NEWARK, N.J. – The four college-age friends who were hanging out in a schoolyard late on a Saturday night were the type of children who make hometowns proud, especially hard-luck hometowns like this one.
They had passions — notably for music, which had brought most of them together. And they had ambitions: One of them was already an ordained minister, another about to be promoted in her job at a nursing home.
By almost any measure they were success stories. Three of them were home from Delaware State University, and another was set to enroll this fall.
But over several horrifying minutes, in the schoolyard of an elementary school, the four friends — their names were Natasha and Terrance Aeriel, Iofemi Hightower and Dashon Harvey — became something else entirely.
Three of them — Harvey and Hightower, both 20, and Terrance Aeriel, 18 — were forced to kneel in front of a wall and shot to death at close range. Natasha, Terrance's sister, was shot in the head and survived.
The three who died became murder victims Nos. 57, 58 and 59 of this year in Newark, which, despite the efforts of a charismatic mayor who won office last year promising to hoist the city out of a cauldron of crime, cannot seem to shake the violence.
A 28-year-old man, Jose Carranza, and a teenage boy were charged Thursday in the slayings, while a third suspect — identified only as another 15-year-old boy — was charged Friday night. In turning himself in, Carranza found himself face to face with the mayor. They exchanged no words.
Authorities were searching for more suspects. On Saturday, they announced an arrest warrant for Rodolfo Godinez, 24, who also went by the name of Rodolfo Gomez. Newark police described Godinez as "a principal player" in the case.
As Natasha lay in a hospital recovering, helping investigators when her sedation allowed it, law enforcement groups and citizens assembled a $150,000 reward fund for information leading to arrests and indictments in the case. They also set up a fund to help the families of the victims. Others marched on city hall, calling for Mayor Cory A. Booker to step down.
Even in a place where violent crime has become ingrained in the rhythm of the city, worn into life here for decades, the slayings have shaken people deeply.
In death, Harvey, Hightower and Terrance Aeriel have become symbols of outrage and hopelessness in Newark because of the brutal, cold-blooded way they were cut down and because of the promise they had shown.
They had represented the best of what this city sees in itself, or at least hopes for itself. They had managed to survive.
The four were in many ways typical contemporary college kids. They loved listening to music, and all four played instruments. They were working jobs, earning money where they could. They had nicknames and MySpace profiles.
Two were siblings: Natasha Aeriel, 19, known as Tasha or "Moochie Baby," and Terrance, who went by T.J. Acquaintances described them as extremely close; the older sister had recently been teaching her younger brother to drive.
They lived with their mother in Irvington, a gritty town bordering Newark where shootings and assaults are common. Three people were gunned down last fall just a few blocks from the Aeriels' row house. Two more were shot dead nearby last month.
Still, they had a youthful sense of invulnerability, said Wayne Tucker, their stepfather.
"They had a carefree attitude," he said. "They'd just say, 'Let's hang out.' They didn't worry about anything." Me, I don't go out after night around here."
On her MySpace page, Tasha Aeriel posted dozens of pictures of herself and friends, flashing a beaming smile in many of them. In one, she wears outsized sunglasses and identifies herself as "JERZZZ GURLLL."
She listed as heroes the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. But it was her younger brother who took his Christian faith as a personal calling.
T.J. Aeriel, ordained a minister as a teenager, identified himself as a Pentecostal. Ken Bobien, a family friend, said he had preached a trial sermon at a church in nearby Hillside and blossomed at Higher Dimensions Worship Ministries in Bloomfield, west of the city.
A friend at Delaware State, Samantha Williams, 18, said T.J. spoke often of his faith and was not afraid of death.
She recalled the day she met him — he was singing in a hallway, in a voice she described as loud and deep. The week before he was killed, T.J. Aeriel had called Williams, who was going through a difficult time, to reassure her, she said.
Williams said the Aeriels were best friends, alike in many ways. They knew their hometown was dangerous, she said, but did not let it hold them back.
