NEWARK — The series of crimes allegedly began with a taxi ride to McDonald’s, where about $90 worth of burgers and fries were purchased with a stolen credit card.
Over roughly the next month, the crime spree allegedly continued with a carjacking and four robberies, including two incidents where men were gunned down and killed.
At the center of those offenses, prosecutors say, is James Olbert, who is accused of participating in the crimes between Dec. 15, 2011 and Jan. 17. 2012 – including the fatal shootings of Wilfredo Campos and Miguel Torres.
Olbert, now 19, of Newark, was 16 at the time of the alleged offenses.
In closing statements on Wednesday at Olbert’s trial, Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Michele Miller told jurors that Olbert had upended the lives of ordinary people.
“They were all just ordinary people living ordinary lives, doing what ordinary people do, until James Olbert set upon them and turned ordinary upside down,” Miller said. “James Olbert saw ordinary and turned it into opportunity.”
But Olbert’s attorney, public defender Ann Sorrel, maintained that the abundance of video footage, video still and other physical evidence presented by prosecutors had failed to definitively link Olbert to the crimes.
She cited the initial failure of surviving victims of the carjacking and a robbery associated with the spree to positively identify Olbert from an array of photographs, and what she called the state’s reliance on the clothing worn by suspects in the images, which she characterized as unreliable.
“The critical issue is the identification of the perpetrator. Mr. Olbert was not the person,” she said. “The state has proven that the events occurred, but not that it was James Olbert.”
Closing statements in Newark man accused of double murder James Olbert listens to closing statements in his murder trial. Olbert is charged with killing two men during a weeks-long robbery spree through Newark. He is also charged with multiple other crimes. The trial is before Superior Court Judge Martin Cronin at the Essex County Courthouse in Newark. Wednesday, April, 8, 2015(Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)Patti Sapone
While the carjacking victim and one of the robbery victims could not identify their attackers, another robbery victim initially identified Olbert as the perpetrator in her interview with police, according to Miller.
Olbert’s girlfriend also identified him in surveillance video images taken from the carjacking and one of the robberies, Miller said.
The case, however, is based in large part on Olbert’s video-taped statement to police on Jan. 20, 2012, when he admitted to his role in the two killings and most of the other crimes.
Olbert told detectives he was sitting in a car when his accomplice shot Campos on Dec. 28, 2011 during a robbery on Orange Avenue in Newark. Olbert also said he shot Torres on Jan. 17, 2012 during a robbery at his store, JNC Mini Market, in the city’s West Ward.
Miller also highlighted the statements made by Olbert when the detectives were not in the interview room.
During an outburst when he was alone in the room, Olbert cried and exclaimed, “I’m in deep.” Soon after, when Olbert and his mother were in the room by themselves, Olbert told her that if he tells the detectives he killed Torres, “they’re gonna take me.”
“He’s crying for himself,” Miller told the jurors. “Those are tears for him.”
Miller also pointed to the clothing that Olbert is allegedly seen wearing on surveillance video taken from the JNC Mini Market.
Olbert was captured on surveillance video at another convenience store earlier that day, wearing the same clothing, Miller said. The clothing also was later found in Olbert’s bedroom, Miller said.
But Olbert testified on April 1 that detectives had smacked him around, coached him with details of the crimes and forced him to make what he claims is a false confession.
“I said what the detectives told me to say,” Olbert testified.
In her closing statement, Sorrel reiterated Olbert’s assertion during his testimony that his confession was influenced by promises that he would be charged as a juvenile and allowed to go home after providing the statement.
“That’s why my client had an outburst, said what he did,” she said.