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("Rev. Thomas House of Chicken" ) 1980s New Jersey cult enslaved its members who were stripped nake

1980s New Jersey cult enslaved its members who were stripped naked and beat if they "misbehaved."

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A career pursuing the truth
Assistant prosecutor retiring not from a job but a passion

Monday, July 21, 2008
BY LINDA STEIN

By all accounts, Randolph Norris is a prosecutor's prosecutor.

Norris, 65, will retire this month after 25 years in the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office.  He has taken hundreds of cases to trial, run the homicide unit, started the rape task force and specialized in prosecuting arsons.

Through it all, the Vietnam veteran has developed a reputation as a prosecutor who doesn't blink in the face of tough cases.  And he's done it with a style and charm that have become the grist for courthouse legend.

"I've been in the arson squad ever since I've been here," said Norris, who likes to tell a story.  "The first big case I had was John Baldassari Sr., who owned Columbus Lounge.  It was a (well-known) hangout that mysteriously burned one night.

"The first case came back with a hung jury and the prosecutor who had it did not want to try it again.  So I took it and tried it again." Baldassari was convicted, Norris said.

"We could prove he was in debt to the banks," Norris said.  "The night of the 1971 fire at around 3 or 4 a.m., two Trenton police officers nearby see John Baldassari driving toward the lounge.  Baldassari sees them and looks startled and turns away."

An hour or two later, "thick black smoke" was coming from the lounge.

"We believed there was a mafia loan that got him in real trouble," Norris said.  "It has made me recognize the difficulty of proving an arson case.  Normally, there are no witnesses."

Norris also recalled the case against a former Trenton cult leader.  The Rev. Wilbert Thomas was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1985 after Norris prosecuted him for sexually and physically abusing church members.  Thomas also owned Rev. Thomas House of Chicken.

"Rumor has it, it was the best chicken ever in the city of Trenton," Norris said.  "This cult was essentially enslaving its members who worked seven days selling fried chicken.  If they misbehaved he would strip them naked and beat them with sticks.  He would sexually assault the (underage) women.  I had a great detective, Michael Olesnevich, who really worked tirelessly to put that case together."

"When the verdict came in (against Thomas), a storm came up and as the judge asked the members of the jury, have you arrived at your verdict, their answer was yes and there was a big thunderclap and the thunder continued to roll during the verdicts," Norris said.

Norris has many fans in legal circles.

"He will be sorely missed in that office because he was never, ever afraid to take on and try a case, no matter how complex," said Andrew M. Salmon, a former assistant prosecutor now in private practice.

"He tried hundreds of cases; he was absolutely prepared to try hundreds more.  Randy has always been real passionate about everything," Salmon added.  "Whether it's a case, fishing, family, politics or traveling."

Norris served as a mentor to many of the new assistant prosecutors.

"Randy trained me when I first came to the prosecutor's office from St.  Louis," Salmon said.  "He knew I already had trial experience, so on the first day in court he said to me, 'I'll give you the short version of how I like to try cases here in Mercer County, New Jersey: Tell 'em (the jury) what you're gonna tell 'em.  Tell 'em.  Then tell 'em whatcha told them!"

William P. Fisher, one of the younger assistant prosecutors, said Norris also mentored him.  "What makes Randy effective as a trial lawyer is, he's always been an excellent storyteller," Fisher said.  "He conveys matters in a way that draws people in and captures their attention."

A few years ago defense lawyer Robin Lord was Norris' opponent in a trial for a defendant charged with robbery.

"My client was stupid enough to show up the last day of trial wearing the clothing identified by the victim as being worn by the perpetrator," Lord said.

"It was too late for me to send him home to change as the jury was entering the courtroom, so I simply prayed that neither Mr. Norris nor the jurors would pick it up as I sat literally covering his body with my arms during the proceedings.

"Unfortunately, Randy, in the middle of his summation, walked over to my client, stood behind him and said, 'Miss Lord made a big deal about how the police never found the clothing worn by the perpetrator.  The defendant was so kind to bring the clothing this morning.'  The jury convicted him in 20 minutes."

Norris grew up in Ridgewood and went to Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

He started in electrical engineering, then majored in English.  Norris was in ROTC at Rutgers then went into the U.S. Army Signal Corps after graduating.  He served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967.

After graduating from law school at Boston University, Norris clerked for Superior Court Judge Clifton C. Bennett, then joined the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office in 1971.

He tried private practice for six years, but realized his talents lay elsewhere.

"I still had the passion for being a prosecutor," Norris said.  "My affections are not for defendants.  My affections are for the truth.  You don't always serve the truth in private practice."

Norris has often handled cases involving mental illness, including the murder trial of Steven Marut.

A judge ruled Marut was competent to stand trial and he was found guilty of murder by a jury in 2004 for bludgeoning his mother to death in 1999, then burning down her East Windsor home.

"That was a tragedy because he killed his own mother," Norris said.  "He had mental health issues.  The mother as a nurse tried to protect him and took him into her house.

"What it points out, however, is identifying someone with a mental health issue is not the solution.  I don't think we've adequately addressed the danger," he said.  "The advocates of individual rights press in that direction.  More and more people are out on the street and the most likely victim is a family member.  It becomes very complex.

"At a Harvard mental health seminar for lawyers, one of the speakers, a psychiatrist, said psychiatry does no good whatsoever," Norris said.  "I agree with that 100 percent.  Some medications can help, but anything else, I don't believe it works."

Retired Superior Court Judge Paul T. Koenig Jr. met Norris when both were young assistant prosecutors.  It turned out they lived nearby and drove to work together every day for three years.  They were also on the same trial team before a judge.

During their commute, "We talked about cases, the law, our families," Koenig said.  "We talked about Watergate all the time and argued about it all the time.  If I tried a case, when my case was over, he tried the next case."

Koenig went into private practice and Norris hung out his shingle, too, sharing office space with Koenig.  Norris returned to the prosecutor's office in 1983 and Koenig was appointed prosecutor in 1986.  Norris became Koenig's trial team chief.

"He was always a great trial lawyer," Koenig said.  "Randy tried a lot of cases.  He gave me great advice.  I tried some cases and I tried them because he advised me to."

Norris, who focuses "like a laser-beam" on his legal work, could never keep track of his keys.  So Koenig gave him a key fob for Christmas that would beep if you clapped.

"But one time when we were fishing he got it wet and killed the key fob," Koenig said.

Norris "is always enthusiastic, always sunny," Koenig said.  "He sees the bright side of anything.  He was perfect in his professional role throughout his career.  Jurors loved him.  Witnesses loved him.  Defendants loved him.  They'd say, 'I wish you were my lawyer.'"

Superior Court Judge Andrew J. Smithson has known Norris since he was a law clerk.

Norris "is often a defendant's best friend.  He is often an advocate for the defendant if he thinks something is wrong (with the prosecution's case).  He is always ready to go 100 percent.  He's a decent, good person and a pleasure to talk to."

Norris met his wife, Carol, who works in information technology for Johnson & Johnson, while they were in college.

The couple, who live in Stockton, have three children: Robin, 36, a screenwriter for TV and movies; David, 33, a lawyer for Levinson Axelrod in Edison; and Kerry, 28, who works for Paramount Pictures.

Norris won't be sitting still during retirement.  His plans include hiking the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey, canoeing on the Delaware River and fishing for striper at the Shore.  He also wants to learn to ride a surfboard.  Norris would like to do some writing and oil painting.  And in the fall, he will to do some hunting.

Linda Stein can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or (609) 989-6437.

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