NEWARK — Mayor Cory Booker has repeatedly claimed he saved his neighbor from a fire in 2012, but two of the neighbor’s longtime friends say Booker’s story is not possible and the neighbor — a woman with an extensive criminal record — is not to be believed.
Zina Hodge was allegedly rescued from a kitchen fire by Mayor Booker in April 2012. The story received international media attention, with the New York Times, CBS, ABC, Oprah, and the New Jersey media among many others, providing extensive coverage of the “superhero” mayor.
In Booker’s telling of the story, he entered the burning building next to his own property, after breaking the restraints of a police detective, in order to rescue Hodge. He claims he threw Hodge over his shoulder and carried her to safety while sustaining second-degree burns on his hand. He later appeared on “Oprah’s Next Chapter” to tell the legendary hostess that he had a “come to Jesus moment” in which he felt he might not survive.
According to neighbors and community activists Donna Jackson and Cassandra Dock, the entire story is a fabrication.
“I don’t believe he went in there,” Dock told The Daily Caller. I don’t believe he saved her. I don’t believe he put her over his back and brought her out. First of all, the hallway is too narrow for both of them to fit through that hallway so I don’t believe none of that.”
Dock told The Daily Caller Hodge reacted by “laughing” when Dock confronted her about the holes in her story.
“Laughing every time when we had the conversation about the fire and how it happened she just chuckled, which leads me to believe that none of it is true,” Dock said. “I said to her ‘Zina do not go on Oprah and allow him to continue with this lie.’”
While Booker claims he was coming home and saw the fire, his own security detail, Detective Alex Rodriguez, contradicts his version of events.
In an interview on CBS, Gayle King asked Rodriguez what he was doing there, and Rodriguez said he was “waiting for the mayor.” When asked if many people had already left the building he said “yes.”
Rodriguez said that he noticed the building was on fire and started to alert residents, raising the question of why he was waiting for the mayor.
Dock and Jackson questioned how Booker was able to tweet and text on his way to the hospital with second-degree burns on his hand. They also doubted media reports that Zina was in an intensive care unit in the hospital, saying they saw her just days after the fire and that she seemed fine.
When asked by Oprah Winfrey, Hodge seemed to follow Dock’s advice about being truthful. She only offered, “When I came out of the building I saw my friend [Booker] at the ambulance.” (Hodge had earlier claimed she couldn’t see the mayor.)
Dock continued, “I hope that this mayor could be exposed for this lie about how he is this hero, how he saves people. I really wish that outsiders could see him the way we see him — as a liar.”
The mayor’s many tall tales “bother me because outsiders believe him because he has painted this city as a place where people can just come in and make their millions and millions of dollars off of our problems. And we have some serious problems in this city.”
Booker’s version of the story has gained wide acceptance, and while eyewitnesses give conflicting accounts, all agree that the mayor was present at some point during the fire.
However, the Newark Mayor has a long history of inventing or massively exaggerating his own heroism.
On Twitter, Booker claims credit as a local Mr. Fixit, with stories that rarely stand up to scrutiny. (Related: Cory Booker breaks promise to help woman with raccoon infestation)
Booker also has made questionable claims about helping out with fires in the past. (Related: Cory Booker takes credit for putting out a mattress fire)
Most notoriously, Booker was shown to have invented the character of a local drug dealer who threatened his life but later reformed thanks to the mayor’s healing powers. (Related: DC Trawler: Cory Booker has a friend named T-Bone, maybe)
Hodge’s friends note that Booker’s neighbor also has serious credibility problems.
Dock called Hodge in the presence of this reporter but was told “never to call this number again.”
Dock said the two had a long friendship, claiming that Mayor Booker supported Hodge financially from time to time over several years. She speculated that Hodge may still be on the mayor’s payroll.
“I really do believe he was helping her financially sometimes,” said Dock. “I really do.”
In 2009, Hodge was charged with a drug offense, according to court records. It isn’t clear if she served time.
In March 2012, she was also arrested for shoplifting, according to the Daily Mail. The charges, which came only a few weeks before the fire, have mysteriously disappeared. Newark courts have no record of those charges.
