NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - A 29-year-old New Brunswick man who served as enforcer for a network of brothels across the state was convicted Monday of multiple counts of murder and racketeering.
A jury in U.S. District Court in Newark convicted Wilmer (Charmin) Chavez Romero of two counts of murder in aiding racketeering, and two counts of using a firearm for a violent crime, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said in a statement.
Romero was also convicted one count each of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, assault with a dangerous weapon in aid of racketeering, and conspiracy to harbor aliens, Carpenito said.
The jury reached the guilty verdicts after five hours of deliberation following a two and a half-week trial before U.S. District Judge William H. Walls.
According to documents filed in the case and the evidence at trial, Chavez Romero served as an enforcer for a prostitution enterprise that helped illegal aliens enter the country and employed them at brothels throughout Cumberland, Essex, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth and Ocean counties.
The enterprise used threats and acts of violence – including burglary, assaults, and murder – to expand its territory, thwart rival brothels, exact revenge, punish enterprise members and associates who had been disloyal, and silence people they believed were cooperating with law enforcement, authorities said.
They said Chavez Romero acted at the direction of the leaders of the enterprise: New Brunswick residents Juan Fredy Hernandez-Zozaya, 40, and his girlfriend, Elizabeth Rojas, 36, who oversaw brothels in New Brunswick, Trenton, Orange, Asbury Park, Lakewood, and Bridgeton.
Hernandez-Zozaya is still awaiting trial. His girlfriend, Rojas, was sentenced in 2016 to more than three years in prison after pleading guilty to harboring undocumented workers for financial grain, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
Chavez-Romero told investigators of his involvement in the prostitution ring to county and federal investigators during interviews that directly implicated him in two fatal shootings, authorities said.
On Sept. 4, 2012, Chavez Romero, armed with a firearm, entered a rival brothel house in Trenton with the intent to rob it. During the robbery, one victim was shot in the leg and survived, while another was shot and killed, authorities said.
In the second shooting on Jan. 23, 2013, Chavez Romero entered another rival brothel in Trenton armed with a .40-caliber firearm. Chavez Romero attempted to rob people there when a fight broke out and a victim was shot and killed, according to the evidence.
As part of the enterprise, Chavez Romero also conspired to conceal and harbor aliens and aided in their interstate transport for use in the prostitution enterprise, federal authorities said.
Both charges of murder in aid of racketeering counts carry a mandatory term of life imprisonment, and the racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges carry potential life sentences.
Each use of a firearm during a violent crime count carries a mandatory consecutive term of 10 years in prison. The conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens count carries a maximum potential term of 10 years in prison.
All counts in the indictment carry a potential $250,000 fine. Chavez Romero’s sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 25, 2018.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Meredith Williams and Melissa Wangenheim prosecuted the case.
Carpenito credited special agents of Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Brian Michael, as well as the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, Trenton Police Department, Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, and the State Police Ballistics Lab, with the investigation leading to the conviction.