A man who disappeared for two days after the killing of his neighbor, a suburban New York gym teacher, has been charged with her murder, authorities said Wednesday.
Eric Lau was tracked down by a police dog in the woods on Tuesday night. He pleaded not guilty in what Rockland County prosecutor Dominic Cristino called the "vicious and heinous" killing of grade-school teacher Jami Erlich.
The 32-year-old teacher was beaten and stabbed to death Sunday at her condominium next door to Lau's in Valley Cottage, a Rockland County hamlet about 25 miles north of New York City.
Lau appeared in court wearing only blue paper clothes, as his own had been taken as evidence, and had a scratch on his face, which police officials said was likely from running through the woods.
Town Judge Scott Ugelo ordered Lau held without bail on a second-degree murder count. Lau's attorney, David Goldstein, did not immediately return a call for comment.
Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe wouldn't comment on the evidence prosecutors had, but said "there is no question" that Lau committed the "vicious murder." If convicted, Lau faces 25 years to life.
Lau's mother, reached by phone during the search, said her son was "a good man."
Tina Lau said her son had told her about Erlich moving into the apartment complex but said nothing more about her.
Lau has five previous arrests, and one conviction in 1997 for attempted robbery, officials said. He did six months in jail and received five years probation.
Erlich's family issued a statement Tuesday that read: "Jami brought sunshine and joy to all those who met her. She was a strong, beautiful woman who always had a smile on her face. Her family and friends have been blessed to have her in our lives. We will carry her smile and energy with us always."
Counseling was being offered to children at Robert P. Connor Elementary School in Suffern, where Erlich taught.
Suffern Police Chief Clarke Osborn, a school board member, called Erlich "one of the nicest persons you ever met." He told The Journal News that the schoolchildren "adored her."
"Something like this happens in the town, we take it as family," said Clarkstown Police Chief Peter Noonan.