ATLANTIC CITY — Vernesta Green, whose 20-year-old son, Antojuan Huffin, was shot to death 23 years ago, said she turned to God after giving up hope that investigators would ever find his killer.
Sheila Harvey, whose son, Saleem Tolbert, 24, was killed in 2010, wondered if anyone in the community would come forward to bring his killer to justice.
On Tuesday, just a block from the scene of Huffin’s murder, Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner announced that both murders had been solved and arrests had been made.
Tyner said the murder investigations were among many that had gone “dormant” under previous prosecutors, pushed aside and given no resources or attention.
“As I have said on other occasions, and I stand by it, whether a murder occurs in Linwood, Margate, Hammonton, Atlantic City, Pleasantville, or any of the 23 municipalities in Atlantic County that are under my jurisdiction, every homicide is important,” he said.
Tyner has taken some criticism after the news site BreakingAC.com reported on and later posted video of a speech he gave at a community gathering in which he said there were actual folders with the initials “NIM,” for “nonimportant murders.”
BreakingAC later reported that an open public records request for those folders was returned with the explanation that no such markings existed.
Last week, three former employees of Tyner’s office who are suing him for gender discrimination and other allegations raised the issue of the comments he made in a letter to New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.
But Tyner said Tuesday he stood by the point he was trying to make that day about these so-called nonimportant murders: Some homicide cases had languished under previous prosecutors because they were not considered a priority.
“I will just reiterate what I always intended to say, which is that every homicide is important in Atlantic County, no matter where it occurred, no matter when it occurred,” Tyner said from the stage of the multipurpose room of the All Wars Memorial Building in Atlantic City, where a funeral was going on a floor below.
“It should be noted in the case of Mr. Huffin, 23 years ago, that it has had periods of dormancy in the investigation, extended amounts of time when the case wasn’t really looked at,” he said. “The same with Mr. Tolbert’s case.
“When I came into office in 2017, these were two cases that members of my agency thought could be solved.”
Tyner, a Democrat appointed to the post by then-Republican Gov. Chris Christie in 2017, credited two investigators, Agent Michael Graham and Jack Burke, the former captain of county detectives, who both came out of retirement — Burke as a volunteer — to tackle cold cases.
“They worked the case,” Tyner said. “Previous to that, I would challenge any former prosecutor to say they assigned resources to those cases. They have things to answer to.”
Two men who were 14 and 17 at the time have been charged with killing Huffin “in broad daylight” inside the Stanley Holmes Village during a robbery, Tyner said.
Charged with murder and felony murder are Lamarc Rex — who Tyner said remains at large —and a man identified only as T.C., who is currently in the Atlantic County Jail for another crime committed as a juvenile. He was not identified because he was already processed in the juvenile system, Tyner said, but will be subject to being tried as an adult.
Tolbert was killed just after midnight on July 6, 2010, in the city’s Marina District, also known as Back Maryland. He had a son, then a toddler, who attended Tuesday’s news conference.
Charged with murder and weapons offenses was Lorin Wright, an acquaintance of Tolbert’s who grew up with him in Atlantic City and was 24 at the time of the murder. Wright is awaiting trial on murder charges in the death of another Atlantic City man in May 2017.
Tyner called the killing “senseless” and said a dispute was the apparent motivation.
Both victims’ mothers expressed relief at the developments on Tuesday. They said that no matter how much time went by or how little attention seemed to be paid to the investigations, they never stopped thinking of their sons.
“It took months, days, years to get to this point,” Harvey said. “We’re relieved this has come to this point. The community has to come together to help solve these cases. I’m glad to just be here. We weren’t here a year ago. We weren’t here six years ago.”
Green said she “turned it over to God” after despairing that prosecutors would ever make an arrest in the case.
“It’s so hard,” she said. “I can’t sleep at night sometimes. Every day. It’s very hard. I left it in God’s hands.”