A 21-year-old college student arrested Tuesday evening at his parent's Winslow Township home confessed to throwing his 3-month-old daughter off a Garden State Parkway bridge, police said yesterday.
Shamshiddi Abdur-Raheem of Galloway Township, near Atlantic City, allegedly abducted the infant, Zara Malani-lin Abdur, from the home of her maternal grandmother in East Orange, N.J., on Tuesday afternoon and tossed her from the Driscoll Bridge, over the Raritan River in Middlesex County, according to a state police spokesman.
Helicopters and marine units from the state police, the Coast Guard, and New York City, East Orange, Jersey City, Union County, Perth Amboy, and Newark police and fire departments participated in the search for the child, which was called off at nightfall yesterday.
Officials said they would return to the freezing, murky river today.
"I just want my baby to come back home," Venetta Benjamin, Zara's mother, said at the apartment house where the alleged abduction took place. "She's a very bubbly baby. . . . She's an angel."
Abdur-Raheem has been charged with kidnapping and attempted murder, among other offenses, and will be arraigned in Essex County Superior Court today.
Benjamin, 23, who has custody of the child, was in the same Newark court filing a restraining order against Abdur-Raheem at the time of the alleged abduction, acting Attorney General Paula Dow said yesterday.
"There had been bad blood between the couple," she said.
"It was an up-and-down relationship," Abdur-Raheem's father, Muhsin Raheem, 57, said at his home yesterday, a framed photo of Zara on the table next to him.
Benjamin and Abdur-Raheem, who both attended Richard Stockton College, dated for three years, Raheem said.
They lived together until recently, when Benjamin moved in with her mother, he said.
There had been a baby shower, said the suspect's father, who called Zara's birth "a joyous occasion" for the family. But the parents had been arguing over how often Abdur-Raheem could see the child, he said.
"I believe he wanted to get married, and she didn't," Raheem said.
Officials said that the abduction began about 4 p.m. Tuesday, when Abdur-Raheem barged into the apartment of Leno Benjamin, striking and choking the 60-year-old woman before leaving with Zara, who was dressed in a pink-and-gray onesie.
Building-rental agent Tawana Malloy, 39, said she saw Abdur-Raheem run with the baby tucked under his arm and get into the passenger seat of a red Dodge Caravan.
She said police were reviewing video from the building's security system.
Barefoot and wearing a torn T-shirt, the grandmother tried to stop the van, but it struck her and sped away, police said.
"He took the baby, he took the baby," Malloy recalled the grandmother crying.
Leno Benjamin told the building manager, Chris Bailey, that someone else was driving the vehicle. Authorities would not confirm if there were additional suspects.
East Orange Police Chief Ron Borgo said a bulletin about the missing child was issued to state police about 4:30 p.m.
Abdur-Raheem is a criminal-justice major at Stockton, and was to graduate in May. He wanted to become a lawyer, his father said.
He is an observant Muslim, Raheem said, and a well-mannered son who took his sister to her prom.
Last spring, he participated in an internship in Washington in the U.S. Attroney General's office for the District of Columbia.
"He might get into your face over something that he believed strongly about, but then, he would have a way of calming down and smiling," said Abdul Cooper, a former Stockton roommate.
Abdur-Raheem had a juvenile record for dealing drugs, his father said, but had "turned himself around" and earned good grades. He graduated from Atlantic City High School in 2006. His parents moved to Camden County about a year ago.
Benjamin graduated from Stockton last year with a degree in economics and was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a sorority that promotes service to the community.
She had worked as an office assistant at the school and as a casino cashier at Harrah's Atlantic City to earn money to pay for her education, said Tulicia Moore, a college classmate.
Benjamin had recently been employed as a bank teller, according to an online resumé site.
"I can't believe something horrible like this has happened to her," Moore said.
Raheem said that his son sought the counsel of the imam at Masjid Muhammad, his Atlantic City mosque, immediately after the abduction.
The imam brought Abdur-Raheem to his parents' house in Winslow. After talking with his son, Raheem called township police about 8 p.m., officials said.
Authorities began their search for Zara immediately after receiving information about the alleged crime.
Raheem would not talk about what his son told him - "I don't want to incriminate him any more than he incriminated himself," he said - but described him as "very remorseful."
"We're all distraught about this," Raheem said in his living room, decorated with religious photos and objects. "We're faithful people. We don't condone any kind of violence."
His son did not discuss his problems with his family, he said.
"That was his big mistake," Raheem said. "He needed to talk to someone. He thought he could deal with stuff on his own."
The father wiped his face and breathed a heavy sigh when asked if he thought the baby might still be alive.
"I hope it's a miracle," he said.