SNOW HILL — Less than 24 hours after the arrest of two local men for their alleged role in the death of a Pennsylvania man found unconscious in a downtown hotel parking lot early Sunday morning, one of the suspects had his bond set at $400,000 during a hearing on Wednesday afternoon, and the groundwork for a self-defense approach has already been laid out.
Around 3 a.m. on Sunday, Ocean City police officers responded to the parking lot of a hotel on 2nd Street to assist Ocean City EMS with an assault that had already occurred. Upon arrival, OCPD officers found the victim, later identified as Justin D. Cancelliere, 37, of North Whitehall, Pa., unconscious and unresponsive. First responders from the OCPD and the Ocean City Fire Department initiated emergency lifesaving procedures on the victim and transported him to AGH where he was later pronounced deceased. An autopsy was performed on Monday, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore has ruled the nature of Cancelliere’s injuries as head and neck trauma and the cause of death a homicide.
After an investigation, OCPD detectives determined the assault occurred during an altercation in the area of Talbot Street and Baltimore Ave. The two suspects, identified as Caleb Edwin-Earl Ochse, 27, of Ocean City, and Christopher Blake Kendall, 22, of Ocean City, had entered the Fat Daddy’s restaurant around 2:30 a.m. on Sunday and ordered food.
Cancelliere entered the restaurant a short time later, followed by three other men including his cousin. During the two groups’ time in the restaurant, Cancelliere allegedy stared at Ocshe and Kendall, who did not know the victim and his group. Ochse and Kendall then left the restaurant and Cancelliere and his group followed closely behind. About a block away, a physical altercation occurred between the two suspects and Cancelliere and his group, all of whom were allegedly significantly larger in stature than the suspects.
According to police reports, the physical altercation turned violent with Cancelliere on the ground and the two suspects beating him. What has not been made public, however, is how the two smaller suspects were able to inflict significant injuries on the larger man who was with three other men.
After the physical confrontation, Cancilliere’s cousin and friends were able to get him into a taxi, which took them to the Plim Plaza Hotel a few blocks away where they were staying. Inexplicably, the group did not call 911 until getting back to the hotel parking lot. In fact, it is not certain if Cancilliere’s group called 911 or if the call for Emergency Services came from an unattached third party or witness.
There are unconfirmed reports that EMS was called first and then first responders called the OCPD. Ocean City Police and EMS arrived on the scene and after initiating emergency lifesaving measures transported Cancelliere to AGH where he was pronounced dead shortly before 7 a.m.
On Tuesday, Ocean City police arrested Ochse and Kendall, charging them with manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and affray. Ochse was arrested at the West Ocean City seafood restaurant where he works, while Kendall turned himself in at the Public Safety Building a few hours later. Both had hearings before a District Court Commissioner late Tuesday. Ochse had his initial bond set at $400,000, while Kendall was released on his own recognizance.
Ochse had a formal bond review hearing in District Court in Snow Hill on Wednesday in front of Judge Gerald Purnell. His attorney, Frank Benvenuto, argued for a reduction in the bond, citing his client’s local roots and family history in the resort area.
“We’re going to ask for the bond to be lowered,” he said. “He’s 27 years old, a Stephen Decatur graduate, and a resident of Worcester County. His grandfather owns the Kite Loft and his father owns Atlantic Bikes. He is not a flight risk because he has high ties to the community.”
However, Purnell admonished Benvenuto somewhat for only pointing out flight risk out of a list of at least eight factors in determining a bond amount.
“Out of eight things, you only cited on thing,” he said. “There is more to a bond review than flight risk. A lot of this has to do with the nature of the crime. I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
Worcester County Executive Assistant State’s Attorney William McDermott represented the state at Ochse’s bond review hearing on Wednesday, just as he did for the preliminary hearing with the District Court Commissioner on Tuesday night when the bond was initially set at $400,000. McDermott said some overnight research into Ochse’s past revealed reasons for not reducing the bond amount but instead increasing it.
“I was at the District Court Commissioner hearing last night and new information has come to light since,” he said. “The state is asking for an increase in the bond.”
McDermott aired a laundry list of Ochse’s arrest record, including multiple assault and disorderly conduct arrests. He pointed to a 2012 disorderly conduct arrest during which Ochse got into a fight with out-of-towners in Ocean City and another particular incident during which the defendant came upon an OCPD officer affecting a DUI arrest and threw a concrete brick through the officer’s patrol car window. In another incident when Ochse was a juvenile, he stole a hat from a woman’s head on the Boardwalk and when she attempted to get it back, he allegedly punched her in the face.
