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N.J. Lobstermen feud leads to a jail cell

A New Jersey lobsterman has pleaded guilty to setting a rival’s lobster boat on fire five years ago.

A New Jersey lobsterman has pleaded guilty to setting a rival’s lobster boat on fire five years ago. This brings to a close a case involving a struggle for control of the ocean floor that at one point saw bullets exchanged at sea between the two lobstermen. In court, Richard Van Salisbury, 40, explained how he torched the 38-foot Baby Doll, owned by Joseph Horvath, says a state trooper who witnessed the testimony.

Van Salisbury told a judge in Monmouth County Superior Court that at about 11 p.m. on an April night in 2001, he climbed aboard the Baby Doll, docked on the Shark River in Neptune Township, N.J. Standing or kneeling on the foredeck, he pried open a front-facing window and leaned inside the wheelhouse. Then he poured acetone inside the cabin and lit a match.

This, says trooper Valentine Borrelli, was Van Salisbury’s second major mistake. The first came during the gun battle on the Atlantic Ocean in March, 2001, when, confronted with an angry Horvath who was accusing him of vandalizing his lobster traps, Van Salisbury produced an unloaded gun.

Then, on the night in April 2001, Van Salisbury’s head, arms and shoulders were still inside Baby Doll’s cabin when the match ignited the acetone fumes, says Borrelli. He was unable to get out in time, and he received second- and third-degree burns, the proof that he was an arsonist.

It took five years for that proof to catch Van Salisbury. And it took an informant with credibility, a former lover, who didn’t mind helping investigators nail Van Salisbury and dogged police work by trooper Borrelli.

The feud between Van Salisbury and Horvath began before their March 8, 2001, gun battle 10 miles off the New Jersey coast, in the midst of a concentration of lobster trap buoys. For months, Horvath had been complaining to fellow lobstermen that Van Salisbury had been vandalizing his traps. Possession of the ocean floor among lobstermen is the law, and Horvath had “owned” a certain area along a trench known as the Mud Hole for several years. Then his traps, which were adjacent to those set by Van Salisbury and his brothers, began disappearing or getting damaged.

So on that March morning, when Horvath, working with his two sons, Joe Jr. and Adam, saw Van Salisbury’s boat, Heather Ann, nearby, he steered Baby Doll closer and began yelling at Van Salisbury, who on that day was working with his brother, Thomas.

In a press conference later, Thomas claimed that Horvath fired his 12-gauge shotgun unprovoked. Horvath contended he fired in self-defense. Given Richard Van Salisbury’s history with the law, Borrelli speculates that Horvath’s is the accurate account.

Federal and state records show that Van Salisbury has paid substantial fines and served jail time for, among other things, “flagrant and ongoing violations” of fishing laws. The records also show instances when Van Salisbury threatened other watermen and, in one case, pointed a knife at an enforcement officer.

“We believe Richard brought the gun out first,” Borrelli says. The gun, a mini-14 rifle, along with a shotgun on board Heather Ann, was not legally registered, was not loaded and Van Salisbury didn’t know how to use it, the trooper says. “When the gun was seen by the Horvaths, they hit the deck,” Borrelli says. The trooper says it was only then, he believes, that Horvath loaded his shotgun, put it over the side of his cockpit and began firing, wounding Thomas Van Salisbury in the groin, abdomen, leg and arm. Baby Doll fled the scene during the shooting, which was eventually returned by Van Salisbury. A Coast Guard rescue swimmer hauled Thomas Van Salisbury off the Heather Ann.

But the fighting was not over, Borelli says. The next incident involved a fire on Van Salisbury’s boat when it was tied to a dock on the Manasqan River in Point Pleasant, N.J., about 10 miles south of the Shark River. There was minor damage, and investigators could not prove their theory of its cause. “We believe that he [Van Salisbury] did it,” Borrelli says. “There was no indication that there was anybody on that boat other than him. It happened during the daytime. There were plenty of witnesses around. The last person on the boat was Richie Van Salisbury.”

The theory is that Van Salisbury damaged his own boat to cover up his planned arson of Horvath’s boat. On the night of April 17, 2001, Van Salisbury, accompanied by his son, Richard Jr., 16 at the time, set Baby Doll on fire, Borrelli says. The fire spread to the next boat at the dock, the 35-foot Wacker’s Toy, damaging it. A passerby reported the fire, which was extinguished before either boat was completely destroyed.

Borrelli says the next day, Van Salisbury and his son began driving north, toward Nova Scotia, where the lobsterman had been engaged in buying a boat and had friends. At an emergency room, he told a doctor he had been burned by a campfire. The doctor thought the injuries didn’t match the accident Van Salisbury described, Borrelli says, but he sent him on to a hospital in Halifax for treatment.

At the time, Van Salisbury was separated from his first wife, Darlene, and was living with the wife of one of his brothers, Borrelli says. That woman, Noreen Van Salisbury, bore him a child, but Van Salisbury later left her to live with yet another woman, the trooper says.

Local and state police and county and federal investigators had been working on the case for a year when, in 2002, Borrelli says, an informant who had helped him on other cases explained what had happened to the Baby Doll and suggested that he talk with Noreen Van Salisbury. “I eventually approached Noreen Van Salisbury and talked to her and she in turn tells me, ‘Yes, that’s true,’ ” Borrelli recalls. “By that time, Richie’s gone and left her with this child and a ton of bills.”

The woman provided the trooper with receipts and credit card bills documenting Richard Van Salisbury’s trip to Canada for medical treatment, and Borrelli began the laborious process of arranging to continue the investigation in Nova Scotia. First the Royal Canadian Mounted Police interviewed witnesses in the case. Then, through arrangements made between Washington, D.C., and Toronto, Borrelli and other investigators headed north to do their own work in October 2004.

When Van Salisbury entered the courtroom of Judge Patricia Del Bueno Cleary on Dec. 4, Borrelli had no idea he was going to change his plea to guilty. But he knew the evidence he had gathered against Van Salisbury was overwhelming. He speculates that Van Salisbury, who married a second time and had a child with that woman, whom he has now left for a fourth woman, had too many expenses to afford the cost of a trial.

Van Salisbury has been sentenced to 90 days in the county jail and probation, according to the Monmouth County prosecutor. “This plea agreement ensures that the defendant will be held accountable for his dangerous criminal activity,” the office said in a news release.

Horvath pleaded guilty in 2004 to federal weapons charges and spent 90 days confined to his home.

Both Horvath and Van Salisbury continue to harvest lobsters off the New Jersey coast, Borrelli says. But Horvath’s claims about the Van Salisbury clan’s tampering with his traps were substantiated since the shootings and fire, the trooper says. Fishery regulators placed lobsters with electronic chips embedded in their bodies in Horvath’s traps, he says. They charged Van Salisbury’s brother, John, with possessing those lobsters, he says. “They were stealing not only his [Horvath’s] crabs, but his gear,” Borrelli says.