A 37-year-old Wood-Ridge resident has been arrested for allegedly killing an East Rutherford woman whose body was found inside her burning home.
Daniel Rochat is charged with felony murder, aggravated arson and armed burglary, among other crimes in the death of 70-year-old Barbara Vernieri, who prosecutors say had been a longtime colleague of his father at Kurgan Bergen Realtors.
Vernieri, a popular and accomplished real estate agent, had know her alleged killer since he was a teenager.
"The majority of homicides are often between people who are familiar with one another," said Bergen County prosecutor John Molinelli in a news conference Thursday. "That makes it more difficult to try and figure out the motive."
Friends and neighbors were stunned to learn Rochat was the alleged killer.
"Oh, my God," gasped a woman who only gave her first name, Isabel, in downtown Rutherford. "A woman who never did any harm to anybody. She was just a realtor and very good at her job. Horrible. I'm glad they caught him. I hope he gets what is coming to him."
Authorities have said Vernieri died of blunt force trauma to her head and upper body. The widow, who lived alone, suffered the fatal injuries before the fire engulfed her home on Sept. 14.
When officers responded to a 911 call reporting the odor of gas at Vernieri's home that September day, they found the back door open and her lifeless body inside. Officials said at the time it was apparent someone had assaulted her and set the fire intentionally to cover the crime.
Investigators are trying to see if Rochat may be linked to two similar murder-arson cases in 2010, one in Teaneck and one in Palisades Park. In both cases, elderly women living alone were stabbed to death and their homes were set on fire.
"We have not ruled out that Mr. Rochat may be responsible but at this time, there's no evidence that would allow us to actually say that he was responsible," said Molinelli.
Information on an attorney wasn't immediately available. Bail was set at $3 million.