Most recently, in February, he was arrested in Orlando, Fla. when he was discovered attempting to board a Greyhound bus with 60 grams of methamphetamines, or “bath salts,” on his person. According to Orlando police, Ochse had been visiting a friend in Miami and planned to take the bus from South Florida to Panama City Beach.
While McDermott pointed out Ochse’s various adult arrests and convictions, he also said the defendant had an extensive record with the Department of Juvenile Services.
“His juvenile record looks more like a yearbook because there are so many mug shots in there,” he said. “It’s true he has strong ties to the community, but most of those ties have been with law enforcement.”
It’s important to note the victim has his own prior criminal history dating back several years, although the nature of the charges and the outcomes of the cases are not fully known at this time.
McDermott said despite Ochse’s prior record, flight risk alone could be considered as a determining factor in setting the bond. He pointed to the February arrest in Florida, for which Ochse may or may not have a warrant, and an earlier case in District Court during which Ochse sent a letter to the court with a P.O. Box in Puerto Rico as the return address.
“The OCPD knows him on sight because of his past run-ins with them,” he said. “He beat a man on the ground unconscious and that man is now no longer with us because of his actions. For that reason, I’m asking the bond to be increased from $400,000 to $1 million.”
Benvenuto said video surveillance captured from Fat Daddy’s clearly shows the victim and three others including his cousin as the aggressors in the altercation. He again pointed to Ochse’s ties to the community as a reason for lowering the bond.
“Four gentlemen went out of Fat Daddy’s and confronted him,” he said. “The video shows that.”
For his part, Purnell acknowledged Ochse’s family history in the area, but was not inclined to reduce the bond, nor raise it as the state requested.
“I’m very familiar with Caleb since I had him in drug court,” he said. “I have known his family for years and it’s an outstanding family. I’m not going to go along with the state and increase the bond, but I am going to set it at $400,000.
While the state relied heavily on Ochse’s prior record during the bond hearing, it remains to be seen how much of his criminal history will be able to be used during the eventual trial. Generally speaking, prior arrests and convictions are not admissible in court proceedings unless there is a nexus between the past crimes and the case at hand. For example, if a particular feature in a prior case was apparent in a current case, that might be admissible. An attorney familiar with this case has said “that those types of charges will not be evidence at any trial.”
Meanwhile, the Ochse family, through their attorneys, on Wednesday issued a statement expressing their sympathies to the victim’s family while outlining one version of the facts of the case, supported by video surveillance tape captured at Fat Daddy’s.
“As lifelong residents and business owners in Worcester County, the family of Caleb Ochse would like to thank the community for their support,” the statement reads. “We also extend our sympathy to the family of Justin Cancelliere.”
The statement suggests there might be a rush to judgment and lays the groundwork for a likely defense strategy based on self-defense.
“We are disappointed that the State’s Attorney has arrested Caleb before a complete investigation,” the statement reads. “Our family attorney has been in contact with the police and the State’s Attorney since Sunday morning. The State’s Attorney is aware that a video camera at Fat Daddy’s captured important evidence of Caleb’s innocence.”
According to the Ochse family statement, the video shows Ochse and his friend, Kendall, eating at the restaurant after 2:30 a.m. Cancelliere then enters Fat Daddy’s alone. For some unknown reason, Cancelliere looks at Ochse and his friend intently. Three men then entered Fat Daddy’s and joined Cancelliere. According to the statement, the four men order food and sit in a booth with Cancelliere sitting awkwardly on the corner of the both so he can continue to stare at Ochse and Kendall, all the while gesturing to his friends. According to the statement, the four men waited for Ochse and Kendall to leave and followed them.
“The last frames of the video show Caleb and his friend walking north with the four men close behind,” the statement reads. “One of the men, who identified himself to police as a cousin of Mr. Cancelliere, told police that they followed Caleb and his friend and got into a fight a block away from Fat Daddy’s on Talbot Street. The cousin reported to police that after the fight, he saw Mr. Cancelliere on the ground. The cousin put him in a cab to take him to Plim Plaza where they were staying, without calling the police or ambulance. Police report that Mr. Cancelliere was found with injuries to his face and head including a bloody nose and a bruise on his forehead.”
The statement goes on to say Ochse and his friend left the scene and walked home, “also without contacting police or ambulance with no knowledge that anyone was hurt.”
The Ochse family statement essentially says the surveillance video will paint a picture of the true account of the incident and show the victim and his associates as the aggressors.
“We sincerely hope that the State’s Attorney’s Office will carefully review all of the evidence as we believe Caleb and his friend clearly acted in self-defense,” the statement reads.