Three Life Sentences for Ringleader of Triple Homicide in Newark

The first sentence has been handed down in the case of three New Jersey students who were lined up against an elementary school, ordered to kneel, and shot execution-style in the head.

Rodolfo Godinez was given three consecutive life sentences by New Jersey Superior Court Judge Michael Ravin, who called Godinez “a menace” and “a mind diseased.”

A 27-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant, Godinez was convicted in May on 17 counts, including murder, felony murder, robbery and weapons offenses. He was the first of six defendants to be tried in the killings of Terrance Aeriel, Iofemi Hightower and Dashon Harvey, which took place in 2007.

The three victims, along with Terrance’s sister Natasha Aeriel, had gathered to socialize behind Newark’s Mount Vernon Elementary School. All four were either students or future students at Delaware State University, and 18-year-old Terrance Aeriel was an ordained minister. None of them had any criminal background whatsoever.

In addition to being shot in the head, Hightower and Natasha Aeriel were also slashed with a machete, and Aeriel was sexually assaulted. It was her hospital-bed identifications of suspects, as well as ballistic evidence and a fingerprint lifted from a beer bottle at the scene of the slayings, which led to the capture of Godinez and the others. Natasha Aeriel also served as the prosecution’s main witness.

“These kids weren’t into drug, they were minding their own business and these guys came up to them, robbed them, sexually assaulted one woman and then executed them,”said Romero Sukhdeo, the assistant county prosecutor.

Although Godinez maintains his innocence, saying that he was present at the scene but did not take part in the crimes, the prosecutors characterized him as not only a member of and recruiter for the MS-13 gang, but also as the ringleader of the defendants in the execution-style slayings of Aeriel, Hightower and Harvey.

Godinez was not connected with the gun or the machete used in the slaying, but he was convicted under New Jersey’s accomplice liability law.

Under state laws, he would become eligible for parole after serving 216 years in prison, according to the Essex County prosecutor’s office. The other five suspects are still awaiting trial.

Newark, which had experienced a 50 percent spike in murders in the years before the triple homicide, has since passed numerous anti-crime measures and implemented new police department protocols and technologies, including wireless camera surveillance and audio gunshot detection systems. These measures have been credited with lowering Newark’s crime rate.

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