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Saturday, November 13, 2010

New Jersey's former Bordentown City police chief convicted in murder plot

Bordentown's ex-police chief Phil Castagna convicted of plot to kill wife

Thursday, October 21, 2010
Staff Report
MOUNT HOLLY — Former Bordentown City police chief Phil Castagna was found guilty Thursday of conspiring with an ex-con buddy to have his estranged wife killed in a 2003 firebombing at her home.

When Castagna learned the Burlington County jury’s verdict, “He turned around and looked at me; he was shocked,” said Castagna’s sister, Clare Lindsey of Bordentown City. “He said, ‘They found me guilty!’ He said, ‘I can’t believe it!’

“And I looked at him, and I said, ‘What?!’ He couldn’t believe it. There was no evidence!”

Facing 10 to 20 years when he is sentenced Dec. 3, Castagna heard the judge revoke his $350,000 cash bail.

The guilty man is chunkier now than he was after the attempted murder seven years ago, and sheriff’s officers needed two sets of handcuffs to loop his arms behind him and lead him from the courtroom away to the Burlington County jail.

County Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi said the verdict “upholds a longstanding principle of jurisprudence in this country, that no person is above the law. Former Chief Castagna has disgraced himself and the oath he swore to uphold.

“Now he will face the penalty for his criminal conduct,” Bernardi said. “For Mr. Castagna, the saga ends with humiliation and the awful reality of serving time in New Jersey State Prison.

“He will no longer ‘protect and serve,’ rather he will ‘serve’ his time.”

Castagna’s angry sister vowed an appeal will be filed.

“He may have been found guilty today, but we’re going to fight every inch of the way, because he’s not guilty, and we know he’s not guilty,” she said.

She charged “the little bit of evidence was made up by the prosecution — the whole thing was a conspiracy against my brother.”

She referred to conversations between Gary Hall and Castagna that were taped by the co-conspirator at the prosecutor’s direction, according to trial testimony.

“We’re going to appeal this, and we’re going to win it, because this is not a true outcome, this is not the way it is; he is not guilty,” vowed Clare Lindsey.

“ ... If he was such a bad criminal, why did they offer him his pension just before this case?” she said. “He could have took his pension and run, but he had to plead guilty to something and just walk away.

“The prosecutor’s office offered him his pension. ... But he said, ‘No, I’m not guilty.’ And that’s why he went forward with this case. If he was guilty, don’t you think he would have grabbed it (the offer)?”

She said Hall lived with her and her brother “the whole two years he was screwing him over and tape-recording him.”

Lindsey said she might reveal “other corruption” in law enforcement in the next few days. “They put an innocent man behind bars,” she said. “I don’t care if I have to go to Nancy Grace, this guy is getting out.”

Nancy Grace is a lawyer with an edgy Fox show, Headline News.

“I’m going to spill the beans. I’m tired of this... There’s a lot of stuff (that) needs to come out. I just have to wait for permission.”

Clare Lindsey said she’s been told she can’t talk to her brother in the jail for 4 days. “His birthday’s Saturday,” she said. “It’s a damned shame that he can’t even celebrate his 49th birthday at home with his family. It’s not right ...This is not the way it should be, at all.”

Meanwhile, witness Gary Hall called The Trentonian from Florida on Tuesday night before the closing arguments in the Castagna case, detailing how he’d sued the county over what he said was improper medical treatment during his 25 months behind bars in Burlington County.

“It took me like two years (the suit) and I did it all by myself, and I have a suitcase full of papers, and I finally got them to give me the reports that they wrote that they lied and they said they didn’t have,” Hall told a reporter.

“And then when I submitted them to the judge, and we had our status conference, she instructed me to give them an offer. And then when I went up there (to testify in the Castagna trial), I handed them the offer. And I just got their response in the mail. And I’m not going to tell you how much it is, but they offered me cash to settle.”

Six figures?

“It’s up there,” he said. He promised to FAX a copy of the offer, but none ever showed up here. Hall couldn’t be reached last night.

The prosecutor’s spokesman, Joel Bewley, was asked Tuesday night if the county’s offer to a witness in the Castagna case played any role in Hall’s testimony. But Bewley said that night, “It would be inappropriate for me to make comment while the jury is still seated.”

Attempts last night to get comment from Bewley or Bernardi on the Hall and Clare Lindsey charges were not returned.

In his statement on the verdict, Bernardi said he is very proud of the efforts of Assistant Prosecutor Michael Luciano and his team, and “appreciative of the jury’s thoughtful analysis and deliberation in reaching this verdict.”

Castagna was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and violating a court order to stay away from his ex, Joyce Leopold, whose home in Burlington Township was singed by a firebomb that didn’t cause serious damage on Independence Day in 2003.

His first trial, at which he was represented by famed Trenton criminal defense attorney Robin Lord, ended last year with the jury unable to make a decision on the attempted murder charge filed after the ex-chief’s buddy, convicted burglar Gary Hall, admitted to cops he had tossed the bomb on orders from Castagna.

According to trial testimony, authorities convinced Hall to wear a wire in a bid to get a clear admission of guilt from the former law officer.

But Castagna is heard telling Hall only, “Accomplish the mission,” which two jurors at the first trial didn’t think was incriminating enough to convict, leading to a mistrial.

Robin Lord was replaced by Attorney Robert H. Leiner to represent Castagna at the second trial. And Bernardi praised Assistant Prosecutor Michael Luciano for his handling of the second trial and for winning the conviction.

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