A former New Jersey Transit police officer who retired on disability after stapling his own hand is the subject of renewed scrutiny after a video emerged, showing him repeatedly firing a sniper rifle at a gun range.
In Christopher Onesti’s 2008 application for a disability pension, doctors said he was “permanently and totally disabled” because he would have trouble operating his service weapon and performing other police duties. His injuries stem from a firearms certification class two years earlier, where Onesti accidentally fired a staple into his non-shooting hand while preparing to attach a paper target to some cardboard.
The injury would “significantly impede his ability to fire a weapon, apprehend suspects, etc.,” wrote one doctor who signed Onesti’s disability application. Another doctor wrote that the patient “can no longer pull a gun, restrain a suspect, do crowd control [or] use handcuffs.”
Despite the physicians’ statements, which cast doubt on Onesti’s ability to grip a weapon, the retired officer posted a Facebook video which shows him firing a bolt action rifle.
Contacted at his suburban Philadelphia home, Onesti said he can see how the video might make people question the veracity of his disability claim.
“I can obviously step out and look at it as someone else would look at it, and it absolutely looks ridiculous,” said Onesti.
The former transit cop also said he never thought the staple injury was particularly grave.
“I don’t think serious at all. It was a staple gun into the tissue of my finger,” he said.
The video showing Onesti firing the sniper rifle was first obtained by the website NJ Watchdog, which has partnered with NBC 4 New York to investigate other cases of alleged pension abuse.
NJ Watchdog editor Mark Lagerkvist calculated the cost of Onesti’s disability pension would be more than $2 million if the retired officer lives to his statistical life expectancy of 80 years old. The former transit cop gets an annual tax-free benefit of almost $46,000.
“This has to be the most expensive staple in the history of New Jersey,” Lagerkvist said.
After viewing the Facebook video, John Sierchio, who serves on the New Jersey Police and Fireman’s Retirement System pension board, said he would seek to have Onesti’s disability case reviewed and forwarded to state fraud investigators.
Sierchio and other members of the PFRS board initially voted against Onesti’s 2008 disability claim, but after an appeals court sent the case back, members approved the pension.
“There are people with amputations working, and you get a staple in your ring finger and you’re totally and permanently disabled?” said Sierchio.
A state Supreme Court decision in 2007 relaxed the standards that injured law enforcement personnel must meet in order to qualify for disability pensions. Since then, Sierchio and other critics say relatively minor injuries resulting from slips and falls can be enough to classify employees as “permanently and totally disabled.”
Though Onesti concedes his staple injury was not serious, he still insists he is entitled to lifetime disability benefits because according to him, NJ Transit refused to reassign him from active patrol work to a less physically demanding job like internal affairs.
“It’s an all or nothing system, which doesn’t make sense. There are no shades of gray. You are either 100 percent capable of being a patrol officer or you aren’t,” Onesti said.
A spokeswoman for New Jersey Transit declined to comment on whether re-assigning Onesti was ever considered.
Onesti also said the video depicting him firing that sniper rifle does not prove his injury is fraudulent. It was his left hand – his non-shooting hand – that was weakened by the staple. In the video, Onesti is seen pulling the trigger and operating the bolt-action lever with his uninjured right hand. His weakened left hand grips the stock that is also steadied against his shoulder.
“I still enjoy shooting,” he said. "I only shoot with my right hand. I’m very good with my right hand.”