SOMERVILLE, NJ – The disturbing death of firefighter George Kavanaugh one year ago Sunday hangs heavy over the borough like the black funeral bunting draping the entrance to a firehouse when a firefighter dies.
Kavanaugh, 75, was killed by a hit-and-run driver outside the Lincoln Hose Company Firehouse on Warren Street around 9:30 p.m. March 6, 2015. Earlier that evening, he and dozens of fellow firefighters had attended the funeral of another firefighter, Charlie Becker.
They had gathered at the firehouse afterwards to share stories about their fellow firefighter..
He had walked outside with friend and fellow firefighter George Riehman to head home. Riehman was going to give him a lift and walked towards his car. Kavanaugh was waiting for Riehman when he was struck. Riehman told police the hit-and-run driver backed over his friend and then drove forward, striking him a second time.
Riehman described the vehicle as a light-colored SUV, but told investigators he hadn’t gotten a good look at the driver.
Kavanaugh was transported to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital-Somerset where he succumbed to his injuries. Left behind are his wife Anita, and several children.
An investigation ensued, but there have been no arrests.
Outgoing Somerset County Prosecutor Geoffrey Soriano released the following statement a few days before the anniversary of Kavanaugh’s death:
“The case remains an open investigation.”
Mayor Brian Gallagher reflected on the tragedy.
“This senseless crime continues to cause the family, the fire department and our community pain. It needs to be resolved and the responsible party needs to step forward,” Gallagher said.
“The effort to solve the crime will not stop,” Gallagher added. “I encourage anyone with information to please call the police department or the Crime Stoppers tip line. You may not think your information is important but it may be that piece the police need.”
A reward of $15,000 is being offered by Crime Stoppers for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the hit-and-run driver.
No different than any other New Jersey town, the firefighters in Somerville are a close-knit group; the brotherhood is strong. They bristle at the suggestion that it could have been one of their own involved in their brother’s death.
“I’m a little bit troubled when I hear that kind of talk, that someone in the fire department had something to do with it, or that we’re trying to cover it up,” said 45-year veteran Rich O’Neill, a former chief and curator of the Somerville Firemen’s Museum.
“People just talk. It hurts. It hurts all of us,” he added. “I think by now it would have come out if we knew anything."
“It’s kind of strange,” O’Neill continued. “In the fire department there’s really no secrets; guys talk, but I just don’t know what happened here.”
Somerset County Sheriff Frank Provenzano said surveillance video from cameras in the county office complex across from Warren Street were turned over to the prosecutor’s office, but failed to provide any leads.
Warren Street connects East Main Street and Veterans Memorial Drive East.
O’Neill said vehicles often back up onto the apron in front of the firehouse to turn and head in the other direction.
“When you drive down Warren Street and you look ahead, there’s nothing there, it’s like coming to the end of the world,” he said. “It’s very narrow, it’s a dark street.”
A page on Facebook, “Justice for George Kavanaugh” was created soon afterwards, hoping to develop leads. The site has over 1.000 ‘Likes’ but there’s been little activity on the page the past several months.
O’Neill drove the borough’s ceremonial 1942 fire truck at Kavanaugh’s funeral procession last March. He drove the truck in Becker’s funeral procession that month, too, and drove it a third time in another funeral procession for borough Fire Marshal Barry Van Horn.
He’d like closure.
“Last March was a real bad month for all of us,” O’Neill said. “If I could figure it out I’d love to, but those people who talk about the wall of silence, it’s nothing like that. “We all care about George and Anita.”
The link to the Facebook page, which also includes the Crime Stoppers reward information is: https://www.facebook.com/firemangeorgekavanaugh/.