NEWARK — Venetta Benjamin looked away when the man first appeared on the video screen.
The prisoner sitting on a long bench against a wall appeared on three closed-circuit televisions Thursday in Essex County Superior Court. Benjamin turned her head and waved her hand toward the image as if wiping it away.
But as the man stood up and approached the camera, the young woman stared straight at the screen closest to her and watched as the father of her 3-month-old daughter gave his name: Shamsid-Din Abdur-Raheem.
The 21-year-old Galloway Township man is accused of beating Benjamin’s mother Tuesday and taking the couple’s infant girl from the 60-year-old woman’s East Orange home.
When arrested, Abdur-Raheem reportedly told police he had tossed the girl off the Driscoll Bridge over the Raritan River in Middlesex County and into the icy water. The child was not found Thursday, and a search for the girl continued.
On Thursday, a public defender entered a not guilty plea on Abdur-Raheem’s behalf to charges of kidnapping, endangering the welfare of a child, assault and attempted murder. The latter two charges relate to the alleged assault on the baby’s grandmother.
Benjamin and several family members quietly declined requests for comment as they waited hours for the short court hearing to start. A woman in a clerical collar could be heard setting up a prayer vigil for Thursday evening, which was to include several churches in the Essex County area, “but not become a public spectacle.”
“I don’t want to hear, ‘I’m sorry,’” Benjamin told the woman.
Benjamin, who attends Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, as does Abdur-Raheem, has said she’s holding out hope that 3-month-old Zara Malani-Lin Abdur-Raheem would be found alive.
But as authorities resumed a search Thursday morning using boats, dogs and helicopters, there was still no sign of the little girl. Deputy Attorney General Andrew C. Reid, co-counsel for the state, would not comment on the investigation.
The state attorney general may rework the criteria for issuing an Amber Alert amid questions about why officials did not issue one right away, spokesman Paul Loriquet said Thursday.
State Police issue Amber Alerts in collaboration with other law enforcement agencies investigating nonfamily kidnappings that are unrelated to custody disputes, threaten harm to the child and meet other criteria, according to the State Police Amber Alert Web site and Capt. Duane Lewis.
Abdur-Raheem and Benjamin are not married, and she has full custody of the child.
After Abdur-Raheem allegedly threatened to harm Benjamin the prior weekend, a restraining order was granted Tuesday, Loriquet said. Abdur-Raheem had not received the order by the time he got to Benjamin’s mother’s house in East Orange.
Abdur-Raheem allegedly forced his way into the grandmother’s apartment shortly after 4 p.m. Tuesday, hitting and choking her. After he grabbed the baby, the older woman rushed after him, trying to stop the Atlantic City native from fleeing. Instead, Abdur-Raheem struck the woman with the Dodge Caravan he was driving, according to a release from the Attorney General’s Office. The woman was treated at the hospital and released.
Neither Lewis nor Loriquet said why officials waited to issue an Amber Alert.
But Loriquet did say East Orange police issued a “be on the lookout.”
State Police apparently had been close to issuing an Amber Alert about three hours after the abduction. That’s when they started getting calls saying Abdur-Raheem was going to turn himself in, Loriquet said.
“We’re going to take a look at timelines, look at criteria, to see if modifications need to be made in light of this case,” Loriquet said. “Right now, the paramount issue is to find the baby. ... We certainly hope it’s a hoax, but based on the information we received, we believe it’s credible, and hence a massive search is being conducted as we speak.”
The Middlesex County bridge where little Zara’s father said he tossed her off is about 20 miles south on the Garden State Parkway from the home where she was taken. A helicopter was hovering over the water there Thursday afternoon, just across from Staten Island.
As the search continued, Abdur-Raheem remained jailed on $700,000 cash bail. Public defender Regina Lynch called the full cash terms “illegal” during Thursday’s brief court hearing.
“He does not qualify for that bail whatsoever,” she told the judge. “That’s usually for someone with a previous criminal record. As an adult, he has none.”
But Municipal Judge Amilkar Velez-Lopez said it was not illegal, and that — since he was not a Superior Court judge — he did not have the power to alter it. If Abdur-Raheem should make bail, he can have no contact with the victim, witnesses or relatives, the judge cautioned him.
“No contact in any way, shape or form,” Velez-Lopez said, adding that this included texting or e-mail.
Contact Emily Previti:
Contact Lynda Cohen: