Joey Gingerella, a local face of addiction recovery, killed in confrontation outside a Groton bar
Groton — Joey Gingerella had been through a lot in the last two years.
The former baseball player at Robert E. Fitch High School planned to play baseball in college, but when he failed a class at Three Rivers Community College that dream was put on hold.
Disheartened, Gingerella turned to oxycodone, a prescription pain reliever. He quickly became addicted, and in 2014 he was selling his family's jewelry and tools to pay for pills.
But by this year, things were looking a lot better. His mother, Tammy de la Cruz, and his stepfather, former Groton Town Council member Joseph de la Cruz, pushed him to go to a Pennsylvania addiction treatment center. He started going to meetings, moved back home and got a job at a heating supply company.
Gingerella's parents shouted their son's recovery from the rooftops. They helped start the local nonprofit group Community Speaks Out to help connect people struggling with addiction with treatment, speaking at vigils and school events. In November, Joseph de la Cruz was elected to the state representative seat for the 41st District.
But months after Gingerella became one of the faces of hope for recovery from drug addiction, his life came to a sudden end outside a Groton bar early Sunday morning.
Gingerella was shot and killed as witnesses say he tried to stop an assault against a woman in the parking lot of Ryan's Pub.
Police are looking for 30-year-old Groton resident Dante Hughes as a suspect in the murder. They said Sunday that Hughes is armed and dangerous, and that anyone who sees him should call 911 immediately, and should not confront him. They described Hughes as black, 5 feet 11 inches tall, 150 pounds with black hair and brown eyes.
Gingerella was in Ryan's Pub, a bar on Fort Hill Road in Groton, when patrons in the bar saw a man assaulting his girlfriend in a car in the parking lot at about 1:30 a.m. Sunday, according to Ryan's Pub owner Hubba Ryan.
Ryan was not at the bar at the time of the incident, but a bartender working Saturday night told him Hughes and an unknown woman had entered the bar, ordered a drink, and fought briefly before leaving. Later, patrons saw Hughes assaulting the woman in a car in the parking lot. Gingarella went to try to stop the assault, possibly with another person, and was shot.
Police found Gingerella in the parking lot with multiple gunshot wounds. Emergency personnel took him to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London, where he was pronounced dead.
Tammy de la Cruz struggled to speak Sunday morning as news of her son's death circulated online.
"He was doing the right thing, by the way," she said, crying. "A girl was getting beat up and he was stopping it, and they shot him."
Later in the day, she said she appreciated the support that had been pouring in all Sunday from those who knew Gingerella.
"I need you to know he was doing the right thing," she repeated. "He was doing the right thing and he got shot. I didn't even get to say goodbye to my son."
Last March, Gingerella spoke with his stepfather at an event for students in the Fitch auditorium. The then-23-year-old was anxious but candid about how easily he had become addicted to pills. He told the students it could happen to anyone.
"The whole thing here is that I'm a really good kid, and ... everyone in this room is a really good kid," he said that day. "Every parent in this room is a really good parent and really good person. And it can happen, just like that."
On Sunday, Groton Mayor Bruce Flax called Gingerella's death a tragedy.
"There really are no words," he said. "(His family) just need to know that the community is behind them and can only offer support for whatever they may need. It's a tragedy. All the work they've done saving others and them saving him. ... It's the most difficult situation a parent could face."
State and local police surrounded a multifamily house at 2-4 Waco Court in the neighborhood across Fort Hill Road from Ryan's Pub for several hours starting at about 9 a.m. Sunday, according to several people who live in the area. Hughes listed his address as 4 Waco Court when arrested earlier this year.
Vincent Williams, who lives on Waco Court just a few hundred feet from Ryan's Pub, said a swarm of Groton and state police SWAT team vehicles were parked on Sunday morning around 4 Waco Court.
Williams said he saw police throw several flash grenades into the house, and that a police dog went in and out of the house several times.
Later on Sunday morning, the neighborhood had quieted down and only two Groton Town Police cruisers sat outside the house.
Groton Town Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr. said he spent time Sunday morning with Gingerella's family and has been in constant contact with them as the investigation continues. Fusaro traveled with the de la Cruzes to Gloucester, Mass., last year to learn about that city's response to the opioid crisis and has worked closely with Community Speaks Out.
"They're great people," Fusaro said. "They don't deserve this. Their work started out as a need in their family, and they extended it into the community. In the National Guard we call it selfless service."
Poquonnock Fire Chief Joe Winski said firefighters assisted police at the scene and stayed there all night. Many Groton firefighters have been close to the family, he said.
"Joey was doing phenomenal, phenomenal, and he was having a positive influence by telling his story and not being intimidated," Winski said.
Tammy and Joe de la Cruz often spoke to firefighters struggling with drug overdose calls and offered their help. The couple gave firefighters cards to pass out to families when they answered overdose calls, to help people find support and get into treatment.
"They've been the glimmer of hope that (firefighters) were looking for, this whole family," Winski said. "They've been such a major influence and for them to suffer like this... They need to know this town loves that family."
Hughes' criminal record in Connecticut consists of one conviction, according to the state's judicial database. He pleaded guilty in June to interfering with a police officer in connection with an April incident in which Groton Town police also charged him with driving without a license and using a cell phone while driving.
He received a six-month suspended sentence and is set to receive a one-year conditional discharge in June 2017.
In February, Hughes was charged by Groton Town Police with driving without a license, misuse of plates, driving an unregistered vehicle and failure to carry insurance. The outcome of that case could not be determined.
In 2015, he was arrested on a motor vehicle charge. That case has been sealed, and Hughes is scheduled to appear in court on that charge in April 2017.
Before it was Ryan’s Pub, the bar where Gingerella was shot was known as Sully’s Cafe. That business, which closed about five years ago, was the site of a string of violent incidents.
In 2007, a local man shot another man in the chest while he was standing in the side door of the bar after a dispute over a marijuana debt. The man survived.
In 2008, after a night of heavy drinking with a group of people at Sully’s, a man was beat up on nearby Miami Court by up to eight people and then choked to death. At another point that year, police responded to a report of shots fired at the bar but no victims were found.
In 2009, police responded to a report of multiple stabbing victims at the bar and arrested a man convicted in a Norwich murder with stabbing someone. In 2007, a man was arrested there for smashing a patron over the head with a bottle.
Town detectives and the Connecticut State Police Eastern District Major Crime Squad and the New London County State's Attorney's Office are investigating Gingerella's death. Police have asked anyone with information about the shooting to call (860) 441-6712.
Karen Florin and Deborah Straszheim contributed reporting to this story.
Stories that may interest you
A judge in New London set a $3 million bond on Friday for the 34-year-old former New London man charged with murder in the shooting death of a Ledyard man.
The 174 Bank St. property where it would be built is what the developer's attorney William Sweeney said is not only blighted property but a “gaping hole in the middle of downtown.”
The Connecticut State Police on Friday announced a $25,000 reward and said it is working "around the clock" to solve the 2018 killing of James Stone Jr. on the Golden Hill Paugussett Reservation.