FREEHOLD, NJ — A Lakewood man has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of a man whose body was found in a Howell roadway last Friday morning, according to the Monmouth County’s Prosecutor’s Office.

Juan Carlos Rivera Rojas, 29, of Linden Avenue, who also is known as Omar Rivera Rojas, is accused of killing Domingo Merino Rafael, 33, of Seminole Drive in Lakewood, whose body was found on Hurley Pond Road by Howell police shortly after 3:46 a.m. on October 18.

Rivera Rojas is being held in the Monmouth County Correctional Institution in Freehold, scheduled to make his first appearance before Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Paul X. Escandon on November 1. A detention hearing will follow that proceeding.

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A joint investigation by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and Howell Police Department determined that Rivera Rojas and Merino Rafael traveled from Lakewood to Middlesex County on Thursday evening, October 17, and were returning to Lakewood shortly after 3 a.m. on Friday when the pair got into an argument that culminated with the killing of Merino Rafael.

Responding to a 911 call at 3:46 a.m., Howell police found an unconscious Hispanic male lying face down in Hurley Pond Road, just east of Squankum Road (Route 524 in Monmouth County), according to authorities.

Upon arrival at the scene by Monmouth County’s Serious Collision Analysis Response Team, it was determined that Merino Rafael’s death was not the result of a hit-and-run accident, as was initially investigated. His body was taken to the Middlesex County Regional Medical Examiner’s Office where a post-mortem examination determined the cause of death as a homicide, the prosecutor's office said.

Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni said that interagency cooperation among law enforcement agencies during the investigation “could not have been better.”

“This arrest was the result of outstanding work done by all the investigators from our Major Crimes Bureau and Forensics Unit, as well as the Howell Township Police Department, Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and the Lakewood Police Department,” he said.

Howell Police Chief Andrew Kudrick added, “My initial impression was this was going to be a challenging investigation. However, as it commenced it was obvious the tenacity of the officers involved from both my agency and the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office proved otherwise. Together, they worked as a unified team, around the clock until this was quickly resolved.”

If convicted of murder, Rivera Rojas faces a minimum sentence of 30 years in a New Jersey prison without parole and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, subject to the “No Early Release Act” requiring him to serve 85 percent of his sentence before becoming eligible for parole. He would also be under parole supervision for five years following his release from state prison.

The case is assigned to Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutor Stephanie Dugan.

Anyone with information that could assist in this investigation is urged to contact Detective Kevin Condon of the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office at 800-533-7443 or Detective Sgt. Peter Kuppler of the Howell Police Department at 732-938-4575, ext. 2245.

Anyone who wants to remain anonymous but has information about a crime can contact Monmouth County Crime Stoppers confidential telephone tip-line by calling 1-800-671-4400; can text “MONMOUTH” plus their tip to 274637; or, they can email a tip via the website at www.monmouthcountycrimestoppers.com. Monmouth County Crime Stoppers will pay up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest of criminals and fugitives.

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