BERGEN, N.J. — The notorious North Jersey serial killer Khalil Wheeler-Weaver, whose frenzied crime spree in 2016 left three women dead, will spend the rest of his life in jail after being sentenced to 160 years in prison, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Superior Court Judge Mark Ali, a judge at Superior Court, listened to the pleas of both prosecutors and the families of the victims. He sentenced the man of 25 years for his entire life. The judge said no punishment could atone for the tragedy Wheeler-Weaver left in his wake — three slain women, their grieving families and a fourth surviving victim who narrowly escaped his grasp. However, the judge said that this sentence was only a first step.
“The purpose of this sentence is that this defendant never walks free in society again,” Ali said to sighs of relief and light applause in the Newark courtroom.
According to the ruling, Wheeler-Weaver will become eligible for parole in 140 years after he was arrested December 2016.
Those who spoke at Wheeler-Weaver’s sentencing Wednesday pulled no punches in their harsh words. Prosecutors called his crimes “heinous, cruel and depraved.” The judge declared him a “sociopath.” And relatives of the three murdered women, who confronted Wheeler-Weaver for the first time in court, said they took solace in knowing he will never kill again.
“I hope you can find it in your heart to give him the longest, maximum sentence,” Montclair father Walter Butler, whose daughter Sarah was found strangled to death in West Orange, New Jersey, said in court. “I hope that he lives for a very long time. And that he suffers every night, like he made our girls suffer.”
After Wheeler Weaver’s trial, in which he was convicted of murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault, the much-anticipated sentencing took nearly two years. Wheeler-Weaver, according to police, preyed upon his female victims using a consistent method of operation: arranging encounters with women for sex before wrapping their faces with tape and strangling the victim with clothes.
According to prosecutors, his main target was young women who are sex-traders. He had very few contacts that could report them missing. Only after one victim’s family created a fake profile online to lure him, did the deadly plot end.
Wheeler Weaver appeared in court Wednesday sporting handcuffs, a blue button down shirt and khakis. He cast his eyes forward, away from the family members during their statements. At his opportunity to speak, however, he reacted with a sarcastic speech in which he accused the court of framing his murders.
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“I do feel sympathy for the victims. Their families and friends are my thoughts and prayers. However, I was not the person who committed these crimes,” he said.
Ali replied that Ali was wrong because of the mountain of evidence, which included 42 witnesses and 1000 exhibits, over two months.
The prosecution presented evidence including Google search results on homemade poison making and an audio interview that he gave to police. He was caught lying about every detail. Police also pulled geolocation data out of Wheeler-Weaver’s smartphone that allowed them to track his movements during the meetings with four women.
According to testimony, he could be traced back to where each victim was killed and then to where the bodies of those victims were discovered. A jury took just two hours to convict him of every charge he was facing.
“This defendant absolutely lacks remorse,” Ali said.
Tiffany Taylor was one of Wheeler Weaver’s four victims. Three others — Sarah Butler of Montclair, New Jersey, Robin West of Philadelphia, and Joanne Brown of Newark, New Jersey, — did not.
The stories of Wheeler-Weaver’s victims and their families were explored in a special report from NorthJersey.com, part of the USA TODAY Network, after the trial ended in December 2019.
“The four were bright lights. The lights of three were permanently cut off. The fourth, while she survived, has forever had her life changed,” acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore N. Stephens II said in a statement after the sentencing. “Today, they and their families received a measure of justice.”
Stephens couldn’t rule out the possibility of other victims. The Prosecutor’s Office has opened cases with similar patterns in search of ties to Wheeler-Weaver, though no announcements are forthcoming, he said.
On August 31, 2016, West disappeared. This was the start of the killing spree. The 19-year-old’s body was discovered a month later in an abandoned building in Orange, New Jersey, that had been set ablaze by Wheeler-Weaver, to cover his tracks. Brown, 33, was also found dead in Orange, not far from Wheeler-Weaver’s home.
“Was she alive? Was she fighting? What were her last words?” West’s mother, Anita Mason, said Wednesday, telling the court she is haunted by the thought of her daughter’s final moments.
While investigating the disappearance in Montclair of 20-year old Montclair College student Butler, authorities began connecting the dots. Butler disappeared during Thanksgiving break, November 2016. Court testimony has shown that she had previously connected with Wheeler Weaver via the social media platform Tagged. She arranged to take him home in the minivan of her parents the night she disappeared. Prior to their meeting, she sent him the message that would end in disaster: “You’re no serial killer.”
Later, Butler’s remains were found under a heap of leaves and sticks at Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange.
“We just wanted everyone home for Thanksgiving,” Aliyah Butler, Sarah’s sister, said through tears on Wednesday. “She never got the chance to show the world what she could really do, because her life was cut short.”
Prosecutors credited Butler’s family with playing a key role in the case, after they discovered Wheeler-Weaver’s Tagged profile while searching through Sarah’s social media accounts after her disappearance. Butler’s other sister and a friend arranged a meeting with Wheeler-Weaver at a Panera Bread restaurant in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. Montclair police waited for Butler when he arrived.
The women were “instrumental in leading the Montclair police to identify Khalil Wheeler-Weaver as a person of interest,” Adam Wells, an assistant prosecutor in Essex County, said after the sentencing.
Prosecutors said Wheeler-Weaver avoided detection by the police using a few smart moves during the shooting. According to court testimony, he wore gloves during his interactions with women, and used condoms for sex. There was almost no evidence of DNA left behind. Only Wheeler-Weaver DNA was discovered beneath Butler’s fingernails. There was no DNA from any other victims.
The sole eyewitness to Wheeler-Weaver’s attacks was Taylor, who met with him on Nov. 15, 2016. She claimed that Wheeler Weaver held her neck in his hands as she got out of bed. She claimed that she persuaded him to take her cell phone to Elizabeth Motel in New Jersey. This is where they first met.
She locked herself inside her motel room, calling police. Wheeler-Weaver fled.
Elizabeth police did not follow Taylor up on her account. Taylor told them about her story the next night. Prosecutors say that Wheeler-Weaver murdered Butler seven days later.
Taylor looked stunned on Wednesday when he denied guilt, even though Taylor identified him to jurors in her account as the man who had sexually assaulted her and nearly killed.
“He’s not sorry at all about what he did,” Taylor said in court. “If he had a chance, he would do it again.”
Follow Tom Nobile on Twitter @tomnobile