NEWARK, N.J. – They were on the cusp of adulthood: four friends who made music together and were preparing to return to the college where their friendship had blossomed.
An apparent robbery attempt by several assailants left three of them dead, the latest victims in this city where the murder rate has risen 50 percent since 1998.
Police said the three were forced to kneel against a wall and shot at close range; a fourth was wounded.
The killings bring Newark's murder total for the year to 60, and put pressure on Mayor Cory A. Booker, who campaigned last year on a promise of reducing crime.
"He doesn't deserve another day, another second, while our children are at stake," Donna Jackson, president of the community-based Take Back Our Streets organization, said Monday at a news conference in front of City Hall. "Anyone who has children in the city is in panic mode. It takes something like this for people to open up their eyes and understand that not every person killed in Newark is a drug dealer."
At a news conference, Booker said it was a time for unity and "not a time to play politics and divide our city."
Killed were Terrance Aeriel, 18, Iofemi Hightower, 20, and Dashon Harvey, 20. Aeriel's 19-year-old sister, Natasha, was in fair condition Monday at Newark's University Hospital after being shot in the head, police said; the hospital declined to release her condition after that, citing patient privacy laws. She was found about 30 feet from her friends, slumped near some bleachers.
Authorities were assembling details of the crime from witnesses including Natasha Aeriel, but had not made any arrests by late Monday night.
The four 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 good kids," Essex County Prosecutor Paula Dow said.
Several law enforcement groups offered a reward of more than $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those involved, Booker said.
"I'm very angry because they were good kids with bright futures," Hightower's mother, Shalga, said Monday. "They didn't deserve it. My daughter was a very sweet, loving young lady who would help anybody in need."
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.
Harvey's page on MySpace.com was filled with messages from friends on Monday. He described himself as a sometime runway model whose heroes were Superman and Dr. Martin Luther King "and last but not least, My DAD." He planned to graduate from Delaware State in 2009 with a degree in psychology.
His peers elected him the school's Mr. Junior, part of DSU's homecoming court.
Harvey's father, James, a former city water department employee, focused blame Monday on the parents of the assailants.
"If you raised your kids better, this would not happen," he said.
Natasha Aeriel was a junior majoring in biology who played alto saxophone in the school's marching band, according to university spokesman Carlos Holmes.
Terrence Aeriel was studying business management and wasn't enrolled last spring, but had re-enrolled for the fall. He played baritone sax and attended Delaware State's band camp last summer.
Hightower worked two jobs and enrolled at the school recently. One of her jobs was at Brighton Gardens, an assisted living center in nearby West Orange, where her mother also worked.
On the afternoon of the killings, Iofemi told her mother she planned to spend the night at Natasha Aeriel's house near the school.
"The last time I heard her voice was Saturday night," Hightower said between sobs. "She called me from work to let me know Natasha was going to pick her up and she was going to spend the night. She told me she loved me."
The Aeriels' mother, Renee Tucker, said the last time she saw them was around 10:30 p.m. Saturday, when they told her they were going around the corner to get something to eat.
"They said they were going to come right back to the house," Tucker said.