‘Beloved’ N.J. Teacher Murdered by 3 Men Who Burglarized Wrong Apartment, as 1 Gets Life in Prison

A New Jersey man was sentenced to life in prison Thursday, nearly ten years after murdering a New Jersey middle school teacher whose apartment he’d burglarized thinking it was someone else’s, PEOPLE confirms.

Jerry J. Spraudling, 41, was convicted of first-degree murder in March along with two other men in the 2009 killing Jonelle Melton, 33, who was found dead in her Neptune City apartment, according to a press release from the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s office.

Spraudling must serve nearly 64 years before becoming eligible for parole,

The two other murderers — Ebenezer Byrd, 39, and Gregory A. Jean-Baptiste, 30, both of Asbury Park — are awaiting sentencing. All three were also convicted of other crimes including first-degree robbery.

The trio killed Melton after realizing they were in the wrong apartment, according to prosecutors. The Asbury Park Press reported Melton was beaten, stabbed multiple times and shot in the arm and in the head.

Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Matthew Bogner said during the defendants’ murder trial that the slaying was “about as brutal as it gets,” the Press reported. 

Six years passed between Melton’s death and when her killers were charged. Authorities learned that the trio and a fourth defendant, James Fair, planned to burglarize a particular apartment in Melton’s complex but broke into the wrong one.

The Press, citing Bogner, previously reported that within a week of the murder, Fair, a Bloods street gang leader in Asbury Park, became a suspect, and that Byrd, Jean-Baptiste and Spaulding became suspects soon after. But authorities did not have enough evidence to bring charges until 2015.

Bogner credited the “persistence of the investigators, combined with the willingness of the witnesses to finally come forward.”

Prosecutors described Melton, who taught social studies at Red Bank Middle School, as a “beloved, veteran school teacher” who was active in the school and engaged with her students.

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Her body was discovered by her husband, from whom she had separated and who also worked in the Red Bank school district, when he went looking for her after she didn’t show up to school that day. The husband was quickly ruled out as a suspect and on the stand during the defendants’ murder trial described Melton as “a beautiful girl” who “loved me and cared for me so much.”

Fair pleaded guilty in 2017 to conspiracy to commit burglary and has maintained he had nothing to do with the killing, NJ.com reports. He is serving 82 years in prison after being convicted of 78 crimes he committed in 2017, according to the prosecutor’s office.

PEOPLE’s was unable to immediately reach Spraudling’s attorney, Robert Ward, Byrd’s attorney, Paul Zager and Jean-Baptiste’s attorney, Mark Baily.

The Press previously reported that Zager and Ward said the state had no physical evidence tying their clients to the crimes. The paper also reported that attorneys for Byrd and Jean-Baptiste said they would appeal the guilty verdict.

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