One of two men charged in death of Bronx man at Eagle Rock Reservation earlier this month will remain in Essex County Jail for allegedly luring his ‘best friend’ into the park before he was shot at close range, a judge ruled on Monday.
Text messages, cellphone pings and surveillance footage obtained by prosecutors helped piece together the details leading to the March 4 murder — and firmly convinced Judge Martin Cronin that Michael Verdel, 72, of the Bronx, worked with another man to plan the March 4 murder.
“The text messages obtained (provide) the narrative, which supports as probable cause Mr. Verdel’s complicit liability in the homicide,” Cronin said from the bench during the virtual hearing.
Defense attorneys unsuccessfully sought to release Verdel from house arrest, saying there was no evidence that Verdel “had anything to do” with the shooting.
Prosecutors said hikers came across the man’s body and police were called around 2.15pm to the Green Trail in West Orange, part of the 408-acre Forest Reserve, which includes areas from Montclair, West Orange and Verona along the ridge of the Watchung mountain range. The inside of the man’s pockets had been pulled out and he had no belongings or cellphones, Essex County Assistant District Attorney Felicia Garnes said Monday. An autopsy was performed and the the victim has been identified through fingerprints like Kelsey Steels, 31, of the Bronx.
The day before the shooting, text messages show that Verdel, known to friends as “the rabbi,” and co-defendant Posley Sulaiman, 31, of Detroit, planned to take the victim to a remote location, Garnes said. Steels previously identified Verdel as his “best friend,” according to Steels’ roommate, police said.
“Are you up? Just to let you know he’s here now, let me know what’s going on,” Verdel reportedly said at 2:52 a.m. on March 4 in a text message to Sulaiman.
Around 8 a.m., prosecutors say Sulaiman texted Verdel, “Just make up a story that we’re going somewhere to have fun or whatever, make it sound good,” this to which Verdel replies “Okay”.
Prosecutors say Sulaiman then texted again: “Pick a place in Jersey that is familiar to you.”
Sulaiman asks Verdel to send him the New Jersey address, to which Verdel replies, “We’ll find out once we get it. Wedding, Jersey dump, old car spot.”
Sulaiman advises Verdel not to text about it, but suggests that he tell the victim that she will pay him to help move things around New Jersey.
Surveillance video reportedly shows Verdel, Steels and a stranger leaving Verdel’s apartment building at 10:05 a.m. — about two hours after the text messages were sent — and getting into a BMW with Texas license plates. Prosecutors say the car is believed to belong to Sulaiman, who sat in the driver’s seat.
The car is seen on surveillance video stopping at 10:55 a.m. in the Vince Lombardi service area after crossing the George Washington Bridge; on Prospect Avenue in West Orange at 11:20 a.m.; then again at 11:26 a.m., parked across from the Eagle Rock reservation, prosecutors said.
In an exchange of text messages supposedly from inside the car, Sulaiman wrote to Verdel: “Stay away when we go out.”
Police say a witness reported hearing a gunshot at 11:45 a.m.
Detectives were able to identify the location of Verdel and Steels’ cell phones using cell tower triangulation. Steels’ phone was last located, or “pinged,” at 11:53 a.m. on I-280 east, prosecutors said.
Verdel, who appeared virtually from Essex County Jail and walked with the aid of a cane, tried to speak to the judge several times during the hearing, but his attorney, Deirdre McMahon, told him off. advised not to.
McMahon disputed prosecutors’ findings on probable cause, saying there was no evidence Verdel got out of the vehicle when booking, no witnesses put him with Steels at the time of his death and no text messages. indicated that he had anything to do with the shooting.
Verdel’s age and medical conditions, including a heart murmur and blood clots, were also raised by McMahon, who feared his client’s health would deteriorate while incarcerated.
Cronin said that while the lockdown comes with risks, the prison has taken extra steps to ensure a healthy environment for all inmates. Overall, however, he found his case not strong enough to free Verdel.
Sulaiman is being held at Rikers Island in New York on an unrelated firearms charge and will remain until that case is resolved, an Essex County spokesperson said.
Sulaiman and Verdel are charged with first degree murder, felony murder, conspiracy and robbery.
Lori Comstock can be reached on Twitter: @LoriComstockNJH, on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/LoriComstockNJH or by phone: 973-383-1194.