It was a cold evening in December 2018, and Nadine Arslanian, the soon-to-be wife of Senator Robert Menendez, was zipping through the darkened streets of suburban New Jersey in a black Mercedes-Benz sedan. She would later tell the police she did not see the man stepping out in front of her to cross a busy thoroughfare.
The crash that ensued just after 7:30 p.m. killed the man, Richard Koop, 49, almost instantly. His body was thrown to the curb just steps from his home and badly mangled, according to the Bergen County medical examiner.
After brief questioning, the police concluded that Ms. Menendez, who was alone in the vehicle, was “not at fault.” She was released without a summons.
What happened that night in the borough of Bogota outside New York City was not reported for years, leaving witnesses and Mr. Koop’s family to wonder if the fatal collision was deliberately kept quiet. But now, nearly five years later, the episode adds a startling dimension to a scandal that has shaken American politics, and raised new questions about the senator at its center.
The revelation helps fill in an important narrative gap around one of the most blatant bribes alleged in a 39-page federal indictment unveiled last month against Ms. Menendez, her powerful husband and three businessmen.
Prosecutors said in those charging papers that Ms. Menendez needed a car so badly after a December 2018 “accident” that the senator, a Democrat, was willing to try to suppress an unrelated criminal prosecution for a New Jersey businessman in exchange for a $60,000 Mercedes convertible. The fatal collision with Mr. Koop on Dec. 12 matches prosecutors’ terse description of the December 2018 crash.
There were reasons for suspicion at the time. One witness at the scene said in an interview that officers appeared to know who Ms. Menendez was and treated her with striking deference. Police recordings captured the voice of a man who identifies himself as a retired police officer from a nearby department. He can be heard saying he came to the scene as “a favor” to a friend whose wife knew Ms. Menendez.
The police reports indicate she was never tested for drugs or alcohol, and was allowed to leave the scene, not long before Mr. Koop was declared dead at a nearby hospital. Three days later, police investigators were sent to local bars to get more information on where Mr. Koop had been in the hours before his death.
Mr. Koop’s sister, Rosemarie Koop-Angelicola, said the family never heard a word from Ms. Menendez or the senator after the crash, and little from local authorities.
“The family really has had serious concerns over what we felt was a very sparse, one-sided investigation,” Ms. Koop-Angelicola said in an interview. “Definitely a lack of legal enthusiasm to take this case, definite lack of media coverage, and a lack of communication by the authorities of Bergen County. We felt that the whole thing was very silently swept under the rug.”
The senator, 69, and Ms. Menendez, 56, have each pleaded not guilty to the bribery-related charges, and the senator insists prosecutors are twisting facts to make legitimate congressional activity look nefarious.
In an interview, a lawyer for Ms. Menendez, David Schertler, called the car crash a “tragic accident,” but one that was unrelated to the charges she is currently facing.
“My understanding was this individual ran in front of her car, and she was not at fault,” Mr. Schertler said.
Mr. Menendez used almost identical language in comments to reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon, after the crash was reported. “Obviously we think of the family,” he added.
Officers from the Bogota Police Department did not return a string of calls that began on Friday seeking comments about the case.
A spokeswoman for the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office, which would have been responsible for any decision to charge Ms. Menendez, said that by the time a special unit from the office arrived at the scene, the local police had already determined “that no criminality was suspected to be involved.”
‘Congratulations mon amour de la vie’
Mr. Menendez and Ms. Menendez had been in an on-again, off-again relationship for much of 2018. He was a divorced, high-ranking senator re-elected for a third term that November. She was also divorced, socially outgoing and 13 years his junior.
People close to Mr. Menendez had encouraged him to walk away, concerned that Ms. Menendez — unemployed and fond of flashy jewelry and designer shoes, with a mysterious circle of friends — had champagne taste on a beer budget, according to three people familiar with the conversations, who did not want to be identified because the discussions were private.
But by December, the couple’s bond appeared to be growing stronger. According to prosecutors, Ms. Menendez had already introduced her future husband to an Egyptian-American friend she had known for nearly a decade, Wael Hana. She helped organize a series of dinners and meetings that prosecutors say formed the beginning of a corrupt scheme to use the senator’s power to improperly help the Egyptian government in return for bribes.
They would soon have reason to call upon those connections again.
Police reports do not state where Ms. Menendez was going the night she struck Mr. Koop on East Main Street in Bogota, miles from her home in Englewood Cliffs. But dashcam footage obtained by The Times through an open records request shows she was dressed in a fur coat and mid-length dress.
Mr. Koop was coming home from an evening at nearby bars. Family members said he took an Uber home that night that dropped him across the street from his apartment, moments before he was struck.
Surveillance video from a nearby car shop that captured part of the collision shows Mr. Koop propelled off Ms. Menendez’s car and onto the curb as she slammed on the brakes.
The crash badly damaged Ms. Menendez’s car. “Her front windshield was shattered and had front-end damage on the passenger side, which was later determined to be from a parked car that she struck after striking Mr. Koop,” a Bogota police sergeant wrote in an incident report later.
The senator was away in Washington that night, according to Senate voting records. But after Christmas, he accompanied Ms. Menendez to a towing company’s lot to collect her belongings from the car, a company official told The Times.
He would also prove integral to replacing it, prosecutors said.
In the indictment, they mention nothing more about the collision than that it “left her without a car.” But court papers clarify what prosecutors allege came next.
They said Ms. Menendez sent multiple text messages to Mr. Hana complaining she did not have a car. But two friends, Mr. Menendez and another New Jersey businessman who was close to Mr. Hana, Jose Uribe, soon agreed to terms to rectify that.
