By Dennis Griffin
On February 23 1990, the Paulsboro, New Jersey police department received an anonymous phone call reporting an incident of domestic violence at 1546 South Delaware Street, the residence of 25-year-old Gerald “Jerry” Kearney and his family. When police arrived there was an argument going on between Jerry and his wife Chyrll. Although she begged the police not to arrest him, four officers removed him from the home and took him to jail. Shortly after being placed in his cell, Jerry allegedly used his T-shirt to hang himself.
Jerry grew up in a dysfunctional home and suffered abuse at the hands of his father. He and Chyrll were married on June 9, 1984. At the time of his death the couple had three children, and Chyrll was pregnant with their fourth. Jerry was excited about the pregnancy and had just received invoices and business cards for his new landscaping business.
According to his sister Kathleen Kearney, Jerry was a good, caring man who loved his family very much. But he was by no means an angel, having had numerous run-ins with the law, mainly for theft.
On the night of his death, Jerry called Kathleen and asked her to come over and babysit so he and his wife could go out. When she arrived about an hour later, she noticed tiny droplets of blood on the steps leading to the front door, and learned that Jerry had already been arrested and taken to jail.
A short time later, a police sergeant who had been one of the arresting officers came to the door. He told Kathleen and Chyrll that Jerry had an outstanding warrant for a $25 traffic ticket. Kathleen explained that all of Jerry’s warrants had been taken care of in January, when her parents put their house up as collateral to bail him out of jail. The officer said he would go back to the station and check further. Twenty minutes later he came back and said Jerry would be released as soon as the paperwork was done. Kathleen had been right, there were no outstanding warrants and they were not going to charge him in the domestic incident.
After a brief time passed the sergeant was back again. This time he was accompanied by an assistant prosecutor. They said that Jerry had hanged himself in his cell and was dead.
When Jerry was pronounced DOA at the hospital, the attending physician refused to sign the death certificate. When Jerry’s parents got to the hospital to identify his body, they were denied access. A priest, who had been called to administer last rights, was also denied access to the body.
Paulsboro is located in Gloucester County. However, the medical examiner, Dr. Claus Speth, was attending a convention in Ohio at the time and the medical examiner from Burlington County should have received the body. But for unknown reasons, the police chief placed a call to Dr. Speth and asked him to return and do Jerry’s autopsy as a personal favor. The next day Dr. Speth performed the autopsy. Afterward, he called Jerry’s parents and told them he believed Jerry had been murdered. He said he’d make a final decision after conferring with the police.
Although Jerry’s family doesn’t know for sure what happened at that meeting, they have heard that the session was recorded on an audio tape. Allegedly, one of the arresting officers stated that he’d slammed Jerry’s face into the concrete walkway. However, whatever his reasons, Dr. Speth ruled the death a suicide.
The official reports state that Jerry fell down the steps. But some witnesses say that Jerry was screaming “I’m not resisting, I’m going peacefully,” as officers dragged him down the steps by his feet, with his head bouncing off the concrete steps.
Some witnesses say they saw Jerry unconscious or possibly lifeless at the bottom of the steps. Kathleen states that the autopsy showed Jerry had two black eyes, a split lip, multiple bruises, neck injuries not consistent with a hanging, and his voice box and thyroid glands were hemorrhaged.
According to Kathleen, one of the involved officers had been fired from other police agencies for incidents involving brutality and his records were sealed after each firing. This is the same officer who allegedly told Dr. Speth that he slammed Jerry’s head into the walkway.
Of further concern to Jerry’s family, the police told them that the T-shirt Jerry used to hang himself was lost and unavailable for examination. In addition, the authorities claim the security cameras in the facility were not operational at the time of the incident.
Was Jerry Kearney’s death suicide or homicide? The family may never know for sure.