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Prosecutor-Fugitive Kills Self, Leaves Troubles for Family

November 27, 1996

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) _ Nicholas Bissell ended his own problems with a bullet in a Nevada casino hotel room. His family’s problems are only beginning.

The prosecutor-turned-fugitive left behind a wife facing a prison sentence, three fatherless children and a mother who may lose the home she put up for his bond.

``He focused on himself, his needs and concerns,″ Gov. Christie Whitman said. ``He never considered anyone else.″

Rather than face years in prison for skimming $146,000 from his business to support a life of gambling and luxury, Bissell chose to run.

When authorities found him eight days later in his third-floor hotel room, the 49-year-old former New Jersey prosecutor put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The 10-minute standoff Tuesday began when six law enforcement officers knocked on Bissell’s door, then kicked it in, said Jim Umbach, deputy U.S. marshal in Phoenix. They found Bissell sitting on the floor and holding a gun.

``I’m not going to hurt anybody,″ Bissell told them.

After a deputy marshal asked him to think of the people who would be sorry if he died, Bissell finally said: ``I can’t do 10 years,″ and killed himself, The New York Times reported today.

While sentencing guidelines called for a 6 1/2- to eight-year prison term, prosecutors were pushing for at least 10 years.

The suicide stunned those who remembered Bissell as a brash, often arrogant crimefighter proud of the millions in assets his office seized in drug cases.

``He was a strong-willed character,″ said Somerset County Sheriff Robert H. Lund. ``He wanted things his way, I’ll say that much for him.″

Bissell’s death leaves troubles for his family, including his two teen-age daughters and a son from an earlier marriage. His wife and co-defendant, Barbara Bissell, will be sentenced Dec. 6 on 13 counts of fraud.

Bissell’s 79-year-old mother had put up her $120,000 condominium toward his $300,000 bail. That bond was forfeited last week when Bissell fled.

``Given that the circumstances have changed, we will take another look at the forfeiture issue,″ U.S. Attorney Faith S. Hochberg said Tuesday.

Authorities began searching for Bissell on Nov. 18 _ two days before he was to be sentenced _ when he cut off his electronic monitoring bracelet and left it on a kitchen counter along with what was characterized as a suicide note. The contents were not disclosed.

Details then emerged that he had secretly sold china, crystal and furniture while his wife was at work. Bissell also had a new credit card and had withdrawn $800 from a bank account four days before he fled.

He apparently had not been heard from until Monday, when he placed calls to friends and relatives on a cellular phone.

Authorities traced the calls to Nevada and got a tip that he was staying at the Colorado Belle Hotel and Casino in Laughlin, a gambling town of 8,000 about 90 miles from Las Vegas. Bissell had registered under his own name.

A source who spoke on condition of anonymity said Bissell had been staying there for three days and apparently had not been gambling enough to warrant any VIP treatment. The source said he apparently was holed up in his room most of the time.

His green Jeep Grand Cherokee was found nearby with stolen Kentucky plates.

The turn of fortune was extraordinary for the former public defender and municipal judge.

Bissell’s career took off in 1982, when Gov. Tom Kean appointed him prosecutor in fast-growing, affluent Somerset County in central New Jersey.

He developed a national reputation for his use of forfeiture law to confiscate drug defendants’ assets before trial. He was just as likely to seize property from a small-time dealer as the leader of a multimillion-dollar ring.

Whitman fired him a day after his indictment in September 1995. Bissell and his wife were convicted of tax fraud, embezzlement and other charges for skimming about $146,000 from a gasoline station business without knowledge of their partners.

Much of the money was spent on their home, luxury cars, private schools for their daughters, and the roulette wheels of Atlantic City, authorities said.

James Giuffre, a suspected drug dealer whose claim that Bissell tried to shake him down helped lead to the prosecutor’s indictment, said he was recently interviewed by the ``America’s Most Wanted″ TV program for an episode on Bissell’s flight.

``They asked me, `Where would he be?′ and I said, `Not far from a casino,‴ Giuffre said Tuesday.

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