Three men have been arrested in the brutal cold-case slaying of a New Jersey school teacher found beaten to death in her home six years ago, prosecutors said.
James Fair, 27, Ebenezer Byrd, 35, and Gregory Jean-Baptiste, 26, all of Asbury Park, face felony murder, first-degree robbery, conspiracy and other charges in the death of Jonelle Melton, who was found beaten in her Neptune City apartment on Sept. 14, 2009.
The 33-year-old Melton had been preparing to move from Red Bank Middle School's seventh-grade classrooms to her new job as the school's fifth-grade teacher. When she failed to show up to her job or answer phone calls, a family member went to Melton's West Sylvania Avenue apartment and found her body.
Prosecutors said in August they believed they were closing in on the alleged killers after developing new information in the years-old case. Officials said Fair, Byrd and Jean-Baptiste had planned to burglarize a specific apartment in the Brighton Arms complex where Melton lived. They broke into the wrong apartment and encountered Melton, according to prosecutors.
At some point, after realizing they were in the wrong apartment, "the men brutally murdered" Melton, according to prosecutors.
A veteran teacher, Melton was an active member of the school community, participating on school improvement and leadership teams, and had been selected to serve as a student council adviser.
"Children loved her in school, we loved her," said an emotional Rachael Haslon, the victim's sister. "She was my baby sister."
The three men charged in her death are all incarcerated on unrelated charges. Fair is awaiting trial on a 219-count indictment charging him with racketeering conspiracy, attempted murder, robbery and other drug and weapons offenses stemming from a 2014 gang takedown. Byrd is currently serving a 12-year state prison sentence for two Asbury Park shootings in 2009. Jean-Baptiste is awaiting trial on three separate indictments charging him with drug distribution and gun possession.
They're each being held on $1.5 million cash bail. As Fair left court Thursday, he only offered a defiant statement of "not guilty."
If convicted of felony murder, the top charge against them in the Melton case, the men each face up to a life sentence in New Jersey state prison.
"This has been a nightmare for over six years," said Mike Melton, Jonelle's brother. "My family and I have been through a lot of grief and trauma."
At Red Bank Middle School, Melton has not been forgotten.
"She was a great loss," said principal Maria Iozzi, who was in court with Melton's family Thursday. "She continues to be a great loss. She's deeply missed."