Deadhead walking: Glouco prosecutor steps down

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Steve Sand says he found "enormous strength" in the presence of law enforcement as he prosecuted Robert "Mudman" Simon, who was convicted of killing a police officer. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

What a long, strange trip it's been.

Not surprisingly, Steve Sand showed up at his retirement party last week at the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office wearing a Jerry Garcia tie while many of his colleagues dressed in tie-dyed shirts.

Grateful Dead tunes held a steady rhythm as the county prosecutor, Sean Dalton, praised his assistant's quick wit and sharp mind - the skills that over nearly three decades helped Sand put away criminals such as cop killer Robert "Mudman" Simon.

Dalton described how Sand once started closing arguments in a 25-year-old murder prosecution with Grateful Dead lyrics.

"And I thought to myself, who would have thought a Deadhead would make such a good prosecutor," Dalton recalled.

Sand, 56, retired Friday simply because it was a good time to leave. He has no plans other than "seeing what life brings" as he starts a new chapter in good health and full of energy, he says.

He likes hiking, mountain climbing, and gardening. If retirement doesn't work out, "he'll be back July 1," jokes his wife, Patti. The high school sweethearts married 29 years ago and have two sons, Josh, 25, and Jake, 23.

Sand describes his wife and children as the "rocks" who kept him grounded while he prosecuted the villainous.

He will remain best known for his prosecution of Simon, a gangster with the Warlocks motorcycle gang who killed Franklin Township Police Sgt. Ippolito "Lee" Gonzalez during a 1995 traffic stop.

"He really wanted to win that one," Patti Sand says.

"He did it in such a way that the healing process could begin," Dalton says.

Observers rank Sand's performance in the nationally recognized case as nothing less than spectacular.

But Sand says, "I was just a spokesman for the state," adding that he pulled "enormous strength" from the wide presence of law enforcement.

Closing arguments were especially memorable.

Representing Simon's accomplice, Charles "Shovel" Staples, prominent defense attorney Jeffrey Zucker raised his hand and repeated the jurors' oath to follow the law, imploring the panel to consider the horrific crime Simon carried out separate from his client.

At his turn, Sand stepped before the jury, raised his hand, and repeated an officer's oath to serve and protect, an improvisation from his planned closing.

"I was impressed," Zucker says.

"I knew when Jeff did that, it was very powerful and very effective," Sand says. "It was just my instinct to return with everything I had."

Staples, convicted of felony murder, is serving life.

Simon, also convicted of murder, was put on death row. There, he taunted other inmates, including Ambrose Harris, who had been convicted of kidnapping, rape, and murder. In 1999, Harris, at 260 pounds, stomped the 250-pound Simon to death during a jailhouse attack.

"Justice was served," Sand says. "Even if it had to come through the hand of another criminal."

Death-penalty cases, he says, were among the hardest to prosecute. Early in his career, Sand volunteered to prosecute Walter Johnson, who in 1984 killed a husband and wife in Pitman.

Although he had a philosophical difference with the death penalty, Sand says he wanted the challenge of ensuring justice prevailed, personal feelings aside.

New Jersey had reinstated the death penalty in 1982 and the legal boundaries were not clearly defined at that time, he says.

Johnson was put on death row. In 2007, New Jersey abolished capital punishment and sentences for death-row inmates, including Johnson, were commuted to life.

Gloucester County's deputy trial chief Michael S. Curwin, who Sand says is the closest person he has to a brother, described Sand as unfailingly fair and "excellent in everything he does."

"He's very smart and thinks quickly on his feet," said Curwin, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt for Sand's retirement party. "With him, it's all about truth."

Sand credits his family for much of his fortune. His now-deceased parents, Dorothy and Harry, adopted him at the urging of Sand's uncle, Joe Waters.

His uncle, he says, taught him an important lesson.

"Our job is to do justice," Sand says. "My uncle told me to always remember you're representing the state to do justice and never forget to temper justice with mercy."

Sand grew up in Jersey City and attended Newark Academy, one of the country's oldest private schools. He graduated from Rutgers University-New Brunswick in 1975 and Rutgers-Camden School of Law in 1979.

After working as an assistant prosecutor in Camden County, he moved to Gloucester County in 1982. He has worked in several capacities, including overseeing Megan's Law matters for the last 10 years while serving as first assistant.

When Dalton remarked that the office would miss Sand's experience and sense of humor, others in the room clapped and laughed as if they instantly recalled Sand's last joke.

In 2005, Sand took on his last prosecution, a cold case from 1979. Jeffrey Bayer, the son of a former Woodbury mayor, was put on trial for killing Rose Twells, 82, the widow of another Woodbury mayor, when he was a drug-addicted teenager.

Dalton says Bayer took the stand and denied knowing Twells. Within minutes of cross examination, Dalton says Sand skillfully had Bayer talking about his drug addiction.

"To me, it was remarkable that he was able to establish the motive that quickly," Dalton says. In Sand's closing, Dalton says, he remembers the very polished, yet low-key, attorney standing before the jury and making his opening remark.

"What a long, strange trip it's been."

 


Contact staff writer Barbara Boyer at 856-779-3838 or bboyer@phillynews.com.