NEWARK, N.J. — A New Jersey man who used dating apps to lure three women he subsequently killed in 2016 was sentenced Wednesday to 160 years in prison.
Khalil Wheeler-Weaver, 25, of Orange, denied responsibility for the murders of Robin West, 19, of Union Township; Joanne Brown, 33, of Newark; and Sarah Butler, 20, of Montclair. He was also convicted of kidnapping, sexual assault and attempted murder in an attack on Tiffany Taylor, who survived.
Wheeler-Weaver must serve at least 145 years before being eligible for parole, according to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. He was essentially sentenced to spend the rest of his days behind bars.
“The sentence today sends a clear and unequivocal message that each of these young women mattered,” acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore Stephens II said in a statement. “This defendant mistakenly believed that he could kill them and dump their bodies, and no one would care. He miscalculated.”
Butler’s sister and friends ultimately turned the tables on her killer, using the same app through which he met Butler to lure him into a trap.
The Associated Press reported that Butler’s grieving loved ones gained access to her social media accounts and set up a fake account to set up a meeting with Wheeler-Weaver in Montclair, a township about 10 miles northwest of Newark. They then notified police of the meeting.
Montclair police investigators arrested him days later.
Taylor also provided pivotal details that helped convict the killer, authorities said.
“I want to thank the Essex County assistant prosecutors, investigators and others in law enforcement who worked to bring us to this day,” Stephens said. “Most importantly, I want to thank the surviving victim, Tiffany Taylor, and the friends and families of the other victims, who played a pivotal role in the case.”
‘I hope you suffer, boy’
Along with the families of the slain women, Taylor gave a poignant victim’s impact statement at Wednesday’s sentencing. The young woman allowed her name to be made public despite being a victim of sexual violence.
“My whole life is different; I don’t wear makeup anymore; I don’t have friends,” Taylor said. “I’m always paranoid. But I’m happy to still be here.”
Taylor urged Superior Court Judge Mark S. Ali to show no mercy to the convicted killer.
“I hope you don’t show him any remorse, because he’s not showing any remorse,” Taylor said, according to the AP.
NJ.com reported that Wheeler-Weaver denied culpability in a brief statement to the judge.
“I do feel sympathy for the victims. My heart goes out to the families and friends,” Wheeler-Weaver said. “However, I was not the person who committed these crimes.
“I was set up. I was lied on and framed by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.”
The judge, who was not impressed by Wheeler-Weaver’s words, countered by pointing to the 42 witnesses and 1,000 exhibits presented over the two-month trial, the North Jersey Record reported. That evidence, he said, disproved Wheeler-Weaver’s proclamations of innocence.
Taylor also vehemently disagreed with the defendant’s claims.
“I’m over 100% sure it was him,” she said, according to NJ.com.
Ali called the convicted serial killer a sociopath. According to the Record, the judge said nothing could make up for the pain inflicted on his victims and their families, but that the sentence was a start.
“The purpose of this sentence is that this defendant never walks free in society again,” Ali said.
Many in the gallery sighed in relief, and some offered applause, the newspaper reported.
During victim impact statements, West’s mother described her daughter as headstrong but kind.
“I will never forget her smile, her face, her walk, her desire to help homeless people,” Anita Mason said Wednesday, according to the AP. “The world focuses on the last month of her life. She had a whole entire life before her demise. Hundreds of people were affected by her life and were saddened by her death.”
Victor Butler, whose daughter was Wheeler-Weaver’s final victim, asked Ali to give the killer the longest sentence possible. He added that he hopes Wheeler-Weaver lives for a long time and suffers like he made Sarah Butler suffer.
“I hope you suffer, boy,” Butler told the defendant. “Every night.”
‘You’re not a serial killer, right?’
Wheeler-Weaver was convicted in December 2019 of 11 charges that also included aggravated arson and desecration of human remains. His sentencing was pushed back several times because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many repeat killers, Wheeler-Weaver targeted marginalized women. Assistant Prosecutor Adam Wells, who tried the case, said West, Brown and Taylor had all been homeless at some point and resorted to sex work to survive.
Wheeler-Weaver’s method of killing the women was similar across the board: he would set up meetings with them for sex then attack them, wrap their faces in tape and strangle them with an article of clothing, the Record reported.
The murders began with West, a Philadelphia native who had gone to North Jersey on Aug. 31, 2016, to celebrate her upcoming 20th birthday. According to WHYY in Philadelphia, her family grew worried when they could no longer reach her to discuss the party they were planning.
Her body was found Sept. 1 after firefighters extinguished a fire at an abandoned house on Lakeside Avenue in Orange. It took authorities nearly two weeks to identify what remained through dental records.
