FREEHOLD, N.J. (AP) — A New Jersey businessman was financially sound and had no reason to kill his brother’s family, defense lawyers said Friday, but an emerging picture of their lives suggests their bond as business partners could have frayed as one thrived and the other struggled years after a serious car accident.
Paul Caneiro, 51, limped into court Friday to plead not guilty to killing Keith Caneiro, 50; Keith’s wife, Jennifer; and their two young children two days before they were to host Thanksgiving at their sleek $1.5 million mansion in Colts Neck. He also pleaded not guilty to arson charges stemming from the fires set at both their homes.
Prosecutors have called the motive for the slayings “financial.” However, defense lawyers said they have no evidence Paul Caneiro was financially strapped. He owns a $550,000 suburban home with an in-ground pool and a white Porsche convertible parked in the driveway, and helped run two family businesses.
“Paul Caneiro loved his brother, loved his sister-in-law like a sister, loved those children, and would never do anything to harm them,” attorney Mitchell Ansell said after Friday’s hearing. “There’s no reason on earth for him to have harmed them.”
His client said little in court except to answer “yes,” ”no” or “I do” to a series of procedural questions.
A friend said that the accident about five years ago left Paul Caneiro “immobilized” for a time, and that he’d had repeated surgeries, and taken painkillers, for injuries to his back, legs and knees.
“He was never, never the same person after he got in that accident,” the friend, New York-based hairstylist Demetris Potamianos, said Thursday. “It was bad. It was bad for a very long time.”
Paul Caniero moved out of his family’s Ocean Township home for about six months this year but had recently moved back in, said Potamianos, 44, who has been friends with the extended Caneiro family for years. He called them smart, close-knit and unassuming.
“I know it looks very bad (for) Paul at this point, but knowing both of the families, I can’t put it together why would he do this horrific crime,” he said. “(Keith) was just a simple person. Why would somebody get jealous of him? … He was never a show-off.”
The killings have startled the affluent horse-country community of Colts Neck, home to Bruce Springsteen and where former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart and his wife run an animal sanctuary.
Authorities say Paul Caneiro shot his brother, shot and stabbed his sister-in-law, and stabbed the children before dawn Nov. 20, then set the mansion on fire and returned home to set fire to his own home as his wife and two adult daughters slept upstairs. After his arrest in that fire the next day, his lawyers said his family believed he had rescued them.
They were not in court Friday, lawyer Robert Honecker said, because their testimony wasn’t needed when Caneiro waived a detention hearing.
Caneiro sat stone-faced as Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Decker read the charges. A judge ordered him to remain at the Monmouth County jail at least until a hearing in late January.
The brothers had started a computer consulting business in Brooklyn that had grown to have 26 employees by 2001, with clients including Citibank. They had renamed it Square One, and moved to the quieter New Jersey suburbs. They married and started families – with each brother standing up for the other at their weddings – and added a pest control company along the way.
Paul Caneiro was lately a frequent presence at their small offices in Asbury Park, where Square One now had just a few employees, while Keith Caneiro more often worked from home.
In recent years, Keith Caneiro had earned undergraduate and graduate degrees through Columbia University; started working out with a trainer and lost weight; and spent time with his family on Greece’s Aegina island, where his wife’s father grew up and they hoped to retire.
Aspire Fitness owner Brian Bott said Keith was a fun-loving fixture in the mornings since joining the gym four years ago. He was excited about some job interviews he had lined up since getting his master’s degree this year. Bott did not know if Keith hoped to move on or continue working with Paul on the side.
“Every once in a while, he’d talk about business, or having a stressful day at work. But nothing relative to something like this,” said Bott, who posted an online video after the deaths of Keith doing push-ups with his young daughter Sophia on his back.
Jennifer Caneiro also worked out there, as did Paul’s wife and daughters. But Paul was hampered by mobility issues. He hadn’t been able to travel to Greece for the family excursions but hoped to be well enough to go soon, according to Potamianos, who’s also from Aegina.
Prosecutors haven’t elaborated on the alleged financial motives behind the crimes. They said Paul Caneiro set the fire at his own home to destroy evidence and to make it appear someone was targeting his extended family. He was at the police station being interviewed about that fire when the smoldering fire erupted at his brother’s house just after noon, hours after investigators think it was set, and the bodies were discovered.
Funerals for the family, including 11-year-old Jesse and 8-year-old Sophia, are planned Sunday.
Jennifer Caneiro’s father, Vlassis Karidis of New York City’s Staten Island, told Potamianos in a text last week: “I lost everything I had in this life. And you lost friends that really, really loved you.”
“I broke down in tears,” Potamianos said.
Dale reported from Philadelphia. Follow Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC