A borough councilperson was fatally shot in New Jersey last week, marking the second attack in seven days where an act of gun violence resulted in the death of a local elected official in the state. The shooting that killed Russell Heller, 51, stemmed from a workplace dispute, authorities announced Friday.
Heller was a council member in the township of Milford, near the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He was shot around 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Feb. 8, in the parking lot of the PSE&G Central Division headquarters building in Somerset, where he had worked as a supervisor for 11 years.
Officers were dispatched to the facility on a 911 call, the Franklin Township Police Department said in a news release. When they arrived, the responding officers found Heller had suffered a gunshot wound and already succumbed to his injuries. He was pronounced dead at the scene by emergency medical personnel, according to the police department.
An investigation into the deadly shooting led law enforcement to identify 58-year-old Gary Curtis, of Washington township, as the suspected gunman. Curtis, a former employee at PSE&G, was found dead several hours later from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, authorities said. Officers discovered the suspect’s body inside his car, which was traced to a parking lot in the neighboring township.
Police on Thursday called the shooting an “isolated incident.”
The prosecutor’s office in Somerset County said in a statement Thursday morning that the deadly shooting was not politically motivated, CBS New York reported.
“Investigators have confirmed that Mr. Heller was a Republican Councilman for Milford Borough (Hunterdon County),” the statement read, according to CBS New York. “The investigation has revealed that the shooting of Mr. Heller was not politically connected with his elected office or political affiliation.”
In a news release Friday afternoon, the prosecutor’s office reported that investigators believe the shooting stemmed from an employment dispute.
According to the prosecutor’s office, the shooting was due to “prior employment disciplinary actions between subordinate and supervisor.”
Prosecutors did not provide details on the nature of that dispute.
Heller’s death came exactly one week after Eunice Dwumfour, a borough councilwoman in Sayreville was shot to death in a car parked outside of her home on the evening of Feb. 1. Dwumfour, 30, was the first Black person elected to office in the township on the state’s eastern edge.
At a memorial held in her honor this week, Sayreville Mayor Victoria Kilpatrick praised her former colleague and friend as a figure who “broke through that glass ceiling” and “confidently, with class and dignity, walked proudly to her seat on the dais in her signature sparkling high heels.” Police have yet to arrest a suspect in Dwumfour’s killing.
Political leaders in New Jersey reacted on social media Wednesday to news of the deadly shooting that killed Heller, echoing similar sentiments shared in response to Dwumfour’s murder that acknowledged it as a devastating consequence of gun violence in the area.
“Early this morning, a deadly shooting took place outside of a PSE&G facility in Franklin Township. Our thoughts and prayers are with Russell Heller’s family and friends in the wake of this tragic act of gun violence,” wrote New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy in a tweet on Wednesday. The governor had reposted a message shared by PSE&G.
“We are heartbroken at the tragic death of Russell Heller, senior distribution supervisor at PSE&G,” the company wrote, describing Heller as “an admired employee” of more than 11 years.
“He will be sorely missed by all, and our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time,” said PSE&G. “This event is tragic and disturbing, and we are offering support to our employees as they process this. We are cooperating with law enforcement with respect to their investigation.”
New Jersey Rep. Tom Kean, whose district includes parts of Somerset County, where Franklin township is located, praised Heller in another message shared on Twitter after his death.
“I am shocked and saddened by the tragic murder of Milford Councilman Russell Heller,” the congressman wrote. “Russell was an outstanding public servant who proudly represented the river town he loved. My prayers are with his family and the Milford community.”