"They weren't scared," Williams said. "They were never fearful of getting shot or having their lives taken away. I never heard them say that."
Natasha, who was majoring in biology, played alto saxophone with Delaware State's marching band, the Approaching Storm. Her brother played baritone; he had attended band camp in 2006 but dropped out. He planned to rejoin the group this fall.
Sister and brother were close enough that Natasha had chauffeured T.J. to a prom at West Side High School. His date was Iofemi Hightower, who had known the Aeriels since elementary school. She planned to join them at Delaware State in the fall.
Hightower was known as Sheena to her friends and played snare drum. She worked two jobs — at a company that provides food services to Continental Airlines at Newark Liberty International Airport, and at a nursing home in the suburbs, where she helped out part-time with her mother and was to be promoted soon to full-time.
"She was one of the most beautiful ladies you'd ever want to meet," said John McClain, her great uncle and a police chaplain. "Very smart, very intelligent. She wanted to be something in life."
At Delaware State, the Aeriels had met the gregarious Dashon Harvey. He worked in the admissions office, and changed his major last fall from psychology to social work. He was a snappy dresser, given to neckties and vests, and described himself on his MySpace page as a sometime runway model.
He was clearly at ease around people, and in front of a camera. He used the video-sharing site YouTube to promote himself for Mr. Junior in a Delaware State homecoming court competition earlier this year.
In a brief video, he appears holding a card in which he points like Uncle Sam, with the inscription "I Want Your Vote."
"What's up, everybody," Harvey says in the video. "I'm Dashon. I'm running for Mr. Junior for the 2007-2008 school year. Make sure you vote April 24." He concludes by flashing a thumbs-up.
"He was a pretty cool guy, a down-to-earth guy," said Addison Wright, a senior and member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity who met Harvey this summer. "He had a lot of ideas and goals for the school that he wanted to accomplish."
He was also Mr. Junior. He won the homecoming court competition.
At home in Newark, the four were fond of hanging out at Mount Vernon School, on the city's western edge. On the afternoon of Aug. 4, Hightower called her mother, Shalga, and said she would spend the night at Natasha's house.
"She was hanging out with her three best friends that night," Shalga Hightower said. She said her daughter's last words to her were, "I love you."
Renee Tucker, Natasha and T.J. Aeriel's mother, said the last time she saw them was about 10:30 that night, 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," she said.
Mount Vernon School is in Ivy Hill, a middle-class neighborhood of two-family homes. Police patrol the area regularly and are a frequent presence in Ivy Hill Park, which sits across the street from the school and hosts jazz concerts in the summer.
What happened there on the night of Aug. 4 been pieced together in Associated Press interviews with authorities, neighbors and friends of the victims. Many details were provided to investigators by Natasha Aeriel from her hospital bed.
After picking up Harvey, the group arrived at the playground at about 11 p.m. The large swath of asphalt behind the elementary school is shielded from the street by the school on one side and by houses and a high-rise apartment building on the other three.
As the group assembled on a low set of aluminum bleachers near concrete stairs that lead down to a courtyard and alley behind the school, they noticed a few other people in the playground. Soon, others filtered in.
Authorities said they do not know whether the new arrivals had been contacted by those who were already there. But Hightower, Harvey and the Aeriels became fearful and began text-messaging each other, apparently not wanting to reveal their concern.
The contents of the messages have not been released, and authorities have not given precise details of the moments that immediately followed the text messaging, but the confrontation soon took a deadly turn.
Investigators believe Hightower tried to fend off one of her attackers, as she was later discovered with knife wounds on her arms.
A neighbor heard a woman's voice shouting, "Don't do that! Don't do that!"
Then came the gunshots.
Tasha Aeriel took a bullet in the head, police said, leaving her slumped next to the bleachers. The other three were then marched down the steps and made to kneel in front of a wall.
