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New twists in N.J. murder case where a body was buried in a backyard

One year after a body was found, buried in a N.J. backyard, little has been released about the case against two brothers who are charged with murder, except that a surveillance camera captured one of them purchasing a shovel soon after their housemate disappeared.

Lumberton homicide photo, Bryan Costello and Christopher Costello (right)
Lumberton homicide photo, Bryan Costello and Christopher Costello (right)Read moreHandout photo

Last Halloween, the police were knocking on doors and asking if anyone had seen Justin DuBois.

A few weeks earlier, DuBois, 23, had moved in with two brothers, Bryan and Christopher Costello, and their father, who lived in a close-knit neighborhood on a cul-de-sac in Lumberton.

Law enforcement began a search after DuBois' mother said she hadn't heard from him for four days, and they soon discovered his body, buried in a grave in the Costellos' small backyard. He was killed sometime between Oct. 27 and Nov. 3,  according to an indictment that charged the brothers with first-degree murder and desecrating human remains.

One year later, scant information is available on what went wrong and why.

But details about what happened before and after the alleged murder on Spencer Court are coming into focus based on testimony given during an Oct. 13 pretrial hearing in Superior Court in Burlington County and interviews last week with neighbors and people involved in the case.

Neighbors who had watched the Costello brothers grow from small children into young men are still in disbelief over the allegations.

Bryan Costello, now 25, was in grade school when his mother, Diane Costello, died in 2001. Christopher, 28, was in middle school.

Their father, Robert, raised them alone after she died. He could not be reached for comment.

Those who knew the victim also are in shock, a year later, saying DuBois had been nicknamed "Whispers" because of his soft-spoken voice and shy nature.

"He was a really quiet kid but always came alive on the basketball court," said Chip Mitchell, an assistant coach for the varsity basketball team at Life Center Academy in Burlington, where DuBois went to school in his sophomore and junior years. "He wanted to play basketball in college and then the NBA, and that's all he ever talked about."

DuBois, who previously lived in West Windsor, later graduated from West Windsor High.

On Nov. 3, 2016, the Costello brothers were brought into police headquarters for questioning, before the body was found, and each gave a statement. This month, their defense lawyers successfully argued that these statements are inadmissible at trial because their clients were not read their rights. Superior Court Judge Jeanne T. Covert agreed.

The police and investigators "talked to my client an hour and a half without Mirandizing him, and then decided to Mirandize them because they said they found new evidence at the house. … They said they weren't suspects yet, but we argued it clearly was an interrogation," said Tim Farrow, a Moorestown attorney who represents Bryan Costello.

Bonnie Geller-Gorman, Christopher Costello's attorney, did not return calls for comment. In her motion, she said her client's statement was an "illegally elicited confession in violation of the Constitution."

During the pretrial hearing to decide whether the statements to police should be suppressed, detectives testified that surveillance cameras had captured Christopher Costello purchasing a shovel at a Lowe's home improvement store around the time of the murder. Video also showed him getting out of DuBois' car, police said. DuBois' car was parked in front of the Costello home when police arrived.

The cause of death is blunt force trauma, according to Joel Bewley, spokesman for the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office.

Police discovered the body, which had been placed inside a container, beneath newly disturbed loose soil not far from the rear of the two-story house. It's not clear what kind of container was used.

The brothers remain in the Burlington County Detention Center on $500,000 bail each, cash or bond only, which was set by a judge two months before New Jersey's Criminal Justice Reform Act went into effect. Under the act, a person charged with murder is not entitled to bail and must be tried within six months unless there are special circumstances.

Farrow said that he expects the trial could be held early next year, if the case is not dismissed by the judge due to a lack of evidence. If convicted, the brothers could face life imprisonment.

Neighbors, who didn't want to be named, said the house where the Costellos lived has been vacant. The bank now owns it.

Neighbors said the family was friendly and they never witnessed any signs that the brothers would be capable of murder. The brothers had always been polite, they said.

But about five years ago, they said, they began to see suspicious activity — as many as 40 or 50 cars pulling up to the house briefly and then leaving, on a daily basis. They said they suspected drug dealing and contacted local police.

The brothers worked occasionally as landscapers, and the steady car traffic occurred only during the day, when their father was working, the neighbors said.

Christopher Costello was convicted of theft in 2013, according to court records. He also was arrested for possession of drugs in June 2016, according to news reports in the Burlington County Times.

Lumberton Police Chief Anthony DiLoreto declined to confirm that police were called to investigate suspicious activity and said the pending murder trial limits him from discussing what action may have been taken.  "I can't comment because it hasn't gone to court yet, " he said.

Bewley also said he could not confirm any reports of drug dealing at the house.

Dave Boudwin, another assistant basketball coach at Life Center Academy, said DuBois was not only a valuable player, but he was "a really solid kid, a good kid. … What happened was sad and terrible."

DuBois had no criminal record.

Mitchell, who also coached DuBois, said he lost touch with DuBois after he left the Life Center Academy, but then ran into him at a local convenience store a few months before he died. "I didn't recognize him … but I heard a little whisper, 'Coach,' and I looked at his eyes and knew who he was, and we had a chance to catch up. … He seemed like he was fine, said he was working. I'm so glad I saw him that day."