UCPO honors four for serving victims, in observance of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week

Union County Prosecutor’s Office Assistant Prosecutor Armando Suarez, Multidisciplinary Team Coordinator and Victim-Witness Advocate Maria Acosta, acting Union County Prosecutor Michael A. Monahan, Sgt. Margarita “Maggie” D’Avella, and Capt. Harvey Barnwell appear in the Union County Courthouse during the Office’s National Crime Victims’ Rights Week award ceremony yesterday, Monday, April 8, 2019.  

An Assistant Prosecutor who has proven to be equally adept at securing convictions in high-profile homicide trials and exhibiting genuine care and compassion for lost victims’ loved ones.

A veteran UCPO Captain who has established a lifelong legacy of service to his community and young people countywide.

A Victim/Witness Advocate who has offered aid and kindness to thousands over a long and distinguished career working with some of the most vulnerable crime victims served by her Office.

An investigator who went above and beyond the call of duty to bring help and hope to the local homeless.

These four – Armando Suarez, Harvey Barnwell, Maria Acosta, and Margarita “Maggie” D’Avella, respectively – are the Union County Prosecutor’s Office staff members honored Monday during a ceremony held in the historic Union County Courthouse Tower as part of the Office’s recognition of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, going on this week with many other events being held nationwide. The theme for this year’s Week, annually designated by the federal government since the early 1980s, is “Honoring Our Past, Creating Hope for the Future.”

“Armando, Harvey, Maria, and Maggie represent the absolute best our Office has to offer – they embody the finest virtues of public service,” acting Union County Prosecutor Michael A. Monahan said. “It’s fitting that they receive this deserved recognition during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.”

Suarez, recipient of the Gladiator Award for an Assistant Prosecutor, has been assigned to the Union County Homicide Task Force since October 2016, following earlier service in the Appellate, Juvenile, and Trial units, having joined the Office in August 2012.

During the span of just three months last year, Suarez tried and successfully convicted two defendants in unrelated homicide cases who collectively left eight children without a parent: the victims were 45-year-old livery driver Masood Imran, a father of four who was struck by a vehicle and killed during a road-rage incident, and 26-year-old Trenice Johnson, a mother of four who was strangled to death by her boyfriend. The defendants were subsequently sentenced to a combined total of 105 years in state prison.

Yet while those developments made headlines, what few outside the Office realized was how thoroughly and compassionately Suarez developed working relationships with the victims’ various family members and loved ones, several of whom spoke at sentencing and were effusive in their praise of his efforts to keep them informed about the progress of the cases, attend to their needs, and answer their questions.

Suarez also has been active in the community, volunteering to take part in various outreach events coordinated by the Office – most recently, last month speaking to students at the Union County Vocational Technical Schools’ Academy for Law & Justice about careers in law enforcement.

Fellow nominees for the Gladiator Award for an Assistant Prosecutor included Tracy Boyd, assigned to the Special Victims Unit; Investigations Supervisor John Esmerado; and Jessica Guarducci, assigned to the Pre-Indictment Unit.

Capt. Barnwell, recipient of the Gladiator Award for an Investigator, was honored for his nearly 17 years of service to the Prosecutor’s Office, including 15 years with the Union County Homicide Task Force and its predecessor, the Homicide Unit.

As a Captain, the rank to which he was promoted in June 2018, Barnwell has supervisory authority over three lieutenants, eight sergeants, and a team of 20 detectives in eight units, yet he continues to make his greatest impact through the care and attentiveness he devotes to individual cases and victims. Long one of the Office’s most active participants in community-based outreach events, his next such appearance will take place the day after tomorrow, when he takes part in a panel discussion on Union County College’s Elizabeth campus for students interested in a career in law enforcement.

A hallmark of Barnwell’s career has been that he continues to maintain close relationships with crime victims and their families long after their cases are no longer active in the criminal justice system, regularly checking up on them and ensuring their welfare, and he also routinely volunteers in support of youth programs throughout Union County.

“Working closely with Harvey on a daily basis, sitting two office doors away, what I see is courtesy, compassion, professionalism, and a steadfast determination to continually improve,” UCPO Chief of Investigators Vincent G. Gagliardi said. “Simply put, Capt. Barnwell is an individual who looks out for everyone, both professionally and personally.”

