She woke up. She felt his weight pinning her to the back seat of the car. She felt his arm tight against her throat, squeezing. Felt her wrists in handcuffs behind her back. Duct tape stretched around her head, covering her nose and mouth.
Tiffany Taylor was being raped.
He spoke. Don’t worry, he said. He had done this before. When he finished, he would carry her body to the trunk of the car.
She cried. She bit her tongue, and it bled. Her tears and blood loosened the tape. She screamed. Don’t kill me. Please. Don’t kill me. I’m pregnant.
I know, he said.
‘I wasn’t planning on dying that day’
Scroll down for the full video of Tiffany’s story about how she managed to escape with her life.
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey
In the summer and fall of 2016, a serial killer stalked the streets of urban New Jersey.
He attacked four women in 84 days. He killed three.
He used his phone for everything. To hunt women. To learn faster ways to kill. When a murder was complete, he asked his phone for directions home.
After most violent crimes, victims and their loved ones must wait, hoping police and prosecutors may someday bring the criminal to justice.
For the women affected by these crimes, hope wasn’t good enough.
And for Tiffany Taylor, waiting wasn’t an option.
Police didn’t crack this case. Women did.
Women outsmarted the killer. They found him. And they stopped him.
Robin West met her two best friends in a jail disguised as a school.
As a teenager, she lived for a time at Wordsworth Academy, a treatment facility in West Philadelphia for young people with behavioral and mental health issues. It was a place with holes in the walls and exposed electrical wires — a place where news reports detailed how counselors regularly raped and beat their charges.
In that dangerous place, West met Tracey Johnson. Typically silent, West opened up to Johnson, who was two years older. She talked about going to Sanctuary Church of the Open Door in Philadelphia with her mother. West was such a good singer, occasionally she led the choir.
“From there, we just grew a crazy close friendship,” said Johnson, 25. “She was family.”
Wordsworth is also where West met Breneisha Patterson, when both girls were just 14. They grew so close they called each other “sister” and “twin.”
“We acted alike. We were always together,” Patterson said. “Blood couldn’t make us no closer.”
West lived most of her childhood with her mother, Anita Mason, in West Philadelphia. Occasionally she stayed with her father, Leroy West, a Philadelphia school district police officer and assistant church pastor who lives on the city’s north side.
When Leroy West imposed rules like an evening curfew, his daughter chafed.
“Robin was very adventurous. Very strong-willed,” said West, 56. “It really didn’t matter what anybody felt. If she made up her own mind to do something, she would do it.”
West and her mother fought often, according to an interview Mason granted in 2017 to the Philadelphia radio station WHYY. Mason declined to be interviewed for this story. West moved out of her mother’s house when she was 18.
The people who loved West learned to use Facebook to track her moods. When West felt happy, she posted Facebook photos with her hair dyed blond or mint green. When she felt low, she dyed it black. West was looking forward to Sept. 5, 2016. It was to be her 20th birthday. She posted photos on Facebook of a sleeveless white dress, which she bought for the occasion.
West’s style helped her win clients at Cheeks 247 Lounge, a now-closed club in West Philadelphia — one of several where she worked as an exotic dancer.
“She cried about how her parents could never accept her,” said Quadavia Williams, who trained West to strip. “Robin liked going out, hanging out with her girlfriends. Her parents were churchgoing people.”
West and Patterson were also sex workers, often pairing up to keep each other safe. They placed ads on websites, meeting johns at hotels in Philadelphia.
At the end of August 2016, Patterson suggested a trip to New Jersey.
The two stayed at the Garden State Motor Lodge in Union Township, 15 miles from Manhattan.
After a few nights they found themselves out of cash, with no place to stay.
So at 11 p.m. on Aug. 31, the pair headed to Nye Avenue in Newark, a neighborhood of burned-out homes and weedy lots framed by an abandoned train yard.
West wore a red Nike hat, a lacy black shirt and black shorts. Her black sandals sparkled in the orange glow of streetlights. It was her first night walking the street.
