By JOHN T. WARD
Almost a decade after the death of Red Bank Middle School teacher Jonelle Melton, three men were found guilty Tuesday of her vicious torture and murder.
A jury in Freehold found the trio guilty of all charges in the case, according to a Twitter announcement early Tuesday afternoon from the office of Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni.
Melton, a 33-year-old social studies teacher and cheerleading coach at Red Bank Middle School, was killed in her Neptune City apartment in September, 2009 in what prosecutors said was a “mistake” by the three defendants who meant to rob a neighboring apartment.
After a trial that began January 17, the jury found the trio — Ebenezer Byrd, 38, and Gregory Jean-Baptiste, 29, both of Asbury Park, and Jerry Spraulding, 41, of Keyport — guilty of felony murder, conspiracy to commit armed burglary, armed burglary, armed robbery and weapons offenses. In addition, Byrd and Jean-Baptiste were found guilty of witness tampering, according to a report by app.com.
Matthew Bogner and Lawrence Nelson, assistant Monmouth County prosecutors, argued that the defendants planned to break into the apartment of a drug dealer they believed kept a lot of cash in his freezer, but they went to the wrong apartment and tortured and killed Melton when they realized their mistake.
Melton had been beaten, stabbed repeatedly and shot twice.
Melton’s mother, Gwen Cruz, hugged a victim’s advocate as the verdict was announced and later smiled and said, “I’m so glad it’s over.”
With tears streaming down his face, the victim’s widower, Michael Melton, hung his head and pounded his fist downward when the jury forewoman announced the trio was guilty of felony murder. He was seated next to his current wife, Shonda.
“It’s been almost 10 long years and, finally, justice has been served, and God had it be served on my birthday, which is heaven-sent,” said Michael Melton, who turned 44 today.
Early suspicion in the case turned to Michael Melton, who was also a teacher at the Red Bank Middle School and discovered his estranged wife’s body after going to check on her when she did not appear for work. But investigators quickly ruled him out as a suspect, and the case went cold.
Prosecutors said a renewed investigation based on fresh leads led to three defendants, all of whom were already in custody on unrelated charges when they were charged in November, 2015.
One of the original three, James Fair, 30, of Asbury Park, pleaded guilty in 2017 to a charge of conspiracy to commit armed burglary in the case. Spraulding was added as a defendant afterward.
Each defendant faces a minimum sentence of 30 years in a New Jersey state prison, during which time they would be ineligible for parole, Gramiccioni’s office said. They’re scheduled to be sentenced separately by Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Joseph W. Oxley in May.
At a 2015 press conference held to announce the charges against Fair, Byrd and Jean-Baptiste, several Red Bank Middle School teachers and administrators were in attendance. One of them tearfully described Melton as “funny, energetic, caring, charismatic and loving.”
“Today, the jury has delivered another element of closure for Ms. Melton’s family, friends, her students and her community,” Gramiccioni said in a prepared statement. “I congratulate the assistant prosecutors, detectives, and support staff who never let up on finding her killers and working so diligently to bring this successful verdict. I know we all worked very hard in memory of Ms. Melton’s passion for life and her commitment to so many people during her lifetime. I’m proud of the efforts of my staff, and I am satisfied in how we took this case to its appropriate end,” Gramiccioni said.