CRANFORD, NJ — Detectives had been searching for April Wyckoff’s body for days when John McCabe noticed a pair of bleach-marked sweatpants on a concrete barrier about 1:15 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon in an industrial section of Newark along the Passaic River.
The deputy chief of investigators for the Union County Prosecutor’s Office told the state Superior Court last week that it was enough for him and Union Director of Police Dan Zieser investigate further.
When they got closer, the sweatpants smelled like they had been there for while, McCabe said. A little beyond that, they noticed a black garbage bag hanging from the top of a barbed wire fence approximately 4 feet from the guardrail, which led them to three more black garbage bags at the base of a chain-link fence. On the other side of the guardrail was an additional garbage bag with white, brown and blue towels scattered about.
McCabe cut through the bags immediately and found an ear and an eye socket.
The dramatic testimony on Wednesday, Sept. 20 came one week into the trial of Matthew Ballister, who is accused of killing Wyckoff at his home on Mercer Avenue in Union on Oct. 22, 2013, five days before most of her dismembered body was found by McCabe and Zeiser. Ballister was arrested Oct. 24, and is being held on more than $5 million bail.
Prosecutors claim Ballister killed Wyckoff, his girlfriend, a 43-year-old mother of two who was living in in Cranford at the time, and dismembered and disposed of her body on the 100 block of Raymond Boulevard.
Police place Wycoff’s death at Oct. 22, pointing to a frantic 9-1-1 phone call with Wyckoff screaming, “I’m going to die. He’s coming back.”
In his opening statement, Union County Assistant Prosecutor Scott Peterson said a man could be heard in the background on the call saying, “What did I tell you? Who are you talking to?” After one minute and 28 seconds, the call went dead, Peterson told the jury.
Defense attorney Thomas Russo told the court that Ballister, also 43 at the time, did not purposefully kill Wyckoff, rather it was an accident. In his opening statement, Russo said both Ballister and Wyckoff were addicted to cocaine, and when Wyckoff dialed 9-1-1, she was in a drug-induced hysteria.
Russo said that Ballister wanted to get Wyckoff medical help, so he placed her in the back seat of his Hummer. He then went to lock up the house, but by the time he returned, Wyckoff had gotten out of the vehicle and was hiding underneath it. When Ballister backed out of the driveway, he ran over her.
Ballister’s mother, Eleanor Schofield of Mountainside, has been charged with a fourth-degree count of hindering apprehension. Schofield allegedly interfered with the investigation by attempting to assist in Ballister’s efforts to conceal evidence of the crime, according to a Union County Prosecutor’s Office press release.
Also last week, the jury heard evidence from an AT&T radio engineer and a detective from the Union County Prosecutor’s Office.
On Friday, Sept. 22, assistant prosecutor Jill Reyes introduced Ballister’s phone records from the night of Oct. 22, which the engineer said showed movement. At one point, Ballister’s cell phone was retrieving data from a cell site in Brooklyn. While far away, this was possibly due to a nearby water source carrying radio frequencies, the engineer said.
In the afternoon, Sgt. Johnny Ho of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office testified that he had canvassed surveillance footage in Newark, where Wyckoff’s car was recovered at 50 Livingston St. about a mile from where her body was found, a week before its discovery. Peterson played several videos for the jury from the night of Oct. 22 that Ho had collected from nearby Newark businesses, Liberty State Park in Jersey City and from The Home Depot on U.S. Route 22 in Watchung.
In one video that was shown, a man is seen parking a car that seems to be Wyckoff’s Hyundai Sonata.
The video showed brake lights from the car illuminating, followed by a man exiting the vehicle.
Later, the same man returns, then leaves the vehicle behind and walking away in the opposite direction from which he’d come.
In Russo’s cross examination of Ho, the detective said that the car’s license plate and the driver could not be identified in the video.