“Her mom called me and said, ‘Oh, they found Robin,’” West’s father, Leroy West, told WHYY in 2017. “I immediately got excited. I said, ‘Well, let’s put some gas in the car and let’s go get her.’ And she said, ‘No, they found her body.’”
Witnesses had seen West get into a vehicle with Wheeler-Weaver, who police initially described as a “calm” and “helpful” witness, according to NJ.com. He told detectives he’d taken West out to lunch and dropped her off at an abandoned building in Orange.
He even took them to the building, which was less than two blocks from the torched home where West’s charred body had been found. At that point, West was still considered missing because the body had not yet been identified as hers.
As homicide detectives puzzled over West’s death, a second woman vanished.
Brown, who authorities said was struggling with mental health issues and homelessness, was last seen alive Oct. 22, 2016. Like West, she had been seen getting into Wheeler-Weaver’s vehicle.
When she last spoke to a friend, it was from a phone number tied to Wheeler-Weaver, NJ.com reported.
Contractors found her decomposing body Dec. 5 at a vacant house on Highland Avenue in Orange. Tape covered her nose and mouth, and a jacket was tied around her neck like a ligature.
She had been strangled.
The vacant property where Brown’s body was found is just over a half-mile from where Wheeler-Weaver lived with his mother, according to NJ.com.
Meanwhile, two incidents had taken place in November. On Nov. 15, 2016, Taylor, who was several months pregnant and needed money, agreed to meet with Wheeler-Weaver for sex.
Taylor, who was 34 when she was attacked, testified at trial that she had been previously acquainted with Wheeler-Weaver, who she had once conned out of cash.
On the night of the attack, she didn’t realize it was him who had answered her ad, NJ.com reported. Taylor said she didn’t recognize him when they met up at her Elizabeth motel room because he wore a half-face ski mask.
It was cold that night, she said, so she didn’t think the mask was unusual.
Taylor said they drove around for a while but were unable to get a motel room together because neither was carrying identification. She testified they were about to part ways when she was struck in the head.
He then handcuffed her, covered her mouth with duct tape and raped her in the back seat of the car while strangling her, Taylor testified. She repeatedly lost consciousness during the sexual assault.
Afterward, he removed his mask and asked if he looked familiar, NJ.com reported.
“He was, like, ‘You took my money,’” Taylor said.
Terrified for her life, Taylor convinced Wheeler-Weaver to drive her back to her motel by telling him she’d left her cellphone there. When he did, she locked him out of the room and dialed 911.
The Elizabeth Police Department later came under fire because they initially did not believe Taylor, who told the court officers seemed more interested in pinning her as a prostitute.
She still had a pair of handcuffs dangling from one wrist when officers arrived, NJ.com reported.
“For someone to call an hour after the fact that they were kidnapped didn’t seem that it was emergent,” Elizabeth police Officer Billy Ly testified, according to the news site.
A week after Taylor’s near-death experience, Butler vanished.
Watch the North Jersey Record’s report on how Wheeler-Weaver was caught below.
Like West and Brown before her, Butler, a New Jersey City University student, was last seen with Wheeler-Weaver when she disappeared Nov. 22, 2016. According to the Record, Butler was home for the Thanksgiving break when she borrowed her mother’s van to “see a friend.”
She was not a sex worker, but she had met Wheeler-Weaver online. In previous conversations on the social media network Tagged, Wheeler-Weaver had offered her $500 for sex.
Butler had backed out of a previous meeting but on Nov. 22, she decided to go through with it.
“You’re not a serial killer, right?” she texted him.
Wells, the prosecutor, said Butler soon left her parents’ house.
“It was the last mistake she ever made,” Wells said, according to the Record.
When Butler didn’t return the next day, her family became alarmed. Her mother, Lavern Butler, called her daughter’s friends, the hospital and the Montclair Police Department. No one knew where she was.
Her parents’ van was found abandoned in Orange, less than a mile from Wheeler-Weaver’s home, three days after she disappeared.
Butler’s body was found Dec. 1 at Eagle Rock Reservation, a conservation area in West Orange, buried beneath leaves and other debris. Like Brown, Butler’s body bore signs of strangulation with a piece of clothing, court records indicated.
Butler’s sister, who knew the college student’s social media passwords, got together with a friend and went into her sister’s accounts, the Record reported. In her Tagged account, she found the interactions between Butler and Wheeler-Weaver.
The young women created a fake profile and worked with Montclair police investigators on arranging the sting operation.
Wheeler-Weaver was arrested for Butler’s murder Dec. 6, 2016. The charges in the other cases were added after cellphone records tied him to the locations where each slain woman was last seen, as well as where their bodies were found.
“Sarah’s friends and family are the heroes of this case,” Wells said at trial.
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