When first responders arrived, they found Tasha clinging to life. Down the steps and to the right they found Hightower, T.J. and Harvey on the ground in front of the wall, each shot through the back of the head.
The area where their bodies were found is illuminated by high-powered security lights and monitored by two cameras mounted on the outside of the building. Investigators have found the cameras had been tampered with but don't know whether that's connected with the killings.
"That's something we're pursuing, but there's nothing definitive yet," Essex County Prosecutor Paula T. Dow said last week.
By Monday, a memorial had been set up on the bleachers and the three slain friends' MySpace pages were filled with tributes. Many offered prayers for the victims, three more promising lives snuffed out on Newark's streets.
Five days after the shootings, Jose Carranza, considered the principal suspect, offered to surrender to Booker in the presence of a well-known Newark attorney. The two came face to face at police headquarters.
"I don't think words can describe the level of emotion I feel about what these individuals have allegedly done to these families and what they have done to our community," Booker said.
A second suspect, a 15-year-old boy, was being held pending a detention hearing. Authorities were seeking to have him tried as an adult. Neither his name nor the name of the other juvenile charged Friday night were released because of their age.
Carranza pleaded not guilty at an arraignment Friday. After the first two arrests, Shalga Hightower said she wanted "the right justice" for her daughter, Iofemi, and the other victims.
"They took three angels away from their families," she said, "but one angel survived, so the story could get told."
Less than a month before the shootings in the schoolyard, Newark had marked the 40th anniversary of its infamous 1967 riots, which left 26 people dead and much of the city in ruins.
In a sense, the aftershocks have come steadily ever since.
Even as crime has fallen in other big cities around the country — most visibly in New York City, just across the Hudson River — it has remained a vivid part of life in Newark, much of it tied to gangs and the drug trade.
A confidential consultant's report obtained by the Star-Ledger of Newark and published earlier this year harshly criticized the city police department for cronyism, inefficiency and outdated technology.
On the day of the anniversary, former Mayor Sharpe James, who presided over the city for 20 years, was indicted on charges he helped friends obtain city-owned land at favorable prices that they later sold for big profits. He has pleaded not guilty.
At a ceremony commemorating the riots, Booker spoke of showing the nation that Newark "is not a place of distress, that Newark is a place of hope and a place of life." And indeed there have been steps forward.
In 1997, the city celebrated the opening of a sparkling downtown arts center. An arena to host hockey's New Jersey Devils is set to open soon. And Booker, dynamic and just 38 years old, won the 2006 election to become mayor.
But Booker has been in office more than a year now, and the violence continues despite measures that have included putting more police on the street and instituting an anonymous tip line. The schoolyard slayings, plus an unrelated homicide soon afterward, brought the murder total for the year to 60, almost equal to the 63 that had taken place in the same period a year earlier.
Patience here has worn thin, or worn out.
Hounded by news cameras in the days after the shootings, the Aeriels' mother pleaded with Booker to "do something." Donna Jackson, president of a community organization called Take Back Our Streets, demanded that Booker and Police Director Garry F. McCarthy resign.
"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," Jackson said.
Even the frustration of law enforcement officials appeared to boil over. Armando Fontoura, the sheriff of Essex County whose career extends back to the 1967 riots, suggested to a local newspaper it was time to suspend some civil liberties and "start frisking everybody" to keep the city safe.
Witness intimidation and a "no-snitch" culture has been a major obstacle for law enforcement officials in Newark. McCarthy and others have suggested the brutality of the murders may serve as a tipping point for people in Newark who have endured years of violence but still tend to view police with suspicion.
"People are justifiably outraged, and I didn't always feel that in this city," he said.
Even McCarthy, a veteran police officer who in the 1990s helped develop initiatives credited with helping New York City's crime rate plummet, was taken aback by the viciousness of the killings.
"This is way off the beaten path," he said. "It's really troubling that there are human beings on God's earth who are capable of doing these kinds of things. You can't get your arms around it."