Teen accused in NJ cop’s death charged with murder

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Charges against a 19-year-old man accused in a drive-by shooting that killed an off-duty police officer and wounded two other people were upgraded Saturday to include murder, a prosecutor said.

Rasul McNeill-Thomas was being charged with first-degree murder in the death of Officer William Johnson, said Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carol A. Murray. He was arrested at his Newark home on Friday evening.

Johnson, a 16-year police veteran, was standing at the counter of a neighborhood fast-food joint to grab a slice of pizza when he was shot. Two other people were wounded.

McNeill-Thomas was also charged with two counts of aggravated assault, carjacking conspiracy and weapons offenses.

His bail was raised to $1.5 million, up from $300,000 Friday. It wasn’t clear whether he had an attorney, and calls to the Essex County Jail rang unanswered Saturday night.

Police believe a second suspect was the shooter. No other arrests have been made.

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.

Acting Police Director Samuel DeMaio said video surveillance from inside the fast-food place showed that the shooting happened so quickly, the 45-year-old Johnson would not have had time to draw a weapon.

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.

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.

A 21-year-old man was wounded in the shooting and in stable condition at University Hospital. A 19-year-old woman at the restaurant with her toddler was struck in the shoulder. Her child was uninjured.

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

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. Friday.

Johnson, known in the department as an affable, dedicated officer, worked in the department’s video surveillance unit, monitoring police cameras set up around the city, and alerting officers in the streets to any suspicious activities.

“There is still a deep sense of pain for the loss of this officer,” Newark 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.”

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 that 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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