Apr 30, 2010

 
 

NEWARK — She lay face-down on the pavement, trying in terror to follow the orders of those who had already robbed and molested her. "Somebody had their knee on my back," she said, when suddenly, "They pulled my hair up and was trying to chop my neck off with a machete."

"I guess the knife was dull, because I just felt banging," Natasha Aeriel told a jury here Thursday morning. "But then I saw a bunch of blood." Screaming for mercy, she managed to push one attacker off her and rose to flee, when another shot her in the head.

The sole survivor of a notorious attack in a Newark schoolyard that left her brother and two friends dead almost three years ago, Ms. Aeriel told her story publicly for the first time in State Superior Court in Essex County. She recounted the horror of Aug. 4, 2007, in grim detail, in testimony that is at the heart of the prosecution's case in the first trial of one of the six men accused in the slayings.

Despite partial facial paralysis from the shooting that forces her to talk from one side of her mouth, Ms. Aeriel, 22, spoke clearly in three and a half hours on the witness stand, pausing just once to regain her composure. But her left hand was in nervous motion much of the time, holding her chin or her cheek, playing with the collar of her light brown jacket or running through her braids.

More than 20 relatives and friends of the victims sat in the gallery, underlining her words with a few gasps, silent tears, even a little laughter and, at one point, a smattering of applause, which brought a rebuke from Judge Michael L. Ravin.

She calmly described her wounds, tugging at her gray blouse to reveal a machete scar on her right shoulder, and pointing to the spot where the bullet struck behind her left ear. She told of living in chronic pain and of multiple operations to remove bullet fragments from her head, reattach her ear and partially reconstruct her jaw.

But what she could not do was say much about the defendant in this trial, Rodolfo Godinez, 26. She identified another of the accused as the one who shot her and said a third hacked at her neck and shoulders. In the aftermath of the attack, she was able to identify some of the defendants from pictures, but not Mr. Godinez, whose lawyers have acknowledged that he was there but say he did not participate in the attack.

Investigators have described Mr. Godinez, a native of Nicaragua, as a recruiter for MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a violent street gang composed mostly of Central Americans.

 

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