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The Ten Most Brutal Garden State Murders

by Craig "Wex" Wexler
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

New Jersey, the Garden State—home to mob bosses, gangs, and serial killers—has been the scene of many violent murders over the years. Every killer, from the highest level mafia capo to the lowest violent drunk, has stalked the streets of New Jersey. There have been hangings, shootings, stabbings, and drownings. Mobsters, mafiosos, and thugs have wreaked havoc and terrorized the communities from the Jersey Shore to the Pennslyvania border for centuries. While some might look to myths such as the Jersey Devil to rationalize these gruesome murders, the fact is New Jersey is a violent place.

With homicide documentaries and TV shows becoming ever more popular each year, we’re here to present to you the ten most brutal New Jersey murders!

Related: 10 Parents Who Committed Heinous Crimes With Their Children

10 Howard Barton Shooting Spree

Howard Unruh : The Walk of Death

Howard Burton Unruh was born on January 21, 1921, in East Camden, New Jersey. He grew up in Camden, where he attended public school and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1939. His high school yearbook called him shy. After high school, he went to Europe and fought in World War II. Even though this sounds like a pretty normal—if not boring—sequence of events in a person’s life, what happened next was shocking

On September 6, 1949, Howard murdered 13 people in 12 minutes as he walked through his Camden neighborhood. The incident, now known as the “Walk of Death,” was the first post-WWII mass shooting in New Jersey history and still one of the most deadly. Barton was found criminally insane and was incarcerated for the rest of his life. Howard died in 2009 at the age of 88 following 60 years of confinement and a lengthy illness.[1]

9 Hall-Mills Double Murder

The Hall-Mills Mystery

The Hall-Mills murder case is one of the earliest examples of a “media circus” in U.S. history. Edward Wheeler Hall was an Episcopal priest in Somerset, NJ, in the 1920s. The good Father Edward was having an affair with a woman in the church choir, Eleanor Mills, who was also married. The two lovers were found dead on September 14, 1922, in a field in New Brunswick. Hall had been shot, and Mills’s throat had been cut from ear to ear. Edward’s wife, Frances Stevens Hall, was indicted in Hall’s murder trial.

Frances and her brother were indicted after a neighboring hog farmer, the “Pig Lady,” came forward. She claimed to have seen Mrs. Hall and her brother confronting the priest and Mrs. Mills on the same day as the murders. The Pig Lady was found to be an unreliable witness, and the two were acquitted. No one else was ever indicted in this double murder.[2]

8 19th Century Newspaper Killing

The founder of Vineland, NJ, Charles K. Landis, had a long-standing feud with local journalist Uri Carruth. At the height of this feud, on March 20, 1875, Carruth printed an editorial in the Vineland Independent suggesting that the town leader was considering committing his wife to an insane asylum. Landis responded by marching into the newspaper office and shooting Carruth in the back of the head.

Landis’s lawyers made a grandiose temporary insanity defense, and it worked. Landis’s wealth and influence enabled him to be acquitted of a crime he clearly committed and allowed him to continue living his life uninterrupted. Landis went on to develop Sea Isle City before he died in 1900 at the age of 67.[3]

7 The Missing Body of Sarah Stern

The Strange Disappearance of Sarah Stern

Sarah Stern, a young artist from Neptune, vanished on December 2, 2016, and hasn’t been seen either living or dead since. Her childhood friend, Liam McAtasney, was found guilty of her murder in June 2019 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. McAtasney, from Neptune City, unwittingly admitted on a secretly taped video that he strangled his childhood friend and threw her body off a bridge in a robbery that netted $10,000.

McAtasney’s partner and Stern’s one-time high school prom date, Preston Taylor, pleaded guilty to robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, and disturbing or desecrating human remains. He agreed to testify against McAtasney. They had planned to make it look like a suicide. Although this killer has been brought to justice, Stern’s body has never been found.[4]

6 New Year’s Eve Family Murder

His Family Kept His EVIL Secret Hidden… Until He TURNED ON THEM

On New Year’s Eve 2017, Scott Kologi killed his parents, sister, and a family friend. At the time, he was 16 years old. He used a Century Arms C39v2 semi-automatic rifle to kill his 18-year-old sister Brittany, his 44-year-old mother Linda, his 42-year-old father Steven, and his grandfather’s companion, 70-year-old Mary Schulz. Scott’s grandfather and another friend were in the house at the time of the shooting but survived the shooting.

Initially, Kologi was charged as a minor, but eventually, the case was moved to adult court. Kologi’s attorneys used his mental health as a motive and defense. They claimed he suffered from hallucinations and “distorted thinking.” He claimed he asked his mother for help with the homicidal thoughts he was having, but she did nothing to seek professional therapy for her troubled son. The court rejected the insanity plea. During the sentencing, Kologi showed no emotion as he was sentenced to 150 years in prison.[5]

5 Broken Tail Light Turns Blood Bath

Will Cuba agree to extradite U.S. fugitive?

