NEWARK, N.J. – Security cameras overlooking an elementary school courtyard where three college students were lined up and fatally shot Saturday night may have been tampered with in the 24 hours before the killings, a city official said.
Two cameras mounted high on the side of the Mount Vernon School were found hanging by their wires by technicians, according to Willie Freeman, director of security for the Newark school district.
Freeman said a school security guard who made a routine check of the building Friday night did not report anything wrong with the cameras.
The cameras are at least 12 feet above the ground, but one is within closer reach of the stairs that lead down to the wall where the victims were killed.
"They're high up," Freeman said. "If someone threw a bat or something like that, they could come off the bracket they sit on."
Freeman added that technicians have protected security cameras that have been vandalized at other schools by building metal cages around them. The cameras at the Mount Vernon School were not protected by cages, indicating there had not been prior incidents of vandalism, he said.
At a news conference Wednesday, Mayor Cory A. Booker declined to confirm reports that a suspect had been identified. However, earlier in the day, a spokeswoman for Booker said police were close to identifying at least one suspect in the execution-style slayings. The spokeswoman, Lupe Todd, would not say when an announcement might come or how the possible break in the case was made.
"We are determined to find all those responsible for these heinous acts," Booker said. "We have encouraging leads on this case."
Booker praised the response to the tragedy by Newark residents, who along with local law enforcement organizations have donated $150,000 toward supporting the victims' families and offering a reward for information leading to an arrest and indictment in the case.
Meanwhile, The Star-Ledger of Newark reported on its Web site Wednesday that 19-year-old Natasha Aeriel, who survived the attack, identified a suspect from a photo array. Police also were able to lift a fingerprint from a beer bottle found at the scene, the newspaper reported, citing anonymous law-enforcement sources close to the investigation.
The Essex County Prosecutor's office also declined to comment on the report.
Newark has become accustomed to violence but the killings Saturday night touched a nerve.
Four friends, ages 18 to 20, were shot while hanging out in a school yard.
Three of them — Terrance Aeriel, 18, Dashon Harvey, 20; and Iofemi Hightower, 20 — were forced to kneel against a wall and were shot at close range. Natasha Aeriel, Terrance Aerial's sister, was shot in the head but survived. Despite being under sedation for periods, she was able to give authorities an account of the shootings.
Authorities have said robbery appeared to be the motive.
All four victims were planning to attend Delaware State University this fall.
The three victims will be buried Saturday in separate services.
The four killings brought the number of homicides in the city this year to 60, compared with 63 for the same time last year, police said. But while authorities emphasized their efforts to crack down on street violence, incensed neighborhood activists were quick to blame Newark Mayor Cory Booker for falling short of successfully doing so.