A beloved South Jersey mother of three was strangled and her infant daughter crushed and smothered, allegedly at the hands of the woman's ex-lover and the father of one of her other children.
Ricardo Santiago, 34, of Millville, is charged with killing his former lover, Neidy Ramirez, and her baby inside Ramirez's Vineland apartment and using her SUV to dump the bodies in a Cumberland County swamp.
Police said Santiago confessed to the killings and told investigators they would find the bodies near the Cohansey River Watershed Boat Ramp.
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About a dozen of Ramirez's family members wept Thursday during Santiago's first court appearance. A friend who went to Bridgeton High School with Santiago described how the two played soccer at school on Thanksgiving Day. He said Santiago didn't show any signs of unusual behavior.
Family members last saw Ramirez and her daughter at a laundromat on Black Friday, the same day Santiago allegedly killed the mother and daughter. A family member called police Saturday after Ramirez's Chevrolet TrailBlazer was spotted — empty — about 15 miles from her home along Route 55.
When Ramirez failed to show up for work Monday at Conte's Pasta, the search intensified.
Investigators said Santiago and Ramirez were arguing about their 5-year-old son. Santiago confessed to the killings Tuesday night, according to police.
During a vigil for the victims, family and friends remembered Ramirez as a mother deeply committed to her children and her church community.
"When you know the person personally, and you know something of their story, it's almost unimaginable to have them taken away in such difficult, such violent circumstances," said Sister Kathleen Brown who knew Ramirez from her work at St. Francis Church in Vineland.
Ramirez had three children, including Santiago's son and an 8-year-old.
Santiago pleaded not guilty during his Thursday court appearance and never made eye contact with the judge or family members. The judge raised his bail from $1 million to $2 million after prosecutors argued he'd talked to friends about raising money to flee the country.