UNITED STATES NEWS

A NJ pastor-politician is gunned down, and a community reels

Apr 27, 2023, 10:30 PM

SAYREVILLE, N.J. (AP) — Nicole Teliano used to play games on her phone in the mayor’s office while her mother worked down the hall several evenings a month, tending to the tedious, often acrimonious task of serving in local government.

The 11-year-old girl didn’t mind sharing her mother, Sayreville Councilwoman Eunice Dwumfour, with the nearly 50,000 residents of the central New Jersey town, the young people she nurtured as a pastor of a prosperity gospel church in Newark or the Nigerian church colleague she married in a festive ceremony in Abuja in November.

“Well, my mom was a little bit of extra, so I could share a little bit. There was enough to go around,” Nicole said in a family interview with The Associated Press this month.

Now, friends and loved ones are asking for help figuring out who gunned down the charismatic 30-year-old Dwumfour outside her Sayreville home on Feb. 1. The case is reverberating from New Jersey to West Africa, with touchpoints including politics, religion and money that echo across continents.

Authorities aren’t saying much. Dwumfour’s parents and new husband Peter Ezechukwu, who hoped to join his wife in the United States this spring but instead came for her funeral, are frustrated by the ongoing silence. The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office said it recognizes their concerns but needs to protect the integrity of the investigation.

“Eunice was too good of a person to let (her death) go unanswered,” Mayor Victoria Kilpatrick said at a Feb. 8 memorial service, where hundreds mourned the stylish preacher known as “Pastor Eunney_K.”

“That smile” of hers, Kilpatrick said, “is not going to let us give up.”

A COMMUNITY SHAKEN

Dwumfour (pronounced JEWM’-for), the eldest of five children born to Ghanaian immigrants, had been active in Christian ministry since she was a teen. She graduated from Newark public schools and, after having Nicole, earned a degree in women’s studies from William Paterson University in 2017.

During the 2021 council campaign, she described herself as a business analyst and volunteer EMT, and said she had moved to Sayreville in 2017 because it was a safe community. She had first joined the local Human Relations Commission, then won a close race for city council in 2021, running on a Republican ticket with church friend Christian Onuoha. Their surprise victories left the council with a 3-3 partisan split instead of a 5-1 Democratic majority.

Tensions often ran high at council meetings. It was something that Dwumfour addressed head-on in January. “It’s 2023 and my prayer for everyone is that our mindset will change,” Dwumfour said. “I’d like to wish everyone a happy and glorious new year.”

Four weeks later, she was dead.

Just before the shooting, Dwumfour dropped off a housemate who had been grocery shopping with her. She lived in the suburban apartment complex, Camelot at La Mer, with her daughter and two church friends, family said.

“We were waiting for my mom to look for a parking space, and then she was taking a lot of time, so we started calling her over and over and over, but it wouldn’t pick up. And then we heard gunshots, and we started calling the police,” recalled Nicole, who had dinner ready for her mother. “I thought it was fireworks.”

Neighbors saw a man in dark clothes argue with Dwumfour at her driver’s side window, then open fire before running toward the nearby Garden State Parkway and disappearing. Her white Nissan SUV rolled down the street and smashed into two parked cars.

Family lawyer John Wisniewski acknowledges that it could take time to examine everything from Dwumfour’s cellphone data to the bitter squabbles on council to the global nature of her work with her church, Champions Royal Assembly. With his help, the family finally met with investigators in March. He believes they’re “looking at everything.”

But people close to her fear the death of yet another Black woman in America will be forgotten.

“It’s just not common for somebody to come home from work and be ambushed in her parking lot,” said Karl Badu of The Church of Pentecost, the family’s pastor. “She was a councilwoman who just got murdered, brutally.”

FOCUSED ON FAITH

Most of Dwumfour’s time and energy seemed devoted to Champions Royal Assembly, which met four or five times a week in a small storefront above a Goodwill store in Newark, where nearly one in three people live in poverty.

“God loves a cheerful giver!” Dwumfour said in a 2017 sermon posted online, extolling a central tenet of the prosperity gospel theology: that good things come to those who tithe.

