Tanya Worthy, a self-made businesswoman who lived in an expansive, million-dollar home in Somerset County, finished up her dinner at a Newark soul food restaurant Tuesday evening and ordered another meal to go. She told employees she'd be back to pick it up.
At about 5:15 p.m., she drove off in her BMW convertible. She never returned.
Hours later, at 10:45, police in Elizabeth responded to a report of a burning car on Neck Lane, not far from Newark Liberty International Airport. Inside the vehicle, a white BMW, they found Worthy, the widow of a state trooper who died in a motorcycle accident nine years ago.
Today, as authorities declared Worthy a victim of homicide, investigators tried to determine where the 35-year-old Green Brook woman went and whom she saw in the hours before her death.
At the same time, family members struggled to process the loss.
"If there was a woman whose steps you wanted to follow, it was her," said Vonikue Tinny, a cousin. "She was an excellent role model. Who on earth would do this to her? Why?"
Authorities declined to say how Worthy was killed. In a statement, Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow said detectives with a newly formed homicide task force "are making progress" in the investigation. He declined to elaborate.
"Work is being done to bring those responsible to justice and give the victim's family some comfort during this difficult time," Romankow said.
The task force was created last month to deal with a growing number of slayings in Union County. Worthy was the 17th homicide victim this year and the 12th in Elizabeth. This afternoon, an 18th victim was discovered in a car several blocks from where authorities found Worthy.
Romankow, in a second statement, said there was no evidence to suggest the two killings were linked.
Worthy, who ran a party-planning firm out of her Green Brook home, was born and raised in Newark, said her father, Reginald Moore, who still lives in the city. Numerous relatives gathered at the father's home yesterday, consoling one another and waiting for answers from police.
The family members said Worthy attended a local parochial school and St. Patrick's High School in Elizabeth, graduating in 1991. She then studied business at Rutgers University's Newark campus, where she earned a BA.
She worked for 10 years training employees at Fleet Bank, then in 1999 moved to DeVry University, where she was a recruiter and motivational speaker. Among her duties was traveling to area high schools to encourage students to seek an education, whether at DeVry or elsewhere, relatives said.
"She was a take-charge woman," cousin Denise Dinielle said. "She was always very well-liked."
In August 1999, tragedy struck. Worthy's husband, Shawn Worthy, a state trooper for five years, was killed in an off-duty motorcycle accident. The couple lived in Piscataway at the time.
Later, Tanya Worthy regrouped and started her own business, As U Wish Event Planning, records show. Early last year, she bought the home in Green Brook for just over $1 million.
No one answered the door today at the taupe-colored mansion, which sits atop the first Watchung Ridge. The home sports a three-car garage, a turreted stone entranceway and a gorgeous view. Campaign literature and a religious pamphlet were stuck in the door. Worthy's family members said she lived in the home with her boyfriend.
The relatives were at a loss to explain why someone would want Worthy dead.
Tinny, the cousin, called Worthy a "peacemaker" who hated controversy. She was the type of woman who, when two friends weren't speaking to one another, would play the go-between to smooth things over. She was a success in every sense of the word, Tinny said.
Tuesday afternoon, Worthy went to one of her favorite restaurants, John's Place, for an early dinner. Two employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, called Worthy a regular at the soul-food spot, saying she ate there three to four times a week. Last November, when she turned 35, Worthy held a birthday party there, the employees said.
"Nice, nice lady," one of the employees said, adding that Worthy always dressed professionally and looked sharp, with Gucci handbags and Jimmy Choo shoes. Over 45 minutes Tuesday, Worthy ate a meal of chicken liver and onions with rice. Shortly after 5 p.m., she ordered a second meal of grilled chicken wings and macaroni and cheese.
She didn't say who it was for, the employees said, but they found nothing unusual in the request, noting that she often ordered takeout after eating.
She said she'd be back for the meal, then drove off in the BMW about 5:15 p.m., the employees said.
"Where she went after that, I don't know," the second employee said.