by David Porter
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The families of three college-bound friends murdered in a Newark schoolyard in 2007 reached a $5 million settlement with the city’s schools and the state on Tuesday, closing the book on a case that attracted national publicity and spurred anti-crime reforms in New Jersey’s largest city.
The settlement came several weeks into a civil trial in which a survivor of the brutal attack testified. The trial was the fifth connected to the case — four defendants were convicted by juries and two others pleaded guilty. Their combined sentences total more than 1,000 years.
“We’re very pleased with the outcome,” said Ronald Riccio, an attorney for the families. “The settlement brings closure for the families and sole survivor in their pursuit for justice. They’ve gone through six criminal cases and now the civil case, and it’s time for them to get on with their lives.”
The families claimed the school district should have locked the gates to the graffiti-scarred Mount Vernon School playground because it was a known gang hangout. The state was named as a defendant because it has oversight of the Newark schools.
The three friends — Iofemi Hightower, Dashon Harvey and Terrance Aeriel — were enrolled or planning to enroll at Delaware State University. The survivor also attended Delaware State, recovering from being shot and stabbed to earn an undergraduate degree.
The survivor isn’t being named by The Associated Press because of sexual assault charges against two of the defendants.
The four victims drove into the schoolyard on the night of Aug. 4, 2007, and were drinking sodas and listening to music when they were surrounded by six men and boys and robbed at gunpoint. Three were made to walk down a flight of stairs where they were shot in the head as they knelt against a wall. One of the victims was slashed repeatedly in the head with a machete before being shot.
In criminal trial testimony and statements to police by the defendants, it emerged that all six had ties to the MS-13 street gang.
Outrage over the murders engulfed Newark in the ensuing weeks and spurred efforts to install surveillance cameras in dangerous neighborhoods, change bail rules for illegal immigrants and institute penalties for gun owners who fail to report lost or stolen weapons, among other measures.
The announcement of the settlement Tuesday apparently isn’t the end of legal wrangling in the case. New Jersey’s attorney general’s office has filed suit against an insurance company for refusing to cover the state’s share of the settlement, which the attorney general’s office said is $3 million. The office wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit Tuesday, and an attorney for Star Insurance of North Brunswick didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.
The Newark school district didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment on Tuesday’s settlement. Through a spokeswoman, the state department of education declined comment.
As part of the settlement, neither the state nor the school district admitted liability.