Omar Monroig was on course to become a professional bodybuilder. The 5'11, 256 pound strongman had already racked up multiple trophies in national bodybuilding competitions.
But weeks before his latest challenge, the Garden State Classic Championships, a Toyota Camry struck him as he crossed 51st Street and Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen. It was March 23, 2012, a little more than five years ago.
Along with a friend, named Arnaldo Arroyo, he was headed to a local Cuban restaurant to grab drinks.
Though Monroig, 42, lasted longer than most would've in his situation—he had two broken bones in his neck, two broken legs, a broken shoulder, and internal bleeding—he succumbed to his injuries days later, on April 1.
“We were kind of thrown off by that, because we didn't realize they had a limitation on that.” - -Jorge Monroig
His brother Jorge is not only urging the driver to come forward, but wants to see the statute extended.
“We were kind of thrown off by that, because we didn't realize they had a limitation on that,” Jorge said, when Police Chief Robert Dowd told him and his family last spring. “That was the last thing on our minds—we didn't expect them to say that. The way we understood was that they were going to charge this person with vehicular manslaughter. Hopefully, this will bring up questions on why there's a statue of limitations on things like this.”
During this time, the family didn't remain passive. They hired a private investigator who produced surveillance tape of the incident. In turn, they sent it to a video enhancement facility in Alabama. “Unfortunately, the pixels were breaking down every time they were trying to enhance it,” Monroig said. “They didn't even charge us; they told us they couldn't do it.”
In a previous story in the North Bergen Reporter, Chief Dowd cited the Monroig case as an impetus for him to push for an improved surveillance camera system throughout town. Though the cameras at the intersection captured the incident, because it happened in a low-light situation, officers were unable to fully ID the vehicle.
“It was very dark on that particular stretch of Tonnelle,” Dowd said at the time. “We were able to see the figure be struck by the auto and we were able to determine the make of the auto, but not the license plate number. Not enough to catch the person.”
The town reached an agreement with a vendor this year to upgrade all 100 cameras to high resolution quality, better able to work in low-light situations.
According to Monroig, Dowd also placed a request with North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco (who is also a state senator) for an extension of the statute laws. “In some regards, it would be good, in memory of Omar, for the law to change,” Monroig said. “Five years just doesn't seem fair.”
Jorge described his brother as “a big, strong passionate bodybuilder,” who continually defied doctors’ expectations while hospitalized. “The doctors said, 'We've never seen anybody with these types of injuries last this long. Usually, someone passes away within a day or two. He's a bull.' He battled every day. His heart rate would go up; his blood pressure would go down. I thought he was going to make it. I never gave up hope.”
While he built his Herculean physique, Omar was simultaneously building towers. He was a project manager for a cell site company, a highly successful endeavor. “He had three companies pursue him,” Jorge said. At the time of his passing, “he was in the process of leaving again to another company—his fourth company in 10 years. That's what him and Chino (Arnaldo's nickname) were talking about that night.”
His savings allowed Jorge, wife Marybell, and son Nick to afford a nice home in Butler. But he wanted more out of life.
“He actually started bodybuilding as a passion,” Jorge said. “People told him for 10 years, 'You've got to go into bodybuilding!' and he said, 'Nah!’ ” at first. But Omar was dedicated to the barbells—working out at least six times per week, twice a day. “He did cardio in the morning, then he worked out at night.”
The Bloomfield Plaza Fitness gym he frequented sponsored him as a bodybuilder. His star was rising, so much so that in the week he died, he was supposed to sign autographs at the grand opening for a Muscle Maker Grill store in West Caldwell.
At the event, “They hadn't heard from him, and his wife explained, 'Oh, my God! I forgot about that',” Jorge said.
Jorge said that his brother never bragged whenever he won bodybuilding competitions, preferring to “keep it casual.”
“He wasn’t just a personal friend of mine; I’d known him since he was a kid,” said Pete Diaz, a promoter who had the Garden Classic dedicated in Ormar’s memory for 2012.
Omar's kindness was as big as his biceps, his brother said. “One of the things bodybuilders like to do is cleanse their system, so they would give blood,” Jorge said. “He would give blood 3-4 times a year.” Omar also participated in 5K walks for soup kitchens, and brought his son with him to help the poor. Today, Nick is the youngest fireman in Butler, according to his uncle. He wants to finish college to honor his father, studying fire investigation.
A key witness
Apparently, the driver who allegedly struck Omar continued on Tonnelle Avenue for about 1.5 miles before briefly stopping outside a retirement home, according to Jorge.
A security guard at the home approached the driver. The man behind the wheel reportedly told the security guard, “I'm leaving! I'm leaving!” before he pulled away for good, Jorge said.
The guard didn't realize he'd come in contact with a hit-and-run suspect until speaking with police at an information checkpoint weeks later.
“He said, 'I think I met this guy,' ” Jorge said. “ 'It was definitely a Toyota Camry. It was two minutes after midnight. I was going home. The windshield was damaged; the front end was badly damaged.”
Despite the limitations, Jorge and his family aren't quitting until the suspect is found. “We need somebody who knows this person to step forward, and somebody knows,” he said. “They need to come forward, and give the family some closure.”
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org