New Jersey

Marshals Nab NJ Kindergarten Teacher Slay Suspect in Florida, 2nd Man Wanted

The 33-year-old teacher's body was found with blunt force trauma and compressions to the neck in a shallow grave less than 48 hours after a missing person's report was filed

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What to Know

  • On Tuesday, the Jersey City Police Department conducted a welfare check on Van Horne Street regarding a missing person’s report, Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez said
  • During the course of the investigation, the Homicide Unit located an apparent shallow grave in the area of Central Avenue and Third Street in Kearny, where the body of a female was found, Suarez said
  • According to prosecutors, the death has been ruled a homicide. The victim is Luz Hernandez, and an arrest has been made in connection with the investigation

US Marshals arrested a man in Florida in connection with the death of a 33-year-old New Jersey kindergarten teacher found beaten and strangled in a shallow grave this week, and the two knew each other quite well, according to multiple senior law enforcement officials and sources with direct knowledge of the case.

According to an official, Luz Hernandez's ex-boyfriend was cuffed in Florida, in the Miami area. Marshals from the New York/New Jersey and Florida/Caribbean regional fugitive task forces assisted in the arrest.

The man, identified as Cesar Santana, 36, is considered a suspect in Hernandez's killing. He was being held only on a charge of desecrating human remains at this point, an official said. Law enforcement sources told News 4 they believe Santana is responsible for her murder.

Hernandez's family told NBC New York that she broke up with Santana, the father of their three young children, months ago. However, the two still lived together in Jersey City.

Two law enforcement sources say investigators went to try to arrest Santana at a motel in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, Thursday but he wasn't there by the time they arrived. They caught up with him in Florida.

No other details were available. Extradition details weren't immediately known. Attorney information wasn't clear either.

A second man is also facing a charge of desecrating human remains, according to officials. The Hudson County Prosecutor's Office said that 26-year-old Leiner Miranda Lopez is still being sought by law enforcement. Lopez and Santana were involved in a traffic stop in Kearny on Feb. 5 off Central Avenue, near the spot where Hernandez's body was later discovered.

A friend of Hernandez's said that he didn't know Santana very well, and believed that he had seen Lopez around town before.

The arrest announcement came hours after the prosecutor's office shared autopsy results for Hernandez, who was reported missing earlier in the week. It was determined the beloved teacher died by blunt force trauma and compressions to the neck, prosecutors said Thursday, confirming the case had become a homicide investigation.

A law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the coroner's findings says Hernandez was bashed in the head with a heavy object, then strangled with some sort of cord.

While they know how the beloved teacher apparently died, investigators are still searching for the who. NBC New York's Erica Byfield reports.

The autopsy also confirmed Hernandez's identity, which had been tentative pending coroner confirmation. The case was launched Monday when a missing person's report was filed. Hernandez didn't show up for work that day, leading her family — already panicked when they didn't hear from her over the weekend — to call the police.

Jersey City police officers conducted a welfare check at Hernandez's Van Horne Street home Tuesday. It's not clear what they found, but prosecutors said it was enough to lead cops to contact their office for assistance.

Over the course of the investigation, homicide detectives found what appeared to be a shallow grave near Central Avenue and Third Street, a remote area of nearby Kearny. Hernandez's body was recovered a short time later.

The mother of three was pronounced dead at the scene. Hernandez's family was "heartbroken" by the news.

"We can't live without her, I'll never fill this void," her sister, Jenny Taveras, said in Spanish. She also said she wants justice for her sister.

"She was a really good mother. She was kind, oh my God. She was a beautiful person. We are going to miss her so much. I can not speak, it's unbelievable," said cousin Yajaira Germosen.

Hernandez was last seen on Saturday, when she and her kids went to a relative's. That was the last time her children saw her alive, as they spent Sunday with their father.

"He went to the church with kids, like nothing happened," Germosen said, as the family wondered why they hadn't heard from Hernandez.

The school where Hernandez taught was closed for the day on Wednesday to allow those who knew her to grieve. There was a growing memorial on the steps of the popular teacher's home, flooded with candles, balloons and posters. A 6-year-old student of Hernandez's cried as she left a card that read "I love you."

Authorities urge anyone with information to contact the Office of the Hudson County Prosecutor at 201-915-1345 or submit a tip online here.

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