Gunman gets 61 years in prison for murdering U.S. Army vet Dardar Paye

Danuweli Keller

Danuweli Keller

The triggerman who shot and killed U.S. Army veteran Dardar Paye execution style and who then ordered the victim’s body to be stuffed in the trunk of a car has been sentenced to six decades of hard time behind bars.

The state argued that Danuweli Keller should have been hit with life imprisonment — which amounts to 75 years of incarceration — for being convicted at trial on first-degree murder charges, but Mercer County Superior Court Judge Robert Billmeier on Thursday sentenced Keller to 61 years in state prison.

“We are gratified that Mr. Keller will be in prison for over half a century,” Mercer County Assistant Prosecutor Michelle Gasparian told The Trentonian after the sentencing. “It was a cold-blooded execution of the victim. Hopefully this gives the victim’s family some closure.”

Paye, 33, was a U.S. Army veteran, father of two sons and a Liberian immigrant. One of his sisters, Elizabeth Paye, spoke at Thursday’s sentencing and talked about the hurt of losing her brother while also expressing that she forgives Keller for his vicious crimes.

Dardar Paye

Dardar Paye

“Mr. Keller, you took someone so special and dear to my heart,” Elizabeth Paye said. “By the grace of God, I’ve been holding on. … I forgive you. You need to forgive yourself.”

But the convicted murderer on Thursday spoke with an air of arrogance, describing himself as an innocent man wrongly brought to justice.

“I had nothing to do with Dardar being murdered. I maintain my innocence,” said Keller, who was 23 at the time of the slaying. Keller did not testify at his murder trial, which ran about five weeks and led to him being convicted June 29 on various counts of murder, robbery, eluding and witness tampering.

On Thursday, Keller sported an orange inmate jumpsuit and provided an alibi defense, saying he was not at the Monmouth Street household at the time of the murder. Keller said Dardar Paye was “a good friend of mine” and expressed his condolences to Paye’s surviving relatives. “This is not the first time an innocent person got convicted for a crime he didn’t commit,” he said. “It won’t be the last time.”

Keller has the right to appeal his conviction, but Judge Billmeier said the evidence against Keller was “absolutely overwhelming” and noted that Keller had played the lead role in the slaying of Paye. “He is a murderer,” the judge said of Keller. “He has no conscience, no regard for life.”

Keller, 29, of Hamilton, lured Paye into a Monmouth Street home in Trenton in January 2011. Once inside the house, the 33-year-old Paye was forcibly whisked into the basement at gunpoint and bound and gagged with duct tape. After robbing Paye of his belongings, Keller finished him off with a shot to the head and directed Paye’s body to be placed in garbage bags and stuffed in the trunk of Paye’s Buick.

An interstate police chase soon transpired in which Keller and several co-defendants were arrested in Pennsylvania, with Trenton Police Sgt. Jason Astbury finding Paye’s body in the trunk on Jan. 16, 2011.

The other co-defendants arrested and charged with murdering Paye are Trenton men Mack Edwards, 31; Phobus Sullivan, 34, who is currently incarcerated in state prison for shooting and killing 21-year-old Andrew Leonard in December 2010; Abdutawab Kiazolu, 29; and William D. Brown, 32, who is currently incarcerated in state prison for murdering 23-year-old Tracy Crews in September 2008.

A hung jury earlier this year could not reach any verdicts against Edwards. The state will retry him on the murder charges. Meanwhile, Sullivan, Kiazolu and Brown are expected to have their day in court in the near future.

A jury of Keller’s peers convicted him in June on several counts but also failed to reach verdicts on several other counts, including the most serious murder charge that would have required a mandatory life sentence without eligibility for parole.

The nature of the verdict gave Billmeier the discretion to hammer Keller with a sentence short of the maximum punishment. The judge sentenced Keller to several concurrent terms for his various felony convictions on murder, robbery and eluding, but the main takeaway was that Keller was hit with 61 years behind bars comprising 56 years for first-degree murder to be served consecutive to five years for tampering with a key witness in the case, Alfonso Slaughter.

Keller was awarded several years of jail credit but will have to serve out 85 percent of his sentence — just over 50 years behind bars — before he is eligible for parole.

Billmeier said his sentencing of Keller “is in the interest of justice.”

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