NEWARK, N.J. – The last suspect to be arrested in connection to the execution-style killings of three college students pleaded not guilty on Tuesday during his first court appearance.
Standing with his hands shackled in front of him in a white collared shirt and light colored pants, Melvin Jovel spoke softly and answered several questions from the judge, including whether he has a green card, to which he answered no.
Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Thomas A. McTigue said Jovel's immigration status is "unclear."
Jovel said he had no other charges pending, was not on probation, and had been living with his parents and siblings in Elizabeth for the past five months.
In the gallery were about a dozen relatives and friends of the victims.
Jovel, 18, was one of six people arrested in the Aug. 4 shootings that killed Terrance Aeriel, 18; Dashon Harvey, 20, and Iofemi Hightower, 20. Aeriel's sister, 19-year-old Natasha, was shot in the back of the head, similar to the others, but survived and has helped police identify suspects, according to Mayor Cory A. Booker.
The shootings sparked outraged in New Jersey's largest city, where the murder rate has risen 50 percent since 1998. The high number of killings have prompted billboards in the downtown area that scream, "HELP WANTED: Stop the Killings in Newark Now!"
Besides Jovel, the five other suspects are Jose Carranza, a 28-year-old illegal immigrant from Peru; two 15-year-old unnamed boys; Rodolfo Godinez, a 24-year-old legal Nicaraguan immigrant and his 16-year-old half brother, Alexander Alfaro.
The suspects had known each other from when they lived in an apartment complex near the elementary school where the victims were slain. Essex County Prosecutor Paula T. Dow said Godinez and Alfaro are cousins with the first juvenile arrested in the case.
All have been charged with three counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, in addition to other charges.
Jovel, who was found early Sunday at the home of a relative in Elizabeth, is being held on $2 million bail. The New York Times reported Tuesday that he was an illegal immigrant from Hondouras.
Immigration officials did not return a message left Tuesday, and the Essex County sheriff's office had no immediate word on whether a federal immigration detainer had been placed on Jovel. A detainer means that if Jovel made bail, he would be turned over to federal authorities.
Jovel's arrest occurred about 24 hours after federal authorities arrested Godinez and Alfaro.
Godinez was arrested in an Oxon Hill, Md., rooming house and Alfaro was arrested shortly after in Woodbridge, Va. Authorities said leads developed from those arrests helped them find Jovel. Godinez on Monday said he would fight extradition to New Jersey.
Carranza and the two juvenile boys were already in custody.
Dow has said that authorities were still trying to understand the motivation for the killings. Meanwhile, the case raised questions on whether local authorities should examine a suspect's immigration status.
Carranza had been arrested twice previously on aggravated assault, weapons and child sexual assault charges. Authorities said they never checked his immigration status; he was out on bail at the time of the killings. Dow maintains that federal immigration officials do not want to be notified about an illegal immigrant until a person is sentenced.