According to the indictment, Mr. Menendez agreed to call a senior prosecutor at the New Jersey attorney general’s office in late January to try to pressure him to go easy on an associate of Mr. Uribe. Mr. Uribe, in return, agreed to finance a car, prosecutors said. His lawyer did not return requests for comment.
“All is GREAT! I’m so excited to get a car next week. !!” Ms. Menendez texted Mr. Hana a few days after the senator placed the call.
In April, four months after Mr. Koop’s death, Ms. Menendez signed paperwork to purchase a new $60,000 Mercedes-Benz C-300 convertible. She told Mr. Uribe by text that she would “never forget this” and messaged Mr. Menendez to celebrate, too.
“Congratulations mon amour de la vie,” Ms. Menendez wrote to Mr. Menendez, according to the indictment. “We are the proud owners of a 2019 Mercedes.”
‘A lot of secrecy’
There is nothing explicitly noted in police incident reports or the videos reviewed by The Times to indicate that officers knew of the driver’s relationship with the senator.
But Sergio Uribe, who owned the parked car Ms. Menendez hit after Mr. Koop, recalled hearing the driver repeatedly telling officers she was going to call someone as they secured the scene that night.
He said he did not know Ms. Menendez’s identity at the time, but suspected she was “someone important.” (Sergio Uribe is not related to Jose Uribe.)
“I don’t know if she was well known, or lived nearby, or the police knew her, but there appeared to be a lot of secrecy,” he said in an interview in Spanish. “I remember saying, ‘That woman is just allowed to leave? She’s not being arrested or anything?’”
Surveillance video shows that Ms. Menendez stayed in her car after striking Mr. Koop, eventually moving the vehicle a few car lengths in front of where his body came to rest.
She called 911 a little more than four minutes after the collision. “Some guy just jumped in front of my car,” Ms. Menendez told a dispatcher in a shaky voice, according to a recording of the call shared by the Koop family’s lawyer, Sheri A. Breen. By then, officers were already arriving on the scene, where they found Mr. Koop had no pulse.
Ms. Menendez appears to have made at least one other call, too. Within roughly 30 minutes of the collision, a man who identified himself to the police as a retired officer from nearby Hackensack arrived to help her.
“I don’t even know her,” the man can be heard saying. “That’s my buddy’s wife who’s friends with her. He said could you do me a favor and take her up there, because her friend just got in a car accident.”
The former officer is not identified by name, but he later asks the Bogota police if prosecutors will need to be involved. They indicate they are preparing to release her. “Why was the guy in the middle of the street?” Ms. Menendez can be heard asking an officer in the same video, before repeating “he jumped on my windshield.”
“It is determined that at this time Ms. Arslanian was not at fault for the motor vehicle crash and that Mr. Koop was jaywalking,” the Bogota sergeant wrote in his report the next day.
The autopsy report would later show that Mr. Koop had alcohol and marijuana in his system. His family said it had never understood why Ms. Menendez was not tested for substances, too.
“The dead man was drug- and alcohol-tested, but the driver wasn’t,” Ms. Koop-Angelicola said. “Things like that just don’t play fair in our mind.”
But veteran criminal defense lawyers said it was not unusual for the police not to test Ms. Menendez for alcohol or other substances the night of the crash.
Joseph D. Rotella, a past president of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey, said the authorities must demonstrate probable cause that a driver was impaired before testing for alcohol immediately after the crash, even in the case of a pedestrian fatality.
Often, in the hours after a fatal car accident, county prosecutors will seek a warrant to test the driver’s blood. But unless investigators have demonstrated probable cause, judges can and do deny warrants, said Mr. Rotella, who has been a criminal defense lawyer for 37 years in New Jersey.
“Sometimes accidents are just accidents — nothing more,” he said.
A patrolman on the scene did ask to search Ms. Menendez’s cellphone. She initially consented, but quickly asked for it back, he wrote in his account. At one point, she indicated she would not answer additional questions without a lawyer present.
A police report later indicated that the authorities issued a subpoena for Ms. Menendez’s phone records — presumably to see if she had been calling or texting at the time of the accident — but it does not indicate what the search yielded, or if it was even completed.
The episode left Mr. Koop’s family and friends devastated.
He was divorced at the time he died, but devoted to his son. Ms. Koop-Angelicola described him as a “small-town guy”: an avid fisherman, enthusiastic coach and a regular at the local bars. He had worked for years at the Javits Center in Manhattan, but his employment was spottier in later years.
“Nothing too complicated on how he lived his life,” she said. “Very, very unpretentious person.”
Friends of Mr. Koop’s from the Westside Village Tavern in Ridgefield Park, a small bar about a mile from his apartment, attached a plaque in his memory to his favorite bar stool after the crash. They have kept his Quick Draw lottery numbers stored behind the bar in the “Bartender’s Bible,” a drink recipe book.
Veronica Valandingham, the tavern’s manager and bartender at the time when Mr. Koop died, said she was interviewed by the police, who were trying to retrace his steps on Dec. 12. She said she did not get the impression they were trying to prove anything in particular, but just understand where he had been the day he died.
“The thing that got everybody was he was trying to do the right thing and take an Uber and then this happens,” she said.
Danielle DeBouter, Mr. Koop’s ex-wife, was called to identify his body hours later. She said he was almost unrecognizable. She only learned of the connection between Ms. Menendez and the senator later, through Ms. Breen.
“We always wondered what actually happened that horrible night. So much was left unanswered,” Ms. DeBouter said. “I don’t know if we will ever know the truth.”
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.