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‘Depraved’ killer gets 120 years in Taj Mahal carjacking case

MAYS LANDING, N.J. — Describing him as "cruel, depraved, and remorseless," a Superior Court judge sentenced Craig Arno to 120 years in prison Thursday for the brutal kidnapping and murder of an Atlantic City casino patron two years ago.During a highly charged sentencing hearing in Superior Court, Judge Michael Donio told the Atlantic City man he had to be "taken out of society for the rest of [his] natural life," noting that the sentence for murder, kidnapping, aggravating arson, and robbery would require Arno to serve 102 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole. At a second hearing Thursday, Donio sentenced Jessica Kisby, Arno’s former girlfriend, to 30 years with no parole eligibility for her admitted role in the abduction and attack, which claimed the life of Martin Caballero in May 2010. Under terms of a plea agreement, Kisby testified for the prosecution against Arno.

Craig Arno, left, speaks with his attorney Eric Shenkus after his sentencing for the murder of Martin Caballero in Superior Court, Mays Landing, N.J. Thursday, May, 24, 2012. Arno was sentenced to 120 years in prison, and must serve 102 years before becoming eligible for parole. (AP Photo/Press of Atlantic City, Danny Drake)
Craig Arno, left, speaks with his attorney Eric Shenkus after his sentencing for the murder of Martin Caballero in Superior Court, Mays Landing, N.J. Thursday, May, 24, 2012. Arno was sentenced to 120 years in prison, and must serve 102 years before becoming eligible for parole. (AP Photo/Press of Atlantic City, Danny Drake)Read moreAP

MAYS LANDING, N.J. — Describing him as "cruel, depraved, and remorseless," a Superior Court judge sentenced Craig Arno to 120 years in prison Thursday for the brutal kidnapping and murder of an Atlantic City casino patron two years ago.

During a highly charged sentencing hearing in Superior Court, Judge Michael Donio told the Atlantic City man he had to be "taken out of society for the rest of [his] natural life," noting that the sentence for murder, kidnapping, aggravating arson, and robbery would require Arno to serve 102 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole.

At a second hearing Thursday, Donio sentenced Jessica Kisby, Arno's former girlfriend, to 30 years with no parole eligibility for her admitted role in the abduction and attack, which claimed the life of Martin Caballero in May 2010. Under terms of a plea agreement, Kisby testified for the prosecution against Arno.

The sentencings came amid growing concern over violent crime in Atlantic City, where two Canadian tourists were stabbed to death Monday morning, allegedly by a homeless woman. The stabbing happened on the second anniversary of Caballero's kidnapping.

"Each and every person who visits Atlantic City should feel as though they can do so safely and not be in a position to succumb to a violent attack by a violent criminal," Donio said.

Arno, 46, showed no emotion as Donio read from a 24-page prepared statement that outlined the major facts in the case and that included several pointed comments. The highly regarded veteran jurist had presided over the three-week trial, which ended last month with a jury convicting Arno of 27 of 28 counts.

The primary charges centered on the carjacking and murder of Caballero, a grocery-store manager from Bergen County, N.J., who was kidnapped from the parking garage of the Taj Mahal casino hotel May 21, 2010, after dropping his wife at the entrance to the gambling palace.

The couple had planned to spend the night at the casino celebrating the 22d birthday of their daughter, who was there with friends and other family. Instead, Caballero, 47, was driven to a farm road in nearby Hamilton Township, where he was stabbed to death.

Donio said there was "no reason whatsoever, or no reason that makes any logical sense at all," for the killing, describing Arno and Kisby as "cruel and depraved."

In trying to convey what he imagined was the physical and mental suffering Caballero endured before he was murdered, Donio cited a quote from Aristotle: "Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil."

Kisby became the star witness in the prosecution of Arno after pleading guilty to murder and kidnapping charges in February. Her plea deal called for the 30-year jail term with no parole.

Donio said he was not happy with the deal, implying that Kisby, whom he called cold and callous, deserved more time. But he said he accepted it to spare Caballero's family the anguish of another trial.

