Saturday, September 14, 2002

Copyright 2002 Bergen Record Corporation
The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Crusade against DWI; Young girl inspires Heights to tackle big problem

Paul Bassett hovers over the little girl, squeezing air from a machine into her 2-year-old lungs, while his partner rhythmically pumps the heel of his hand into her tiny chest.

Inches away, on the debris-filled rear floor of the crushed Toyota, the child's bleeding and unconscious mother is curled into a fetal position. She also needs help desperately.

But the toddler is blue and has no pulse. Bassett keeps squeezing.

After 90 seconds that seem like an eternity, an EMT shouts: "I got a pulse! I got a pulse!" and Bassett carries her from the wreck, as a crowd of onlookers gasps.

The girl's tiny frame feels familiar to the veteran cop.

"She's the size of my son," he thinks.

Now 5 years old, Antonia Verni is paralyzed from the neck down. A man who police say was driving drunk is awaiting trial in the Oct. 24, 1999, crash.

In the years since, drunken-driving arrests in Hasbrouck Heights first doubled -- and then tripled. Last year, the square-mile borough's Police Department ranked first in DWI arrests per officer in Bergen County. The department's total was third-highest behind much larger Fort Lee and Mahwah.

There have been no special assignments, no DWI roadblocks in Hasbrouck Heights. However, there has been additional training under a new police chief, a competitive edge generated by an up-and-coming troop of young officers - -and a determination to spare other children from Antonia's fate.

"It's pretty obvious that since this accident everyone's picked up the pace," said Bassett, the department leader in DWI arrests. "It's in the back of your mind all the time."

"You see something like that and you realize it could be anybody," said Police Chief Michael Colaneri. "An innocent family driving down the street and their lives are completely changed."

Oct. 24, 1999: Antonia and her parents are on their way home from picking pumpkins when they pass through Hasbrouck Heights at about 5:45 p.m. The driver of a Ford pickup, 30-year-old Daniel R. Lanzaro of Cresskill, is coming from a Giants football game.

They meet on Terrace Avenue, near Cleveland Avenue, when, police say, the truck crosses the double-yellow line, sideswipes a sport-utility vehicle, and hits the family's 1999 Toyota Corolla head-on.

Responding officers see a car seat in the middle of the road and several screaming people running toward the vehicle.

As Officers George Netelkos and Bassett treat the victims, Antonia's father, Ronald Verni, waves his arms.

"That's my baby. That's my wife," he cries.

Officer Corey Lange approaches Verni.

"Get away," the distraught man tells him. If he doesn't, Verni says, he'll take the officer's gun and "shoot the guy."

Lange finds Lanzaro and a passenger on the curb. They're having trouble standing.

He asks Lanzaro how much he'd been drinking.

"Too much," the driver reportedly says.

Later, a security guard at the hospital reports finding a marijuana joint in Lanzaro's pocket. Lange says Lanzaro told him he began drinking before the football game, continued through the game, and smoked some pot as well.

Lanzaro's blood-alcohol level registers 0.266, 2 1/2 times the legal limit of 0.10, police say. He is still awaiting trial on charges of aggravated assault, fourth-degree assault by auto, driving under the influence, and marijuana possession.

In a quiet moment after the wailing ambulance speeds Antonia from the crash scene, Bassett looks inside the crumpled car's back seat. Amid the glass, debris, and blood, he sees a sippy cup and a half-eaten cookie with sprinkles.

At the time, Bassett had a 2-year-old son of his own. His partner, Netelkos, had a 2-year-old daughter.

"This could be our families," Netelkos tells him.

Despite its relatively small size, Hasbrouck Heights is unique in some ways. Passing through the borough are Route 17, Route 46, heavy traffic from the nearby Meadowlands Sports Complex, and two main roads that are often busy. Ten of its businesses have bars.

Yet in 1999, Hasbrouck Heights police made 38 DWI arrests, a dozen fewer than the year before.

"We were averaging in the 30s all the time back then," said Colaneri, who became chief in February 1999, nine months before the accident.

Then, a dramatic change occurred.

