EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (CBSNewYork) – An arrest has been made in the death of an East Rutherford woman whose body was found inside her burning home.
Daniel Rochat, 37, of Wood-Ridge, N.J., was arrested Wednesday for first degree murder, attempted murder, arson, burglary, resisting arrest and other charges in the death of 70-year-old Barbara Vernieri.
WCBS 880’s Levon Putney reports
An autopsy found that Vernieri died from blunt force trauma to her head, police said. Her body was discovered on the first floor of her home after it went up in flames on Sept. 14.
Bergen County prosecutors said Rochat killed Vernieri and then set her house on fire using an accelerant. At the time of the blaze, there were two other people living in a second floor apartment whose lives were “put in jeopardy by Rochat’s actions,” prosecutors said.
“She was a very nice lady. She treated us as her own grandchildren,” Sinan Logan, who lived above Vernieri, told CBS 2’s Christine Sloan. “I heard what sounded like children wrestling downstairs.”
Vernieri worked as a realtor and lived alone since her husband died three years ago from a heart attack. Prosecutors said Vernieri and Rochet’s father worked together in real estate.
Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli said Vernieri had known Rochat since his teens.
“It was not the first time that Mr. Rochat was at this residence, on the morning of Sept. 14,” Molinelli said.
Prosecutors said Rochat brought gasoline with him to set the house on fire. However, Molinelli said investigators have still not determined a motive in the case.
“There was an item of not really significant value but an item removed by Mr. Rochat from Ms. Vernieri’s house,” Molinelli said. “Since they’ve known each other for such a long period of time, we really don’t know what prompts it.”
Rochat, who is currently unemployed, was arrested during a traffic stop in Allendale. Prosecutors said he had been under physical surveillance by detectives.
“He never seemed violent, no,” Rochat’s neighbor, Al White, told CBS 2’s Sloan.
Authorities said Vernieri’s murder seemed to have similarities with two other Bergen County murders involving older women. Investigators are looking to see if he’s connected to the other cases, where accelerants were also used to cover up the crimes.
Among the things prosecutors are looking at as they investigate include whether the homes of the two other women killed had any connection to the real estate company.
“We have not ruled out that Mr. Rochat may be responsible but at this time there is no evidence that would allow us to actually say that he was responsible,” Molinelli said.
Those who knew Vernieri said it is hard to believe anyone could have killed her.
“This guy will get what’s coming to him,” Logan told Sloan.
A judge set bail at $3 million. He’s due in court on Friday. Rochat could face life in prison plus 90 years if convicted.
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