The investigation into the execution-style murder of three college students took a shocking turn Friday afternoon with a report that two of the victims may have been sexually assaulted before they were killed.
FOX 5 New York reported that a sexual attack may have occurred before college students Terrance Aeriel, Iofemi Hightower and Dashon Harvey were shot to death, and 19-year old Natasha Aerial was critically wounded.
Authorities charged a third suspect with three counts of felony murder in the killings Friday evening, according to an Associated Press report. The suspect was described as a 15-year-old boy by Essex County prosecutors during a late press conference.
The latest developments capped a day of high drama in Essex County Superior Court, where Peruvian national Jose Carranza, an illegal immigrant previously charged with raping a 5-year-old, pleaded not guilty to three counts of murder and one charge each of attempted murder and robbery.
Speaking through a Spanish interpreter, Carranza, 28, who surrendered Thursday to Mayor Cory A. Booker, said he understood the charges against him.
A second suspect, a 15-year-old boy, pleaded not guilty Thursday and remains in custody, Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Thomas McTigue said Friday. Authorities are seeking to have the boy tried as an adult.
Authorities said the hunt continued for others involved in the execution-style shootings, which have ratcheted up anger in New Jersey's largest city.
"We believe there are other suspects out there," Essex County Prosecutor Paula T. Dow said after the arraignment. She termed Carranza a "significant suspect" but declined to elaborate on his role in the shootings or comment on the prior charges he faces.
Dow would not answer questions about how Carranza was released on bail despite his illegal immigration status and charges earlier this year that he raped a 5-year-old, then threatened the child's parents.
Carranza was indicted by grand juries in New Jersey twice this year — in April on aggravated assault and weapons charges; and in July on 31 counts which included aggravated sexual assault of a child under 13 years old and endangering the welfare of a child he had a duty to supervise.
He was released on $50,000 bail on the assault case, which stemmed from a barroom fight, and $150,000 bail on the sexual assault indictment, which charged that the abuse began in 2003 when the girl was 4 years old and continued to this year.
The assistant prosecutor handling the murder case, Thomas McTigue, said, "Our focus hasn't been his immigration status."
Prosecutors said they did not immediately recall if Carranza's immigration status was known when he was granted bail on the two indictments, and whether they opposed granting bail.
It is rare for illegal immigrants to be granted bail, especially when charged with serious crimes, said Alan L. Zegas, a noted New Jersey defense lawyer.
"The level of risk of flight increases exponentially when a person is not a citizen of this country and has few, if any, roots here," Zegas said.
On Friday, Carranza, who lives in nearby Orange, could barely be heard in the courtroom, as Booker and relatives of the victims looked on. Carranza wore an orange prison jumpsuit and was handcuffed in front of his body. He stared at the judge and glanced at his lawyer.
State Superior Court Judge Michael R. Casale continued the $1 million bail and ordered that Carranza be held apart from other inmates at the Essex County Jail for his protection.
Carranza's lawyer, Felix Lopez Montalvo, declined to comment after the 11-minute hearing.
Authorities do not believe the four victims knew the assailants before encountering them Saturday night. Carranza and the teen are not related, Dow said, but she didn't elaborate on how they knew each other. The teen's name was not released because of his age.
The four victims, friends aged 18 to 20, were shot while visiting in a school yard not far from their homes Saturday night. Authorities have said robbery appeared to be the motive.
Terrance Aeriel, 18, Dashon Harvey, 20, and Iofemi Hightower, 20, were forced to kneel against a wall and were shot at close range. The fourth victim, 19-year-old Natasha Aeriel, Terrance Aeriel's sister, survived a wound to her head and is hospitalized.
Despite being under sedation for periods of time, Natasha Aeriel was able to help authorities identify the suspects, the mayor said.
Officials said fingerprints on a bottle found at the shooting scene and ballistics evidence tied Carranza to the crime. Carranza and the teen were charged with three counts of first degree murder, one count of attempted murder, and other charges.
Police Director Garry F. McCarthy declined say if authorities had determined who fired shots and what kind of weapon or weapons were used.
All four victims were planning to attend Delaware State University this fall. Instead, three will be buried Saturday.