Police: Arrest made in NJ drive-by shooting

AP News
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Posted: May 27, 2011 10:18 PM
Police: Arrest made in NJ drive-by shooting

A 19-year-old man was arrested in connection with a drive-by shooting that killed an off-duty Newark, N.J., police officer who was getting a slice of pizza at a neighborhood fast-food place, though a second suspect who is believed to be the shooter remained at large.

Rasul McNeil-Thomas was arrested at his home in Newark on Friday. He was charged with carjacking, conspiracy and weapons offenses and was being held on $300,000 bail. There was no immediate word on whether he had an attorney.

Authorities said McNeil-Thomas and the other suspect stole a car at gunpoint and used it in the shooting; the car was recovered nearby soon afterward. They didn't say what tied McNeil-Thomas to the car or whether he had identified the second suspect.

Two other customers were wounded in the Thursday night attack that killed 45-year-old officer William Johnson. Authorities reiterated Friday night that they believe Johnson wasn't the target.

"There is still a deep sense of pain for the loss of this officer," Mayor Cory Booker said. "But there is a sense of gratitude, of pride and relief that (investigators) are getting to the closing strides to find who is responsible for these crimes."

Besides Johnson, a 21-year-old man was wounded and was in stable condition at University Hospital.

A 19-year-old at the restaurant with her toddler was struck in the shoulder. She was released from the hospital by Friday morning. Her child was not wounded.

Acting Police Director Samuel DeMaio said video surveillance from inside the fast-food place showed that the shooting happened so quickly, Johnson would not have had time to draw a weapon.

Police canvassed the South Ward neighborhood putting up posters for Crimestoppers, hoping a $20,000 reward would induce witnesses to come forward with details of the shooting.

The vehicle from which the shots came sped off immediately, authorities said. DeMaio said there were multiple shots fired; he didn't provide an exact number but said it was fewer than 10. Details on a possible weapon used were not immediately released.

Police and city leaders were mourning the loss of the veteran officer.

"He is from our city. He lived in Newark. He is one of our own, up from the bricks. And one of our own, who dedicated his life to protect us, is slain in our streets," Booker said. "We must work together to say this will never happen again."

Johnson, a police officer since 1995, was known in the department as an affable, dedicated cop who excelled at any assignment he was given, DeMaio said. He was assigned to the department's video surveillance unit, monitoring police cameras set up around the city, and alerting officers in the streets to any suspicious activities.

In this case, investigators were looking at surveillance video from inside and outside the restaurant to help solve the slaying of one of their own.

Johnson was off-duty when he stopped by Texas Fried Chicken and Pizza to order something to eat. Surveillance video showed he was standing at the counter, waiting for his food when the shooting occurred, according to DeMaio.

The bullets came from a vehicle outside the restaurant at about 9:50 p.m.

Police say there were more people in the fast-food place than the three who were shot, and one of them may have been the intended target. They were asking the public's help in tracking down any witnesses who may have been inside the restaurant or in the vicinity.

The slain officer grew up in Newark and continued to live in the city that often ranks as one of the nation's most dangerous places. He had two daughters and was not married.

He was declared dead just after 3 a.m.

"The tragedy of this senseless killing is compounded by the fact that the victim, Officer Johnson, was a man who devoted his professional life to protecting the City of Newark and its residents from this type of violence," said state Attorney General Paula Dow.

Violent crime has risen in Newark in the last two years, despite gains in 2007 and 2008. There were twice as many murders, 20, in the first three months of this year, compared with last year, according to police department statistics.

The increase has come after much-publicized layoffs that cut nearly 15 percent of the police force at the end of last year. One of the officers who was laid off, 24-year-old Natombe Simmonds, collapsed and died while playing basketball last week, making this a particularly painful time for the department, police officials and the mayor said.

"This is a very sad day for us, our city is deeply, deeply wounded. We are in agony," Booker said, adding they wouldn't stop until they found whoever killed Johnson. "We are determined. We are steadfast. We will find (these) individuals."

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