A Sea Bright Fire Department engine truck on display at the department’s wet-down celebration, shortly before three firefighters got into a scuffle that led to charges. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)
By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
Two brothers accused of assaulting a fellow volunteer firefighter last year were found guilty of all related charges Thursday, according to court documents obtained by redbankgreen.
But their act of violence upon Justin Hughes at a wet-down celebration October 9 wasn’t unprovoked, the judge said. Hughes was also found guilty of harassment and disorderly conduct.
In a nine-page written decision, Judge James Berube Jr. details the history of the case and witness testimony, which carried on for two hearings in Little Silver municipal court and included an inaudible video that captured the scuffle in the department’s bar area of the firehouse.
Brothers Steven Lang and Peter Lang IV were accused of beating up Hughes the night of the department’s celebration of a new fire truck coming online. Hughes, 28, who was already nursing an unrelated work-related injury, went to Monmouth Medical Center the night of the altercation for a shoulder injury and was unable to respond to emergency calls for months.
Video showed two altercations. One began in the corner of the bar between Hughes and Steven Lang, where the two got into a brief shoving match before it was quickly broken up. Just minutes later, the Langs were wrapped up in a second scrum with Hughes, and he was taken down to the floor and put in a headlock by Peter Lang, 33.
Accusations by the Langs that Hughes stoked the altercation by calling 25-year-old Steven Lang, a former Marine, a “pussy Marine” and saying that he would have been better off dying in Iraq, could not be wholly verified by the court, but Berube said actions caught on video “are consistent with this testimony.”
In his decision, Berube says Hughes’ failure to recall in his testimony exactly what words were exchanged that night calls his credibility into question. Witnesses in the case, including Sea Bright volunteer Aaron Rock, said they did not hear what Hughes said about Steven Lang.
“Based on the testimony presented, after consideration of the demeanor of the witnesses, their potential bias and presentation at the trial, the court finds the testimony of Steven Lang, Peter Lang and Aaron Rock more credible that that of Justin Hughes to support its finding that Justin Hughes did make initial disparaging remarks concerning Steven Lang’s military service as a Marine prior to the first confrontation with Steven Lang only,” Berube wrote.
With the video showing the incident blow by blow and after “clear evidence of continuing conversations” with Hughes and the Langs initiating physical contact, the Langs “candidly” admitted in their testimony that they did “have contact with Mr. Hughes consistent with the events in the videotape, but argue that the contact was precipitated by verbal statements of Justin Hughes.”
The three men will be sentenced on August 4. It isn’t clear what discipline, if any, the men will face within the fire department. Both Langs The Langs were suspended from taking line officer positions within the department until the case was resolved.
Fair Haven Mayor Mike Halfacre, who served as the prosecutor for the case it was moved out of Sea Bright court to Little Silver to avoid potential conflict said the charges are classified as disorderly persons offenses and each carry a maximum $1,000 fine and up to six months jail time. It is unlikely, given the three have no past criminal history, that they will serve any time in jail, he said.
In summing up the case, Halfacre said it was an unfortunate circumstance in which a somewhat common “dust-up” among firefighters escalated to much more serious matter. When a scuffle occurs, he said cooler heads often prevail, and even if charges are filed, they’re often dropped because involved parties don’t want to face conviction.
“In this case, it didn’t happen here,” said Halfacre. “Everybody was convicted of something. That’s the risk that they take.”