A car carrying Joanne Chesimard was traveling the NJ Turnpike in East Brunswick on May 2, 1973, with a driver and a second passenger when State Trooper James H. Harper pulled it over. Harper called for backup for a supposed broken tail light. When backup arrived in the form of Trooper Werner Foerster, a gunfight ensued. The driver, Chesimard, and Harper were wounded. Foerster was found dead with two gunshots to the head from his own weapon. The second passenger (in the back seat) was also found dead. The driver, Clark E. Squire, drove away with Chesimard, but police soon captured both.

Authorities said Chesimard shot first, but her lawyer said the gunshot wound that broke her clavicle could only have happened if she had been sitting in the car with her hands raised. All three occupants of the car were members of the Black Liberation Army. Squire and Chesimard were both arrested and convicted of Foerster’s murder. However, Chesimard escaped prison and resurfaced in Cuba years later. As of 2017, she was living in Cuba, still on the FBI’s most wanted list, with a $2 million reward for her capture and extradition.[6]

4 Jersey Shore Thrill Killer

Richard Biegenwald : The Jersey Shore Thrill Killer

Richard Biegenwald grew up in and out of psychiatric hospitals and reform schools. He had already spent 17 years in prison for killing a grocer when he was paroled in 1975. He worked odd jobs for the next few years, and despite a rape charge and failing to report to his parole officer on at least one occasion, he managed to stay out of prison. However, on January 4, 1983, he shot and killed 18-year-old Anna Olesiewicz in Ocean Township, New Jersey.

Biegenwald lured Olesiewicz from the boardwalk to his car. Her body was found by some children playing in a wooded lot next to a Burger King on Route 35. He also showed a friend of his wife’s another body he had in his garage at his Asbury Park home. That anonymous friend ultimately turned Richard in to the police. They found a veritable smorgasbord of illegal contraband at the house, everything from a pipe bomb to Rohypnol and everything in between.

While there were nine suspected victims, this thrill killer was only charged with five counts of first-degree murder. The Supreme Court overturned two different death sentences. However, he did spend the rest of his life in prison. He died in prison in 2008 at 67 years old from kidney and respiratory failure.[7]

3 Wall Man Beats Toddler, Kills Infant

Austin Meli of Wall Township was charged with abusing his children, one instance leading to the death of one child. On March 9, 2019, police responded to a report of an unresponsive infant at the home. Meli, the father, had smothered the girl, and his six-week-old daughter was pronounced dead at the scene. While investigating the infant’s death, they uncovered other disturbing evidence.

The children’s mother presented authorities with video footage from two days prior showing Meli beating his 15-month-old son, shaking him, and throwing him across a room like a ragdoll. The mother also provided a secretly recorded conversation in which Meli admits to having smothered the daughter twice on the day she died.

On October 29, 2019, Meli pleaded guilty to aggravated assault on his toddler son. He then pleaded guilty to first-degree aggravated manslaughter in connection with his daughter’s death in early 2022. He was given a ten-year sentence followed by a thirty-year sentence. He must serve 85% of his time before he is eligible for parole.[8]

2 Beachwood Resident Still Missing after 32 Years

Todd J. Sonnenfeld was last seen leaving his keys and wallet at the Spirits Sports Bar (now Miracle Sports Pub) on Route 37 in Toms River around midnight on June 1, 1990. He was most likely on foot when he left the bar, but no one knows what happened to him that night or for the next seven months.

His body was found on January 28, 1991. A man walking his dog in a wooded area off Route 530 in Berkley Township found skeletal remains that turned out to be what was left of Todd. Sonnefeld, who was survived by parents, a sister, and two brothers, had no enemies to speak of and was well-liked by the people he knew. Ocean County PO Spokesman Al Della Fave hopes that someone with some information will step forward now that over three decades have passed to give his family some closure.[9]

1 The Lindbergh Baby

What most likely happened to the Lindbergh baby

On March 1, 1932, the iconic aviator Charles Lindbergh came home to find his nearly two-year-old son had been kidnapped. A ransom note was found on the window sill of their Hopewell home. The events that followed were bizarre and captured the nation’s attention. A Bronx school principal received a note from the kidnapper and subsequently volunteered to be a representative for Lindbergh. The two supposedly met twice and arranged a drop-off of $10,000 in exchange for the child.

The drop was made, but Charles Lindbergh Jr. wasn’t there. In May of that year, the baby’s body was found in the woods behind the Lindbergh estate. During the ensuing investigation, the bills from the drop led the police to a German immigrant named Bruno Richard Hauptmann. Hauptmann was tried, convicted, and executed. His widow, Anna, spent nearly 60 years trying to convince the State to reopen the case to no avail. Many, including Anna, believe her husband was set up.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen