On February 20, 1994, 19-year-old Monica Reyes, a heroin addict, left her apartment in Elizabeth, New Jersey to meet a man whom she believed had money for her. Five days later, her body was found covered by half an inch of snow in a ditch about 30 miles away. She had been beaten and strangled, and a 100-pound rock was left on her head.
While conducting an autopsy, authorities found a bite mark on the lower left side of her back and swabbed it for saliva.
After Reyes went missing, her boyfriend, Ely Torres, called police several times suggesting first that she was with a man named “Thomas,” then that she was with a man named Luis Molina. Torres described a previous incident where Molina accused Torres and Reyes of stealing $900 from him. Reyes’ mother overheard Molina say he had gotten even with one person—Reyes—and that Torres was next. Torres said that he and Reyes often preyed upon men by offering Reyes for sex and, instead, robbing them.
Reyes’ mother told police that a man had come to their apartment a month before Reyes disappeared looking for $50 that Reyes owed for drugs, but Reyes wasn’t home. After Reyes disappeared, but before her body was found, someone named “J.J.” came by looking for the $50, she said.
Reyes’ brothers said Reyes had confided the night she went out that she was meeting a Cuban man who had money. The brothers said Reyes sold drugs for a man named Gerard and that she owed him money, which “J.J.” was trying to collect.
Police questioned Molina, and although he admitted he “may have” threatened to kill Reyes, he took and passed a polygraph examination and police no longer considered him a suspect.
On April 18, 1994, Reyes’ sister, Lucy Rosado, who was in jail, said Reyes had visited her at the jail just before she disappeared. Rosado said Reyes told her that a man named Gerard had threatened to cut her face because she owed him money. Rosado, however, was never called as a witness in any proceeding.
A day later, police contacted the parole supervisor for 27-year-old Gerard Richardson. The supervisor then filed a parole violation against Richardson for allegedly failing a drug test and he was arrested.
In May 1994, a man who lived six miles from where Reyes’ body was found was accused of beating and biting a woman he hired to perform a strip tease and massage at his home. That man also was eliminated as a suspect after he passed a polygraph examination.
On May 17, 1994, police interviewed Richardson in jail where he was being held for the parole violation. Richardson denied involvement in the murder, but admitted he had gone to Reyes’ apartment once for money she owed him, but that it was in 1993 and she paid him in December 1993. Richardson said he had not seen Reyes after that.
Richardson offered to take a polygraph. During an interview prior to the polygraph examination, Richardson said he had fronted vials of cocaine to Reyes on three occasions for her to sell. Richardson said he and an acquaintance, James “J.J.” Newborn, had purchased the vials initially.
Richardson then admitted that he had seen Reyes after December 1993. He said that he and J.J. had confronted Reyes about her owing between $75 and $150 at the beginning of February, but denied involvement in the crime. He denied biting Reyes and gave dental impressions of his teeth for comparison to the bite mark found on Reyes’ body. Police said Richardson’s polygraph results showed he was “attempting deception.”
Police then questioned Newborn and he, too, submitted to a polygraph after denying involvement in Reyes’ murder. When police told Newborn the polygraph showed he was “attempting deception,” Newborn asked for a lawyer and refused to speak to police any further.
On June 4, 1994, forensic dentist Dr. Ira Titunik analyzed the bite mark and Richardson’s dental impression and concluded that Richardson had left the bite mark on Reyes’ body. Five days later, Richardson was charged with Reyes’ murder.
In November 1995, Richardson went on trial in Somerset County Superior Court. The state relied on Titunik’s analysis to connect Richardson to the murder. Titunik testified that “this mark was made by Gerard Richardson…there (is) no question in my mind.”
Reyes’ brothers testified to the visits by Richardson and Newborn to their home seeking to collect money from Reyes. Reyes’ boyfriend, Torres, also testified and, for the first time, said he heard Richardson threaten to kill Reyes. On cross-examination, Torres admitted that he had not connected Richardson to Reyes’ murder until after police told him they matched Richardson to the bite mark.
There was no other physical evidence linking Richardson to the crime. The defense called Dr. Norman Sperber, a forensic odontologist, who testified that Richardson did not make the bite mark. In fact, Sperber said that Titunik had reached his conclusion after mistakenly comparing the bite mark upside down. Sperber said Titunik misidentified the upper tooth marks in the bite mark as being left by lower teeth and he mistakenly identified the lower teeth marks as being left by upper teeth.
On November 30, 1995, after two days of deliberation, the jury convicted Richardson of murder. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison without parole. At his sentencing, Richardson denied killing Reyes, saying that while he did supply drugs to Reyes for sale, “I didn’t kill Monica Reyes and I am never going to admit to it—to something that I didn’t do.”
Richardson sought DNA testing of the swab from the bite mark in 2000, but his petition for testing was dismissed. In 2001, an appeals court ordered that any DNA testing done by the state be turned over and thereafter, the defense could seek further testing. No testing had been done prior to trial, but Richardson’s lawyer again petitioned for testing, which was granted. Half of the swab from the bite mark was sent for testing in 2002.
The first tests were inconclusive. More tests were performed in 2004. The results turned up only Reyes’ DNA profile. A motion for a new trial was filed and denied in 2006.
In July 2012, the Innocence Project took on Richardson’s case and sought a complete DNA re-investigation of the case. In 2013, testing identified a male profile from the remaining swab from the bite mark and excluded Richardson.
Innocence Project lawyer Vanessa Potkin filed a motion for a new trial and on October 29, 2013, Somerset County Superior Court Judge Julie Marino vacated Richardson’s conviction and ordered a new trial. Richardson was released on bond.
On December 17, 2013, the Somerset County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case.
– Maurice Possley