Suspect in killings of three college students in a New Jersey schoolyard pleaded not guilty on Tuesday during his first court appearance.
Melvin Jovel, 18, also acknowledged that he does not have a green card allowing permanent residence in the United States.
The case has raised questions about whether local authorities should question suspects' immigration status, and sparked outrage in New Jersey's largest city, where the murder rate has risen 50 percent since 1998. The high number of killings have prompted billboards in the downtown area saying, "HELP WANTED: Stop the Killings in Newark Now!"
Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Thomas A. McTigue said Jovel's immigration status is "unclear," and that a passport was seized from Jovel when he was arrested. The New York Times reported Tuesday that he was an illegal immigrant from Honduras.
Jovel was one of six people arrested - at least four of them believed to be Latin American immigrants - in the Aug. 4 shootings in Newark that killed Terrance Aeriel, 18; Dashon Harvey, 20, and Iofemi Hightower, 20. Aeriel's sister, 19-year-old Natasha, was shot in the back of the head, similar to the others, but survived and has helped police identify suspects, according to Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker.
Jovel said Tuesday he had no other charges pending, was not on probation, and had been living with his parents and siblings in neighboring Elizabeth for the past five months.
Besides Jovel, the five other suspects are Jose Carranza, a 28-year-old illegal immigrant from Peru; two 15-year-old unnamed boys; Rodolfo Godinez, a 24-year-old legal Nicaraguan immigrant and his 16-year-old half brother, Alexander Alfaro.
The suspects had known each other from when they lived in an apartment complex near the elementary school where the victims were slain.
All have been charged with three counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, in addition to other charges.
Jovel is being held on $2 million (1.5 million EUR) bail.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has placed a detainer on Jovel, ICE spokesman Michael Gilhooly said Tuesday. A detainer means that if Jovel made bail, he would be turned over to federal authorities.
Jovel's arrest occurred about 24 hours after federal authorities arrested Godinez and Alfaro.
Essex County Prosecutor Paula T. Dow has said that authorities were still trying to understand the motivation for the killings.
Carranza had been arrested twice previously on aggravated assault, weapons and child sexual assault charges. Authorities said they never checked his immigration status; he was out on bail at the time of the killings. Dow maintains that federal immigration officials do not want to be notified about an illegal immigrant until a person is sentenced.
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