A silver Honda Accord zoomed past exit 150 on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey just before 3 a.m. The driver was an off-duty Newark police officer, Louis Santiago. His cousin Albert Guzman was in the passenger seat.
It was the night of Halloween 2021, and Santiago was drunk, according to Essex County prosecutors.
He was staring at a cellphone when his car allegedly drifted into the shoulder and struck a man who happened to be walking along the darkened stretch of highway, prosecutors say.
Santiago, 25, initially thought he may have hit an animal, according to his lawyer, Patrick Toscano Jr. The victim, Damian Dymka, 29, was still in the costume that he had worn out that night: a black mask with gold antlers and brown fur covering his shoulders.
Dymka would be pronounced dead at the scene — but not until more than two hours later.
In those two hours, Santiago drove home with Dymka’s body in the back seat and then returned to the crash site having never called 911 or attempted to render aid to the man, prosecutors say.
“Put that body back where you hit it,” Annette Santiago allegedly told her son when he showed up at their home, according to prosecutors.
He’s now facing 12 felony charges, including reckless vehicular homicide and endangering an injured victim. Guzman and Santiago’s mother were also charged with allegedly tampering with evidence and other offenses.
Dymka’s friends and family, meanwhile, are still reeling in shock and grief. Some are tormented by haunting questions.
What if the officer had immediately called 911? Could Damian have been saved?
“We can’t know that because of one person who was incredibly selfish,” said Miranda Stone, a close friend who met Dymka when they were students at Bergen Community College.
What makes the series of events so difficult to comprehend is not just the officer’s actions, his friends and loved ones said, but who Dymka was as a person.
He was kind and compassionate almost to a fault, four of them said in interviews with NBC News.
He was the one everyone turned to in times of crisis. He was the one who would drop everything to help you.
“If things were going crazy, I remember just being able to hug Damian and feeling like it’s going to be OK,” said Jess Valdanero, a longtime friend. “He wouldn’t let go until he felt like you were OK.”
It was fitting that he worked as a nurse, spending his days helping people who were elderly or infirm at a county-run facility in northern New Jersey.
But by last fall, Dymka was ready for a change.
He had developed an itch to travel, and his boyfriend felt the same way. So they hatched a plan: They would both pursue bachelor of science degrees in order to become travel nurses, a job that would give them the freedom to move away from New Jersey and explore the U.S.
“We wanted a great way to travel the country,” said his boyfriend, Rosemberg Ochoa. “Hike national parks. Just roam around.”
Dymka was set to begin online classes on Nov. 1 — the day after the accident — but he never logged on that day. He also didn’t show up for work at the Preakness Healthcare Center in Wayne, which was highly unusual.
His loved ones would learn later in the day that Dymka was the victim of a fatal traffic accident. Weeks would pass before they found out the full horror of what transpired in those early morning hours.
Santiago worked a daytime shift on Oct. 31, 2021.
The son of a Newark police lieutenant, he joined the force in 2019 and quickly made a name for himself. He received special commendations for assisting in two major drug arrests in 2020.
After work that Sunday, Santiago drove to a bar in his hometown of Bloomfield to watch the Dallas Cowboys game, said Toscano, his lawyer.
Santiago had a few drinks but not enough to impair his driving, Toscano said. The off-duty officer left with Guzman after last call and headed to a friend’s house.
It’s rare for people to be walking at any time along the Garden State Parkway, a major highway that runs the length of New Jersey, but especially so in the predawn hours. How Dymka ended up there remains a mystery to his loved ones.
After allegedly striking Dymka, Santiago drove off but returned to the scene multiple times before he loaded the man’s body into his car, prosecutors said.
With Guzman in the passenger seat and Dymka’s body in the back, Santiago then drove to the home he shares with his parents, prosecutors said.
According to an affidavit of probable cause signed by a state trooper, Guzman informed Santiago’s mother that her son had struck a man while driving drunk and the body was in the Honda.
She went to speak with Santiago and then walked over to the car to see the body, the affidavit says.
That’s when she allegedly instructed him to return the dead man to the crash scene, the affidavit says. Santiago’s father called 911 though prosecutors did not detail when this occurred.
Santiago got angry after finding out that his father had contacted police, according to the affidavit, and discussed changing his clothes.
“My f—— shirt has blood on it,” Santiago said, according to the police affidavit.
Before he took off, his mother handed him a towel so he could clean the blood off himself, the affidavit says.
Santiago arrived back at the accident site just before New Jersey State troopers showed up.
The troopers found Santiago standing beside his car and Dymka’s body in the back seat, according to the affidavit. Santiago described what happened and admitted to hitting the victim with his car, police said in the affidavit filed in Bloomfield Municipal Court.
He appeared intoxicated and was taken for blood testing, the affidavit says. But Santiago, despite appearing drunk and having admitted to moving a dead body, was not arrested at the scene. He was not charged until more than three weeks later.
