As Edward Esposito, a detective in the Essex County Sheriff’s Office, tells the story, he made an arrest in Newark’s Branch Brook Park last July 16 and went back into the park to find his lost handcuffs while his partner secured the suspect.
Esposito was bending down to get the handcuffs when DeFarra Gaymon, the chief executive of an Atlanta bank, approached him. Gaymon, 48, “was engaged in a sex act at the time,” according to a statement by the Essex County prosecutor’s office.
Esposito, then 29, identified himself and attempted to arrest Gaymon, who fled. A chase ensued. At its end, Esposito claimed, Gaymon threatened to kill him and lunged for him. Esposito shot and killed Gaymon.
This tale of aggressive men who are cruising in New Jersey parks grabbing undercover officers is one that detectives in the Essex County Sheriff’s Office have told many times before.
And there are some good reasons to doubt them.
Following the killing, Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s statewide gay lobbying group, made an open records request to the sheriff’s office seeking documents that alleged “sexual conduct” in Essex County parks from 2005 to mid-2010.
The Sheriff’s Office released records on 167 arrests or investigations in 14 parks, with 148 of those arrests or investigations occurring in Branch Brook Park or South Mountain Reservation, which is located in West Orange, Maplewood, and Millburn. Of those 148, 130 were arrests for lewdness or criminal sexual contact of men who may have been cruising for sex or, in some cases, were observed having sex with other men.
A consistent theme in the 130 reports by plainclothes officers involved in what were clearly organized stings was that they were walking through a park when a man, without any prompting from the officer, exposed himself or grabbed the officer’s crotch.
In a 2005 complaint concerning an arrest in South Mountain Reservation, the officer wrote that the suspect “approached the undersigned and engaged in small conversation. The suspect then grabbed the undersigned’s crotch area, then began to walk away stating to undersigned ‘Come On.’”
A 2007 record on an arrest in that park reads, “Then with out warning or saying a single word, [the defendant] leaned back and grabbed the undersigned groin area, causing pain and discomfort.”
A report on a 2010 arrest in Branch Brook Park states the defendant “stopped in front of me less than a foot away (facing me). [The defendant] asked ‘Do you have a big dick?’ As [the defendant] was speaking he grabbed my penis with his right hand and squeezed it.”
A 2007 report on a arrest in Branch Brook Park has the defendant asking in Spanish, “Do You Want Me To Suck Your Dick?,” and continues, “At the time Detective advised him that he was not into that. The suspect then grabbed Detective hand and asked him to walk with him. Detective pulled his hand back, and the suspect then became aggressive by grabbing for the crotch area of Detective causing Detective to jump back.”
To believe these assertions, one would have to believe that nearly every time a man made an unwelcome advance by exposing himself or groping another man in these two parks, that man just happened to do it in front of or to a plainclothes officer. That is unlikely at best, and that same issue arose in a 2004 lewdness arrest of a gay man in the New Jersey section of the Palisades Interstate Park, which is not patrolled by the Essex County Sheriff’s Office.
In the Palisades case, the plainclothes officer, Thomas Rossi, testified that he had busted roughly 100 men for lewdness in the park since 2002. Rossi claimed the men exposed themselves without any prompting. The man testified that Rossi repeatedly urged him to expose himself. A number of other men who were busted in the park also told Gay City News they were urged to expose themselves by police.
After a conviction in the Palisades case, an appellate court reversed the decision, writing that the “Defendant presented a persuasive attack on Rossi’s credibility, raising serious doubts about whether it was believable that a police officer could have had almost a hundred men approach him, pull out their genitals and start masturbating without any enticement by the officer at all.”
The Essex County Sheriff’s Office appears to have a similar problem. Officers may be urging men in cruising spots to expose themselves or touch the officers and arresting them when they do so. That trick may explain why Gaymon fought with Esposito, assuming that part of the detective’s story is true.
The gay man Rossi arrested testified that he told the police officer, “You entrapped me, you entrapped me” when the detective displayed his badge. While he did not resist, his anger was palpable during the trial and when discussing the case with Gay City News.
Edel Gambe, another gay man arrested by Rossi in 2004, told Gay City News in 2005 that he initially thought Rossi and his partner, Wayne Zelna, were police, but then doubted that as they became more forceful. Gambe tried to protect himself.
“I thought they might be trying to gay-bash me,” Gambe said. “They started punching and kicking... I started screaming for help right away.”
Gambe was charged with two counts of aggravated assault on a police officer, two counts of resisting arrest, lewdness, and attempted escape. He pleaded guilty to lewdness and resisting arrest, and received a lighter sentence than most of the men arrested in that park.
“When you’re innocent, it’s not a good deal,” said Gambe, who remained very angry about the case months after it ended. “I got this better deal because I’m innocent, and the prosecutor knows that.”
Eleven arrest reports had aggravated assault or resisting arrest charges among the 96 lewdness or criminal sexual contact reports over the five-year period in South Mountain Reservation. Five lewdness or criminal sexual contact reports out of 34 in Branch Brook Park over that time had aggravated assault or resisting arrest charges.
The men who were charged with resisting arrest typically fled or flailed their arms to avoid being handcuffed, while the men charged with aggravated assault fought with police.
Ultimately, the records do not support any firm conclusions about what took place between Esposito and Gaymon, but they raise questions and suggest some answers.
“There are some very suspicious patterns in these arrests, and they also heighten concerns about DeFarra Gaymon’s encounter with the Essex County sheriff that ended in his death,” said William K. Dobbs, an attorney and a longtime gay activist.
The Essex County Sheriff’s Office and the Essex County prosecutor’s office did not respond to a detailed email seeking comment. Garden State Equality also did not respond to multiple phone calls or emails seeking comment.