A State Police SWAT team and a swarm of federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents stormed a four-family home in Newark on Tuesday, kicking down doors, waving guns and ransacking two upstairs apartments.
The officers tore through an armoire looking for guns and shouted curses at frightened adults as they clutched their young children.
Then the officers apologized for being in the wrong house.
Home health aide Cedelie Pompee, 59, was livid yesterday as she recounted how police rushed through the Smith Street house that she has owned for 27 years, leaving cracked door frames, broken doors and scuffed walls in their wake. Pompee shares the home with her two sisters, their children and another family that rents a downstairs apartment.
The raid occurred around 2:30 p.m., when Pompee's 21-year-old daughter, Yedah Desir, was home with several relatives and the downstairs tenants. Without warning, officers in full SWAT gear broke down the front door and raced upstairs, kicking down the doors of both upstairs apartments and telling everyone to freeze where they stood, Desir said.
With guns drawn, they went room by room, breaking through locked doors as they went. When Desir and other family members complained, the officers cursed at them and demanded to know where the guns were kept.
But after 15 minutes of fruitless searching, the officers realized they had made a mistake.
"The investigator said they were looking for bad people and they were in the wrong place," Pompee said as she demonstrated how several doors in the house no longer close properly. "That's a bad mistake they made."
State Police Sgt. Gerald Lewis confirmed yesterday the officers and DEA agents raided the wrong house. He would not reveal the nature of the investigation that led them to the house, other than to say it is ongoing. Lewis also refused to disclose who they were looking for.
"Unfortunately, there was some erroneous information disseminated, so we're looking into that," Lewis said. "The family was not the subject of the investigation."
Lewis said the officers did have a search warrant, but could not say what judge issued the warrant or what address it was for.
DEA Special Agent Douglas Collier said the warrant was a state warrant, not a federal warrant. He also would not comment on the investigation, but said agents were back in the neighborhood yesterday conducting interviews.
Lewis said the State Police and state Attorney General's Office would be working together to cover the damages to Pompee's home.
"Luckily, no one was hurt and we gave an explanation to the residents. Of course, everyone was apologetic," Lewis said.
But Pompee said the explanation she received wasn't good enough. She said she feels unsafe now because her front door won't close and the inner door doesn't lock. Strips of molding with sharp nails sticking out lean against the apartment walls. In one bedroom, the wooden door's center panel was kicked clean out.
"They said they're going to fix it, but I don't know what to do now," Pompee said. "I don't have any money to fix it and my door doesn't close."
This is the second time in four months the State Police have raided the wrong home. In May, officers stormed the home of a retired truck driver in Woodbridge in search of a prostitution operation.
Yesterday, both Pompee and Desir questioned what kind of investigation even led police to a household of devout Jehovah's Witnesses in the first place. If any surveillance had been done of the house with the iron gate and small herb garden, Desir said, officers would have known that no one in the house so much as smokes cigarettes or drinks alcohol.
"You're trying to work in a community and get bad people, but you don't even know where they live," Desir said. "When you're dealing with these type of neighborhoods, there's no room for incompetent police officers."