West didn’t really know the ropes, Patterson recalled.
One of the first cars to stop was a silver sedan. The driver seemed nice. Charming.
“Who you want?” Patterson asked.
The driver pointed to West. She got into the car.
Patterson typed the car’s license plate number into her phone. She saved it as a contact.
As the car pulled away, Patterson told the driver, “Be careful with my sister, because I love her.”
Data from the driver’s phone captured what happened next. He drove to an abandoned house at 472 Lakeside Ave. in the city of Orange, 2 miles from his home. He spent an hour inside. He left at 1:27 a.m.
Twenty-three minutes later, a neighbor called for help. The abandoned house was on fire.
The killer drove west. He traveled a few miles on Interstate 280. Then he backtracked. He passed his own home in Orange before returning to the fire. Five cities sent firefighters. The killer watched them attack the burning house.
Inside, firefighters found a body.
“It was the most destructed body I’ve ever come across,” said Matthew Piserchio, a 17-year veteran with the Orange Fire Department and the city’s lead arson investigator.
The house continued to burn. The killer asked his phone for directions home.
The following day, Patterson reported West missing. She gave the license plate number to Union Township police. The plate belonged to a silver BMW.
The body discovered inside the burned house was so badly damaged, investigators used dental records to identify West. The determination came two weeks after she went missing, on Sept. 13, 2016 — eight days after West’s birthday.
Joann Brown was born in Augusta, Maine. She had a sister and six brothers. They called her “Billy Jo.” When she was 5, the family moved to Newark. Her childhood was hard. Brown developed bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but she retained a lightness. Brown graduated from West Side High School. She enjoyed fashion and styling hair.
Even when her mood suddenly turned dark she would recover, laughing and dancing with her friends.
Her joy pulled people close. So did her abundant pain.
“She’s my best friend,” Amina Nobles said of Brown. “She had issues when she was young. That’s what made me draw to her because she used to come to me and talk to me about her problems.”
Brown used drugs. She worked as an exotic dancer for nearly a decade, first under the street name “Secret” and later as “London.”
She was also a sex worker. Friends worried for her safety.
“I always used to ask her, ‘Will you want to ever change?’ ” Nobles said of Brown’s sex work. “But she said that that’s the only way how she gets her money.”
Brown looked for help. She moved into a building run by Project Live, a nonprofit group in Newark that offers housing, drug treatment and counseling. In an environment that relied on rules and a regular schedule to counter the chaos of the streets, Brown struggled.
“She was prostituting, and had a lot of male friends supporting her,” said Christine Edwards, Brown’s social worker at the program. “It was difficult with her to get her to keep a lot of her [counseling] appointments.”
Brown and Nobles were hanging out with friends near a Popeyes restaurant on Newark’s south side on Oct. 22, 2016. Brown was 33.
He arrived at 1:16 p.m. He chose Brown.
Usually when she left with a client, Brown called Nobles to report her whereabouts and the time she expected to return. In her dangerous profession, the call provided a tenuous lifeline. On this afternoon, however, another friend in the group needed to make an urgent call.
So Brown handed her phone to her friend. Then she got into the car.
As they drove, Brown asked to borrow the man’s phone. She called Nobles at 1:30 p.m. Cellphone towers recorded the phone’s location to within a few meters.
The destination was an abandoned house at 354 Highland Ave. in Orange.
He knew the place well. Immediately before driving to Popeyes, he had spent 21 minutes inside, preparing for this moment.
He took Brown inside. He wrapped her head in duct tape, from her eyes down to her chin. He strangled her with a jacket. He left her body on the landing of the stairs.
At 3:03 p.m., the killer left.
Two minutes later, he arrived home. Four minutes after that, he searched his phone for recent outgoing calls. He called the number at the top of the list.
She asked: “Is this London?”
The killer stayed silent.
“The person didn’t say anything,” Nobles said.
Nobles called the number back three or four times. No one answered. Nobles reported her friend missing to Newark police.
“She always called me. Every day,” Nobles said. “This time something wasn’t right.”