Senior Pastor Joshua Iginla, who married Dwumfour and Ezechukwu in November, founded the group in 2006 and now oversees an 80,000-seat church in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. He travels by private jet and — according to his social media posts and Nigerian news outlets — gives away luxury cars, cash, generators and grain to widows, actors and others on his birthday, He also has a base in Johannesburg with his South African wife and bought a home in Springfield, New Jersey, a New York suburb, linked to his former wife, in 2017. Calls to that home went unanswered.

But court records and tax filings suggest money was tight in the church’s newer U.S. operations. Dwumfour, as an officer, had been named in a series of landlord-tenant disputes in Newark dating from 2017 to 2020 involving a related church entity, the Fire Congress Fellowship. That entity saw its income drop sharply in recent years — from about $250,000 in 2017 to just $350 in 2020 as the pandemic took hold.

And an eviction warrant had been sought on Jan. 3 for her Camelot unit before property managers dismissed the case on Jan. 16, according to court records. That same month, Dwumfour wrote on LinkedIn that she was looking for a new job.

Dwumfour and Nicole had previously stayed at a second unit at Camelot, one listed as the business address for both church entities. Pastor Osi King, a regional church administrator linked to that unit, did not return calls seeking comment.

Dwumfour made $5,000 a year for her Sayreville council work and, based on the tax filings, did not appear to take a salary from the church. The church had paid the down payment on her vehicle, but not the monthly payments, her parents said. Nicole thinks her mom also did some work as a nursing assistant, though other family members could not confirm that.

Onuoha, who does campus outreach for Champions Royal Assembly, held the lease on the Camelot unit where Dwumfour was staying when she died. He had hoped she might soon take it over.

“I was just so happy that she was married,” Onuoha, who spoke movingly about Dwumfour at the memorial, told AP. She seemed, he said, to be in “a very good place.”

Nicole was not so sure. She said her mother seemed down in her final days. “That week, she started acting sad,” Nicole said. She asked what was wrong, and her mother replied, “It’s just work. It’s a lot.”

“I knew it was something else,” Nicole said quietly.

Dwumfour’s husband spoke with her from Abuja an hour before she was killed. It was “just normal: ‘I love you.’ ‘How are you?’” said Ezechukwu, 36. “My wife’s always a happy woman. Even if she has an issue, you can never tell. Because she always smiles.”

Her father, noting her generosity, said Dwumfour once gave the full contents of her bank account — some $3,000 — to a relative in need. He had named her for his mother, giving her the middle name Konadu.

“I love her so much, and she loved me too,” Prince Dwumfour said. “Oh, I’m going to miss her.”

A CONTENTIOUS COUNCIL

At the first borough council meeting of the year on Jan. 3, tempers flared over leadership assignments before Onuoha was named council president and Dwumfour — despite once saying she’d thought poorly of police growing up in Newark — the public safety chairperson.

She urged harmony in the new year.

“I’m not here because of the (Republican) party or any other thing. I’m here because I was appointed here by God., … and I’m here for my conscience,” Dwumfour said.

Three months later, the community is still reeling from her death. Kilpatrick, the mayor, announced on April 10 that she will not seek reelection. She and her family are concerned about a threatening letter sent to her while her friend’s killing goes unsolved.

Nicole is spending more time with her grandparents as she adjusts to life without her mother, whose words of wisdom she prefers to keep private. She had to give up the French bulldog mix she walked after school, which they had named Excellence. She also continues to spend time with her father. He did not return a message from the AP.

And Ezechukwu? Instead of a new life with Dwumfour, he has only memories and cellphone photos of their four-year romance, burnished through semi-annual church conferences held around the world.

“Nigerians,” Ezechukwu said, “want to know: ’What really happened? We believe in America — authority, the police and everybody. … We need justice for her.”

The family worries that day may never come.

“And the fear. Just to be plain honest — this is a Black woman, the first Black councilwoman in Sayreville. Are they just going to sweep this under the rug just like every Black person?” Badu asked. “We just need some assurance, that’s all.”

___

AP reporter Michael Rubinkam contributed to this report from Sayreville and investigative researcher Randy Herschaft from New York. Follow Legal Affairs Writer Maryclaire Dale on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Maryclairedale

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A NJ pastor-politician is gunned down, and a community reels