Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Police: Teen hid remains before trying to dump them
As police, family members and neighbors frantically searched for 16-year-old Jennifer Parks on Saturday, the Randolph teen's dismembered body lay stuffed in a 3-by-2 foot steamer trunk in an SUV parked in the driveway of the house next door, police said yesterday.
Police and local residents questioned Parks' neighbor, Jonathan Zarate, as to whether he had seen the girl. The 18-year-old told them he had not, investigators said.
Later Saturday, with Parks' body still inside the trunk in the SUV, Zarate headed to a birthday party, authorities said.
Zarate was arrested early Sunday along with his 14-year-old brother, who lives with his mother in Garfield, and a 16-year-old Clifton boy as they attempted to dump the trunk off a bridge in Rutherford and into the Passaic River, Morris County Prosecutor Michael M. Rubbinaccio said yesterday.
"Mr. Zarate provided the police with no information as to the where- abouts of the victim when questioned . . . and even went to a birthday party even though he had already killed the victim and had the trunk secreted in the back of the Jeep Cherokee," Rubbinaccio said. "It was after returning from the party that he then attempted to dispose of the body."
According to the arrest affidavit, Zarate told police he punched, beat and stabbed Parks before suffocating her in the family room of the Zarates' split-level home on Old Brookside Road. Zarate's father, stepmother and several of her children were upstairs at the time of the killing, authorities said.
After killing Parks, Zarate dismembered the body, stuffed it into the trunk, then carried it out to his father's Jeep Cherokee, authorities said.
The trunk remained in the SUV for nearly 24 hours as residents and police searched for the girl, Rubbinaccio said.
During questioning Sunday, Zarate told police he killed Parks during an argument, according to court documents.
Zarate has been charged with murder, employing juveniles to commit a crime, hindering apprehension and several weapons charges. He is being held in the Morris County Jail in lieu of $1 million cash bail.
The juveniles were charged in Bergen County with unlawful disposal of human remains and in Morris County with conspiracy to hinder the apprehension of another. They are being held in the Morris County Juvenile Detention Center.
Rubbinaccio said he has not yet decided whether to present the crime to a grand jury as a death penalty case or if his office will seek to have the juveniles tried as adults. He also said his staff is continuing to investigate whether Zarate planned the killing.
The Parks family did not attend yesterday's court hearing.
"I am just so upset I can't even talk about it," Jennifer's grandmother, Mildred Brown of Dover, said later in the day. "She was a dear girl and I love her dearly."
Zarate's parents, who are divorced, attended their son's hearing yesterday. They refused to comment afterward.
Investigators searched the Zarates' property yesterday for evidence, including the knife that the 18-year-old told police he used to dismember the girl. Police said late last night they had not found it.
Investigators searching for a motive are looking into an incident that occurred within the past two years involving Zarate's 14-year-old brother, who was accused of breaking the window of the Parks' car, Rubbinaccio said.
Neighbors also said the Zarate boys teased Parks, who grew up at 13 Old Brookside Road. Zarate's father, John, bought the house next door in September 1997, records show.
"They used to make fun of her: `Oh, you're fat, you're ugly,'" neighbor Edna Jack said.
In the spring of 2004, Randolph school officials rearranged class schedules for Parks and the younger Zarate so they would not be in the same classes, neighbor Russell Sieb said.
Parks was last seen alive by her father, David, about 2 a.m. Saturday. By 11:45 that morning, her parents reported her missing. Neighbors and police went door-to-door trying to get information.
Sieb said his wife went to the Zarates and asked Jonathan Zarate and his father if they had seen Parks.
"No, I haven't seen her in a couple days," the 18-year-old answered, police said.
Parks spent much of Friday night in her room. At some point, Rubbinaccio said, Zarate contacted her, possibly via a computer message and "asked her to come to his residence to watch television."
Almost immediately after she arrived at the Zarate home, an argument ensued, though authorities don't know what prompted it. Zarate told police that during the argument, he punched Parks in the face, beat her with a metal pole and stabbed her repeatedly with a knife, according to the arrest affidavit. Then he wrapped a bandanna around his fist and forced it down her throat, the arrest affidavit said.
"He stuffed the bandanna down her throat to keep her quiet," Rubbinaccio said.
Zarate emptied a trunk containing camping equipment and cut Parks' legs below the knee to fit her 5-foot-5 body inside, Rubbinaccio said. He got rid of the knife, he told police.
Zarate's brother told investigators he woke up about 3 a.m. Saturday to the smell of bleach and the sound of his brother tapping out instant messages from his computer, authorities said.
When detectives searched the home later, they found bleach stains and blood on the downstairs carpet, authorities said. Rubbinaccio said the carpet would be tested for DNA.
Police believe Zarate's brother helped get the trunk into the SUV, but defense attorney Anthony Fusco said the 14-year-old boy lives with his mother in Garfield and wasn't at the Randolph home.
But, Rubbinaccio said: "We believe he was there. Neighbors confirmed that."
Later Saturday, Zarate's stepmother had members of her church over to the house, and that night his father drove his sons to a birthday party for a 15-year-old family friend at a hotel in Florham Park, said Joseph Devine, chief of investigations for the Morris County Prosecutor's Office. The father did not drive the Jeep Cherokee, Devine said.
At 1 a.m. Sunday, Parks' father spotted Zarate driving the Cherokee down Old Brookside Road without headlights on, authorities said.
Authorities said Zarate and his brother drove about 30 miles to Garfield, where they picked up the 16-year-old. They then drove to the Union Avenue Bridge in Rutherford.
The teenagers were lifting the trunk out of the SUV at 3 a.m. when two Secaucus police officers returning from a call spotted them and drew their guns, Rutherford Police Chief Steven Nienstedt said.
The teens dropped the trunk and it cracked open, revealing the body, Nienstedt said. Bergen County homicide detectives were called and discovered Parks' remains, he said.
"It was by chance that these officers crossed paths with them on that bridge, and if these cops didn't do their job, the family might never have known what happened to her," Devine said.
Neighbors described Parks as wholesome and honest and shy.
For the Siebs, she was a trustworthy baby-sitter.
"This is a very horrendous and heinous thing that was done," Sieb said. "I honestly hope that there is no plea bargain here and he spends his life in jail."