Newark triple murder may be anti-gay hate crime
Victims' friends 'driven to despair' over alleged police, media cover-up
By LOU CHIBBARO JR.
A close friend of three college students who were shot to death execution style in a Newark, N.J., schoolyard in August said the students planned to join him in attending a black Gay Pride event in Queens, N.Y., the day following their deaths.
News of the students’ plans to attend the Aug. 5 event at New York City’s Riis Park Beach surfaced after a New Jersey gay group released a letter last week calling on Newark authorities to investigate the murders as possible anti-gay hate crimes.
The murder of the three students and the shooting of a fourth student, who is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head, shocked Newark’s citizens and became the subject of international news coverage.
“[W]e want to know why, although the murders were committed more than a month ago, the fact of the sexual orientation of the youth has never been a part of the media or public discourse of the murders,” said Newark gay activist James Credle in a letter to Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
“This happened despite the fact that several sources, including friends, boyfriends/lovers of at least one of the victims and perhaps one of the parents knew that one or more of the murdered students were gay,” Credle wrote.
He sent the letter on behalf of Newark’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer and Two-Spirited Concerns Group. The group released the letter to the press. On the day the group released the letter, Credle and other activists met with members of the mayor’s office and several members of Newark City Council, including lesbian Council member Dana Rone, to urge city officials not to ignore a possible anti-gay hate crime angle to the murders.
Rone released a statement calling for “further investigation” to bring “clarity as to the motives” of the assailants in the crime.
“I urge the Essex County prosecutor’s office to explore these concerns brought forth by the gay and lesbian communities in Newark,” she said in her statement.
“Several young people, friends and classmates of [victims] Terrance Aeriel, Dashon Harvey, Iofemi Hightower and Natasha Aeriel have come forward,” Credle said in his letter. “In their fear and grief, they are further driven to despair by the refusal of the city administration, the police and the media to acknowledge the fact that some of the deceased were members and friends
of their community.”
Credle called on police and the Essex County, N.J., prosecutor’s office to investigate the case as a possible hate crime, based on the victims’ sexual orientation or race.
Police said Terrance Aeriel, 18, Dashon Harvey, 20, and Iofemi Hightower, 20, were lined up against a wall on the grounds of Mount Vernon Elementary School and shot point blank in the head. Authorities said Natasha Aeriel, Terrance’s sister, was also shot in the head and left for dead.
Aeriel survived the shooting, remained conscious on the night of the incident, and gave police a full account of what she saw, according to a report in the Newark Star-Ledger. After undergoing several surgical procedures, she is said to be recuperating.
Within a month of the incident, police filed murder and robbery charges against six males in connection with the case. Three of the six are juveniles.
Police and the mayor’s office continue to suggest the motive for the murders was robbery, pointing to a statement by Natasha Aeriel that one or more of the six accused assailants appeared to have announced a robbery.
However, Paul Loriquet, spokesperson for the Essex County, N.J., prosecutor’s office, said authorities are still investigating the case and his office has not disclosed an officially determined motive for the murders.
“We know robbery was a factor because they were all charged with robbery,” Loriquet said. “But was that the motive? That is still under investigation.”
Credle and other activists have said police and city officials appear to be ignoring evidence suggesting that the killings were hate crimes related to the victims’ actual or perceived sexual orientation. Credle told the Blade that he and others in the gay community have learned from friends and relatives of the victims that little of value was taken from the victims. He said friends claim all of their wallets were left at the scene.
Credle and others have questioned why the attackers, wielding guns, would have killed the victims if robbery alone was the motive.
Police have said all the victims were upstanding citizens who never had any run-ins with the law. Three were students at Delaware State University and one, Hightower, had planned to begin classes there this fall.
The friend of the student who spoke with the Blade, a 20-year-old Newark resident, said at least one of the victims was openly gay and all the others had gay friends and were known to hang out in “gay circles” at their high schools before going on to college.
The friend declined to disclose his name, saying he is concerned about possible negative consequences of speaking out openly about the sexual orientation of the deceased students.
He was put in touch with the Blade by Newark gay and AIDS activist Alex Williams, who manages a Newark drop-in center for young gay men sponsored by the Northern Jersey Community Research Initiative. The Initiative receives city, state and federal funding to carry out HIV-prevention programs, Williams said.
The friend of the murder victims, who said he is also gay, is a client at the Initiative, Williams and the student said.
He told the Blade that one of the victims, Terrance “TJ” Aeriel, 18, and one of the youths arrested in the case, Melvin Jovel, 18, each attended Newark’s West Side High School. He said it’s possible Jovel, who was a member of the school’s soccer team, recognized Aeriel during the fateful encounter in the Mount Vernon schoolyard on the night of the murders.
“A couple of other friends were talking and they think he had classes with TJ,” the friend said of Jovel. He said friends think the two might have been in the same Spanish class.
In addition to Jovel, who is a resident of Elizabeth, N.J., the others arrested and charged in the murders were Jose Carranza, 28, of Orange, N.J., Rodolfo Godinbez, 24, who was arrested in Prince George’s County, Md., and Alexander Alfaro, 16, who was arrested in Woodbridge, Va. Two others charged in the case, both 15, were not identified.
All four victims were close friends. The four were hanging out at the schoolyard on the night of the murders, as they often did, authorities said, because it was known as a gathering place for young people.
Police have said Natasha Aeriel told investigators that two of the six suspects were present on the school grounds when the four students arrived. Police said the other suspects arrived a short time later, a development that prompted the students to become worried and decide to leave. It was at that time that the suspects attacked the students, police said.
But police have declined to provide further details, other than to say that at least one of the suspects separated Natasha Aeriel from the others and shot her in the head, leaving her for dead.
The Newark Star-Ledger reported police sources as saying the other three students were led down some steps to a wall beneath a set of bleachers.
Authorities have said each of the three suspects has been linked to a local Newark gang, but they could not determine whether the murders were gang related.