Seven weeks later, on Dec. 5, a pair of contractors arrived at 354 Highland Ave. The home’s owner had requested an estimate to fix it up. The workers scouted the first floor, then walked upstairs. At the landing, the first man stopped.
“Boss,” he said. “I think somebody’s sleeping in here.”
Everyone knew he was the quiet one.
Orange is a small city, located just west of Newark and encompassing 2.2 square miles. Most kids who grow up here know each other by face, if not by name, by the time they reach middle school.
Khalil Wheeler-Weaver had few friends. He didn’t play sports, rarely attended parties and didn’t date, according to neighbors and classmates from the Orange High School class of 2014.
“I know he didn’t have girlfriends at all in high school,” said Tyrell Benton, a classmate now studying computer science at Rutgers University in Newark. “He kept to himself. He wasn’t popular, but he wasn’t bullied, either.”
His friends saw a different side.
“Khalil is the funniest guy you could ever meet,” said Richard Isaacs, Wheeler-Weaver’s best friend. “He doesn’t talk too much. But when he does talk, he’s hilarious.”
Wheeler-Weaver also stuck out for his nerdy style. He wore plaid shirts tucked into ironed khakis and plain white Nikes.
“You have to wear Jordans, the newest ones that just came out. … Your shirt has to match your sneakers and your hat. That’s what you wore if you were going after the females. It was a street style,” Benton said. “He wasn’t a street kid. You knew based on how he dressed that he came from a good home, a good family.”
Orange is a post-industrial city where one person in four lives below the poverty line. But Wheeler-Weaver grew up in a comfortable split-level house, in a quiet neighborhood called Seven Oaks. His stepfather is a police detective in the neighboring town of East Orange, and his uncle retired as a detective after a career with the Newark Police Department.
By his late teens, Wheeler-Weaver seemed to mature. He was tall and good-looking, with wide-set brown eyes and a charming smile. He started to DJ parties. He bought a silver BMW. When Isaacs dated a freshman at Rutgers, Wheeler-Weaver started dating her roommate.
He became a security guard. He used his phone to explore becoming a police officer, researching the required exams and training.
He also used his phone to research “homemade poisons to kill humans.”
Searches Khalil Wheeler-Weaver made on his phone.
ILLUSTRATION BY KAYLA GOLLIHER/ USA TODAY NETWORK
Tiffany Taylor came to fear Khalil Wheeler-Weaver. Came to hate him. But she never ceded him power. So long as she remained conscious, she believes, she remained in control.
“I think I always had the upper hand, actually,” Taylor said on a chilly day in December, sitting on a puffy blue couch in her new apartment in Jersey City. “Because he’s really young. He’s not experienced with people. And he’s just so stupid.”
Taylor grew up in the Salem Lafayette apartments, a public housing project in Jersey City. She moved with her mother to Orlando, Florida, where she attended Valencia College. She studied psychology and music, and she danced professionally in stage shows. After two years in Florida, she got pregnant, left college, and moved back to New Jersey, where she worked as a sex worker.
Taylor met Wheeler-Weaver through a friend. She was 33 and living in Roselle with her mother. Wheeler-Weaver was 20, too young even to buy beer. When they hung out, Taylor drove her Volkswagen convertible to Wheeler-Weaver’s house in Orange.
Taylor kicked his butt at NBA 2K, a basketball video game. She called him “Young’un.”
He liked her tattoos. Her dreadlocks. The fact she could drive a stick-shift car.
“He was obsessed. He kept asking my friend to hook us up,” Taylor said. “I kept saying no. Because he was young. And he was sleeping with my friend. I just didn’t want to deal with him.”
Wheeler-Weaver kept begging to pay her for sex. Eventually she said yes, although that was a lie. Instead, she planned to rob him.
“I just got tired of men just wanting sex from me all the time, looking at me like I was a sex object,” Taylor said. “So I just started taking their money.”
