Tragedy on the Hudson Teen drowns after escaping from police custody
by Tom Jennemann
Oct 19, 2004 | 3358 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Vincent "Woody" McConnell, a 16-year old Hoboken High School freshman, fell in the Hudson River and drowned after escaping police custody Tuesday afternoon, said Hudson County Prosecutor Edward J. DeFazio last week.

According to DeFazio, McConnell, who lives on Harrison Street, had turned himself in to police earlier that morning in front of the Brandt Middle School, responding to a warrant for violating his probation. Even though he attends Hoboken High School, he surrendered at the middle school because he personally knew one of the officers that patrols Brandt, DeFazio said.

According to DeFazio, the teen had been sentenced for aggravated assault on July 27, which resulted in strict probation. One of the terms of probation, said DeFazio, was that he had to wear an electronic ankle bracelet, which he allegedly severed and removed a week later, prompting police to issue an arrest warrant in August.

An escape

A published report quoted the boy's mother as saying that McConnell had disappeared for a few days, but that when he returned, she encouraged him to turn himself in.

While at the police station early Tuesday afternoon, the teen asked to go to the bathroom, and his handcuffs were removed. McConnell was allowed to use a private bathroom instead of the secure one in the holding cell. While in the bathroom, he unscrewed the security gate over the window, climbed out, and ran south down Court Street while police pursued on foot, cars, and motorcycles, police said.

As he ran, the teen yelled, "I'm not going back to jail" several times, according to police sources.

He ran through the Hoboken Train Terminal to the south side of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Station. There, according to police, he climbed over the rail, where he stood for a moment.

Police said they pleaded for the teen not to jump. They said he yelled "I'm not going back to jail" several more times as police negotiated.

As he fell, police tried to grab him, but according to police reports, he pushed them away. McConnell could not swim and quickly went underneath the surface of the water.

According to police, one officer took off his belt and lowered it to the teen, but he couldn't grab it. Mayor David Roberts said that no officer jumped in after McConnell because of concerns about the swift Hudson currents and undertow.

Police helicopters flew overhead, the harbor patrol was called, and divers quickly found McConnell, but it was too late, according to police and witnesses.

"Apparently, he fell into the water in the Hudson and tragically drowned," said DeFazio.

Later, the body was taken to the state Regional Medical Examiner's Office in Newark for an autopsy. "The cause of death, according to the autopsy, was drowning," said DeFazio. He added that there were "no significant" injuries to his body, such as cuts or bruises, and that drowning was the only cause of death. "At this point," DeFazio added, "it looks like a tragic accident, but the investigation is continuing by the Prosecutor's Office." He added that at this time there "appears to be no element of police misconduct."

When asked why someone would try to escape police custody so soon after turning himself in, DeFazio speculated that the teen may have learned during processing that the violation of his parole was worse that what he first thought, and that jail time was likely.

"We can only surmise that the gravity of the situation had set in, and that he realized the he was going to be incarcerated for some period of time," said DeFazio.

At the high school

Wednesday morning, talk about what happened the day before swirled throughout the hallways of Hoboken High School.

Before first period, an announcement came over the loudspeaker asking for a moment of silence. According to Hoboken Superintendent of Schools Patrick Gagliardi, trained professionals from St. Mary's Mental Health Center were at the school to offer counseling to students who were having problems coping with the sudden loss of a friend or classmate.

"It's been an unfortunate and tragic circumstance," said Gagliardi Wednesday morning.

One student who had known the teen since elementary school said that he didn't like all the news reports branding McConnell as only a criminal.

"The only thing that the TV report said was that a convict had escaped and drowned," said the student at the high school. "They didn't say he was teenager, or that he was a student, nothing like that. He has a family and is somebody's son. It didn't seem to me that people were very compassionate about that fact."

City responds

Wednesday night Mayor David Roberts briefed the Hoboken City Council about the incident. "This was a horrible tragedy," said Roberts. "I have a 16-year-old, and I can imagine the grief this mother is feeling. I feel so bad for this young mother. What I can give her is my promise to give a truthful account of what occurred. I have given her the benefit of the information I had so far."

Roberts added that the officers on the scene were deeply distraught over what happened. "The Hoboken Police Department, from all the preliminary reports, conducted themselves properly," said Roberts. "They tried very hard to rescue the teen from the position they were at, but they were 15 feet about the water and there was no place to grab or hold onto [to lower themselves down]."

He added that after the harbor patrol arrived, the harbor patrol told the officers that they did the right thing by not jumping in. They were told that that portion of the river has a serious undertow, and regardless of swimming ability, they would have been in jeopardy of drowning.

According to City Attorney Joseph Sherman, as of Wednesday night, no legal action has been filed against the city, but the family does have 90 days to give notice to the city of a future lawsuit.

Roberts said that he had met multiple times with the mother of the teen. "I just want to express my deepest sympathy," he said.
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