FLEMINGTON, NJ – Imagine that your close friend or family member died in an accident, and officials not only wouldn’t tell you how the wreck happened, but that they wouldn’t even confirm the death.
That’s exactly what happened to some of those close to William D. Hildebrant, the 34-year-old Califon resident who officials now say died after being thrown from an ATV driven illegally by Christopher T. Rafano in Clinton Township on July 28.
Court records show that Rafano has been charged with vehicular homicide, something township and county officials still haven’t revealed.
A stonewall, then a lawsuit
After the wreck, police released information identifying Rafano and some of the 12 charges he faced. And while it mentioned that two people were injured, officials didn’t reveal the circumstances, who else was involved, or even that Hildebrant, who was flown to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick, died the next day.
Multiple people close to Hildebrant told TAPinto that their requests to the township for details were refused. Requests for copies of the accident report – which are public in New Jersey – were also denied, they said.
That’s when TAPinto filed its own request for information under the state’s Open Public Records Act and other public records laws.
Clinton Township Municipal Clerk Carla Connor refused to release any information at all about the incident, even though the request specifically listed the state statutes that required the release. She referred inquiries to the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office.
The Prosecutor’s Office provided some information – which TAPinto has reported – but refused to release information about the accident itself, claiming the records were “exempt” from public release as it conducted a criminal probe.
But the stonewall didn’t end there. In his denial, Acting Assistant Prosecutor Jeffrey L. Weinstein said he also reserved the right “to raise any other grounds for denial" not already raised in his refusal.
In response, TAPinto Flemington filed suit for the records in state Superior Court, naming both Clinton Township and the Prosecutor’s Office.
The suit, filed on behalf of TAPinto by CJ Griffin of the Hackensack-based law firm Pashman Stein, noted that the law cited by Weinstein as an excuse for his denial of the records “expressly says that they are not confidential.”
After receiving a copy of the lawsuit, officials finally released the “exempt” records. In an email, Hunterdon County Counsel Shana Taylor said the records “were mistakenly denied” and that it was “not intentional.” She characterized the multiple failure to provide the records as an “oversight.”
The newly released records show that what started as an apparent fun ride then went horribly wrong.
Rafano, a 40-year-old Readington resident who owns Sweet Melissa’s Patisserie on Payne Road in Clinton Township, was driving a 2019 Polaris Sport ATV on Kiceniuk Road 9:10 p.m. Although the vehicle wasn’t licensed or insured for driving on the road, Rafano had three others on the ATV with him. In addition to Hildebrant, Rafano was joined by his wife, Melissa Murphy, 48, and Alison B. Ward, 41, who lives on Kiceniuk Road. None of them were wearing helmets.
When Patrol Officer Jenn Petruzziello arrived, Rafano had already left the scene, the report states. She also then found that although Hildebrant landed on the road after the crash, he’d already been moved off the road and onto the grass.
According to the report, Rafano was driving west on Kiceniuk when the ATV hit a dip in the road caused by a sewer grate. Rafano continued driving straight but Hildrebrant, who was riding on the right rear of the vehicle, couldn’t hold on, leading to his injury.
The ATV was towed and impounded by police. Rafano was sent to Hunterdon Medical Center for treatment; the results of drug/alcohol tests ordered of his blood and urine are listed as pending on the report.