Wheeler-Weaver texted Taylor his address, summoning her to the white split-level in Orange. She arrived at around 8 p.m. on April 10, 2016. He paid $200 cash, up front, as agreed. They walked upstairs. She entered his childhood bedroom. She saw a nightstand and the tiny bed of a boy.
Wait, she said. I forgot the condoms in my car. Let me go get them. Taylor walked outside. Cash in hand, she drove away.
After that, Taylor’s life unraveled.
Her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. They couldn’t pay the medical bills, or the rent. They were evicted from their Roselle apartment. As winter approached, they slept in a car.
By November 2016, Taylor had a new hustle. A construction worker and drug addict she knew rented Room 32 at the Ritz Motel, a tidy but dreary place on Route 1 in Elizabeth. The addict owned a burgundy Lincoln sedan. He gave Taylor the keys. He instructed her to use the car to find dealers and buy him crack. In return, he paid her cash.
Meanwhile, Taylor kept receiving texts from a stranger. In her line of work, this was not uncommon. The man begged for sex. When Taylor changed phones, he found her new number and kept texting. When she declined, he offered more money.
Taylor finally agreed. The date was Nov. 15, 2016.
Her plan: Steal his money, then get away.
The stranger arrived at the Ritz at 7:51 p.m. It was 50 degrees, but he came dressed for snow. He wore black gloves. His brown eyes were framed by a black ski mask, a hat and the hood of his black sweatshirt. His clothes concealed handcuffs and a roll of duct tape.
Taylor didn’t recognize him. She knows people who wear ski masks in the cold, she said, so she didn’t find his outfit odd. Her focus was the money. He paid her $80 cash.
Taylor drove the Lincoln from the Ritz. The man in the ski mask rode in the passenger’s seat. He asked Taylor to pull over so he could urinate. It was a ruse.
It seems likely that he bashed her on the head, possibly with the handcuffs. Or maybe he slipped a date rape drug into her iced tea. Either way, Taylor lost consciousness. When she woke up, her head thundered in pain. She couldn’t breathe. He pressed her body into the back seat, her neck in a choke hold.
“I thought I was going to die,” she said.
As she regained consciousness, the stranger removed his ski mask.
Wheeler-Weaver looked at Taylor and paused to introduce himself.
“Do I look familiar? You don’t remember me?” Taylor remembers him saying. “You took my money.”
She screamed. Don’t kill me. Please. Don’t kill me. I’m pregnant.
“I know,” Wheeler-Weaver said.
This is when she knew. He would kill her tonight.
Under the loosened duct tape, she cried. Please. The handcuffs are so tight. Could you loosen them?
“Once he agreed to that, in my head I said, ‘I got him,’ ” Taylor said. “ ‘He’s weak.’ ”
She kept talking. You texted me, remember? My phone has our entire conversation. It has your Facebook account. Your address. Your name.
But my phone isn’t here. It’s back in Room 32. Back at the Ritz.
“Oh, no,” Wheeler-Weaver said, his tenor voice rising. “We got to go back and get that phone.”
He loosened his grip on Taylor’s neck. He moved to the front seat. For a moment, he cast himself as the victim.
“Nobody wants me. Nobody likes me. Why do I have to pay for a girl to show me attention?”
He started the car.
Documentary: NJ Serial Killer Khalil Wheeler-Weaver
Documentary: NJ Serial Killer Khalil Wheeler-Weaver
Surviving serial killer Khalil Wheeler-Weaver: Tiffany Taylor
To catfish a killer: How a serial murderer was outsmarted and stopped
NJ serial killer Khalil Wheeler-Weaver: Behind the scenes of the reporting
Serial killer Khalil Wheeler-Weaver found guilty on all counts
Taylor is double-jointed. Alone in the back seat, her wrists behind her back, she folded her left thumb into her palm. She pulled her hand free of the cuffs. He didn’t notice.
She made her decision.
If this guy drives past the Ritz Motel without stopping, she would drop the handcuffs over his head. When the chain reached his neck, she would pull with all her strength. Perhaps Taylor would die in the crash. She felt prepared to accept it, so long as Wheeler-Weaver died, too.
