‘It doesn’t even feel real’: NJ reporter recounts highway confrontation

Stephen Stirling, data reporter for NJ Advance Media. Photo courtesy of subject.

IN MID-DECEMBER, NJ Advance Media reporters Stephen Stirling and SP Sullivan published a groundbreaking look at the state’s dysfunctional medical examiner offices in which they described, in grisly detail, the mistreatment of New Jersey’s dead. They recently followed up on that piece with an exposé on Joseph Fantasia, a belligerent funeral director with a reputation for mishandling bodies. Fantasia was an uncooperative subject, to say the least, referring most questions to his attorney.

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Before the piece came out, Stirling and photographer Andrew Mills—he of Christie-on-the-beach fame—rode up to Fantasia’s house in Hackettstown to ask a few questions and get a photo. Fantasia seemed to take their arrival as an affront. He got in his black Cadillac Escalade and, with help from a second man in another vehicle, chased the two reporters onto a nearby highway, then stopped traffic and blocked the journalists in to confront them. In a recent conversation with CJR, Stirling, a 34-year-old data reporter, elaborated on the encounter—which could have been much worse, he imagines, if two off-duty police officers hadn’t intervened.

“I would like to think that, had he allowed us to talk to him, even for a few seconds, all of this could have been avoided,” says Stirling. “Then again, who knows, given how he reacted.” The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

 

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It’s a grim encounter for such a grim story.

It was. To this day, I don’t even know what to say about it, because it doesn’t even feel real. Getting the police officers’ narrative after the fact was, more or less, a confirmation.

 

People have problems with my stories every day, but not all of them chase me down a highway because of it.

 

How did Fantasia know you were with the newspaper?

I don’t know who he thought we were. We tried to identify ourselves, but he wasn’t listening when he drove up. He was well aware we were doing the story on him and well aware it was coming.

 

Can you describe the event in a little more detail?

It was late morning, there was snow and ice in the area, and the weather wasn’t great, but it was turning to rain, so it was getting better. Not long after we got there, some people were peeking out the front door of his house. He and the person we believe to be his wife came out. We expected some kind of confrontation, but they got in the car and they drove in our direction. They pulled up, we were window to window. We tried to talk but he was yelling. Andy, my photographer, made the decision that we were going to leave. But it became pretty clear pretty quick that he was going to try to cut us off at the end of his neighborhood. Joe threw it in reverse, and he tried to cut us off going the other way. Andy turned around again, and at that point another black SUV showed up. We didn’t know who it was but it turned out later it was his neighbor.

I had called in to the newsroom to let them know what was going on. When we got on the highway, it became clear both SUVs were chasing us. We got on the phone with 911 and explained the situation, but it wasn’t terribly long before the car driven by Fantasia got in front of us, and the neighbor’s car got behind us. I look back and I have to commend Andy for keeping his cool and not colliding with anything. When they stopped traffic on both sides, they got out of their cars and began charging at us. By some grace, the car behind us [held] two off-duty police officers who had seen most of everything before we got onto the highway, and they got out of their cars and intervened. So we’re forever in those guys’ debt.

 

It’s tough for me not to feel like it sends a bad message. I’m not a lawyer, but from where I’m standing, what we did was legal and a number of things he did were not.

 

Were you nervous about publishing the story after?

We certainly had a bunch of extensive conversations, particularly since there were no charges filed against him. We didn’t really know what he was capable of. My organization was willing to give us anything we thought was prudent, in terms of security. They offered to support us if we elected to press charges. After an incident you can’t help but feel a little nervy looking over your shoulder. I have a young kid at home. People have problems with my stories every day, but not all of them chase me down a highway because of it.

 

No charges were filed?

Not even a citation. And that’s not to dismiss the actions of those off-duty officers who intervened. They went above and beyond and gave accurate accounts of what they saw. Folks can have misgivings about reporters showing up at people’s houses uninvited. I understand that and own it. But it’s tough for me not to feel like it sends a bad message. I’m not a lawyer, but from where I’m standing, what we did was legal and a number of things he did were not.

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Have any other confrontations you’ve had in the line of duty come close to this one?

No, not really. I’ve been yelled at and had doors slammed in my face and threats thrown my way, but none of them came to pass in any tangible action. If I don’t have people who are upset with me, then I’m not doing my job. But nothing has quite escalated to that level.

 

Why did you include the chase in the story?

It was something that we needed to include in some form. We never wanted to be a part of the story. We decided that this was an example of some of the behavior we detailed elsewhere in the piece. But we also just wanted to be transparent about what happened during the course of our reporting. We didn’t want to sensationalize it or anything. I had my partner, Sean Sullivan, write up that part so that I wasn’t involved. He had copies of the police report, too. We wrote it as straight as we could. I guess it’s a good war story, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t the story we were setting out to do.

 

It seems like New Jersey papers are really excelling at watchdog journalism lately. Do you think New Jersey is more corrupt than other states?

Folks from New Jersey certainly say you never run out of news here. There’s always a stone to be turned.

 

It looks like your reporting may have an impact on legislation in the state, and the new governor, Phil Murphy, seems receptive to making changes to the medical examiner offices. Do you think that Murphy will have a more collegial relationship with the press than Chris Christie did?

I think we’re still in the process of figuring that out. As a data reporter, as somebody who requested public records from the Christie administration and was denied ad nauseum, I would hope that things would change. By the same token, I don’t know if Christie had an acrimonious relationship with the press, but he would at least talk to them. And so far Murphy has been pretty short. But it’s unfair to judge the administration at this early stage. I’m just waiting to get some of the first records requests I’ve filed under his administration back. So, much remains to be seen in that regard.

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Matthew Kassel is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has been published by The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, and Cosmopolitan, among other publications.