WILDWOOD — It’s been 13 years since two armed men robbed a local landmark taproom, savagely beat the bartender and murdered the lone customer. Today, the convicted murderers remain in state prison with one of the men losing a recent appeal.
At closing time just after 2 a.m. on May 10, 1996, Federick Simmons and John Poteat, both of Wildwood, walked into the Firehouse Tavern at Park Boulevard and Pine Avenue armed with a club and a knife. They planned to use their weapons to rob the bar and get away with the some money to feed their drug habits.
The only people in the tavern at the time of the robbery were bartender Michael James, 46 at the time, and Robert “Robbie” Connors, 38, of West Wildwood who worked at a local bowling alley. Unluckily for Connors, he recognized Simmons as a cook at a local restaurant he frequented and spoke to him.
Simmons, who was 10 inches taller and more that 150 lbs. heavier than Connors, took the smaller man into the bar’s restroom, held him down and knifed him several times in the neck. Connors’ lifeless body was found later in a pool of blood and hot water that had been pouring from the pipes of a sink that was torn from the wall during the earlier struggle. In his confession, Simmons said he killed Connors to keep him from identifying him to police.
While Simmons was dispatching Connors in the bathroom, Poteat savagely beat James with a “table leg” club near the bar. James, who fought back against the attack, managed to take the struggle outside to Pine Avenue where a passing car scared off the robbers.
James, who still bartends at the Firehouse Tavern, received bruises all over his body and required 85 staples to close the gashes on his head. He also broke his hand from a punch to his attacker’s face.
In the end, Simmons and Poteat got away with $700 from the register and a six-pack of beer. They were picked up within hours of the incident by Wildwood police.
After separate trials, juries found both men guilty of knowing and purposeful murder, felony murder (because it was done in the process of the robbery), attempted murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery and other charges. Simmons had faced the death penalty, but was eventually spared when a unanimous decision couldn’t be reached by his jury. Instead, he received a sentence of life plus 39 years.
In his latest appeal, Simmons argued that his conviction must be reversed due to ineffective assistance of counsel. Simmons said his lawyers botched his defense on several issues including the presentation of expert witnesses with conflicting testimony regarding his intoxication at the time of the crime.
But on May 13, appellate judges Joseph Yannotti and Laura LeWinn found that Simmons’ arguments were “without merit.” In order to prove ineffective assistance of counsel, they said, Simmons had to show that his attorney’s performance was deficient and that the performance prejudiced his defense.
The appeals court reasoned that even if the defense lawyers were deficient, “the state’s case against defendant was ‘overwhelming,’ including not only his own confession, but a host of other proofs including physical evidence.” The case against him was just too strong.
Both Simmons and Poteat now reside in the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and will likely remain there for the rest of their lives. On the state Department of Corrections Web site in the spaces for their projected release and parole eligibility dates, it reads: N/A.
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