Police: Fire covered up murder; 4 dead

September 9, 2008 10:14:56 AM PDT
Authorities who rushed to a burning home Monday morning found three people dead and a fourth fatally wounded, and said the fire apparently was set to cover up a shooting. Two of the victims were teens who were shot in the head.

"It's a horrific crime scene," Essex County Prosecutor Paula Dow said. "We have multiple victims and a fire that looks like a cover-up."

Dow said 18-year-old Zakiyyah Jones was shot in the head; she died Monday afternoon at University Hospital in Newark.

At least one of the three people whose bodies were found in the first-floor apartment had also been shot, authorities said. She was identified as Latrisha Fields-Carruthers, 13. The other two victims were severely burned and were not immediately identified. It was not clear if they, too, had been shot, Dow said.

At least two other people, including a 14-month-old boy, were there when the violence began but managed to get out, Dow said.

Three people living on the second floor and a man living on the third floor escaped the fire uninjured.

Neighbors said they heard an argument and gunshots before the fire broke out. Authorities said they believe an unidentified person or persons had gone to the apartment and argued with some of the victims before opening fire.

Noel Harris, the third-floor tenant, said he heard screams shortly after 7:30 a.m. and what sounded "like someone beating a child." Soon, his own apartment was engulfed in smoke.

"It got to the point where I couldn't breathe," he said. "I thought I was going to have to jump." He screamed for help out the front window and eventually got down on a ladder after firetrucks arrived.

Harris, 44, said he moved to the building only recently and didn't know the other residents.

"It's tragic," he said as he stood in the street in his stocking feet. "I'm the fortunate one; I made it out."

The killings happened in a neighborhood that borders Newark and is less than a mile from where three college-bound friends were slain execution-style in a school playground last year.

Irvington Police Chief Michael Chase said the neighborhood had been the focus of an increased police presence recently to combat street crime, but said Monday's violence did not appear to be related to the criminal activity targeted by that effort.

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