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Stretch of Route 117 in Groton named in honor of 'Jo Jo Nice' Gingerella

Groton — What would Joey say?

A stretch of Route 117 from the Interstate 95 underpass to the corner of Fort Hill Road was dedicated Saturday as the Joseph "Jo Jo Nice" Memorial Highway in honor of homicide victim Joey Gingerella.

Chances are, Gingerella would say something funny about the memorial highway dedication, like "What are they going to name after me next, an airport?" suggested his grandmother, Deborah Delacruz.

And he might tell his stepfather, state Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, "Stop crying like a (expletive)."

One of the new rectangular, brown highway signs is steps away from the Ryan's Pub parking lot, where Gingerella was fatally shot on Dec. 11, 2016, when he tried to stop a man from beating his girlfriend.

The dedication ceremony was just a couple doors down from that, at Bridge Market, which closed for the occasion and was packed with Gingerella's family and friends.

"I was a little nervous about holding it so close to where my son died, but my son died a hero," said his mother, Tammy de la Cruz. "I want everyone to know we're going to be OK. It's going to take a long time, but we're going to be OK."

Wiping away tears, and laughing, too, because Gingerella was a funny guy, were young people wearing Fitch High School baseball shirts, state legislators, Poquonnock Bridge firefighters and members of Community Speaks Out. Gingerella's parents had founded the latter group to help those who struggle, like Gingerella did, with opioid addiction.

The idea for a memorial highway came from Margaret Twitty, who attended middle school and high school with Gingerella, both of them graduating from Fitch in 2010. Twitty said she contacted Fitch after Gingerella died, and was told they could do a scholarship in his name. She said she thought there should be more done to honor Gingerella, who had coached young people in baseball, made his struggle with pain pills public in order to help others and died trying to save a woman from being battered.

Twitty reached out to state Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, who prepared the legislation necessary to dedicate a portion of highway and garnered the support of local officials and members of the southeastern Connecticut legislative delegation. The legislation, included in a bill with other transportation measures, was voted into law in June, and Twitty was thrilled.

"I got something done, not just for a fellow Falcon, but a friend who did great things," Twitty said. "It's not just a memorial. It's his legacy. It's for people to know that Joey was Groton. He was always the son of Groton."

Conley said Saturday that it would warm her heart every time she drove that stretch of roadway to remember Gingerella, who gave his life for someone else.

Gingerella's family members are still struggling with his death.

In 2018, the man who shot him, Dante Hughes, was convicted of first-degree manslaughter with a firearm and criminal possession of a firearm and sentenced to 45 years in prison. This past September, Latoya Knight, whom Gingerella was defending when he was killed, was sentenced to 30 days in prison for misleading police after the shooting.

The family is still learning things about Gingerella as the third anniversary of his death approaches. His mother read from a letter she found that he had written while in a rehab facility. In it, he expressed thoughts more spiritual than the typical Jo Jo Nice one-liners for which he was better known.

Tammy de la Cruz also introduced Saturday a teen she recently met years after her son had come home and told her he had seen the boy playing baseball with his mother, stopped to help and decided he had found a passion for coaching.

"I was with my mother at Calvin Burrows Field and she was struggling to throw to me," said Isaiah Anderson, now a freshman at Fitch. "He (Gingerella) came and gave some pointers and advice. He was really kind. I could tell he was enjoying it."

k.florin@theday.com

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