FREEHOLD – A Lakewood man is charged with the murder of another man whose body was found lying in the roadway in Howell early Friday morning, announced Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni.

Juan Carlos Rivera Rojas, (also known as Omar Rivera Rojas), 29, of Linden Avenue in Lakewood, is charged with first degree Murder for the death of Domingo Merino Rafael, 33, of Seminole Drive in Lakewood, early Friday morning. Rivera Rojas is being held in the Monmouth County Correctional Institution in Freehold Township pending his first appearance before Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Paul X. Escandon on Nov. 1, 2019, and a Detention Hearing is also scheduled to follow that proceeding.

“This arrest was the result of outstanding work done by all the investigators from our Major Crimes Bureau and Forensics Unit, as well as the Howell Township Police Department, Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, and the Lakewood Police Department.  The inter-agency cooperation could not have been better,” Gramiccioni said. 

The Howell Township Police Department responded to a 911 call at about 3:46 a.m. reporting an unconscious male laying in Hurley Pond Road just east of Route 547.  Upon arrival, a Hispanic male was located lying face down in the roadway.  The incident was initially investigated as a fatal hit and run motor vehicle incident.  However, upon the arrival of SCART investigators, it was determined the incident was not a hit and run event.

The man, identified as Domingo Merino Rafael, 33, of Lakewood, was unresponsive and obviously deceased. MONOC personnel responded and the victim was pronounced deceased at 4:12 a.m. by doctors at Newark Beth Israel Hospital. Rafael was taken to the Middlesex County Regional Medical Examiner’s Office where a post-mortem examination performed by Medical Examiner Allison Mautone M.D. and the staff of the Middlesex County Medical Examiner’s Office determined the cause of death was a Homicide.

“My initial impression was this was going to be a challenging investigation. However, as it commenced it was obvious the tenacity of the officers involved from both my agency and the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office proved otherwise.  Together, they worked as a unified team, around the clock until this was quickly resolved.  This is the perfect example of law enforcement working together for a dedicated purpose.  I sincerely thank all the officers involved.  We are ‘committed to community,” Howell Township Police Chief Andrew Kudrick said.

A joint investigation by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and Howell Township Police Department determined that Rivera Rojas and Merino Rafael traveled from Lakewood to Middlesex County on Thursday evening and were returning to Lakewood shortly after 3 a.m. Friday when the pair got into an argument that culminated with the killing of Merino Rafael.

The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and the Howell Township Police Department also credited the Lakewood Police Department and the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office for their assistance during the investigation.

If convicted of Murder, Rivera Rojas faces a minimum sentence of 30 years in a New Jersey state prison without parole and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, subject to the provisions of the “No Early Release Act” (NERA) requiring him to serve 85 percent of the sentence imposed before becoming eligible for release on parole. He would also be under parole supervision for five years following his release from state prison.

Anyone with information important to this investigation is urged to contact Detective Kevin Condon of the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office at 800-533-7443 or Det. Sgt. Peter Kuppler of the Howell Township Police Department at 732-938-4575 ext. 2245.

Anyone who feels the need to remain anonymous but has information about a crime can contact Monmouth County Crime Stoppers confidential telephone tip-line by calling 1-800-671-4400; they can text “MONMOUTH” plus their tip to 274637; or, they can email a tip via the website at  Monmouth County Crime Stoppers will pay up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest of criminals and fugitives.

The case is assigned to Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutor Stephanie Dugan.

Despite these charges, every defendant is presumed innocent, unless and until found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, following a trial at which the defendant has all of the trial rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and State law.

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