Arrest in Newark Alters Story of Year-Old Quadruple Murder
By DAMIEN CAVE and JOHN HOLL
Published: December 8, 2005
When three men and a woman were found dead last year in a weed-strewn lot, side by side and face down with gunshot wounds to the head, Newark officials tried to calm what was then a jittery city by declaring that the victims were career criminals who had it coming.
"These people led a lifestyle of violence," Mayor Sharpe James insisted a week after the slayings, which occurred in the early morning hours of Nov. 26, 2004. "They put themselves at risk."
But more than a year after the crime, an arrest was made, and the account of what happened during that Thanksgiving holiday is starkly different: The police now say that the woman was a witness to a murder, and she and her three friends were killed to prevent her from testifying against two members of the Bloods gang.
The Newark police said yesterday that they had arrested Michael Melvin, 25, of Newark, and charged him with executing the four friends to keep Carmen Estronza, 34, a mother of two, from testifying about the murder she witnessed two months before she was killed. And, prosecutors said, it seems to have helped: As a result of Ms. Estronza's death, the case against one of the Bloods, Louis Bey, 19, was dismissed in April for lack of evidence.
Prosecutors declined yesterday to explain the relationship between Mr. Melvin and Mr. Bey, 19, or Shareef Thomas, 24, the second gang member whose murder trial will start in January. They said, however, that witness intimidation, and even murder, has increasingly become a tool of the city's most violent criminals.
"This case bears testament, I believe, to what is wrong with criminal justice here in New Jersey's most congested urban setting," said Paula Dow, the Essex County prosecutor. "Too many young men resort to violence using readily available firearms, none of which are manufactured here in New Jersey. Too many execution-style murders are used to silence witnesses and to intimidate others into silence. This rogue street type of retaliation and form of intimidation has got to stop."
The murders occurred on Ludlow Street, in a neighborhood near Newark Liberty International Airport, which some residents call Fort Apache because it has long been marred by crime and poverty. It was the first quadruple homicide in Newark in more than two decades. Police said yesterday that more than a dozen investigators pursued several leads over the past few months, traveling as far as Florida and Puerto Rico to conduct interviews.
From early on, they said that retaliation appeared to be the motive. Police Director Anthony F. Ambrose said last year that Ms. Estronza and the other victims - Camilo Reyes, Kyhron Ward and his brother Jermeil Ward - might have been killed because they returned to a local bar, La Villa Utuadeña, after robbing it a month earlier. He cited their criminal records, which included robbing their neighbors.
Yesterday, they said that the retaliation was not motivated by any crime committed by Ms. Estronza and her friends but rather by her willingness to help send a murderer to jail.
The police said that Ms. Estronza appears to have been the intended target and that the three men were victims of circumstance, killed only because they were with her when she left the bar at about 2:30 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 26, 2004. Mayor James did not comment on his earlier characterization of the crime, only offering praise to the police for making an arrest.
The police connected Mr. Melvin with the crime only after the murder on Nov. 8 of Lamar McMillan, whom police yesterday described as Mr. Melvin's accomplice in the four killings. In a statement, the police said that Mr. Melvin "brazenly remained at the scene of the Lamar McMillan homicide and pretended to be a witness to the incident." After the police brought him in for questioning, several witnesses identified him as Mr. McMillan's killer, the police said. Mr. Melvin was charged with five counts of murder and several weapons offenses.
"The pieces of the puzzle came into place on Nov. 8 when Mr. Melvin perpetrated a homicide at the Seth Boyden Housing development, killing Mr. Lemar McMillan," said Mr. Ambrose at a news conference. "At this time investigators are trying to ascertain any linkage between Mr. McMillan and Mr. Melvin in the murder at 40 Ludlow Street."
Mr. Melvin has not yet been arraigned for Mr. McMillan's killing, said Charlotte Smith, a spokeswoman in the prosecutor's office. Yesterday, Mr. Melvin pleaded not guilty to the November 2004 killings and was held on $2 million bail.
Residents of the area where the murders occurred said yesterday that Mr. Melvin's arrest was both a welcome surprise and a stark reminder of troubles that still remain.
The Rev. Raul Comesanas, the pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas, the church that abuts the lot where the four bodies were found, said that additional police officers appeared in the neighborhood at first, including a few officers on horseback, but that the neighborhood soon devolved once again into occasional outbursts of gunshots and violence. He said that despite a year of effort, the city had still not sold his church the lot where the bodies were found, thwarting his plans to make it a playground.
The quadruple homicide, he said, has also led many families to flee the neighborhood.
"The killing has scared people away, especially people with children," he said. "They don't want to live here because it's still so dangerous."
Warren Ross, the owner of an Aamco transmission repair shop where Mr. Reyes had worked, said that he doubted the arrest would do much to rejuvenate the area.