Filmmaker Joel Gilbert and The Daily Caller tried to reach out to Hodge in person and by phone at her mother’s address. Each time we were strongly rebuffed and admonished “not to call the number ever again.”
We played that call for Dock who confirmed that in fact the number and the voice belonged to Hodge, whom she has known since high school.
When Gilbert and I approached Hodge’s mother’s home, the same voice demanded to know why we wanted to speak to Hodge and we requested an interview. After five minutes, a young woman came out of the door and said that she was a new renter in this three-floor building. She was clearly not the same person as the person we had spoken to through the locked door.
This isn’t the only tall tale that Booker has told that upsets Dock and Jackson.
Booker drives around with a police scanner so that he can show up along with the police, said Jackson, who also owns a police scanner.
That story was confirmed by a high-ranking former member of Booker’s staff.
“The plan at the time was to make the mayor look like Batman,” said the staffer, who asked not to be identified. “He had a poster in his office of himself as Superman but with the S replaced with a B.”
In another case Booker waited to take a freezing dog off the porch until the news media appeared. “He made the police keep the dog on the porch until Channel 7 got there. He made them leave the dog there until Channel 7 came back around to film him take it off the porch. Are you serious? This stuff is not a joke.”
Newark has seen a string of murders that make it one of the nation’s most violent cities. While Dock and Jackson were discussing the city’s crime wave, they both received text messages informing that a car jacking of one of Dock’s relatives had just taken place. It isn’t even 2 pm. (Related: 10 murders in 10 days in Newark!)
When asked if the country should pass assault weapons bans or stricter gun laws as Booker favors, both Dock and Jackson scoff. “Please, Puh-lease. Please. We have laws. We have gun laws already but they’re not being enforced.”
Dock accuses Booker of being cynical and points out that Booker is working with an entrepreneur named Jessica Mindich to make the Caliber Collection, a project to “melt down the guns and make bracelets out of them.” Mindich donated $40,000 to the Newark police department. “The bracelet had the serial number of the gun that was melted down,” explained Dock. “What mother would want the serial number of the gun that murdered her child, that took her child out of her, made into a bracelet for somebody’s arm to walk around? Who would want that?”
Jackson said Newark’s violence is not getting attention because Booker has an outsized influence on the media. “These people [Booker fans and celebrities] don’t know him. See they are going off of a myth of what the media has put out because when you control the media—and Cory controls the media via his relationship with Mayor Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch — he’s in the high echelon where you can control what’s going on.”
“We’ve had a murder every day this month,” Jackson said. “This man has said nothing. Now normally when there is murder or a shooting he’ll come out and glorify it as he did with the Mt. Vernon shootings.”
In the Mt. Vernon shootings, where three people were killed and one seriously injured, “Cory went on TV all across this country for probably four months with that story asking for donations for his charity Newark Now,” Jackson told The Daily Caller.
Jackson said that there was a $60,000 donation to give to those families. “The mayor had them take that check, give that check to Newark Now, and was not going to release that money to those families. It wasn’t until we called a press conference in front of his headquarters that the mayor came back to give that check to those families. There were twenty other homicides that weekend but the mayor said nothing.”
Newark Now is the mayor’s controversial charity. One of the mayor’s top lieutenants was jailed for corruption after promising city contractors that they would get their contracts approved if they gave to Newark Now.
“Every committee organization was forced to join Newark Now or not receive any money,” Jackson said.
Dock and Jackson also questioned the cronyism surrounding the Brick City Development Corporation, a city development organization that, according to Dock, “Booker is operating as if he owns it.” Dock also calls it the mayor’s “slush fund.”
“He took $80 million that was left over from our prudential project and he created this Brick City Development Corporation,” recalls Dock. “Companies come in here they take a loan and they open up a business and in less than two months they’re closed. For all of us who have ever taken a loan it has to be repaid. We don’t even know if the companies are repaying us. We don’t know if they took the loans at a certain interest rate. We know none of this. Even our own council people can’t tell us what’s going on with this money.”
“Why would you need to center everything around poverty in D.C. when you lived in Newark?” Dock said. “You created a model here in Newark and taken it to D.C. once you got all the glitches out.”
The Booker campaign did not return a request for comment. Cory Booker did not return a tweeted request for comment.