DERBY, Conn. (WTNH) — It’s been a month since five children from Derby were killed in a car crash in New York, and officials are working to understand what the youths were doing at a New Jersey mall earlier that night.

Investigators found they were in a rental car that was being driven by a 16-year-old who didn’t have a permit or license.  The car went off the road, on the Hutchinson River Parkway, hit a boulder and tree, and caught on fire.

Malik Smith, 16, was killed, along with 17-year-old Anthony “A.J.” Billips Jr., 12-year-old Zahnyiah Cross, 11-year-old Shawnell Cross and 8-year-old Andrew Billips. A 9-year-old riding in the hatchback/cargo area was the only survivor.

The Westchester County Police Department told News 8 on Monday it has video from earlier in the night at the Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey. Police said it shows the children approaching shoppers and speaking with them — but what exactly they were doing remains under investigation.

Police couldn’t confirm they were panhandling, but at least one of the children, A.J. Billips, was investigated in August in Milford. 

“The report was that in the plaza of Wren Kitchens on Boston Post Road there were four young juveniles asking for food and money,” Milford Pfc. Jim Cox said.

When police went to check on them, the teen stated that “they were raising money for his basketball team.”

“The young adult appeared to be guarded and didn’t want to offer up information, but he said they were his siblings,” Cox said. “They were able to contact mom and dad while on scene.”

According to Milford police, AJ gave the wrong name and age, and couldn’t say if he lived in Waterbury or Derby.  While they waited to be picked up, Milford police brought the children back to headquarters and the Connecticut Department of Children and Families was brought in.

The agency met with the mother, and a DCF representative later released the children to their mother.

AJ claimed they were raising money for “Lynden Tigers Basketball.” The Tigers are a mascot for a Linden, New Jersey school. However, the district’s superintendent told News 8 that it does not have a record of the children attending, and that fundraisers like what AJ said he was doing don’t happen within the district.

The video below aired in our 5 p.m. newscast on April 24, 2023.