UPDATE: Lakewood Suspect Arrested for Howell Township Murder

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.

According to officials, Mr. 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 lying 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 deceased. MONOC personnel responded and the victim was pronounced dead 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 necessary 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.