NJ Advance Media reporter Stephen Stirling and photographer Andrew Mills were chased onto a highway and threatened by a man they were covering for a story in Hackettstown, New Jersey, on Feb. 7, 2018.
That day, Stirling and Mills visited the neighborhood of funeral director Joseph Fantasia. His company, which contracted with government agencies to transport the dead, had been accused of mishandling bodies for over two years. In June, the Office of the State Medical Examiner severed its ties with Fantasia’s company, but it still holds contracts with other agencies. Stirling told Freedom of the Press Foundation the news team wanted to photograph Fantasia and determine whether he was still working in the funeral industry.
“We wanted to photograph him, and see if he was still working in the funeral industry, or going into a funeral home,” Stirling told FPF.
The journalists waited in their car outside of Fantasia’s house for several hours before he emerged. Once Fantasia exited the house, Stirling said, he “got into his car and drove at us.”
Stirling said that Fantasia drove his black Cadillac Escalade down the road, pulled up next to the journalists’ car window, and began yelling obscenities.
Stirling said that after he identified himself as a reporter and made several attempts to interview Fantasia, Mills made the decision to leave out of concern for their safety. Mills declined to comment.
“Joe [Fantasia] has a history of violent threats—that’s part of what we documented,” Stirling said.
Stirling said that Fantasia chased them around the neighborhood and then a second black SUV, driven by Fantasia’s neighbor, joined the chase. Both SUVs followed Stirling and Mills onto nearby Route 46.
“At this point, we were on the phone with 911,” Stirling said. “Joe’s car pulled up alongside and got in front of us, and the other car got behind us, so we were boxed in.”
Stirling said that the second SUV then moved to the side of their car and slowed down. Stirling said this gave them no choice but to stop, blocking the flow of traffic across the entire highway.
A police report of the incident obtained by FPF reads, “At this time the driver of the Escalade later identified as Joseph Fantasia exited his vehicle, began to approach the Nissan Altima and was telling in there direction.”
“They were moving at us aggressively, but thankfully, we didn't have the chance to see what could have happened next — but it wouldn’t have been good,” Stirling said.
Luckily, Stirling said, one of the cars behind them held two off duty police officers. The officers pulled up alongside the cars, identified themselves, and ordered all three cars to pull over down the road.
“They put their car in between ours and both of theirs, and they made sure on-duty police officers were on their way,” Stirling said.
“They stayed until they arrived. I don’t know what would have happened if they weren’t there. They made the best out of what was a bad, scary situation.”
The altercation was written up as a road rage incident, but neither Fantasia nor his neighbor were arrested or charged for the incident.
“If there's anything that bothers me as a citizen about this, that’s it,” Stirling said. “Two off duty police officers saw what happened. It’s disappointing that not even a reckless driving citation was issued — it’s hard for me to feel like that doesn’t send a bad message.”
On March 5, Stirling’s article about Fantasia was published.