Middle School Principal Maria Iozzi, left, and teachers Wendy Turnock and Mary Wynan speak with former Superintendent Laura Morana, back to camera, following the prosecutor’s announcement Thursday. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
Three Asbury Park men have been indicted in the “heinous” murder of Jonelle Melton, a Red Bank Middle School teacher they killed after breaking into her Neptune apartment six years ago, Acting Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni said Thursday.
The three, who were already in custody on unrelated charges when they were indicted Wednesday, are alleged to have broken into Melton’s apartment by mistake after planning to burglarize another one in the Brighton Arms apartment complex, Gramiccioni said at a press conference in Freehold Thursday morning.
The news brought relief to school administrators and teachers who knew Melton.
A poster displayed at the middle school during a February, 2010 memorial event for murdered teacher Jonelle Melton. Below, Acting Prosecutor Chris Gramiccio with Gwen Cruze, Jonelle Melton’s mother. (Photo above by Dustin Racioppi; below by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
“I’m feeling hopeful in terms of justice for Jonelle,” said middle school climate and culture specialist Mary Wyman, who had known 33-year-old Melton for seven years at the time of her death. The seventh-grade social studies teacher and cheerleading coach was “funny, energetic, caring, charismatic and loving,” a tearful Wyman told redbankgreen.
Wyman and others also expressed relief for Michael Melton, the vitim’s estranged husband, who worked and still works at the middle school as a special ed teacher.
Charged with felony murder are James Fair, 27; Ebenezer Byrd, 35; and Gregory Jean-Baptiste, 26. They also face robbery, conspiracy and weapons charges in the case, Gramiccioni said.
He called the case one of “mistaken identity” in which the the perpetrators are alleged to have targeted another apartment for burglary, “but chose the wrong one,” forcibly entering Melton’s unit by mistake.
Authorities said Michael Melton found Jonelle beaten to death inside her West Sylvania Avenue apartment on September 14, 2009 after futile attempts by friends, family members and colleagues to reach her when she didn’t show up for work.
Gramiccioni said that “more than one weapon” was used in the killing, but he declined to offer details. He also declined to say why the case had taken so long to crack and what broke it open, adding that details would be aired in court at trial.
From a press release issued by Gramiccioni’s office:
All three men are currently incarcerated on unrelated charges. Fair is awaiting trial on a 219-count indictment charging him with Racketeering Conspiracy, Attempted Murder, Robbery, and numerous other drug and weapons offenses, arising out of “Operation Dead End.” Byrd is currently serving a 12-year state prison sentence for two separate Asbury Park shootings which also occurred in 2009. Jean-Baptiste awaits trial on three separate indictments charging him with drug distribution and gun possession.
Fair is currently being held at the Monmouth County Correctional Institution, Freehold Township. Byrd is being held at New Jersey State Prison, in Trenton, and Jean-Baptiste is being held at the Mercer County Correctional Institution, in Hopewell Township. All defendants are being held on $1.5 million cash only bail, with a bail source hearing required before they can be released, as set by Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Joseph W. Oxley.
Monmouth County CrimeStoppers had offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of any suspect” in the case, and the New Jersey Education Association offered another $5,000, but no reward money will be paid out, Gramiccioni said.
He credited the school district and borough police, among other entities, for helping with the investigation. Gramiccioni also thanked Michael Melton, who told the gathering, “I thought this day would never come, but God said it would.”
“I’m very pleased with the fact that they were able to bring a sense of relief to the family and to Michael as well,” former schools Superintendent Laura Morana told redbankgreen.
School board president Ben Forest said that Melton’s murder constituted “the biggest trauma the district has suffered” in his years living in the community.