Elizabeth man sentenced to 30 years for 2012 murder of 92-year-old woman

An Elizabeth man has been sentenced to 30 years in state prison for killing a 92-year-old woman in her home during the course of a robbery in 2012, acting Union County Prosecutor Grace H. Park announced Friday.

Daniel Rios, 40, must serve the entire 30-year term before becoming eligible for parole. He was sentenced early Friday afternoon before state Superior Court Judge Frederic R. McDaniel.

“I’m speechless. I’ve never had a case so horrendous,” McDaniel said before handing down the sentence. “The absolute disregard for human life is difficult to comprehend.”

The victim, Annette Hempel, was a nearly lifelong Elizabeth resident and widow who lived alone on the first floor of her home on the 600 block of Jefferson Avenue, according to Union County Assistant Prosecutor Caroline Lawlor, who prosecuted the case. On the afternoon of May 24, 2012, Rios rang the doorbell of Hempel’s home, then pushed his way inside, Lawlor said.

When Hempel started screaming, Rios placed his hand over her mouth and brought her to the ground in an effort to silence her, leading to her death by asphyxiation. He then stole approximately $360 in change from Hempel’s home before fleeing.

Hempel’s body was discovered by a family member later that afternoon, and an intensive joint investigation involving the Union County Homicide Task Force and the Elizabeth Police Department led to the identification of Rios as a suspect. He was arrested and charged several days after Hempel was found dead, and last September a Union County grand jury returned a four-count indictment charging Rios with burglary, robbery, murder, and felony murder.

Rios, who had nine prior indictable convictions, pleaded guilty in June.

Several members of Hempel’s family appeared in court Friday, when Lawlor read statements written by them into the record. Calling her murder “cowardly” and “inhuman,” Hempel’s relatives described the elderly victim as a caring, happy person with strong ties to her neighborhood, noting that during the hours leading up to her death, she had been trimming a tree on her property to make sure that passersby wouldn’t strike their heads on low-hanging branches.

“She didn’t deserve an ending like the one she got,” Lawlor said, reading from a letter written by Hempel’s niece, Amy Sloane. “It was ruthless, cruel, and painful, and it was anguishing for her large and loving family.”