When he pulled into the Ritz parking lot, Taylor was surprised. She abandoned her plan to kill him. Quickly, she slipped her left hand back into the cuffs.
Wheeler-Weaver parked, opened the back door, and tore the duct tape from her face. He draped a jacket across her shoulders to hide the cuffs. He explained the plan. She was to walk upstairs. He would trail a few feet behind. She would retrieve the phone. They would leave together.
Taylor said yes. She climbed the stairs. She arrived at the mustard yellow door of Room 32. She kicked the door. The addict, desperate for his drugs, opened it immediately.
Just as Taylor planned.
She rushed in, and slammed the door shut. The deadbolt locked automatically.
Wheeler-Weaver ran to the door. He shouted. You lied. Come outside. Taylor opened the green curtain on the window next to the bolted door. She raised her right wrist so he could see. The handcuffs dangled. Wheeler-Weaver ran away.
Seconds later, Taylor tried to lay a trap. She texted Wheeler-Weaver. You have the keys to the Lincoln, she said, but the car’s not mine. Bring back the keys, and I won’t call the police.
“Well, I had already called the police,” Taylor said. “I tried to set him up. I was hoping he’d come back with the car keys and the police would come at the same time.”
Wheeler-Weaver did return. The motel’s security cameras recorded it. He ran back onto the property, dropped the keys on the motel stairs, then ran away.
“He came back!” Taylor said. “He knew I’m a sneaky bastard. I had already lied to him like three times! How stupid can he be?”
Officers from the Elizabeth Police Department arrived at the Ritz at 9:28 p.m. Wheeler-Weaver was still there, watching police from the shadows. He asked his phone for directions home and at 9:38 p.m., drove away.
Taylor described the kidnapping, rape and attempted murder to the cops. She knew the attacker’s phone number. His Facebook account. His home address. She even told the cops his full name: Khalil Wheeler-Weaver.
The police didn’t listen. They accused Taylor of prostitution. They threatened her with arrest. Taylor was four months pregnant. The killer’s handcuffs dangled from her wrist. The cuffs made her feel like Wheeler-Weaver was still there, strangling her. Taylor begged the cops to remove the cuffs.
For an hour, they refused.
“They treated me like trash,” she said.
Elizabeth Police Director Earl J. Graves did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment for this story. At Wheeler-Weaver’s trial, Police Officer Billy Ly was asked whether he had believed Taylor’s story.
“Um, not really,” Ly said.
Speaking to the jury, Assistant County Prosecutor Adam Wells did not hide his contempt.
“The police treat her as a suspect. They do not take her seriously. They are dismissive. They act, frankly, disgracefully towards her,” Wells said. “Talk about a nightmare.”
Seven days after Taylor escaped, Wheeler-Weaver killed again.
Sarah Butler was 5 when she discovered dance. She was walking with her big sister, Bassania Daley, and their mother in Montclair, a suburb 15 miles west of Manhattan. They stopped at the window of Premiere Dance Theatre to watch a class.
They walked inside and signed up. Daley attended only a few classes. Butler fell in love.
She studied a fusion of ballet, modern, jazz and African dance. Butler joined the Montclair High School dance company. At age 15 she joined Premiere’s traveling troupe. In June 2016, they competed in the Apollo Theater’s famous amateur night. Butler led her team to a third-place finish.
“Sarah didn’t have the typical dancer’s body,” said Shirlise McKinley-Wiggins, founder and director of Premiere. “Our stuff is not always easy. It can be fast. It can be very athletic. She had to work for everything.”
The same applied to the entire Butler family. Sarah’s mother, Lavern Butler, emigrated from Jamaica in the early 1990s, eventually becoming a nanny in Montclair. She married Victor Butler, a bartender at a country club. They raised three daughters. Money was tight. Sarah Butler worked multiple jobs, eventually saving enough for a used car. After graduation, she drove 15 miles to New Jersey City University — the first member of her family to enroll in college.