Policing experts said it was curious that the troopers did not give Santiago a breathalyzer test on the scene. Had they done so, and had Santiago failed, he may have been arrested on the spot.
“If they have no good explanation, like the breathalyzer did not work, or they didn’t have it for whatever reason, then the only explanation that comes to my mind is that they engaged in what we refer to as ‘professional courtesy,’” said Nancy Haberfeld, a professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
She described that as “wrong, unethical and quite possibly in direct violation of their departmental SOPs,” or standard operating procedures.
A New Jersey State Police spokesman referred questions to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office, Katherine Carter, said it was a state police matter.
Toscano, Santiago’s lawyer, said the narrative released by prosecutors misconstrues Santiago’s actions that day.
“This is not a cover-up. There was no attempted cover-up,” Toscano said. “It was a horrible, horrible accident, but there was not one iota of cover-up here at all.”
After realizing he had hit a person, the off-duty officer called his father from the scene, Toscano told NBC News, and the elder Santiago immediately called New Jersey State Police.
Santiago put the victim in the back seat with the intention of driving him to the nearest hospital, Toscano said. But then he realized that the man was dead, Toscano said.
Santiago drove home with the body not to cover up the crime, Toscano said, but to speak with his father about what to do next. The lawyer couldn’t say why Santiago didn’t just call his father again.
“His words to me were, ‘I panicked. I didn’t know what to do,’” Toscano said.
Santiago’s father had already left for the accident scene by the time the son returned home, Toscano said. The father had contacted his son’s boss, Newark Chief of Police Lee Douglas, who also showed up at the crash site, Toscano said.
Dymka, who was born in Poland and grew up in Garfield, N.J., was pronounced dead at the scene at 5:27 a.m., roughly two and a half hours after he was hit. The cause of death was blunt force trauma, according to the spokeswoman for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.
No actual time of death was released, and the state medical examiner’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Louis Santiago was indicted on 12 felony offenses: reckless vehicular homicide, strict liability vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of a fatal crash, endangering an injured victim, desecrating/moving human remains, conspiracy to desecrate human remains, hindering one’s own apprehension, conspiracy to hinder prosecution, tampering with physical evidence, obstructing the administration of law and two counts of official misconduct.
He was also hit with nine non-indictable offenses, including DWI and illegal window tinting, according to the prosecutor’s office.
He has pleaded not guilty. His blood alcohol results have not been released.
The Newark Police Department suspended Santiago, his lawyer said. A department spokesperson declined to comment.
Toscano, a former first assistant prosecutor in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, said he was shocked by the number of charges leveled against his client.
“Maybe there was probable cause to charge two or three offenses, but to charge a law enforcement officer with 12 or 13 was blatant and intentional overkill,” Toscano said.
Toscano added that Dymka’s death is weighing heavily on the young police officer and the rest of his family.
“These are good people,” Toscano said, before referring specifically to Santiago. “He speaks about the victim all the time. He speaks about the victim more than the charges against him.”
Annette Santiago, 53, was charged with conspiracy to desecrate human remains, hindering apprehension, and conspiracy to hinder apprehension and tamper with physical evidence. She pleaded not guilty.
Her lawyer, Vincent Scoca, declined to comment.
Guzman, 25, was charged with the same offenses. He pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer, Dennis Carletta, did not respond to requests for comment.
Dymka had spent much of the night at a Halloween party at Club Feathers in River Edge, New Jersey’s oldest gay nightclub, where he was a regular.
“We all loved him,” said owner Paul Binetti. “He was always funny and bubbly and energetic. If you needed a laugh, you’d go to him.”
Binetti said Dymka showed up with a group of friends in costume around 9 p.m. Over the next few hours, he drank and danced inside but spent much of the night chatting with people on the wooden wall outside the club, Binetti said.
Dymka was buzzed but not wasted when he left around 1 a.m., Binetti said. He hopped into an Uber with a friend but accidentally left his phone behind.
“He gave everybody a hug and a kiss like he did every night, and got in his Uber,” Binetti said. “That was the last time we saw him.”
Binetti said he was stunned and horrified when he found out late the next day that Dymka had been killed.
“Accidents happen. That was not an accident what he did afterwards,” Binetti said, referring to Louis Santiago.
“Whatever this cop did, whoever was involved with him, needs to pay for their actions.”
Dymka’s parents were still too grief-stricken to speak about the tragedy, according to Ochoa, his boyfriend.
Ochoa said Dymka went to the friend’s house in Bloomfield, but the friend, who was drinking that night, wasn’t clear on the circumstances of Dymka leaving or how he ended up walking along the Garden State Parkway at 3 a.m.
“I just have no idea,” he said.
For Ochoa, it has been impossible to make sense of what happened to his boyfriend — a talented artist, a cat lover, and above all a caring soul.
“I don’t understand how this could happen to anyone, and I specifically don’t understand how it could happen to somebody like Damian,” Ochoa said.
“He would run into a building on fire if there was someone he loved in it. He was just that person.”