2 charged in Jersey City killings

One suspect lived upstairs from slain family, police say

Saturday, March 05, 2005

BY BRIAN DONOHUE AND RUSSELL BEN-ALI

Star-Ledger Staff

A pair of convicted drug dealers were charged yesterday with the grisly January slayings of a Jersey City family in what authorities described as a robbery that turned murderous when the family's 8-year-old daughter recognized one of the masked robbers as a neighbor.

Desperate for cash to pay off a debt, authorities say, Edward McDonald, 25, and Hamilton Sanchez, 30, tied up the Egyptian immigrant couple and their two children and held them at gunpoint for hours, demanding their ATM pass code so they could drain their bank account.

When the younger child, Monica Armanious, broke loose and recognized McDonald as the tenant renting the upstairs apartment of the two-family home, McDonald stabbed her to death with a knife from the kitchen drawer, authorities said. Sanchez then stabbed her sister and parents to death, authorities said.

The victims, Hossam Armanious, 47, his wife, Amal Garas, 37, and their daughters, Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8, were found slain inside their Oakland Avenue home three days after the Jan. 11 killings.

"For all of us here in this room to think like logical, law-abiding, legitimate people, we can't fathom it really, we can't fathom it," Prosecutor Ed DeFazio said at an afternoon news conference in Jersey City. "That's not the mindset that we're dealing with here."

McDonald, a convicted Jersey City drug dealer, and Sanchez, a Hoboken native completing a federal drug sentence in a Newark halfway house, were charged with four counts each of felony murder. Both men face life in prison if found guilty. DeFazio said authorities are considering seeking the death penalty.

During back-to-back, five-minute arraignments before Hudson County Superior Court Judge Kevin G. Callahan yesterday, both men pleaded not guilty. Bail was set at $10 million cash for each man.

Standing before the judge with his head bowed and hands cuffed behind his back, the slender and unshaven McDonald quietly answered Callahan's questions with replies of "yes sir."

Through his lawyer, McDonald, convicted in 2001 for delivering 500 grams of cocaine to an undercover federal informant in Maine, asked to be placed in protective custody. The request was granted.

Sanchez, convicted in 1994 of weapons possession and sentenced a year later to 151 months in federal prison on conspiracy to import heroin into the United States, stood before the judge and wept.

"I didn't kill nobody," he said as he was led from the packed courtroom. "I didn't kill nobody."

For seven weeks, speculation over the killings had deeply divided Jersey City's large Egyptian community.

Members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, a Christian sect to which the victims belonged, had speculated the crime had been committed by Muslim fanatics. At one point, several Copts reported three neighborhood Muslim businessmen to the FBI they believed committed the crime.

Among the victim's relatives and fellow church members yesterday, relief over the lack of a religious motive mixed with the bitter shock of seeing the accused killers walk before them for the first time.

Seated in the second row of the courtroom, Ferial Garas, the mother of Amal, rocked back and forth. Ayman Garas, brother of Amal, said he felt physically ill.

"We thought it was somebody from outside," said Ayman Garas of McDonald. "We never thought it was this guy. My sister used to mention, he was a very good guy, they usually paid their rent on time."

Then, referring to Sanchez's weeping before the judge, he added: "I don't go by crying. I go by justice."

DeFazio said investigators are continuing to search for additional people in connection with the case.

Sources close to the investigation said McDonald and his wife were lying in bed in the upstairs apartment when the police knocked down the door to the home and discovered the family slain in the apartment below.

McDonald was questioned several times immediately after the murders and released.

Meanwhile, in the early days of the investigation, speculation over a possible religious motive raged.

Chasing the theory, the FBI sent investigators to the family's native Egypt and scoured computer records, searching for evidence of an Internet threat friends say Armanious received after an online religious debate.

But a letter in the mail led them to a suspect much closer to home.

In mail sent to the family, prosecutors found a notice from the Bank of America saying Armanious' ATM card had been canceled due to someone repeatedly trying to withdraw more than the daily minimum amount, DeFazio said earlier this week.

Investigators gathered bank records and recovered video surveillance tapes of a man withdrawing thousands of dollars from the family account. Another showed a car pulling up to a drive-through ATM in Jersey City.

Investigators recognized the man in the grainy footage as the tenant they had interviewed in the first days of the investigation. In another tape was a car they traced to McDonald's mother.

On Thursday, McDonald was taken into custody. Sanchez was arrested on a Jersey City street late that night.

Over the next 24 hours, authorities pieced together the crime.

DeFazio said the two men had a large debt and that they believed the Armanious family, who relatives said were planning on starting a business, had large amounts of money.

On the night of Jan. 11, DeFazio said, the two men met on the front porch and knocked on the family's door. When Amal answered, they pulled out a semiautomatic gun and barged their way inside, then tied up the mother and two girls.

Sometime between 9:30 and 10 p.m., Armanious returned home from his job as a waiter at a Princeton hotel. He too was bound and gagged at gunpoint.

At some point, Monica broke free, pulled the tape from her mouth, and ran for the door. Somehow -- through his voice, his walk or other features -- the girl recognized one of the captors as the upstairs tenant, DeFazio said.

"Mr. McDonald believed that he had been identified by the younger daughter," DeFazio said yesterday afternoon. "From there, tragically, the situation deteriorated and spiraled out of control."

After McDonald killed Monica, DeFazio said, Sanchez killed the rest of the family.

With the arrests, Jersey City Police Chief Robert Troy and Mayor Jerramiah Healy called on the communities to begin a dialogue aimed at repairing the rift caused by the speculation over a religious killing.

Referring to McDonald and Sanchez, Troy said: "These two animals shouldn't divide anybody."