Security cameras failed to record the execution-style slayings of three college students in a schoolyard, so investigators are pleading for someone step up with clues to the vicious crime.
“I don’t believe there were a lot of witnesses, but people who do these things tend to talk,” said Essex County prosecutor Paula Dow. “I don’t believe they kept silent, and we’re hoping anyone with any information, however tangential, will come forward.”
Investigators have one key witness, the sole survivor of the attack, who was shot in the head and left about 30 feet from her brother and two friends. The three were forced to kneel against a wall behind an elementary school and shot at close range Saturday night.
Natasha Aeriel, 19, was “doing well and in good condition,” according to family friend Kenny Bobien. “She is aware of everything, and aware of what happened to her brother and her friends.”
The cameras mounted on the perimeter of the school “were pointing to an area where we would have interest, but they weren’t in proper working condition,” said Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office.
Dow and Newark Police Director Garry F. McCarthy both toured the schoolyard and made a plea for the public’s help.
'They were good kids'
Several law enforcement groups offered a reward of more than $50,000, while Dow said the nationally syndicated TV show “America’s Most Wanted” will air the story on Saturday.
Authorities were analyzing graffiti found on the playground, not far from the killings, as a possible sign that gang members or aspiring gang members were involved.
The four victims lived in Newark and were to attend Delaware State University this fall. None had criminal records, according to authorities, and relatives and neighbors said they were not involved in drinking, drugs or gangs. They were in the schoolyard listening to music.
“They were good kids,” Dow said.
Killed were Aeriel’s brother, Terrance Aeriel, 18, and college friend Dashon Harvey, 20; and Iofemi Hightower, 20, who recently enrolled at the university.
Hightower and the Aeriels had been friends since elementary school and played in the marching band at West Side High School. Terrance Aeriel, known as T.J., took Hightower to the school prom in 2006, chauffeured by his sister. He also worked with kids at a teen center in Newark’s Vailsburg section.
At Delaware State they met Harvey, also a musician, and struck up a friendship. When in Newark, they liked to go to the elementary school, which sits in a middle-class neighborhood less than a mile from the campus of Seton Hall University, to hang out and listen to music.
Robbery was suspected as the motive in the attack, and knife wounds discovered on Hightower’s body have led authorities to believe there was a struggle before she was shot.
'People are scared'
Wayne Tucker, the Aeriels’ stepfather, described the friends as responsible kids who were aware of the dangers of the streets but didn’t let them dictate their lives.
“They had carefree attitudes,” he said. “They’d say, ’Let’s go and hang out.’ They didn’t worry about anything. Me? I don’t go out after dark around here.”
On Tuesday, a makeshift memorial was set up on the school bleachers.
“People are scared,” said one man whose house borders the playground and who declined to give his name. “Nothing like this goes on around here. I want them caught. This could have happened to anybody.”