PATERSON - Days after Felix DeJesus' disappearance, police in Haledon issued a news release with his photo and description, asking the public for help finding the 41-year-old man, who was last seen in Paterson on Feb. 2, 2022.
What authorities didn't say at the time was that on the night DeJesus went missing, he had been handcuffed by two Paterson police officers, forced into the back seat of their patrol vehicle, and dropped off at Westside Park, near the Passaic River.
It took almost two months for law enforcement officials to acknowledge publicly DeJesus' encounter with the two cops and another 10 weeks until they were forced by a court order to make public the video recordings from the officers' body cameras.
"They tried to hide everything," said Eric DeJesus, the missing man's younger brother.
A year has passed since DeJesus' disappearance, and his family members said in interviews this week that they feel no closer to finding out what happened to him than they were during the early days of the case, when his brothers and sister-in-law conducted their own desperate searches of Westside Park, where he was last seen.
"I want to believe that we're going to find him," said the brother. "The Haledon police say they have a new lead. I'm not sure what it is. They can't tell us."
"It's been too long," said Crystal Garcia, who is married to another DeJesus brother, Giovanni. "It feels like something bad has happened."
Since last February, the DeJesus family members have become regulars at Paterson City Council meetings, showing up at City Hall on Tuesday night after Tuesday night to make sure Felix's case does not get forgotten. Often angry and confrontational, the relatives have stood at the microphone and condemned the way local officials have handled the case and demanded information about the investigation.
But for the most part, the family's pleas have gone unanswered.
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Garcia and Eric DeJesus said they have contacted the FBI, but never heard anything else after an initial face-to-face meeting many months ago. The Paterson City Council last fall asked the New Jersey Attorney General's Office to intervene in the case, but the state's top law enforcement agency has not revealed what - if anything - it did in response to the request.
Haledon police this week referred questions about the missing person case to the member of the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office who oversees investigations involving fatalities. But the Prosecutor's Office would say only that the probe is being handled by Haledon.
Authorities have said they didn't reveal DeJesus' encounter with the two cops at the start of the case because of the confidentiality of Internal Affairs police probes.
The two Paterson police officers who encountered DeJesus, Jacob Feliciano and Dodi Zorrilla, were suspended for 90 days as of Nov. 1 for breaking various departmental rules, such as shutting off their body cameras before they released DeJesus. Those suspensions ended this week, and the officers will resume duty on their next scheduled working days, according to the Paterson Police Department.
The DeJesus family filed its own criminal complaints against Feliciano and Zorrilla, but the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office determined last month that there's no probable cause and dismissed the charges.
On the night he went missing, DeJesus ended up hanging out with a group of five people in Westside Park, drinking alcohol around a fire they built next to the river, according to his family. The family's lawyer, Jeff Patti, said last year that authorities brought in all five of those people for questioning, including one "person of interest" who refused to speak with police investigators without his lawyer.
Several people involved in the case have wondered why authorities have not offered immunity to some of the people who were drinking in the park to find out what happened to DeJesus. His brother, Eric, said he would favor such a legal strategy. But the Prosecutor's Office has not said whether there's been any consideration of offering immunity.
DeJesus' family and activists who have championed the cause are planning to hold a candlelight vigil Thursday at Westside Park to mark the anniversary of his disappearance.
"We don't want people to forget my brother is still missing," Eric DeJesus said.
Felix DeJesus lived with his mother at an apartment in Haledon at the time of his disappearance. The mother, Wanda Maldonado, who is 64, has struggled, family members said.
"She's completely broken," said Garcia. "She's not the same person. She just wants her son back."
DeJesus has two children, a 22-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son, who live with their mother in Passaic, family members said. The son graduated from Passaic High School last June without his father, relatives said.
Feliciano and Zorrilla detained DeJesus that night because he allegedly bothered a woman inside a bodega on Union Avenue. The body camera video showed the officers speak to the woman, who told the cops she didn't want to press charges.
That woman later spoke with the DeJesus family after word spread about his disappearance.
"She said she felt guilty about not pressing charges," Eric DeJesus said. "If she pressed charged, he would have been in jail and not missing."
The police videos showed DeJesus wearing a T-shirt, with no jacket, on a night when temperatures were near freezing. He was wet from being handcuffed on the snow-covered pavement, complaining about his hand being broken, and drunk, said his brother.
"They were supposed to help him," Eric DeJesus said. "They were supposed to get him an ambulance, not take him to the park."
Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Felix DeJesus of Haledon NJ missing a year later