The Homicide Task Force is the oldest specialized unit in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. The Task Force was created to ensure that there exists close cooperation between the local police departments and the Prosecutor’s Office whenever a homicide occurs within Essex County. The Homicide Task Force’s role is to ensure that evidence for homicide cases is developed in a legal and professional manner. The goal is to develop the best case possible for trial.
The Homicide Task Force is also responsible to investigate and prosecute vehicular homicide incidents, i.e. fatal vehicle collisions or other related incidents where criminal liability is implicated. Also, it pursues matters that are designated as Special Investigations. There are times when a death occurs under circumstances that do not immediately indicate that a homicide was committed, but nonetheless require an investigation to determine if someone was legally responsible for the death. Special Investigations may also include matters involving: ATTEMPTED MURDER; WITNESS TAMPERING; OFFICIAL MISCONDUCT; ORGANIZED CRIME ACTIVITY; STREET GANG ACTIVITY; and MISSING PERSONS.
Since the Homicide Task Force is responsible for investigating homicides in Essex County in conjunction with the local police departments, an established protocol sets forth the procedures for local police agencies to notify the Prosecutor’s Office that a homicide has occurred.
• Once notified that a homicide has occurred, Detectives from the Crime Scene Unit and Homicide Task Force respond to the scene and work with the local police. They participates in every aspect of the investigation, including examination of the scene, preservation of evidence, questioning of witnesses and suspects, and meeting with the Medical Examiner.
• The on-call Supervisor provides any necessary support, supervision or direction as may be required in the investigation.
• The on-call Assistant Prosecutor is responsible for providing such legal advice and assistance that may be necessary to further the investigation. This includes assisting the Detectives in obtaining search warrants, detention orders and arrest warrants. Once an arrest occurs, the Assistant Prosecutor is responsible with the Detective for preparing the matter for Grand Jury presentation.
• The Secretarial / Clerical / Legal Intern staff assists the legal and investigative staff in every aspect of the investigations and trials.
As an investigation proceeds, case detectives in the Unit meet with an Assistant Prosecutor to determine if probable cause exists to bring criminal charges. The Assistant Prosecutor and case detective then prepare the case for presentation to a Grand Jury. In matters in which a juvenile is charged with a homicide offense, the Unit Assistant Prosecutor will prosecute the matter in Family Court or, in appropriate cases, seek to have the juvenile prosecuted as an adult. In matters involving motor vehicle fatalities, Unit detectives specially trained in crash investigations and accident reconstruction, will investigate the incident and work with an Assistant Prosecutor to determine if the collision was the result of criminal conduct.
In addition to criminal homicides, the Homicide Task Force is primarily responsible for investigating all police shootings that occur within Essex County. Generally, if the shooting is fatal, an Assistant Prosecutor in the Homicide Task Force will ultimately present the matter to the Grand Jury consistent with the directives of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice. Non-fatal police shootings are ultimately referred to the ECPO Professional Standards Bureau. The Homicide Task Force also responds to all incidents when a police officer is shot. The Squad also conducts Special and/or Confidential Investigations as may be assigned. Finally, the Task Force acts as a clearinghouse for the Kroll review cases that are homicide related, as well as Post Conviction Relief cases regarding homicide convictions.
The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office continues to host the Homicide/Major Crimes Task Force. Detectives from the Newark, East Orange, Irvington and Orange police departments; the Essex County Sheriff, and the New Jersey State Police are assigned to the Homicide Unit pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding, and conduct investigations in the county. All homicides, death investigations and police shootings throughout the county are investigated by the Homicide/Major Crimes Task Force. Having municipal detectives co-located in the Homicide Unit allows for continuity of investigations and eliminates duplicative efforts by county and local officers.
In 2016, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office continued its leadership role in the Essex County Homicide / Major Crimes Task Force. Detectives from the Newark, East Orange and Irvington police departments, the Essex County Sheriff, and the New Jersey State Police are assigned to the Homicide Unit pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding, and conduct investigations throughout the county. All homicides, death investigations and police shootings throughout the county are investigated by the Homicide/Major Crimes Task Force. Having municipal detectives co-located in the Homicide Unit allows for continuity of investigations and eliminates duplicative efforts by county and local officers.
In 2016, the Homicide Unit investigated 127 homicides. Additionally, there were 61 special investigations that the Task Force oversaw. The 127 homicides in 2016 represent an 11% reduction from the 143 homicides that occurred in 2015. Assistant Prosecutors and detectives assigned to the Unit prepared, reviewed and executed more than 300 search warrants and over 200 communications data warrants.
While many cases have been successfully handled by the Assistant Prosecutors assigned to the Unit, certain cases stand out during the 2016 calendar year:
State v. Jerrell Alexander – On November 18, 2014, Jerrell Alexander and an unknown co-conspirator shot and killed Mencea Ryner on Lincoln Place in Irvington. On December 17, 2014, two of the witnesses to Ryner’s murder were walking in Irvington and were shot at by both the defendant and Jassiem Harper.
On October 7, 2016, after a jury trial before Judge Gizzo, a jury found Alexander guilty of the murder of Mencea Ryner, conspiracy to commit murder, unlawful possession of a weapon, and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. On December 5, 2016, Alexander was sentenced by Judge Gizzo to 48 years in New Jersey State Prison. Harper is awaiting trial.
Cockfighting Murder – On June 29, 2014, Maria Cruz was shot in the face and died at an illegal cockfight at 127 3rd Avenue in Newark during a botched robbery. Through the tireless efforts of the Essex County Homicide Unit, particularly Sgt. Carlos Olmo, seven people were charged in connection with the fatal shooting:
• Jorge Munoz, the host of the cockfight, pled guilty on January 14, 2016, to fourth-degree animal cruelty and was placed on probation.
