A suspected serial killer, on trial in New Jersey for murder in connection with the deaths of three women, was allegedly caught after friends and family members of a victim launched an online sting operation, according to local reports.
PEOPLE confirms with court officials the triple-murder trial of Khalil Wheeler-Weaver, 23, began Wednesday in Newark.
NorthJersey.com reports that the family and friends of slain 20-year-old college student Sarah Butler, knowing her password, logged into her social media accounts and allegedly identified Wheeler-Weaver as the man she was interacting with prior to vanishing in late 2016.
Butler, according to the outlet, went missing while home in Montclair from college for Thanksgiving break in 2016. Her remains were found about a week later at the 400-acre Eagle Rock Reservation in nearby West Orange.
The outlet, in court for the proceedings, reports Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Adam Wells told jurors Butler’s friends and relatives worked together on a fake social media profile, in hopes of attracting Wheeler-Weaver’s attention.
Wells, calling the friends and relatives “the heroes of this case,” alleged a sexual tryst was arranged with Wheeler-Weaver, using the phony profile. When Wheeler-Weaver showed up for it, he was detained by Montclair Police.
Wheeler-Weaver is on trial for allegedly strangling and asphyxiating Butler as well as two other women, along with the alleged attempted murder of a fourth victim who escaped. He pleaded not guilty to all 11 counts filed against him.
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According to NJ.com, the woman who escaped will be testifying against Wheeler-Weaver.
NJ.com reports the woman awoke from a drug-induced sleep, and ran from her captor — later identifying him for police.
The outlet reports that, in court Wednesday, Wheeler-Weaver’s public defender noted his client cooperated with the investigation early on and acknowledged that while Wheeler-Weaver had met with each of the women who were killed, they were alive when they parted ways.
In addition to Butler, Wheeler-Weaver is accused of killing Joanne Browne, 33, in October and Robin West, 19, in August 2016.
Browne’s body was found in an abandoned house while West’s remains were recovered from a house fire prosecutors allege Wheeler-Weaver started.
All of the women were drugged and had packing tape over their noses and mouths before being strangled with items of clothing.