When Sarah Butler did not return home in Montclair, New Jersey, after borrowing her mother’s minivan in November 2016, her family immediately recognized that she might be in trouble.
Using Ms Butler’s computer passwords to log into her email and social media accounts, one of her sisters and two friends found one of the last men she had spoken to online. Then they set up a date with him at a Panera Bread cafe in Montclair, with the police waiting in the parking lot.
At the time, police viewed the man, Khalil Wheeler-Weaver, then a 20-year-old Orange, NJ security guard, as a person of interest in Ms Butler’s disappearance.
But the trap Ms Butler’s sister and friends set on November 26, 2016 helped detectives identify Mr Wheeler-Weaver as a suspect and ultimately a serial killer, authorities said.
On Wednesday, nearly five years later, Mr. Wheeler-Weaver, 25, was sentenced to 160 years in prison for the murder of Ms. Butler, 20; Robin West, 19, of Union Township; and Joanne Brown, 33, of Newark; and for the kidnapping, sexual assault and attempted murder of Tiffany Taylor. All four were attacked from August to November in 2016.
Adam B. Wells of the Essex County District Attorney’s Office, the lead prosecutor in the case, credited Ms Butler’s sister and friends with orchestrating the first face-to-face meeting between Montclair Police and Mr Wheeler -Weaver, giving detectives a “big break start” in the investigation.
“They really went above and beyond what people often do,” he said in an interview. “It’s a testament to their love for their friend and sister.”
Ms Butler was a student at New Jersey City University when she started talking to Mr Wheeler-Weaver on Tagged, a social networking site, where his name was LilYachtRock.
After borrowing her mother’s minibus to meet him on November 22, 2016, Wheeler-Weaver strangled her, authorities said. His body was found in the Eagle Rock Preserve in West Orange on December 1, 2016.
Before his body was found, the police opened an investigation into the missing persons. At the same time, Ms. Butler’s sister, Bassania Daley, and two female friends, LaMia Brown and Samantha Rivera, began their own detective work.
Because Ms Brown knew Ms Butler’s computer passwords, they were able to log into her social media accounts and discovered Ms Butler had spoken to LilYachtRock on Tagged, Mr Wells said.
Ms. Rivera has created her own profile on Tagged. Within an hour, LilYachtRock had contacted her and started urging her to meet him in person, Mr Wells said.
Ms Rivera was at the Montclair Police Station, hoping to tell detectives that she had just been contacted by the last man who contacted Ms Butler, when he called her on her phone, Mr Wells said. Ms. Daley pulled out her phone and recorded the conversation.
Ms Rivera arranged to meet him at Panera and waved to him when he arrived in a BMW, Mr Wells said.
It was then that the police, who were waiting in the parking lot, arrested Mr. Wheeler-Weaver and questioned him about Ms. Butler’s disappearance.
Mr Wheeler-Weaver was not immediately arrested because Ms Butler’s body had not yet been found and was seen only as a person of interest, not a suspect, Mr. Wells.
But the way he contacted Ms. Rivera so quickly increased detectives’ concerns about him, and he gave an alibi which then came to light, Mr. Wells said.
“This first contact with Wheeler-Weaver was a big break,” Mr. Wells said. “It gave us more reason to be suspicious of him.”
Mr. Wheeler-Weaver was arrested a few days later after Ms. Butler’s body was found. Ms Daley, Ms Brown and Ms Rivera did not respond to messages left at the numbers listed under their names. Their role in resolving the case has already been reported by NorthJersey.com.
While he may be charming on the surface, Mr Wheeler-Weaver has tortured and strangled women who are poor, homeless, mentally ill or engaged in sex work, authorities said.
Police discovered he had searched online for anesthesia and drugs to “put someone to sleep”, as well as homemade poisons, authorities said.
Investigators also found a body fluid cleaning kit, zip ties and a lighter in the trunk of the car where he assaulted Ms Taylor in November 2016, authorities said.
After Mr. Wheeler-Weaver murdered Ms. West on September 1, 2016, he set her body on fire and set fire to an abandoned house where he had left her, authorities said.
Her remains were so badly charred that she must have been identified through dental records.
“He believed that not all of the victims would be noticed,” Judge Mark S. Ali said during Mr. Wheeler-Weaver’s conviction on Wednesday in Essex County Superior Court. “He thought all the victims would eventually be forgotten. “
Mr. Wheeler-Weaver, reading a sheet of paper, maintained his innocence.
“I have clear and compelling evidence that I was tricked, lied to and tricked by the Essex County District Attorney’s Office,” he said.
During the hearing, Ms. Taylor denied Mr. Wheeler-Weaver’s claims. Ms Taylor, who was kidnapped and assaulted by Mr Wheeler-Weaver seven days before Ms Butler was killed, pointed out that she had previously met Mr Wheeler-Weaver at his home and recognized him when he l ‘had attacked.
During the attack, Mr. Wheeler-Weaver had handcuffed her, put duct tape around her head and began to cover her nose and mouth, Judge Ali said. But Ms Taylor was able to slip a hand from the handcuffs and then escape when she locked the door to her hotel room, leaving Mr Wheeler-Weaver outside.
Ms Taylor said that since the attack she did not style her hair, do not wear makeup and did not or want friends.
“I don’t trust anyone,” she said. “I’m still paranoid. But I’m just happy to still be here and to be able to relate what happened so that he can be locked up for it.