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NEWARK ANGER RISES IN SLAYING OF 3

Mayor faces criticism after four college students are shot. One is hospitalized.

In a city where gun violence has become an all too common part of daily life, the shootings were enough to chill even the most hardened residents: four young friends shot execution-style in a schoolyard just days before they were to head to college.

Three were killed after being forced to kneel against a wall and then shot in the head at close range Saturday night, police said. A girl was found slumped near bleachers 30 feet away, a gunshot wound to the head but still alive. Authorities think the killings occurred during a random robbery.

The Newark residents were to attend Delaware State University this fall. No arrests had been made Monday and police had not identified suspects.

The shootings ratcheted up anger in New Jersey's largest city, where the murder rate has risen 50 percent since 1998. The high number of killings have prompted billboards in the downtown area that scream, "HELP WANTED: Stop the Killings in Newark Now!"

"Anyone who has children in the city is in panic mode," said Donna Jackson, president of Take Back Our Streets, a community-based organization. "It takes something like this for people to open up their eyes and understand that not every person killed in Newark is a drug dealer."

The killings brought Newark's homicide total for the year to 60 and put pressure on Mayor Cory Booker, who campaigned last year on a promise of reducing crime.

Jackson said Booker "doesn't deserve another day, another second."

Booker said Monday that it was "not a time to play politics and divide our city." A $50,000 reward was being offered for information leading to the arrest of those involved, he said.

A month ago, Booker and police director Garry McCarthy announced that crime in the city had fallen by 20 percent in the first six months of 2007 compared to a year ago. Yet despite decreases in the number of rapes, aggravated assaults and robberies, the murders have continued.

One of those shot, Natasha Aeriel, 19, was listed in fair condition at University Hospital. Police identified her slain companions as her brother, Terrance Aeriel, 18; Iofemi Hightower, 20; and Dashon Harvey, 20.

Authorities believe that the shootings were a random robbery committed by several assailants and that some of the victims may have tried to resist their attackers. Police were piecing together details of the attack from interviews with Natasha Aeriel.

Hightower and the Aeriels had been friends since elementary school and played in the marching band at West Side High School.

At Delaware State they met Harvey, another musician, and struck up a friendship. Friends and relatives said the four were not involved in drinking, drugs or gangs. They liked to congregate at Mount Vernon School, an elementary school that sits in a middle-class neighborhood less than a mile from the campus of Seton Hall University, to hang out and listen to music.

Natasha Aeriel is a junior at Delaware State. Terrance Aeriel missed the spring semester but re-enrolled for the fall. Harvey was a junior at the university, and Hightower attended Essex Community College but was in the process of enrolling at the university for the fall.

Harvey's father, James, said Monday the parents of the assailants were to blame.

"If you raised your kids better, this would not happen," he said.

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