But she struggled to make friends, and didn’t get along with her roommates.
“She didn’t like it there,” Butler’s friend LaMia Brown said in court. “But she was in school, so she had no choice.”
Butler created an account on Tagged, a social media site users describe as a place to find companionship. There she saw the profile of a man who called himself LilYachtRock.
He typed: “u wanna make $$?”
And then: “sex for $?”
“wow,” Sarah Butler texted back. “well, how much money?
“how much are you looking for?” he wrote.
“$500,” she texted.
Five hundred dollars was a lot of money. Still, she wavered.
“Youre not a serial killer, right? lmao,” Butler texted LilYachtRock.
“No,” he replied.
He wanted to meet soon, he said. He needed to leave for work.
Butler agreed to meet. At the last minute, she changed her mind. She stood him up. Two days later, she reconsidered.
“Sorry about the other day. I got really nervous,” Butler wrote back. “I felt like an ass. But your voice and ya pic don’t seem like a match.”
LilYachtRock responded: “im a really cool guy when you get to know me”.
On Nov. 22, 2016, the first day of Thanksgiving break, Lavern Butler drove her blue Dodge minivan to Jersey City to retrieve her daughter from school. That evening, Sarah asked to borrow the minivan. She wore a red hair extension in a ponytail.
She drove alone into the clear windy night. She picked up LilYachtRock at the address he provided: the abandoned house at 354 Highland Ave. in Orange.
Inside, Joann Brown’s body lay on the second-floor landing, where he had left her exactly one month before. Her face was still wrapped in duct tape. Outside, Butler pulled up in her mother’s blue minivan. Wheeler-Weaver climbed in. It was 9:55 p.m.
They drove to a 7-Eleven store a few blocks away. She stayed in the minivan. He got out. He purchased three Trojan Fire & Ice condoms.
Security cameras captured his outfit, the same one he wore to attack Tiffany Taylor: a black sweatshirt with the hood pulled low over his face, black sweatpants, black sneakers and tight-fitting black gloves.
At 10:07 p.m., they drove away. The minivan climbed the wooded hillside of Eagle Rock Reservation, an Essex County park in West Orange. There on a cliff stands Highlawn Pavilion, a restaurant and wedding venue with a panoramic view of Manhattan.
Four hundred feet from the front door, the restaurant’s valet lot sits behind a scrim of trees. A green trailer leans on bulging tires at the edge of the lot.
The night was cool and clear. The view of the Empire State Building was excellent.
This is where Wheeler-Weaver murdered Sarah Butler.
He dragged her body behind the trailer. He was sloppy. He allowed her heels to carve parallel trenches in the soft ground. He left sweatpants tied tightly around her throat. When he removed the packing tape from her head, it ripped out red fibers from Butler’s hair extension. He deposited the tape inside the van.
He covered her body with leaves and twigs. Her hands and feet were left exposed to the stars.
Drone footage of the area where convicted serial killer Khalil Wheeler-Weaver dumped the body of victim Sarah Butler at Eagle Rock Reservation in Essex County, NJ.
Danielle Parhizkaran and Tariq Zehawi/NorthJersey.com
Butler was supposed to return home with the van at 8 p.m. When she didn’t arrive, Bassania Daley started texting friends, asking if anyone had seen her sister. In the morning, Lavern Butler phoned her daughter. Her calls went to voicemail. A panic rose.
On Nov. 25, three days after Butler went missing, Bassania Daley’s friend spotted the blue minivan. It was tucked behind a former factory, 4 miles from Butler’s street, six blocks from Wheeler-Weaver’s house.
Police arrived at the scene, as did Daley and a friend, LaMia Brown.
The cops hadn’t yet noticed Butler’s red weave. Butler’s sister did. LaMia Brown let out a scream. She pointed to the hair extension on the ground. Beside it sat the same blue plastic trash can Butler’s mother liked to keep beside the driver’s seat.
This was all the proof they needed. Sarah Butler wasn’t simply missing. She was in danger.
