It had been a fairly typical day.
The two friends had spent the afternoon at a party in Connecticut, hanging out and having a good time.
“We had a good day,” said Berlin Brun, describing the day he spent last Saturday with Roobino Philemon, 30. “All we did was laugh and talk about the future and the plans that we had.”
On their way back to N.J., Philemon and Brun, both of West Orange, decided “at the last minute” to accept the invitation from a woman that Philemon had known for a few years and attend another party in Bridgewater.
But when they arrived at the party at a Bayberry Road address shortly after 11:30 p.m., they were greeted by two men who told them they were not welcome and were asked to leave, Brun said.
They never entered the home, Brun said, but the exchange outside was cordial enough, and the two men agreed to leave. There was no hostility, Brun added, which is why he still can’t understand why an encounter turned violent minutes later.
Brun said he and Philemon stayed out front in Philemon’s car for a few minutes and then drove to the side of the home on Foothill Road as they waited for three women who were also leaving the party. But as they were waiting, the homeowner, later identified as Linden native and former NFL Pro Bowler Muhammad Wilkerson, tapped on the window telling them again they had to leave, Brun said. (Wilkerson bought the home through a limited liability company in 2016, according to property records.)
Unbeknownst to Brun and Philemon, the police had already been called to the house twice that night for noise complaints by neighbors. Brun said he sensed the men outside were on edge.
“Y’all gotta go, y’all gotta go,” Brun recalls one of the men saying. “This is making my neighbors nervous.”
But as they began “to roll slowly down” the street adjacent to Wilkerson’s home in Philemon’s 2012 black Dodge Charger, Wilkerson’s brother, Hafeez Brown, 33, of Linden, allegedly fired multiple shots at the vehicle from behind, according to a criminal complaint. One of the bullets entered through the rear window, then the driver’s seat before piercing Philemon’s back, Brun said.
Brun said he jumped out of the car and dragged Philemon to the back of the car, called 911 and began driving to a hospital before flagging down an officer for help. Officers provided emergency medical care before an ambulance arrived and took Philemon to a nearby trauma center, where he was pronounced dead.
Brun said neither he or Philemon knew Wilkerson or Brown, and Brun said the two men did not know that the Bridgewater home was owned by Wilkerson, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing in Philemon’s death.
“They never disrespected us,” he said. “They never said anything negative to us. We did the exact same thing. The fact that they started shooting at us is where we are puzzled for why they even decided to do that.”
A week later, Brun said he still does not have answers.
“My question is ‘Why?’” Brun asked. “Because we were leaving. We didn’t have any type of disagreement or anything like that. My question is why, why did you choose to do something like this?”
“I need to know why,” he said. “He took my best friend. He took a father. He took a son. He took a family member and a loving friend.”
Police have released few details regarding the motive of the alleged homicide.
The killing has unnerved residents in a town where there was was only one homicide from 2014 to 2018, according to FBI crime data. A resident, who said she has lived on Bayberry Road for more than 50 years and asked not to be identified, said when she and her husband awoke to a police presence Sunday morning, they thought there had been a bad car crash on their typically quiet street.
Bridgewater police Captain John Mitzak told NJ Advance Media that police responded to Wilkerson’s home twice on the night of the shooting for noise complaints — around 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. (Bridgewater police have not released the noise complaint reports, citing an ongoing criminal investigation.)
A third call came at 11:53 p.m. from Brun, an urgent plea for help for his friend who had been shot. Brun said he tried to prop Philemon’s head as emergency responders cared for him, but sensed his best friend was dying.
“The fact that I am still alive and he is not, it bothers me,” Brun said.
After the shooting, a shelter in place was called for the area between 2:10 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. Sunday. A SWAT team responded to the Bayberry Road home, where five people cooperated without incident. Police later identified Brown as being one of the occupants in the home they responded to, authorities said.
Brown, who previously pleaded guilty to distribution of heroin in 2012, has been charged with first-degree murder and other firearm offenses. He was ordered by a Somerset County Superior Court judge Thursday to continue to be detained.
“The presumption of innocence is not just a legal formality. Mr. Brown, like any other citizen, is innocent until proven guilty, and looks forward to his day in court,” attorneys Joshua F. McMahon and Michael Noriega said in a statement.
Upon executing a search warrant at Wilkerson’s home, police allegedly recovered a “substantial” amount of marijuana and two firearms and ammunition.
George A. Bease, 32, of Bridgewater, was charged with second degree possession of a firearm while in the course of committing a controlled dangerous substance offense. According to the criminal complaint, police recovered packaging material and an amount of money “consistent with the intent to distribute” marijuana.
Bease is not charged in connection with Philemon’s death and was ordered released by a Superior Court judge Thursday.
Brown, Bease and Wilkerson each went to Linden High School where they played on the basketball team. Wilkerson went on to solidify himself as one of the best athletes to come out of New Jersey over the last decade.
The New York Jets selected him in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft after he played at Temple University. Wilkerson went on to play seven years for the local team, making one Pro Bowl and two second-team All-Pro teams. He ended his NFL career with the Green Bay Packers.
“Mr. Wilkerson’s thoughts and prayers go out to all the individuals affected by this tragedy,” said a spokesman for Wilkerson.
Friends described Philemon as a loving father who had a contagious smile that he always flashed, whether it was at the Cresmont Country Club in West Orange, where he caddied for more than a decade, or at hangouts with friends.
He is survived by a young son and daughter.
Last year, Philemon received his degree in occupational therapy from Eastwick College and was working in the field in Staten Island. He had planned to go back to school to continue to earn additional degrees as an occupational therapist, Brun said.
A GoFundMe established in his honor doubled its goal of $10,000 to help pay for his funeral expenses and droves of family and friends have paid respects to Philemon on social media.
“Roobino Taron Philemon was and forever a stand up guy & father,” one friend wrote. “Full of life.”
Staff writer Katie Kausch contributed to this report.
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Joe Atmonavage may be reached at email@example.com.