky's house to help her move some patio furniture. That was when Kaminsky accused McErlean of stealing $2,600 he had in envelopes on his dining-room table. Kaminsky declined to call the police when McErlean returned the money, but McErlean returned to Kaminsky's house two days later.

"He punched this 84-year-old man with a rod in his leg, dropped him on the kitchen floor and hog-tied him," Paulhus said.

Then McErlean proceeded to rob Kaminsky of $200, the keys to his house and car, and his off-duty, .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, Paulhus said.

To a police officer, "the ultimate act of humiliation is having your gun stolen," Paulhus said.

But McErlean insisted he did not steal Kaminsky's weapon. He also insisted Michelle Kovacs was an accomplice, although Paulhus said there was no evidence of that.

And, McErlean had told the judge when he pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery on Feb. 7, that Paulhus was "forcing a plea-bargain down my mouth."

McErlean said Friday that he had no intention of causing Kaminsky serious injury, something he admitted to in court in February to avert a trial as a jury was being selected.

McErlean said he released Kaminsky from his restraints, made sure he was breathing and even poured water on him because he was sweating before he left the man's house.

"When I released Mr. Kaminsky, that was a decision I was proud making," McErlean told the judge.

He said "it would be manifestly unjust" for him to get a 10-to-20-year prison term, as called for in the plea bargain.

Lazzaro argued for the minimum term of 10 years for McErlean, but Paulhus said, "He's earned every minute of a 20-year sentence."

Den Uyl ordered McErlean to serve 85 percent of a 14-year term before he can be considered for release on parole.

"He should have put (McErlean) away for a lot longer," said John Marcy, a retired Bloomfield police lieutenant and Coast Guard veteran from American Legion Post 232.