Jim Challender’s life would by any measure be considered interesting. He hung out with President John F. Kennedy while serving in the Marine Corps. He was deployed to Cuba, twice, for two of JFK’s most defining ventures. He brought in Assata Shakur, a.k.a. “the Black Joan of Arc,” after a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike. And he brought down the corrupt governor of New Jersey while he was a detective on the state police.
But Challender himself wouldn’t call his life interesting so much as he would call it blessed. That fits, given that he’s a deacon at Our Lady of Sorrows Church. Now 75 and still fit as a horse (in his own words), Challender is happy to reflect on a life he’s proud of, and one he no longer wishes he could do parts of over.
Challender, who lives in Hamilton these days, may be best known to anyone with a memory of the early 1970s as the cop who exposed a major campaign corruption ring surrounding then-Gov. William T. Cahill. But a whole lot of interesting things happened to him long before.
Challender was born in North Trenton and grew up wanting to be a state trooper. After he graduated from Trenton Catholic Academy in the late ’50s he enlisted in the marines (“I wasn’t ready for college”) and found himself stationed in Rhode Island, near Newport, where the Kennedys had a retreat home nicknamed “the summer White House.” Challender was on the detail assigned to get the president safely from the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port to Newport.
The two became friends. Close enough friends that Challender used to woo his wife, Nancy, by taking her for tours of Air Force One.
“He was a great guy,” Challender said of Kennedy. “You just felt very at ease with him right away.”
Friends or not, each man had a job to do, and the tensions stemming from the Cuban revolution circa 1960 were forcing America’s hand. Challender was dispatched to Guantanamo Bay to fight alongside the Cuban expats who were going in to overthrow Fidel Castro. But Challender was, of course, never activated, and the Bay of Pigs fiasco led to the total death of the unassisted exiles.
“They suffered a lot,” Challender said of those fighters. “We could have helped those people.”
A year later, after being returned to Naval Air Station Quonset Point, Challender found his friend Kennedy again embroiled in a standoff with the USSR near Cuba. Challender was sent back to Gitmo as part of the U.S. force during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And yes, he, like a lot of people, was afraid the planet was about to get snuffed out—which it very nearly did.
Challender left the Marine Corps (full-time) by October 1963, though he stayed involved with the Corps for 27 years. He was working with his father on Broad Street near Switlik Park a month later when Nancy drove up and said, “Your friend got killed.”
“That’s how I found out about President Kennedy,” he said.
In 1964, Challender joined the N.J. State Police, quickly rising to detective and already carrying a record for rock-solid honesty. Up to this point in his life, Challender said, he never met anyone who was crooked. His father: “A top-level man of honesty, truthfulness, character.” The priests from Trenton Catholic: “They were honorable men.” The marines he served with and the president/friend he protected: “Good men.”
But as a detective, Challender started seeing corruption and ugliness as part of the job. He was assigned to the first federal strike force unit in New Jersey to look into organized crime, labor racketeering and mob violence—specifically a scheme led by the mob upstate to burn down A&P supermarkets and kill the managers.
The investigation led to an Amalgamated Meatcutters Union official in Passaic that Challender managed to flip by threatening him (actually, bluffing him, because Challender had nothing on him) that he was about to be hauled away with the rest of the mob. The guy admitted to everything, and led Challender to a $5,000 check from the union to Cahill’s campaign—a check that was cashed at a window at the Garden State Racetrack.
This was 1972. Over the next few months Challender’s investigation found more checks connected to Cahill being funneled to windows at the track. Initials on the checks included “J.M.,” which Challender learned belonged to Joseph McCrane, the New Jersey state treasurer at the time and Cahill’s 1969 campaign manager.
So he did what any investigator would do—he told his superiors about the checks; those superiors were wildly enthusiastic about his discovery.
Two days later, Challender asked about the checks and was greeted with, “What checks?”
“I said ‘Oh, no,’” he said with a laugh. “I knew it was starting.”
His superior, in fact, told him a story about bowling; about how when you throw a ball and it knocks over a few pins, the resetter just sets it all back up and the game keeps going.
To make matters worse, the state Attorney General’s office leaned on Challender to “let it go.” He was treated to such character assessments as “Your problem is, you want to put everyone through the criminal justice system.”
Truth was, his superiors smelled political blood in the water and told Challender to sit on the evidence rather than try to put the corrupt in prison, because, he was told, “We can destroy people in other ways.”
