One year ago, 11-year-old Monica Goods was looking forward to the holidays with her extended family. According to relatives, who do not wish to use their names for privacy reasons, Monica was a smiley, bubbly girl who enjoyed dancing, listening to music, and doing yoga. Above all, she loved spending time with her mother, Michelle Surrency; her father, Tristin Goods; and her siblings and extended family. Monica’s favorite colors were red and pink and she loved to tell jokes and play harmless pranks on her siblings. The preteen often told relatives she couldn’t wait until she became an “official” teenager.
Monica was proud to be ranked as one of the top three students in her class. “She was very smart in school,” Michelle Surrency said recently, during a press conference at the Brooklyn office of attorney Sanford Rubenstein. “What Monica loved to do was smile. She can make anyone laugh. We were robbed and it is unfair.”
The tragedy unfolded on December 22, 2020, during what was supposed to be a regular family outing. Tristin Goods and his wife, April, who live in Queens, had taken Monica and her 12-year-old sister to visit relatives upstate. According to a New York State Police report, Goods was driving northbound in his 2017 Dodge Journey on the Thruway near the town of Ulster, mile marker 93, when he was stopped for allegedly speeding at approximately 11:45pm. The situation escalated after New York State Trooper Christoper Baldner exchanged words with Goods. In previous media reports, Goods maintained that he kept his hands on the steering wheel throughout the interaction. He also alleged that Baldner cursed at his wife, accused everyone in the car of hiding drugs and weapons, and then deployed pepper spray into the car after Goods asked to speak to a police supervisor.
Goods then fled the scene, saying he feared for his life. Baldner, a 19-year-veteran of the state police, pursued him at high speed. After catching up to Goods, Baldner rammed his vehicle into the Dodge at least twice from behind, forcing the vehicle off the main roadway, where it hit a guardrail and flipped over into the southbound lanes, landing on its roof. Monica was tossed from the car as it tumbled, and died on the scene. Tristin Goods was handcuffed and arrested, and Monica’s sister, a minor who was sitting beside her in the backseat, was questioned at the police station for hours with no adults or lawyers present.
Surrency says her surviving daughter, whose name is being withheld because she is a minor, was also injured during the crash and sustained psychological trauma as a result of watching her sister die. “My daughter,” she says, “will never be the same.”
A Pattern of Behavior
On Wednesday, after a 10-month investigation, New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced the indictment of Baldner on second-degree murder and manslaughter, plus reckless endangerment counts for each of the survivors of the accident. It described a “depraved indifference to human life” evinced by the trooper during the incident. According to William Duffy, a state police spokesperson, Baldner turned himself in to authorities that morning and was suspended without pay. He was arraigned in Ulster County Court and ordered held in custody pending a bail hearing next week.
“Police officers are entrusted to protect and serve, but Trooper Baldner allegedly violated that trust when he used his car as a deadly weapon and killed a young girl,” said Attorney General James in a statement. “While nothing will bring Monica back, we must hold law enforcement to the highest standards, which is why my office is committed to seeking justice in this case.”
Baldner has been involved in two prior on-duty vehicular accidents on the Thruway. The indictment also charges him with reckless endangerment for a September 6, 2019 crash, also near mile marker 93 in Ulster. At 7:45 that morning, Baldner allegedly rammed his squad car into the back of a Dodge Caravan driven by Jonathan Muthu, causing the van to spin into the median and crash against a guardrail. According to the indictment, there were two other passengers in the vehicle.
In yet another episode, which Governor Kathy Hochul cited in an executive order last week reaffirming James as special prosecutor and directing her to convene a grand jury to consider charges, Baldner struck a car on the Thruway in Ulster County in January 2017. No charges related to that incident are included in the indictment.
Baldner faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted on the murder charge. Joseph O’Connor, the attorney representing Tristin Goods, told The River via email: “My client is pleased, but it does not bring his daughter back.”
The Grassroots Campaign for Justice
The indictment of Trooper Baldner followed increasingly vocal cries for justice from a coalition of activists in Kingston and Brooklyn, who have been putting public pressure on public officials for all of 2021. Among the activists horrified by Monica’s death is Anne Ames, a longtime Kingston resident and a regular member of Wednesday Walk for Black Lives, a grassroots group that facilitates public action in support of marginalized communities. Ames and other local activists want to stop overpolicing in the community, she says. “Justice moves incredibly slowly when it comes to citizens murdered by police.”
After Monica’s death, Michelle Surrency launched a campaign called Justice for Monica Goods, and community activists in Ulster County collectively mobilized around the issue. The coalition, which includes members of Rise Up Kingston and a variety of Black and Jewish local grassroots groups, aimed to have weekly rallies in Kingston to amplify Surrency’s calls for justice. In Brooklyn, Reverend Kevin McCall has also been working to support the Goods family. The activists say there have been countless unnecessary traffic stops by New York State Police and police in Kingston and Ulster County, and that those stops and other police incidents have long targeted people of color.
Ulster County Legislator Abe Uchitelle, who represents the 5th district in Kingston, attended a Wednesday Walk in early October because he wanted to stand in solidarity with Monica’s family and the community activists. “It is time to speak up. It is time to get involved,” Uchitelle says. “It has been too long that this family has been without answers. It has been too long since the community has been without answers.”
Uchitelle says he had full confidence in the attorney general to conduct a thorough investigation, noting that the Ulster County Legislature does not have jurisdiction for police investigations. When it comes to local police and community relations in Kingston, he feels there has been significant improvement in recent years.
By contrast, community activists like Lisa Royer, Rise Up Kingston’s community justice organizer and one of the organization’s founding members, believe the tragedy of Monica Goods reveals a long-standing systemic problem. Royer is one of several activists in the area who have been speaking out about strained police-community relations for years.
Royer says that since she was born and raised in Kingston, it’s essential to her that the city is safe for everybody. She worked for some 17 years at a local nursing home and is the mother of three and the grandmother of five. Royer’s activism was ignited by national accounts of police brutality, but it quickly became personal: In 2017, her daughter was detained and assaulted by Kingston police during a non-vehicular stop, according to Royer. She decided to start an advocacy group called Justice for Aleesa to bring attention to the case and seek justice for her daughter. Her young adult son has also had negative experiences with the police.
“Activism knocked at my door,” Royer says. That call grew louder last year, when the Kingston Police Department collaborated with troopers from the New York State Police and deputies with the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office on a 12-week “law enforcement partnership” to address violent crime. The operation involved more than 1,300 stops for routine traffic violations, but yielded only five firearms and drew significant charges of racism.
Royer is encouraged by the indictment of Baldner, but says the work is far from done. “We have to wait for the family to give us guidance for the next steps…they are calling for the officer to be fired, prosecuted, and convicted. And we are amplifying that demand.”
Celebration of Life
Rise Up Kingston organized public events throughout September and October to honor Monica’s legacy, and will continue to do so going forward.
Meanwhile, on October 18, the extended Goods family privately celebrated what would have been Monica’s 12th birthday. In a video posted to Instagram, you can see them gathered outside on a dark night, each person holding a white balloon. Michelle Surrency counts to three and says “we love you, Moni”—the cue to release the balloons. There follows a chorus in response: “We love you, Moni!”