FREEHOLD – Two relatives responsible for the 2019 machete killing of an Ocean County man in Howell have been sentenced, Monmouth County Prosecutor Raymond S. Santiago announced Thursday.

Omar Rivera-Rojas, 33, and his nephew, Alberto Rojas-Hernandez, 21, both of Lakewood, were sentenced to 22 and 20 years in state prison, respectively. Each must serve at least 85 percent of their terms before the possibility of parole under the provisions of New Jersey’s No Early Release Act (NERA), in accordance with the terms set down during a Tuesday sentencing hearing before Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Marc C. LeMieux.

Members of the Howell Township Police Department responded to a 911 call shortly after 3:45 a.m. on Friday, October 18, 2019, following up on a report of an unconscious male laying prone in Hurley Pond Road, just east of County Route 547.  Upon their arrival, a man later identified as 33-year-old Domingo Merino-Rafael of Lakewood was located at the scene, unresponsive and obviously deceased.

Initially suspected to be a hit-and-run event, Investigators from the Serious Collison Analysis Response Team (SCART) responded but quickly determined that the victim’s injuries were inconsistent with a motor-vehicle collision and were the result of a homicide. The post-mortem examination confirmed the manner of death to be homicide and the cause of death identified as multiple chop wounds.

A joint investigation by members of the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and Howell Township Police Department quickly determined that Rivera-Rojas, Rojas-Hernandez, and Merino-Rafael had traveled from Lakewood to Middlesex County on the evening of Thursday, October 17, 2019. The men were returning to Lakewood early the next morning when they got into an argument that culminated with the uncle and nephew killing Merino-Rafael.

Rivera-Rojas was arrested on Tuesday, October 22, 2019 and lodged in the Monmouth County Correctional Institution (MCCI). Two and a half weeks later, Rojas-Hernandez was taken into custody and brought to the Middlesex County Juvenile Detention Center due to the fact that he was 17 at the time. Rojas-Hernandez was subsequently waived to adult court to face prosecution alongside his uncle. 

During a plea hearing taking place in September 2022, both men admitted that they each took a turn striking the victim in the back of the head with a machete, pleading guilty to single counts of first-degree Aggravated Manslaughter.

The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and the Howell Township Police Department again credit the Lakewood Police Department and the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office for their assistance during this investigation. The case was prosecuted by Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutors Stephanie Dugan and Tara Wilson.

Rojas-Hernandez was represented by Joseph Champagne, Esq. of Toms River, while Rivera-Rojas was represented at sentencing by Michel R. Rosas of East Brunswick.