The women decided to take matters into their own hands. They drove to Butler’s home and opened her laptop. Brown knew the password, so they searched Butler’s email and Facebook. Daley’s friend Samantha Rivera joined them.
“The purpose was to try to find clues,” Daley said in court.
They logged into Butler’s account on Tagged. They saw she had been chatting with a man called LilYachtRock.
Daley read the exchange.
“You wanna make $$?”
The women decided they had to find LilYachtRock.
Samantha Rivera created a profile on Tagged, using someone else’s photo and a fake name. LilYachtRock’s profile was among the first to appear. Rivera clicked a button on his profile, sending him a “thumbs up.”
In the days after Butler went missing, Daley and her friends spent lots of time at Montclair police headquarters, giving statements and waiting for news. They were standing inside the station on Nov. 26 when Rivera received a text on Tagged.
It was LilYachtRock. He began by offering cash for sex. He said his name was Tahj. He needed to meet soon, before he left for work.
The money, the rush, all of it mirrored his texts to Butler before she disappeared. Immediately, the women were suspicious. As messages progressed to a call, Rivera pressed a button to place LilYachtRock on speakerphone. Daley, thinking on the fly, opened the camera on her own phone and recorded the conversation on video.
The women still were standing inside police headquarters.
LilYachtRock didn’t catch on. He wanted to meet Rivera, soon.
“Do you want me to stop on by?” he said.
The women had to think fast. They needed more information, more time. Rivera lied. She was doing her hair, she said. She had a baby at home, so she couldn’t leave until her sister arrived. She initiated a three-way call with Daley, who pretended to be her sister.
As she stalled, Rivera baited the hook. She wanted to meet for sex, she said. And she was desperate for money.
“I live with my sister right now, and don’t want to be here,” she told him. “I want to be somewhere else.”
Eventually, Rivera said she would meet LilYachtRock at a Panera Bread in Montclair, a mile from police headquarters. After hanging up, they went to the cops inside the station and described the planned meeting. The three women stayed there; police sent two detectives instead.
Confronted at Panera, LilYachtRock gave the officers his real name: Khalil Wheeler-Weaver. The police would later say they had no body, no evidence of a crime, no reason to consider him a suspect. They let him go.
Meanwhile, authorities also followed the trail of Butler’s iPhone, which sent its last location ping from Eagle Rock Reservation the night she disappeared. On Dec. 1, police found her body, lying in weeds by the valet parking lot.
Thanks to the efforts of Bassania Daley and her friends, police were already honing in on her killer. Five days after Butler’s body was discovered, on Dec. 6, 2016, Wheeler-Weaver was in custody. All communications by LilYachtRock and his other false names — Tahj and pimpkillerghost — stopped permanently.
These women “are the first true heroes in this case,” said Adam Wells, the lead Essex County prosecutor in Wheeler-Weaver’s murder trial.
Khalil Wheeler-Weaver made many mistakes. And yet he proved difficult to catch.
When he searched ways to kill people with bleach, he used his phone. When he met Robin West, drove her to an abandoned house, murdered her, burned the house to the ground, and returned to watch the fire, his phone sat beside him, recording his location.
When Joann Brown borrowed Wheeler-Weaver’s phone to call a friend, that phone pinged a forest of cell towers, creating a digital trail that led prosecutors to the empty house where he killed her.
When he attacked Tiffany Taylor near the Ritz Motel, and when he murdered Sarah Butler in Eagle Rock Reservation, his phone was there. And it was on.
Police from two cities — Montclair, home to Sarah Butler; and Union Township, where West had stayed in a motel — interviewed Wheeler-Weaver during his spree. Both times, Wheeler-Weaver accompanied officers on driving tours. He showed police where he met Butler and West, where they drove together, and where he last saw each woman — safe and alive, he said.
Everything he told the police was a lie. His phone records later proved it. Until they discovered Butler’s body on Dec. 1, police found no evidence that a crime had even occurred.
