Witness: Machete used in NJ schoolyard killings

April 29, 2010 2:47:53 PM PDT
She had been sexually assaulted, slashed with a machete and shot in the head, but as the young woman clung to life she could think only of one thing: Where are my friends?

"I remember an ambulance coming to pick me up and telling them I'm fine," the woman testified Thursday in the first trial stemming from the killings of three friends in a Newark schoolyard. "I kept moving the breathing thing out of the way. I kept telling them, 'There's some kids back there at the wall, go find them."'

Emergency responders found the three - Dashon Harvey and Iofemi Hightower, both 20, and 18-year-old Terrance "T.J." Aeriel - slumped against a wall behind the school. Prosecutors say they were led down a flight of stairs, lined up and each shot in the back of the head.

The woman's testimony Thursday represented her first public account of what happened near Mount Vernon School on a warm summer night in 2007. The woman, who was 19 at the time, is not being identified by The Associated Press because of sexual assault charges against some of the defendants.

Her identification of a picture of one of the suspects in the days after the slayings ultimately led to the capture of all six. The first defendant, Nicaraguan national Rodolfo Godinez, is on trial on murder, felony murder, robbery and weapons charges.

Anger over the slayings gave urgency to several anti-crime measures that have been credited with helping lower Newark's murder rate by nearly 40 percent from 2006 to 2008.

During nearly three hours of testimony before a packed courtroom, the woman, wearing glasses and a light brown leather jacket over a gray blouse, described in a calm, measured tone the events of Aug. 4, 2007. It began with four friends, all of whom lived in Newark and were students at Delaware State University, assembling early in the evening to drive around, hang out and listen to music.

Parts of her testimony drew quiet gasps from a group of about three dozen friends and family members, while other parts drew chuckles, such as when she described Harvey doing a dance on the playground to music playing from her car radio.

Under direct examination by Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Thomas McTigue, the woman testified that the four were set upon by six men and boys, two of whom were in the school playground when the friends arrived and four more who arrived about 40 minutes later.

The two who were already there were sitting on a small set of bleachers drinking beer and didn't seem threatening, she said. But that quickly changed when the others arrived.

As the friends sensed danger and tried to get in their car, they were ordered to lie on the ground.

"We all complied," she said. "I was scared. I had never been robbed before. I hoped they'd just steal my car and keep moving. ... I didn't think they'd start going crazy the way they did."

Murmurs rose from the courtroom gallery as she described being sexually assaulted by at least two of the assailants as she lay on the ground next to the car. She said she could see feet moving on the other side of the car as her friends were led away to another location.

Then, she said, she was jolted back to reality.

"Someone had their knee in my back and they pulled my hair up and they tried to chop my neck off with a machete," she said. "When I felt him on my back, I didn't know what he was doing. I guess the knife was dull. I was like, 'What are you doing? Don't do that. Get off me.' I had an adrenaline rush at that time. I heard two gunshots. I screamed, 'Don't do that!' Then somebody shot me."

Under cross-examination, the woman repeated the sequence of events. Her account of the shootings appeared to conflict with prosecutors' assertions that one gun, recovered months later, fired all four bullets. The woman was found up the stairs from the wall where the three victims were found.

She testified she underwent several lengthy surgeries, has lost hearing in her left ear and has no feeling on that side of her face.

While in the hospital, she said, she saw a photo of suspect Melvin Jovel on television and realized that was the man who had shot her. Jovel, the last suspect arrested, faces the same charges as Godinez.

The woman did not identify Godinez as being present at the schoolyard, though prosecutors have said he made that admission in a statement to police when he was arrested in Maryland two weeks after the killings.

The woman concluded her testimony Thursday. The trial is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.


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