Challender had lost touch with honorable men. When he went home from work one night, he caught John Dean testifying on TV during Watergate and realized they were about to be in the same position—fall guy in jail—unless Challender did something. And by something, he meant blow the whistle. He leaked evidence to the press, earning a headline in a New York tabloid that identified him only as an anonymous “angry cop.”
His superiors, unable to pin any actual wrongdoing on Challender, did what exposed officials always do, they exiled him and tried to smear his name. Challender was sent to work on the New Jersey Turnpike, which he said was tantamount to “going from the New York Yankees to playing on the Nottingham Little League.”
Superiors thought they’d waste his talents and integrity writing speeding tickets, maybe find something they could hang on him, and get him to resign. But a few gutsy friends in political places stood up for his character, he said, and the smear campaign never worked.
Also, it didn’t take Challender long to become a hero on his Turnpike gig. A mere two weeks after he landed on the Turnpike, Challender was dispatched to a shootout between the State Police and a car full of people. The people in the car turned out to be members of the Black Liberation Army, an often-violent militant group looking to foster the “self-determination of black people in the United States.” The shootout turned deadly for a friend and fellow trooper, Werner Foerster, who was killed by a woman shooter.
Challender chased the woman through the woods and arrested her for murder. The woman turned out to be Joanne Chesimard, a.k.a. Assata Shakur, a wanted member of the BLA and former Black Panther.
The arrest netted Challender some major props and, effectively, rendered him politically untouchable. He got his choice of assignment, and he picked the most fitting one.
“I said, ‘I want to cover the AG’s office.’”
Challender’s investigation of the Cahill administration corruption scandal eventually saw the arrests of McCrane, Secretary of State Paul Sherwin and former New Jersey Republican State Committee chairman Nelson Gross. Cahill lost his chance at re-election in the Republican primary to Congressman Charles Sandman, who eventually lost to Brendan Byrne in the general election.
And Shakur? She broke out of prison in the late ’70s, and fled the country. To Cuba. She still lives there today.
The Challender Affair, as it became known, taxed its namesake emotionally and physically. Challender received hang-up calls, thinly veiled threats, the works. Over the years, it hurt so much that he often wondered if it had all been worth it. Indeed, into his 60s, when asked, he would say that no, he wouldn’t do it again.
But if Challender lost faith in the system, even for a little bit, even for a little while, he found it again. A deeply religious man, he relies on faith to carry him through the tough times. But he also counts on the examples of people like his father and his teachers, and his friend, John F. Kennedy, who, even if flawed, stood up and admitted it. He’d been surrounded by too much character to let those influences down, and by being someone of strong character, he knew he would be a much better example for his own four children if he didn’t give up on his idealism.
“I used to say I wouldn’t do it again,” Challender said. “But I would.”
Moreover, Challender needed to stay moral and focused as he led the younger generations of state troopers. By 1988, he had made captain and was named commandant of two state police academies, where integrity training was part of the drill—he had to keep the new troopers from getting comfortable with the game of bowling, after all.
He retired in 1991, and became the chief of police of the Waterfront and Airport Commission of New York and New Jersey. He walked away from that job a few years later out of frustration at the corruption in the department. He called it a protest for the mismanagement of the organization.
Challender also eventually was ready for college,. He attended night school at Rutgers University, and earned his bachelor’s in criminal justice.
In his retirement years, Challender has worked to remain an example of good moral character for his children, grandchildren and the community at large. He spent four-and-a-half years studying to be a deacon, and he’s been one at OLS for 14 years now.
His motto is a simple one that a lot of people end up having trouble sticking to: “Do what’s right all the time.”
He also frequently recites the first stanza of a poem, attributed only to an anonymous death row prisoner, as another touchstone: “When you get what you want in your struggle for self/And the world makes you king for a day/Then go to the mirror and look at yourself/And see what that man has to say.”
After all the mayhem and corruption and human ugliness Challender has seen, you might expect him to be at least cynical, but he’s not. What he’s been through has made him who he is, and he wouldn’t change that, and that’s the legacy—having no regrets by doing nothing worth regretting—he hopes he leaves behind.
And though he sees a continuation of the same struggles he went through as a young man—world conflict, political lunacy, tense race relations—happening all over again, he’s not planning to lose his faith anytime soon.
“There’s still hope in this world,” he said, without a trace of sarcasm. “There really is.”