NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - A jury is deciding whether a city man beat and left for dead Billy McCaw, a 22-year-old college student, on a cold, snowy weekend three years ago in a New Brunswick backyard.
Timothy Puskas, who lived a block from the Hartwell Street property where McCaw was found on Feb. 15, 2014 after being bludgeoned to death, has pleaded not guilty to murdering the Kean University student.
Both the defense and the prosecution presented closing arguments on Friday, painting vastly-different pictures of what happened the night of the slaying and during the subsequent police investigation.
“There is not a hair. There is not a fiber. There is not a drop of blood,” defense attorney Joseph Mazraani said. “There is nothing connecting Tim to the crime scene, nothing connecting Tim to this victim.”
The police investigation of the murder was flawed since its inception, Mazraani claimed. He said pressure from higher-ups and the Rutgers community pushed detectives to target an “innocent local” who was incapable of killing McCaw, a former Rutgers student.
The investigation relied on the word of several “rats” who lived with Puskas on Plum Street, Mazraani said. He claimed some people tried to frame Puskas because he planned to inform police of a burglary ring with which they were involved.
“Folks, a foundation built by rats cannot withstand this storm,” Mazraani told the jury. “It just cannot.”
Meanwhile, the defense attorney said, police overlooked leads that could have nailed the killer. Other possible perpetrators included a man who was found in possession of McCaw’s cellphone, young men who were jealous of McCaw spending time with their girlfriends and individuals who were involved with drugs, Mazraani claimed.
He said police and prosecutors merely performed a “surface scratching” of these other leads and instead let their “narrative” decide the course of the investigation.
In her closing statement, Middlesex County Assistant Prosecutor Bina Desai decidedly disagreed with Mazraani’s portrayal of the murder investigation.
“This was not a rush to judgment like the defense would have you believe,” she said. “The evidence led to the defendant’s arrest, not the other way around.”
Detectives looked into other possible killers and scenarios, but Puskas emerged as the killer, Desai claimed.
Some of his roommates claimed to have heard someone, presumably Puskas, leave his home around the believed time of the murder, a claim cast into doubt by Mazraani.
Although some of the prosecution’s witnesses were not exactly upstanding citizens, they were the people who lived with and knew Puskas, she said.
The defense theorized that McCaw may have met up with other friends before being attacked. Desai noted that no one has come forward with such information.
“You’d also have to believe that the people he was drinking with were the ones that killed him,” she added.
The prosecution and the defense disagreed on the likely time of McCaw’s death and the route he took to get to Hartwell Street.
McCaw was killed after a night of partying at two Rutgers frat houses. From there, prosecutors believe he walked down Hamilton Street and encountered an enraged Puskas on or near Hartwell.
Desai portrayed Puskas as an enraged man who was upset after a divorce and a theft from his bank account. He walked the streets of New Brunswick that night, “seeking someone to hurt,” she claimed.
But the defense said Puskas was a sick, sad man dealing with his mother’s ailing health. He had already known about the thefts against him for weeks by the time McCaw was killed and was more prone to whining than battering people, Mazraani said.
Police have neither identified nor found the weapon used to murder McCaw. The defense said Puskas never saw it, while the prosecution claims he hid or destroyed it.
Many of McCaw’s family members have traveled from Tennessee to watch the trial unfold, wearing red-and-black clothing and Rutgers gear. Some held their faces as the two sides presented their closing statements, while others teared up.
For them—and the shocked Rutgers community—the jury’s looming verdict could offer a sense of closure.
Being found not guilty would end a years-long “nightmare” for Puskas, who was found guilty two years ago of a fatal hit-and-run crash.