“He said, ‘No get out of the cab, no get out of the cab; you must pay.’ I told him, I was like, ‘Listen, I don’t have my wallet with me.’ And the guy said, ‘No, no, no. I call the cops.’ He picked up his radio (and) I proceeded to pull out my chrome 40-caliber Ruger out of my right, front jacket pocket. I told the guy, I was like, ‘Let go of me, or you’re gonna wear it.’ The guy let go of my hand. And as I went to get out of the car, the guy mashed the gas, which threw me back. And a round went off.”
– Michael A. O’Neill in a statement to police about the shooting of cab driver Luis Octavio Tenezaca, 23, in Kearny.
In the spring of 2003, Michael A. O’Neill was carrying a gun – a chrome-plated 11-shot, 40-caliber, semiautomatic pistol that he’d bought in Virginia. He had the gun with him in Kearny on the night of April 25, 2003.
By his own admission, the 19-year-old was looking to score pot. He entered a bar in Kearny and approached a drug dealer he knew only as “V.”
“V” told O’Neill to take the next available cab to the corner of Columbia and Seeley Avenues in Kearny. The plan was to lure a cab driver to that location and “V” would rob and shoot the driver.
O’Neill told investigators that it was his understanding he’d be paid with “four or five bags of weed” or $20-$50 in cash.
After picking up O’Neill, driver Luis Tenezaca, 23, of Ecuador, ended up getting shot in the back of the head early on April 26, 2003 in the 200 block of Argyle Place in Kearny.
O’Neill denied the shooting.
When detectives told the teen they thought he was minimizing his involvement in the homicide, O’Neill said, “Prove it.”
Meanwhile, a Harrison family that O’Neill had been staying with gave police the suspect’s jacket and glove, which were spattered with blood. DNA tests would later match the blood with the victim’s.
(It is interesting to note that the intersection of Columbia and Seeley do not exist; those streets, while nearby, do not intersect. That’s perhaps one reason the authorities did not buy O’Neill’s initial story).
When investigators presented O’Neill with the evidence, he recanted. “OK. You got me,” O’Neill said. “It was an accident and I’ll tell you what happened.”
The teenager maintained that he had met up with “V” in the Kearny bar to purchase marijuana. But he disavowed that there had been a plot to rob the cab driver.
Instead, “V” wanted to purchase O’Neill’s handgun. The two agreed to meet at the corner of Columbia and Seeley Avenues.
O’Neill said he hailed a cab and directed the driver to take him to that intersection.
But Tenezaca, who didn’t speak much English, got lost.
O’Neil then told Tenezaca to stop on Argyle Place. When O’Neill tried to leave without paying, the driver grabbed his hand and told him he would call the cops.
According to court documents, O’Neill gave the following statements to investigators: “(The driver) said, ‘No get out of the cab, no get out of the cab; you must pay.’ I told him, I was like, ‘Listen, I don’t have my wallet with me.’ And the guy said, ‘No, no, no. I call the cops.’ He picked up his radio (and) I proceeded to pull out my chrome 40-caliber Ruger out of my right, front jacket pocket. I told the guy, I was like, ‘Let go of me, or you’re gonna wear it.’ The guy let go of my hand. And as I went to get out of the car, the guy mashed the gas, which threw me back. And a round went off.”
Police found the driver dead in the cab, which had crashed into a telephone pole. There was a check in his shirt pocket, a cell phone in the cab’s visor and $110 in cash in the driver’s side door. There was no indication that property or money had been taken.
The teen said the gun went off accidentally and that he did not plan to rob or kill the driver.
After running for about 45 minutes back to the home where he was staying, he used a bloody glove to wipe his prints off the gun. He put the gun under his mattress.
The next night the woman who owned the home received an anonymous phone call. The caller stated that O’Neill had a gun in her house. When the woman found the gun, she had her husband tell O’Neill to pack his belongings and leave.
After leaving the house, O’Neill said he threw the gun down a sewer.
In court, witnesses testified that O’Neill gave slightly different versions of what happened.
He told one witness that when the driver wouldn’t let him out, that he cocked the gun and pointed at the back of the driver’s head. As he stepped out of the cab, it lurched forward and caused the gun to discharge accidentally.
One witness testified that O’Neill said he’d worn gloves so that no gun residue would appear on his hands.
Detectives who transported O’Neill to the Hudson County jail on April 28, 2003 described a verbal exchange with O’Neill.
During the ride, the suspect asked, “Is it true that I shot him in the back of the head?” A detective responded, “Well, yes. You were there.”
While gazing out the car window, O’Neill said, “I’m not surprised because that’s where I was aiming.”
After a brief trial, a jury convicted O’Neill of murder, first-degree robbery, first-degree aggravated manslaughter, third-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, and second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. The jury found him not guilty of purposeful or knowing murder.
The judge sentenced O’Neill to 30 years. The court also ordered him to serve a five-year period of parole supervision following his release from prison and that he pay certain statutorily-prescribed fines.
An appeal was argued in 2007. The court upheld his conviction and O’Neill remains in prison. He is incarcerated at the South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton.
O’Neill is eligible for parole on April 26, 2020.