The sentencings capped an emotionally charged morning in Donio's third-floor courtroom, where relatives of Caballero offered tearful victim-impact statements in which the North Bergen resident was described as a loving and caring father, husband, and friend.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't cry for my husband," said his wife, Libia Martinez. "He was my best friend. He was my happiness."

"The hurt that he went through is hard for our family to bear," said Christian Martinez, the victim's son. "I wish one of us would have been there to hold him. … He deserved so much better than this."

William Cruz, Caballero's stepson, read a statement praising the man he said he "loved as a father." Martin Caballero was a man everyone looked up to, Cruz said, staring directly at Arno.

"You are a big, ugly nothing," he said. "That's who you are."

Other family members, including Caballero's daughter Jessica stood in the well of the courtroom holding photos of the victim.

Last week, Jessica Caballero filed a wrongful-death suit against the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, contending that the company had failed to provide a safe and secure facility. The suit was filed in Hudson County Superior Court on behalf of several family members.

According to evidence and trial testimony, Caballero was targeted by Arno and Kisby after he dropped off his wife. Kisby testified that she and Arno followed him as his drove his 2009 white Lincoln sedan to the garage a block away. From his vehicle, they assumed Caballero "had money," she said.

The thin, dark-haired Kisby, of Egg Harbor Township, testified that although murder was not discussed, it became part of the couple's horrific night of crime.

The grocer was abducted in the garage by Arno, who brandished a pellet gun. With Kisby following in a Toyota, Caballero was driven to a farm road and stabbed repeatedly by Arno, who, Kisby testified, broke the blade of the knife he was using. After forcing a bleeding Caballero into the trunk of the car, she said, they drove to a house she shared with her mother and 5-year-old daughter.

There, Kisby said, she got two kitchen knives before they drove back to the dirt road, where Arno stabbed Caballero to death. They dumped his body along the road, where it was found nine days later.

Testimony and evidence at trial indicated that over the next three hours, in actions picked up by video surveillance cameras, the couple withdrew $300 from a drive-through bank ATM using Caballero's bank card, bought a five-gallon can of gasoline at a Sunoco station on the Black Horse Pike in Pleasantville, and drove to Gloucester Township, where they set the Lincoln on fire in a parking lot. It was found hours later.

Over the next week, the couple hid in a condo owned by Arno's mother in Atlantic City, got into an altercation with security guards at a Kmart in Pleasantville after Kisby tried to steal ointment and bandages to treat burns Arno sustained while setting Caballero's car on fire, and failed in an attempt to steal an SUV and flee the city.

They were arrested May 28, 2010, at a seedy hotel just outside Atlantic City and charged with kidnapping and carjacking. Two days later, when Caballero's body was discovered, the charges were upgraded to murder.

Arno, who took the stand in his own defense, admitted setting fire to Caballero's car, but said he had nothing to do with the murder. He told the jury Kisby came to him that night and said she needed help getting rid of the car.

In his closing arguments to the jury, First Assistant Atlantic County Prosecutor James McClain scoffed at Arno's explanation and his implication that another boyfriend of Kisby's had committed the murder. If there had been another man, McClain said, Kisby would have given him up as well to curry favor with the prosecution.

Arno's court-appointed lawyer said during Thursday's hearing that his client still maintained he was innocent of the murder. When Donio asked whether he wanted to say anything before sentencing, Arno declined.

Donio described Arno's defense as a "fantasy story" worthy of a Steven Spielberg movie.

The judge also chided Kisby during her sentencing hearing, saying he never saw her show any sign of remorse or contrition for her actions. While recounting the abduction and murder, she had "talked in a casual, matter-of-fact manner, yawned, stretched, and laughed," he noted.

He called her a "calculating human being" who could have prevented the murder but instead took Arno to her mother's home to get more weapons.

"You could have called off this hideous crime, but you didn't," he told her.

Donio twice quoted Kisby's explanation, "You start something, you've got to finish it."

When the judge asked whether she had anything to say to him before sentencing, Kisby also said no.

He then asked whether she had anything to say to Caballero's family.

Kisby, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, handcuffs, and ankle shackles, stood, turned toward the family, and sobbed: "I'm sorry for your loss. … I didn't stop it. I'm sorry."