Man who threatened Chris Smith detained
FREEHOLD » With almost five minutes left in the game, and the outcome teetering in the balance, Vanderbilt cornerback Dereal Finklin recovered a Marcus Nash fumble to give his team a chance.
It was Dec. 1, 1996. And the Commodores were in the midst of a down year. But there they were, down a touchdown, to the then-ninthranked team in all of college football, the Tennessee Volunteers, who were led by the estimable Peyton Manning.
Finklin’s fumble recovery set up the Commodores at the Tennessee 27, according to an Associated Press story that recounted the dramatics at the time.
Vanderbilt couldn’t capitalize as quarterback Damian Allen was picked off the next play at the 7-yard line, pretty much ending Vandy’s upset bid.
It was Finklin’s senior year at Vanderbilt. After some upsand-downs during his college years, which included a stay at a psychiatric ward and his dismissal from the team during his sophomore year in 1994 for improper use of a credit card, the Vandy cornerback was hopeful.
He graduated with his bachelor’s degree and had his eyes on the NFL.
But all his dreams came crashing down, family members said. His life since then has been a series of misfortune and bad choices, interspersed by the death of at least two loved ones that sent him on a downward spiral that has left family members worrying about mental health.
In the years following his college football career, Finklin, once a standout football and track star at Lakewood High School, battled joblessness and homelessness, been diagnosed as bipolar and ended up on the wrong side of the law on a number of theft convictions, according to interviews with family and friend said a search of online and court records.
He lost his wife. And now, he has lost his freedom, at least for the time being.
The ex-college football player was ordered detained by a judge Friday for allegedly making deaths threats on Facebook against U.S. Rep. Chris Smith.
Finklin, 43, originally of Piscataway, faces third- and fourth-degree charges of making terroristic threats and cyber-bullying, the most serious which could send him away to the slammer for up to five years.
He was living with a friend in Princeton at the time he allegedly posted a picture of the congressman next to the caption “dead man walking,” Monmouth County prosecutors said at the detention hearing before Judge James McGann.
Assistant Prosecutor Martha Nye laid out in detail the case against Finklin, saying the alleged threat against the congressman was one of several alarming online remarks, some of which were directed toward school officials at his alma mater Lakewood High School.
Finklin sat, clean-shaven and stoic, through most of his hearing, only turning up his face at a couple of the prosecution’s suggestions.
After the hearing, friends and family expressed shock over allegations Finklin allegedly targeted the Republican pro-life congressman who has represented Mercer County in the Fourth Congressional District since 1981, saying they weren’t sure he even knew who Smith was.
Those close to Finklin described him as a learned man who obsessively read the Bible.
He was intelligent and aloof, apolitical and non-violent.
One of Finklin’s 55-yearold friends, who hung out with him almost daily for the last year, said she couldn’t recall ever talking to him about the congressman or having a single discussion about Smith’s stance on abortion.
“And we talked about everything,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The biggest issue that was on his mind was racial discrimination of athletes.”
Nye said the threat against the congressman represented only a sliver of a “pattern” of bizarre and incoherent social media rants, some aimed at school officials in at least two municipalities where Finklin appears to have connections.
Finklin was also apparently upset that a Bridgewater soccer coach had done his daughter wrong, his friend said, and she saw posts of him ranting about it online.
But Nye seized primarily on two Facebook posts Finklin allegedly made under an alias “Israel Bay.”
Authorities became aware of the posts through one of Finklin’s high school friends who was friends with him on Facebook.
She grew alarmed over the posts and contacted authorities. The posts came to the attention of a retired state police detective, and later, Monmouth prosecutors.
Authorities initially had trouble locating Finklin, who prosecutors described as “transient,” before tracking him down in Middlesex County after they had his service provider live-ping his cellphone, prosecutors said.
He was circling the track at a park in Dunellen, a borough of Middlesex County, part of his normal daily workout regimen, when cops picked him up, his friend said.
She said she got an odd text from him telling her the authorities picked him up on a warrant but, for some reason, wanted him to submit to a mental health evaluation at Rutgers.
“I was starting to get worried,” she said.
She immediately thought of his Facebook posts.
‘Dead Man Walking’
The one authorities zeroed in on preceded the “dead man walking” post and allegedly said, “Anyone outside of my blood from Monmouth and Ocean County on my Facebook account, you are dead.”
Finklin’s attorney, Regina Ruocco, dismissed that her client had threatened the congressman when he posted a picture of Smith next to the caption “dead man walking #American #New Jersey.”
She called the comments “political commentary” protected by the First Amendment.
“That does not rise to the level of threating to kill anyone,” she said.
Calling out Finklin’s Facebook friends and authorities for jumping to conclusions over what the former college football player meant, Ruocco cited a poem titled “Dead Man Walking” by Thomas Hardy and discussed how it was about someone who was “spiritually dead.”
Dead Man Walking was also the name of a movie, she added, based off a book written by Sister Helen Prejean, a Louisianan nun who has been a staunch advocate for abolishing the death penalty.
“That commonly refers to situations where a jailer would be walking a condemned prisoner down the tier of the jail to the execution chamber,” Ruocco said. “And that jailer would say to the other prisoners, ‘dead man walking,’ so they know it was the person’s final walk.”
The defense attorney called the phrase a common “idiom” for someone in an “untenable”
positon. Or, used in a political context, she said, it described someone who was a “lame duck” like the congressman who is up for re-election in November.
Nye dismissed Finklin’s attorney’s “creative” explanation as bunk and said the phrase had a “commonsense” meaning that put the congressman in “imminent” fear for his life.
She brought up Finklin’s criminal past, which includes theft convictions in New Jersey and Tennessee but none for violence.
Nye also attempted to paint Finklin as an unhinged extremist, mentioning ties to at least one “fringe” group of sovereign citizens and mentioned something about him changing his name.
Gwendolyn Fox, Finklin’s aunt, recalled her nephew changed his name to “some fake African name” a few years back to connect with his roots.
“We don’t talk about that,” she said. “To me, it’s nonsense.”
What wasn’t nonsense, the judge felt, were the threats.
McGann sided with prosecutors in detaining Finklin, who was recommended for release based off a risk assessment performed by pretrial services.
He felt the former college football player was a “present” danger to the congressman and potentially others.
Dereal Finklin, left, talks with public defender Regina Ruocco. Finklin, 43, charged with making terroristic threats against U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, appears in state Superior Court in Freehold on Friday for a detention hearing.