A judge told a group of men accused of robbing and beating a Red Bank man to death that he wished he could "pull a trap door" and send them "straight to hell right now" before sending their cases to a grand jury Monday evening.
Red Bank City Court Judge Johnny Houston was speaking to the men charged in the slaying of 27-year-old Jordan Collins, whose body was found inside his Redding Road home Sept. 24.
Collins' skull was fractured over a dozen places after he was bludgeoned with a crowbar, officials said.
Officials have charged 19-year-old Zachary Hughes with criminal homicide in connection with Collins' death. Hughes lived with Collins for a brief time, family members say.
Markel Mitchell, 16, and Jeremy Reinig, 27, also are charged with criminal homicide, accused of being accomplices. All three and another man, 19-year-old Lorenzo Bell, have been charged with fraudulent use of a credit card, accused of allegedly making purchases with Collins' card.
It could take the Hamilton County grand jury several weeks to decide whether to indict the men.
Seven witnesses testified during the more than two-hour preliminary hearing.
Red Bank police officers explained how they tracked purchases made with Collins' credit card and watched surveillance tapes from a Kangaroo station and Walmart that show Hughes, Mitchell and Bell making multiple purchases - including cigarettes, clothes and an Xbox game.
Red Bank police Sgt. Steve Hope said in interviews Mitchell admitted to being in the house when Hughes killed Collins.
He also said Reinig admitted in interviews to driving the pair to Collins' house so they could "hit a lick" - or, commit a robbery. He told detectives he waited in his car and that Hughes and Mitchell emerged from the house carrying a laptop, cell phone and three beers.
Bell's stepfather, Nate Watkins, said his stepson was at the family's home at the time the killing allegedly took place and said Hughes and Mitchell came over afterward and were discussing the robbery.
"Mr. Zach was saying, 'I think I killed him. ... I don't know if I killed him or not,'" Watkins testified.
Collins' father - who discovered his son's beaten body at the home - was sworn in before the court but did not testify. As he walked past the defendants' table he took time to level each man a long, piercing look.
After testimony, Assistant District Attorney Boyd Patterson argued that there was ample evidence to connect Hughes to the killing and said the other three men were "on the hook with criminal responsibility."
In her closing statement, Hughes' attorney Hilary Hodgkins said the prosecution's evidence focused on a burglary, and the state didn't have enough evidence to support the homicide charges.
"There has not been one scintilla of proof related to cause of death," she said. "I'm surprised the medical examiner is not here."
Houston said the defendants' confessions to investigators were enough proof to link them to the crime.
"It's sad our society has devolved to this, that they think they have a right to take things that belong to someone else - including someone's life," he said.
He then pointed to Hughes and Mitchell, saying he wished he could send them to hell, to which he added: "I'm sure that will happen soon enough."
Hughes' sister Zoë Hughes started crying as the judge gave his final words.
"Zach doesn't deserve that. He may deserve time. He needs to be in a mental institution," she said. "But nobody should have said that to them."
All four defense attorneys declined to comment on the pending case, but Hodgkins did share one statement after the hearing.
"I don't think Judge Houston had the jurisdiction to condemn my client to hell," she said.
Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673.