• Juan Soto pled guilty on March 16, 2016, to conspiring to rob the cockfight and was sentenced to six years in New Jersey State Prison.
• Kelvin Diaz pled guilty on October 28, 2016, to aggravated manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 years in New Jersey State Prison.
• Cory Winston pled guilty on April 18, 2016, to aggravated manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in New Jersey State Prison.
• Jamall Harrell pled guilty on April 25, 2016, to aggravated manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in New Jersey State Prison.
• Luis Ortiz, a co-conspirator, is presently awaiting trial.
• Samir Thomas, the alleged shooter, is presently in North Carolina and is awaiting trial there.
State v. Johnny Jones – Defendant Johnny Jones murdered Denise Ramsey, a go-go dancer from Irvington, on December 3, 2012, and dumped her body in a vacant field in East Orange before going on the run. Her badly-decomposed body was discovered six weeks later. DNA recovered from under her fingernails was a partial match to the defendant. The defendant remained on the run until December 2015 when he was apprehended in Miami, Florida. In December 2016, the State commenced a six-week trial against this defendant. The defendant was convicted of murder and weapons offenses. He has been sentenced to 60 years in New Jersey State Prison.
State v. Shawn Custis – In 2013, Shawn Custis, a career criminal committed a violent home invasion robbery at a residence in Millburn. Defendant was arrested after an intense investigation by the Prosecutor’s Homicide Unit. In May 2016, defendant was convicted after a jury trial. He was sentenced to life in prison.
State v. Nicholas Comasco – In April 2016, Nicholas Comasco, 27, of Bloomfield, pled guilty before Judge Leath to vehicular homicide in connection with the death of 16-year-old Christina Lembo, also of Bloomfield. Under the terms of the plea agreement, Comasco was sentenced to three years in New Jersey State Prison. Comasco admitted to drinking beer and driving at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour just before he struck the vehicle carrying Lembo, who was a passenger in the back seat. In addition to killing Lembo, the front seat passenger, a 17-year-old male, sustained a broken back in the crash.
Three Enter Guilty Pleas – In May 2016, Ali Bass, Arsenio Payton and Tyree Miller entered guilty pleas before Judge Cifelli in connection with the 2009 fatal shooting of Quawan Robinson, 31, of Newark. Robinson, was shot at seven times on December 11, 2009, while sitting in a car on Johnson Avenue in Newark.
The incident began with a robbery. Bass and the others robbed a 15-year-old who was selling drugs for Robinson. They held the teen at gunpoint and ordered him to call Robinson and lure him to the scene. When Robinson arrived, Payton opened fire, fatally injuring Robinson.
The parties reached a plea agreement following seven weeks of jury selection. Payton, 27, of Newark, admitted being the shooter. Bass, 33, also of Newark, admitted ordering the shooting of Robinson. Bass and Payton pled guilty to aggravated manslaughter, conspiracy, robbery, and weapons offenses. Miller, 33, of Orange, pled guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery, robbery and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose.
Bass was sentenced to 15 years in New Jersey State Prison; Payton was sentenced to 14 years; and Miller was sentenced to 9 years. All three defendants must serve 85 percent of their respective sentences before they will be eligible for parole. All three were convicted felons at the time of the crime. Consequently, each also pled guilty to being a convicted felon in possession of an illegal weapon. Each was sentenced to five years on that charge.
State v. Alchane Mayes – In September 2016, Alchane Mayes, 22, was sentenced to 45 years in New Jersey State Prison by Judge Ravin for the murder of taxicab driver and father Rochenel Guerrier, 49, of Irvington. On July 7, 2012 Mayes and Jeshon Johnson, now 23, robbed two people. They then called a cab, driven by Guerrier, and opened fire on the driver as they got out of the vehicle. Guerrier, a Haitian immigrant who worked for Family Cab in Newark, was shot twice from two different guns. The father of five died several hours later at University Hospital.
Johnson pled guilty to the robbery and aggravated manslaughter in exchange for a 28-year sentence. Mayes went to trial. The jury convicted him of the three robberies but found him not guilty of murder and felony murder.
Judge Ravin sentenced Mayes to 45 years. The State had recommended 70 years. The defense recommended 10 years. Mayes must serve 34 years before he is eligible for parole.
State v. Charles Puryear – In March 2016, Charles Puryear, 30, of Newark, entered a guilty plea before the Judge Ravin for killing Jackie Pena, 21, of East Orange, on November 25, 2011. Puryear pled guilty to one count of aggravated manslaughter and one count of unlawful possession of a handgun. Puryear also admitted committing two other robberies of juveniles on November 26, 2011, in Newark. Under the terms of the plea agreement, the defendant was sentenced to 25 years in New Jersey State Prison pursuant to the No Early Release Act. Puryear admitted approaching the group of men, pulling a handgun and fatally shooting Pena as he stood outside with several other men on Smith Street in Newark.
State v. Amber Brooks – On February 1, 2016, a jury convicted Amber Brooks, 21, of Newark, of reckless manslaughter for fatally shooting Michael Brown, 49, also of Newark. Brown was an innocent bystander who was shot when Brooks was aiming at someone else. Brooks shot Brown on Super Bowl Sunday 2013, as he walked along Elizabeth Avenue in Newark at approximately 8:15 p.m. The shooting occurred during an argument between Brooks and another woman. That woman accused Brooks of breaking into her apartment. Brown was simply walking in the area when he was struck by the stray bullet.
Following a three-week trial before Judge Wright, the jury convicted of Brooks of reckless manslaughter, unlawful possession of a weapon and aggravated assault by pointing a firearm. She was sentenced to 10.5 years in New Jersey State Prison.