“At the time there was no way of knowing he was a suspect, or if she was missing,” Capt. Scott Breslow, who supervises the Union Township police detective bureau, said of Wheeler-Weaver and Robin West. “Basically for us, it’s a missing person. It’s a basic thing.”
To catfish a killer: How a serial murderer was outsmarted and stopped
Khalil Wheeler-Weaver killed three young women in Essex County, NJ in 2016. He was eventually caught, thanks to the friends and family of one of them.
Chris Pedota and Christopher Maag, NorthJersey.com
Nor was it easy to prove his guilt. Prosecutors took three years to investigate Wheeler-Weaver’s crimes before bringing their case. Their evidence ranged from traditional canine searches to cutting-edge tools like the Zephyr machine, a device created by NASA that allowed investigators to melt Wheeler-Weaver’s smartphone and harvest its data without his password.
But police didn’t crack this case.
Women who never investigated a murder in their lives.
Breneisha Patterson recorded Wheeler-Weaver’s license plate.
Joann Brown’s check-in call to Amina Nobles helped police connect Wheeler-Weaver to the spot where she was kidnapped and the abandoned house where her body was found.
Bassania Daley and LaMia Brown discovered the discarded red extension, which made Sarah Butler’s disappearance look even more suspicious. Sleuthing by Daley and her friends also established Wheeler-Weaver’s methodology: using his phone to track women, offering cash, then rushing them to meet.
By finding Wheeler-Weaver online, and luring him into a trap with police, the women risked their lives.
He believed he was hunting his next victim. In reality, the women were hunting him.
Even after Wheeler-Weaver’s arrest, the women did not stop.
Three weeks after she narrowly escaped, Taylor read a newspaper story that Wheeler-Weaver had been arrested in connection with Sarah Butler’s murder. He was arraigned in Newark on Dec. 13, 2016.
Taylor isn’t fond of courthouses. And she hates cops.
She choked down her fear. She went to the courthouse anyway.
“I was nervous,” she recalled “Every time I call police, I always end up wishing I didn’t call.”
As Wheeler-Weaver was arraigned, Taylor sat in the courtroom. After the brief hearing, she approached Wells, the lead prosecutor.
Taylor was the only person who could tie together all the threads of Wheeler-Weaver’s murder spree: his phone, his digital stalking, rape, strangulation, and wrapping his victims’ heads in tape.
“She was very important,” Wells said. “We like to think we could have prosecuted this case successfully without hearing from Ms. Taylor. But there’s no question that her testimony made it easier.”
Taylor testified for an entire day. She described in open court the failures of Elizabeth police.
“If the police had believed me, Sarah Butler would still be alive,” Taylor said.
Taylor sat in the witness box and faced Wheeler-Weaver. She told jurors how she robbed this man. Lied to him. How he strangled her, and how, moments later, she played him for a fool.
“I wanted him to see me,” Taylor said. “I wanted him to know that it was me.”
Reporters: Christopher Maag, Julia Martin, Tom Nobile, Keldy Ortiz and Svetlana Shkolnikova. The story was written by Maag.
Editing: Ed Forbes, Alex Nussbaum, Candace Mitchell
Copy editing: Susan Lupow
Photography and videography: Chris Pedota, Anne-Marie Caruso, Mitsu Yasukawa
Drone footage: Tariq Zehawi and Danielle Parhizkaran
Visuals editing: Sean Oates, Nancy Pascarella, Michael V. Pettigano, Paul Wood Jr.
Social media: Elyse Toribio
Graphics and illustrations: Kayla Golliher, Javier Zarracina
Digital production and development: Kayla Golliher, Andrea Brunty, Michael Babin, Kyle Omphroy, Craig Johnson
This story is based on evidence presented by 45 witnesses at Wheeler-Weaver’s trial, which lasted nine weeks in late 2019. It also is based on more than two dozen interviews with investigators, prosecutors, friends, family members and neighbors of the killer and the victims, and lengthy interviews with the killer’s lone survivor. NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey also reviewed dozens of police records and police surveillance footage to produce this account.