Fellow nominees for the Gladiator Award for an Investigator included Sgt. Andrew Dellaquila, assigned to the Union County Homicide Task Force; Detective Keyla Live, assigned to the Special Victims Unit; and Union County Sheriff’s Officer Natasha Ruiz, assigned to the Union County Family Justice Center.

Acosta, recipient of the Endurance Award, is the Office’s Multidisciplinary Team Coordinator and the Victim-Witness Advocate assigned to the Office’s Special Victims Unit (SVU), which investigates incidents of sexual abuse of children and adults occurring in Union County.

One of the Prosecutor’s Office’s longest-tenured employees, having started here in April 1981, Acosta not only provides resources to victims served by the SVU – which routinely handles more than 500 referrals annually – but she also assists the Unit’s Assistant Prosecutors and Detectives in some of their most emotionally and mentally taxing duties, including prepping witnesses for trial, addressing issues that arise with victims’ parents, offering support to victims’ families, and more.

Acosta’s responsibilities also include informing families about the criminal justice system and victims’ rights, such as court proceedings, Megan’s Law, and the various forms of restraining orders. She also assists in helping victims write impact statements and file applications to the Victims of Crimes Compensation Office (VCCO), and serves as an interpreter for Spanish-speaking victims.

Despite the difficult nature of her daily work, Acosta routinely draws praise from colleagues and victims alike for routinely and consistently exhibiting compassion, respect, and understanding.

“Our relationship with our community is paramount to those of us in law enforcement. These outstanding examples of our team, highlighted by Maria’s efforts, demonstrate the compassion, integrity, and willingness to serve others that is fundamental to our core values at UCPO,” Prosecutor’s Office Victim/Witness Coordinator Maria Reynolds said. “We are deeply proud of the efforts of all of our staff who daily help to serve survivors of crime. We are also reminded through the actions of all these awardees, that our humanity is what brings us together.”

Fellow nominees for the Endurance Award include Victim/Witness Advocates Maria Esteves, Stephanie Jimenez, and Ana Maria Melara.

Sgt. D’Avella, a 20-year veteran of the Prosecutor’s Office who is currently assigned to the Office’s Criminal Case Control Unit, is the recipient of a Special Recognition Award, the first of its kind presented by the Prosecutor’s Office to mark National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.

In early 2018, Sgt. D’Avella was on her way to work at the Andrew K. Ruotolo Justice Center on Rahway Avenue in Elizabeth when she saw a middle-aged woman who appeared to be homeless under the bridge spanning the Elizabeth River, next to the office. She brought the woman a cup of coffee and asked how she was doing.   

Enlisting the help of the Prosecutor’s Office’s Office of Victim/Witness Advocacy staff, Sgt. D’Avella interviewed the woman and discovered that she had become despondent during recent months, having been the victim of several crimes and undergone other difficulties. 

Through Sgt. D’Avella’s persistence, she was able to identify a safe place for the woman to live – and more importantly, gave her hope for a better future. She continues to be in contact with the woman to this day.

Later in 2018, Sgt. D’Avella noticed a homeless family using the Rahway Avenue bus stop to store personal belongings, and stay overnight. She approached the approximately 80-year-old mother and her two approximately 40-year-old sons to lend assistance. She has since helped secure permanent housing for the entire family.

“Maggie’s efforts in the past year alone helping the homeless have been nothing short of extraordinary,” Chief Gagliardi said. “Perhaps the best part is that she has proven to be an outstanding role model to some of our newer detectives, as they have followed her lead in seeing the power of volunteerism.”

For her efforts, Sgt. D’Avella has also been named a 2019 recipient of a Union County Human  Relations Commission Unity Award, in the category of Law Enforcement. She was also a 2012 recipient of the New Jersey Law Enforcement Officers Association Outstanding Police Award, a 2004 recipient of a New Jersey Bias Officers Association Law Enforcement Award, and the 2000 recipient of the UCPO Alfonso Pisano Award.

For more information about National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, go online to