A 19-year-old Neptune teen who admitted to mistakenly gunning down a 10-year-old boy in Asbury Park last year was slapped with a 25-year prison sentence Friday after he broke down in tears before a judge.
“I didn’t mean to hurt that boy,” wept Karon Council, who pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter in October in the slaying of Yovanni Banos-Merino.
“We love you, bro,” shouted one of his supporters.
On the evening of Feb. 21, Council and another teen, 17-year-old Jah-Del Birch, went to a house on Ridge Avenue in Asbury Park looking for Juan Garcia, prosecutor said.
Garcia had stabbed Council in April, prosecutors said, and he was seeking revenge.
Birch knocked on the door and was told by someone in the home that Garcia was not present. Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Joseph Cummings said the two waited in the vestibule of the house for more than 30 minutes, listening for Garcia’s voice.
Birch was able to spot Garcia in the window of the crowded home, Cummings said.
He said the two left the house, grabbed a gun that was stashed in the bushes nearby, put on masks and returned to the home. Council then opened fire five times, riddling the home with bullets.
One of those bullets, Cummings said, struck Yovanni in the shoulder as he hid under the bed “like any child would do.” Yovanni’s mother was hit in the leg with another bullet.
Council’s attorneys said that he accepts responsibility for the mistake he made, but that he’s “so much more than a couple police reports.”
“A young man lost his life at the hands of a young man who made a foolish mistake,” Joshua Hood said. “… When he fired those shots, he never meant to kill that boy and hurt his mother. … He never meant to end a life.”
Cummings disagreed with those assertions.
“This wasn’t a random, small mistake,” Cummings said. “They targeted Juan Garcia. Did they make a mistake? Absolutely. They shot the wrong person.
You want to talk about children,” Cummings continued, “Yovanni played with toys. Karon Council played with guns.”
The hourlong hearing before Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Richard English was extremely emotional at times. At one point, one of Council’s supporters left the courtroom because she was crying hysterically. His family and friends occupied three rows of the courtroom.
Meanwhile, seven members of the Yovanni’s family sat quietly on the opposite side of the courtroom. Lilia Merino, Yovanni’s mother, read four letters aloud, through an interpreter, to Judge English.
Each letter implored English to impose a harsh sentence, and also asked for psychiatric help for the remaining members of the family, who are paralyzed with anxiety and grief.
“I ask you and beg of you that these people who committed the crime of taking my brother pay with a sentence of many years,” read a letter from Yovanni’s sister. “That way our family will rest given this situation, and that the law will be applied accordingly. But they should not be set free and commit another crime with innocent people who have nothing to do with them.”
English, before handing his sentence to Council, said the shootings in Asbury Park that kill random people are “decimating that area.”
“I don’t know what the message has to be,” he said. “It just makes no sense at all. The number of shootings and murders in this county last year is astonishing and it’s a shame."
According to statistics from the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, the county had 16 killings in 2018. Four of those happened in the Asbury Park/Neptune Township area. The overall number of homicides is up from 13 in 2017 and seven in 2016. However, it’s important to note that both 2017 and 2018 had incidents where multiple family members were killed in one incident allegedly at the hands of another family member.
Council, who had a juvenile record that included assaulting a teacher, possession of a knife and possession of marijuana, was a member of a local rap group that called themselves the “O-Shop Boys,” Cummings said.
“He lived a life of crime in Asbury Park,” Cummings said.
His co-defendant, Birch, has also pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter.
Birch, who Cummings said was a member of the Bloods street gang, was sentenced later in the day to 10 years in prison.
Merino also spoke before Birch’s sentencing, but this time she didn’t read from a letter.
“What was he thinking to commit that crime and kill my son,” she said. “... Only God will forgive them for what they did because I will not forgive them.”
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