A MOTHER'S SOBS filled a corridor of the Camden courthouse yesterday, her voice crying out a question that only two men can ever answer: Why?
"Por que?" Fatima Perez's mother wailed.
Minutes earlier inside a courtroom, the woman, along with Perez's siblings, children and other relatives, had wiped away tears as a prosecutor alleged that Perez, a hardworking mother of two from East Camden, was kidnapped and buried alive in a shallow grave in Gloucester County.
The two Camden County men in orange jumpsuits and handcuffs facing murder charges, Carlos Alicea-Antonetti, 36, of Camden, and Ramon Ortiz, 57, of Pennsauken, said little and showed no emotion during the brief hearing, even as Special Deputy Attorney General Christine Shah had to pause to compose herself.
Alicea-Antonetti, who is married with children, had done landscaping work for Perez and told authorities that he picked her up Monday morning to take her to buy a car, according to Shah. Perez was carrying $8,000 in cash.
Alicea-Antonetti allegedly told authorities that the two had an argument and that Perez fell out of his van and was injured, yet got back in. He didn't say what the argument was about, why he decided to tie her up, or why she was killed.
Ortiz, who worked for Alicea-Antonetti's company, Villa Coamo Landscaping and General Maintenance, allegedly told police that Alicea-Antonetti picked him up and that he saw Perez tied up in the back of the van. Perez pleaded with Ortiz, Shah said, but the two men continued on, driving south toward Gloucester County.
"Ortiz said Ms. Perez asked him to help her," Shah said, her voice choking with emotion as she read from the statement.
It was nighttime when the men allegedly pulled Perez, eyes covered and mouth bound with tape, out of the van and took her into a field in Monroe Township. Ortiz allegedly told investigators that he dug the grave, and both men said Perez was alive when they shoveled dirt and lime on top of her.
An autopsy determined that she died of asphyxiation.
A tip led investigators to the Express Inn in Cherry Hill, where they found Ortiz in a room about 3 a.m. Wednesday and Alicea-Antonetti walking nearby. The two men had about $7,000 in cash and had dismantled a cellphone.
Ortiz, who has a long history of drug charges, led authorities to the grave, which the men had tried to conceal with branches and other debris.
It was not Alicea-Antonetti's first time in a courtroom, either. In April 2006, he was charged with aggravated assault for choking his wife with his hands, Shah said.
Alicea-Antonetti's wife uses as her Facebook profile photo an image of Alicea-Antonetti standing with her and several children. She posted a message of gratitude yesterday, in Spanish, to those who had been supporting her family. She did not return requests for comment.
Perez's relatives declined to comment yesterday as they shuffled out of the courthouse, arm-in-arm. On Wednesday, two of Perez's sisters said that she had worked constantly, cleaning office buildings, and was a doting mother to her two children. Both said Perez, a native of Nicaragua, was single and regularly attended Sunday Mass at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in Camden.
They reported her missing at 4:26 p.m. Monday, authorities said.
Camden City Councilman Frank Moran, who attended the hearing with Perez's family, said the family would try to move on but still needs answers.
"This brings some closure, but there's still so much they don't know," he said.
Alicea-Antonetti and Ortiz were ordered held on $5 million bail each.