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Facing Prison, New Jersey Ex-Prosecutor Flees, Commits Suicide


January 1997

On November 26, Nicholas L. Bissell Jr., the fugitive ex-prosecutor from New Jersey, killed himself in a Nevada hotel room ending a 10-minute standoff with police officers and federal marshals (David Stout, "Trapped, Fugitive Ex-Prosecutor Kills Himself in a Nevada Hotel," New York Times, November 27, 1996, p. A1; Dale Russakoff, "Fraud, Flight and a Fatal Finale," Washington Post, November 27, 1996, p. A1).

Bissell, 49, was appointed Somerset County prosecutor in 1982. Known as the "forfeiture king," he bragged about seizing more assets from drug dealers in his suburban county than his counterparts seized in urban counties. With the help of his chief detective, Richard Thornburg, Bissell became one of New Jersey's most successful prosecutors.

In 1990, one of Bissell's defendants, James Giuffre, sued Bissell, alleging that the prosecutor seized his land worth $200,000 and then allowed Thornburg's friend to purchase the seized land for $20,000. Federal investigators probed into Guiffre's allegations and eventually discovered that Bissell and his wife had skimmed about $146,000 from a gas station that they co-owned with Richard Thornburg's brother, Thomas "Buddy" Thornburg. Prosecutors discovered that Bissell had threatened to plant cocaine in the car of an Amoco® gasoline wholesaler who had complained about Bissell's service station. They also discovered hidden business dealing with a defense attorney who represented suspects prosecuted by Bissell. On May 30, 1996, a federal jury convicted Bissell on 30 counts of fraud, tax evasion, obstruction of justice, abuse of power and perjury. Prosecutors recommended 10 years in prison.

On November 18, Bissell snipped off his electronic monitoring bracelet, left a suicide note and fled his home, leaving his wife, Barbara, two teenage daughters and 76-year-old mother behind. He had pledged the family house and his mother's condominium as security for his $300,000 bail. During his flight, New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman (R) issued an appeal to him on a WCBS-AM (New York) radio talk show to turn himself in. About a week after he fled, Bissell checked into the Colorado Belle hotel in Laughlin, Nevada and began calling relatives and friends. Authorities traced the calls and confronted Bissell at the hotel. As police and federal marshals tried to talk Bissell out of killing himself, Bissell said, "I can't do 10 years," and shot himself in the head.