Northampton man gets 15-20 years in Cruz killing, burning

  • Nerkin Omar Morales, 24, stands in court Tuesday while his lawyer, William O’Neil, of East Longmeadow, sits. STAFF PHOTO/MICHAEL CONNORS

  • Nerkin Omar Morales appears in Hampshire Superior Court in December 2018. FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nerkin Omar Morales, of Northampton, during his arraignment in Hampshire Superior Court in December 2018. FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/15/2020 5:32:11 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Two and a half years after Daniel Cruz was fatally shot at Meadowbrook Apartments and his body set ablaze in a field in Hatfield, his killer, Nerkin Omar Morales, was sentenced to 15 to 20 years in state prison Tuesday.

Morales, 24, pleaded guilty in Hampshire Superior Court to eight charges, including voluntary manslaughter, improper disposition of a human body and conspiracy. Judge John Agostini presided.

Morales’ guilty plea came as part of a deal between his lawyer, William O’Neil, and prosecutors. Originally charged with murder, Morales instead pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Prosecutors also dropped two firearms charges.

While the socially distanced and masked gallery watched, Deputy Northwestern District Attorney Jennifer Suhl described in court the events leading up to March 10, 2018, when Cruz, 44, was shot and killed.

Suhl said Morales frequently spent time with his friends and associates at the Meadowbrook Apartments on Bridge Road. She said Cruz was killed at the apartment of an unnamed woman and Pedro Soto-Rodriguez, who was sentenced in February to seven to eight years in state prison for his involvement in the attempted cover-up of the killing. 

On the evening of March 9, 2018, Cruz and his two friends had decided to go to Soto-Rodriguez’s residence to find Morales because he owed one of Cruz’s friends $500, Suhl said. Although Morales was not at the apartment, Cruz and Soto-Rodriguez did end up in a “yelling match” with one another, Suhl said.

The next morning, Morales and his girlfriend headed to Meadowbrook so Morales could repay his debts, Suhl said. When Morales arrived at Soto-Rodriguez’s apartment, he saw Cruz sitting in the hallway outside the apartment door. Cruz asked if Soto-Rodriguez was home. Once inside, Morales told Soto-Rodriguez that someone was looking for him, according to Suhl.

Soto-Rodriguez exited his apartment and talked with Cruz, who produced a knife and cut Soto-Rodriguez on the inside of his right arm and other places. Soto-Rodriguez yelled out to Morales, who came out of the apartment with a gun and fired five or six shots at Cruz. Three of these bullets went into Cruz; one bullet perforated his spinal cord and was lodged in his body; another perforated his colon and was lodged in his abdomen; and the last fractured his rib and perforated his lung and liver, according to Suhl.

A medical examiner ascribed Cruz’s death to the gunshot wounds, Suhl said. Suhl said the bullet that entered Cruz’s spine “would have paralyzed him, and he likely did not survive more than a matter of minutes due to a loss of blood.” Morales was not injured during this incident.

Morales and Soto-Rodriguez brought Cruz’s body into the apartment and then left, Suhl said. In another apartment, Morales and Soto-Rodriguez told a group about what had happened. They decided to go back to Soto-Rodriguez’s apartment, where the now 10-person group wrapped Cruz’s body in a sleeping bag, Suhl said. Morales and others then smoked marijuana over Cruz’s dead body, all while kicking and taunting him, according to Suhl.

Morales and others cleaned blood from the apartment and put Cruz’s body in a closet, Suhl said. Another person who lived in the apartment was told by Morales and others not to tell the police; Suhl said she was scared and feared retaliation.

After taking a trip to Soto-Rodriguez’s mother’s house in Connecticut, Morales and some of the group traveled back to Meadowbrook where they took Cruz’s body, wrapped it in black trash bags, drove to a field in Hatfield and lit it on fire.

“[Morales] ripped open the bag so that Cruz’s face was visible and poured gasoline on his face and body,” Suhl said.

Morales and the group then rented a hotel room in West Springfield where they partied, Suhl said.

After Morales formally pleaded guilty to his eight charges, Suhl explained to Agostini that the police investigation into the case was “quite extensive.” Indictments in this case did not come until long after the killing, which Suhl said was partly a result of Morales’ and others’ attempts to cover up the slaying. She told the court that the charge of murder was reduced to voluntary manslaughter based partly on the presence of “mitigating circumstances.”

Suhl said that Cruz wasn’t just killed, but that his body was defiled “in a way that is unacceptable.”

“After they did these acts, they celebrated,” Suhl said.

She read to the court victim impact statements written by some of Cruz’s family. In her statement, Cruz’s mother wrote, “I love my son and still do … I want [Morales] to know I forgave him, and I hope he thinks about the pain he has caused because of this.”

O’Neil, Morales’ attorney, said in court that Morales has shown “significant remorse for his actions of that evening and the days that followed.” He said Morales did not go to Meadowbrook Apartments in March 2018 with the intention of killing Cruz.

“He is admitting that he shot and killed Mr. Cruz,” O’Neil said of Morales. “It’s his intent to turn his life around, as hoped for by the family of Daniel Cruz.”

Suhl said later that while the COVID-19 pandemic has frustrated efforts to bring cases to an end in court, she said “justice has been served.” Charges against five other co-defendants are still pending, according to the Northwestern district attorney’s office.

Morales pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, burning personal property, two charges of conspiracy, withholding evidence from a criminal proceeding, improper disposition of a human body, intimidation of a witness and unlawful possession of a firearm with three prior convictions of a drug offense or violent crime.

He was sentenced to 15 to 20 years on the voluntary manslaughter charge, with the sentences imposed on the remaining charges to run concurrently.

Morales will serve the sentence for these crimes concurrently with a three-year prison sentence handed down in March in Hampden Superior Court for drug charges.

Michael Connors can be reached at


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