Police have charged a farmhand with hacking two men to death with a machete at the Burlington County horse farm where they worked.
Carlos Reyes, 41, attacked Alex Aguilar and Marcial Morales-Maldonado after they got into an argument during a night of drinking, police said yesterday.
Reyes's brother, Cesar, witnessed the killings, which investigators said left one of the victims almost unrecognizable.
Carlos Reyes was charged Friday with two counts of murder, police said. Cesar Reyes, 38, has been charged as a material witness. Both are held in Texas until authorities arrange for extradition.
The Reyes brothers have been in custody since last week, when authorities detained them in Houston. The brothers fled there after the killings, police said.
At a news conference yesterday at the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office in Mount Holly, Prosecutor Robert Bernardi said investigators were not sure what led to the attack.
"It appears that the motive in this case was nothing more than a simple argument," he said. "About what, we're not clear."
The brothers and victims lived on the Sterling Chase Horse Farm in Springfield Township. All were originally from Honduras, police said, and they came to the United States as undocumented immigrants.
Authorities said they were still working to determine whether the manager or owner of the horse farm knew the employees were not in the country legally. The 145-acre farm, in the Jobstown section of the township, breeds thoroughbreds and offers stud services.
Aguilar, 27; Morales-Maldonado, 48; and Carlos Reyes had worked there for three or four years, authorities said. Cesar Reyes joined them in September.
The men regularly used machetes for a number of tasks on the farm, according to Bernardi.
Authorities believe the four men were drinking on the night of Feb. 26 in the living quarters they shared. Cesar Reyes had gone to buy more alcohol when the fight began, police said.
Bernardi said Carlos Reyes swung the machete at Morales-Maldonado, who ran outside. Reyes followed him and kept striking until Morales-Maldonado was dead. When Aguilar went outside, Reyes killed him on the steps of the trailer, Bernardi said.
Cesar Reyes returned in the middle of the attack, Bernardi said, but did not participate or intervene.
On Saturday morning, a female employee found the mutilated bodies of Aguilar and Morales-Maldonado. The Reyes brothers had vanished.
In the hours after the killings, Carlos Reyes called a friend who lived in Houston, Bernardi said, and asked whether he and Cesar could stay with him. Police believe Reyes told the friend they needed to move somewhere else to make more money.
The friend arranged for a van to pick up the brothers in Hamilton, N.J. The van was part of an underground network that helps undocumented workers make trips without using commercial transportation. The brothers went to Hamilton immediately and stayed there until March 1, when the van arrived, Bernardi said.
Meanwhile, state police troopers combing the farm for evidence found a cell phone not far from the crime scene. When they saw that the brothers had called someone in the Houston area, a Spanish-speaking officer called the men's friend.
Posing as an acquaintance of the brothers, the officer learned the brothers were on their way to Texas.
On March 3, U.S. marshals found the brothers in their friend's Houston apartment complex. Immigration officials detained them after confirming that they were undocumented.
State police later found a blood-covered machete in a septic tank on the farm, along with clothing they believe is connected to the killings.
Cesar Reyes has implicated his brother in the killings, police said. He has been charged as a material witness because authorities believe they will need his testimony in order to prosecute the case.
Aguilar and Morales-Maldonado have relatives in the area, some of whom attended yesterday's news conference and left without commenting.
In a statement released through the prosecutor's office, relatives of Aguilar and Morales-Maldonado said, "We ask that those who are responsible for the crime pay for the crime and that they be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
The victims' families are devastated, said Angela Gonzales, executive director of Latinos Servicios of Burlington County.
Morales-Maldonado moved to New Jersey to make money for his wife and six children in Honduras, she said, and Aguilar was sending money to his parents and six younger siblings. The loss of that support will be financially crippling to their families, Gonzalez said.
The victims' relatives have not offered any explanations about how an argument could have turned so violent, but Aguilar had told his brother that Carlos Reyes did not like him, Gonzalez said.
"He felt that when [Reyes] drank, he would find things to disagree about," she said.
Gonzalez's group helped the families pay for funerals. Last weekend, there were services for Aguilar and Morales-Maldonado in Mount Holly. Their remains will be sent back to Honduras, Gonzalez said.
"The whole Latino community is mourning this tragedy," she said. "No human being deserves to die this way."