A Hudson County jury of nine men and three women returned a guilty verdict for the man accused of fatally shooting a 16-year-old Kearny girl in the head in the bedroom of her Belgrove Drive home more than two years ago.
The jurors deliberated about a day and a half before reaching a consensus last Thursday night that Cruz Martinez Jr., now 43, of Hazleton, Pa., did, in fact, pull the trigger on Jan. 17, 2013, killing Alishia Colon, as the victim’s 7-year-old brother watched in horror.
Martinez will be sentenced July 24 by Superior Court Judge Martha Royster in Jersey City. He could get up to life in prison.
Three co-defendants who have pled to lesser charges are slated to be sentenced June 5 but that date is subject to change.
“This was a horrible crime – the killing of a 16-year-old girl that happened in front of the victim’s 7-year-old brother – and the evidence to convict [Martinez] was overwhelming,” Assistant Hudson County Prosecutor Sal Rozzi, who presented the case, told The Observer last Friday.
The jury heard the testimony of nine state witnesses spread over three days of the trial while the lone defense witness took up only a half-hour.
Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office investigators concluded that the motive for the killing was “retaliation over an ongoing dispute between alleged street gang members and members of the victim’s family,” but they noted that Colon “was not believed to be part of that dispute at all” and that her death was “the tragic consequence” of the feud.
Probably the most telling moment of the trial came on the first day of testimony when Colon’s brother, now age 9, was asked if the man who shot his sister was in the courtroom.
“The boy, who had identified the suspect from a photo array he was shown two days after the shooting, stood up and pointed to Martinez while breaking down, crying,” Rozzi recalled.
That, Rozzi told The Observer, “was the most dramatic episode I’ve seen in my 20 years as a prosecutor.”
Martinez was arrested Jan. 19, 2013, two days after the shooting, in Pennsylvania on an unrelated open warrant from the Keystone State and was later charged by Hudson County with murder, unlawful possession of a firearm and possession of a firearm for unlawful purpose.
Several weeks later, the HCPO arrested Kyeeth L. Smith, 21, of Willingboro; Lamar D. Farrar, 22, of East Orange; and Eric L. Shelton, 19, of Orange, on various charges, all in connection with the Kearny murder case.
Hours before the crime, Kearny police responded to the area near the victim’s home on a report of a street fight involving some of the victim’s relatives. Colon was not involved in the fight, the HCPO said. That incident resulted in the arrest of Belleville resident Edwin Mendez, whose daughter was living with Colon’s mother, on the charge of unlawful possession of a machete.
During the trial, Farrar testified that Martinez (who, according to Rozzi, was a “good friend” of Mendez) asked him, Shelton and Smith to accompany him to the Belgrove Drive location “to send a message.”
Farrar testified that when they got to the house, Smith waited in the car while he, Shelton and Martinez walked up to the second-floor apartment, then Martinez forced open the door. Farrar said he was standing behind Martinez when he heard a shot, saw Colon lying on the bed and then ran downstairs with the others.
Later, Rozzi said, HCPO investigators found what ballistics experts later identified as a .380-caliber shell casing and spent bullet inside the victim’s bedroom. Rozzi said Farrar admitted taking the gun used in the shooting to an apartment in East Orange but the weapon was never recovered.
– Ron Leir