A total of 82 drunken-driving arrests were made in Hasbrouck Heights in 2000, followed by 140 last year, a large number of them on Route 17. That increase boosted the department from No. 28 in 1999 to No. 1 in 2001 for DWI arrests per officer in Bergen County. Although other agencies may have been responsible for some of the arrests, as is the case in other boroughs, Hasbrouck Heights police made the majority, statistics show.

Colaneri clearly deserves some of the credit. A third of the 31-officer department has turned over since 1998, putting 10 young, aggressive officers on the road. Early on, the new chief decided the troops had better have the proper training to complement their obvious vigilance. He dispatched more than a dozen officers - -many of them rookies - -for Breathalyzer and DWI instruction, increasing to 20 the number with such training.

"Why is it important to me?" Colaneri said. "Because of things like that child."

In a sun-filled, first-floor bedroom in Cliffside Park, pink-and-purple walls surround Antonia, who is perched in a wheelchair watching Clifford the Big Red Dog on television. Her long black hair is in pigtails, her nails are painted pink.

She wears a plaid dress with Barbie clogs. Above the collar is a ventilator tube in her throat, and surrounding her chest is a white plastic brace that sports a Scooby Doo sticker.

"I want to hug brother," she says.

Fazila Verni dips her 1-year-old son, Gabriel, down to Antonia's chair. The little girl kisses him on the cheek.

"I want to hug him again," she says.

Antonia can receive hugs but not give them. Her only movements below her chin are spasms that straighten her arms and arch her back. She can attend school but only when a nurse accompanies her. Her parents must constantly make sure the spasms haven't dislodged the breathing tubes that sustain her.

Fazila Verni still suffers pain from the accident, which left her in a coma for five days. To keep her family's health insurance, she continues to work while her husband cares for Antonia during the day.

She takes out a photo album with pictures of her daughter -- Antonia on a play horse, Antonia on a chair, Antonia climbing on a table. Fazila Verni stares at a snapshot taken before the accident.

"She just liked to climb on everything," she says.

At the Hasbrouck Heights Police Department, Lt. Joe Cronin suspects a quiet, midsummer night is going to pick up. The roads are busy, four of the department's 30 officers are patrolling, and Friday happy hours will soon be pouring drivers onto Route 17.

The officers generally follow the same route, hitting the highways, the Boulevard, Terrace Avenue, and then the side streets. The drunken-driving suspects they find reveal themselves quickly: Told to listen, they talk. Told to recite the alphabet, they throw in extra letters. None fully comprehends his or her condition.

"They get released at 5 a.m., they come back at 7 a.m. trying to pick up their car," Cronin said. "They don't realize they're still intoxicated."

Bassett is among the officers on this particular night who's "out hunting," as he calls it, looking for cars making suspiciously wide turns or swerving. Since Antonia's accident, drunken drivers have been on his mind. Sometimes, he wonders what her life will be like.

"Why can't they put those nerves back together?" Bassett says.

On Route 17, he spots a motorist driving on the rim of his tire.

"Sometimes when they're drunk, they have a minor accident and just try to drive home," he says.

The driver says he's had two beers. Bassett believes him.

"You pretty much know from talking to someone where they are," the seven-year veteran explains.

At about 1:30 a.m., Bassett spots another quarry on Route 17. The Jeep Wagoneer speeds past Bassett near Ottawa Avenue, then the driver slams on the brakes and moves to the right, straddling the shoulder of the road in the process.

Through slurred speech and an aroma of alcohol, the plaid-shirted man tells Bassett he began drinking at a Yankees game and later at a Lyndhurst bar. Although he said he was headed to the White Castle, he was going in the wrong direction.

Bassett immediately recalls Antonia's accident and the White Castle wrappers strewn about Lanzaro's truck.

The 30-year-old driver standing on the Route 17 shoulder looks dazed. Bassett's sobriety tests make him wobble as he tries to lean his head back, his eyes shut, and count to 30.

Within seconds, Bassett snaps handcuffs on the unsteady suspect's wrists, walks him to the patrol car, and eases him into the back seat. A breath test later registers a 0.13 blood-alcohol level.

As cars whiz past on Route 17, Bassett gets back behind the wheel of his cruiser.

"We got another drunk off the road," he says.