The Uptown Chronicle http://theuptownchronicle.com Covering Harlem, Washington Heights, and the South Bronx Wed, 04 May 2011 23:53:03 +0000 en hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.0.1 Pain and suffering – For all http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1720 http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1720#comments Wed, 04 May 2011 23:50:44 +0000 Shibani Mahtani http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1720 Sharon Scott started a fire that killed a child and ruined several lives

by Shibani Mahtani
4 May 2011

Sharon Scott's kitchen after the fire. Photo courtesy of the Bronx District Attorney's office.

The sun was barely rising over the Bronx as residents of 64 Jesup Place stood outside in the crisp winter cold on Jan. 31 2007, watching angry orange flames rip through the west wing of their building. Sirens blared from an ambulance and three fire trucks crowded the narrow side-street in Highbridge; the red of the fire engines a startling contrast to the washed-out brown apartment building and its towering metal gates.

Firefighters rushed into the building. One almost tripped over two bodies lying on the landing of the fifth floor, according to David Birnbaum, an attorney at the Bronx District Attorney’s office.  The firefighter picked up a small body. He held it just inches from his mask before recognizing that the tiny frame, blackened from the soot, was a baby girl. He rushed out onto the street, wrapping her in his arms close to his chest.

The bodies were that of two-year-old Amanda Adjivon and her father, Komi Adjivon. They were immediately rushed to Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.  Komi Adjivon spent the next few hours in the intensive care unit, fighting to live, unaware that his daughter had been pronounced dead on arrival.

“I knew I did something bad when they brought the little girl out,” said Sharon Scott. Now 45, Scott sat in the visiting hall of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for women in Westchester County. It was Dec. 11, 2010, almost three years after the fire, and almost a year after she was sentenced to 21 years after pleading guilty to arson.

***

Sharon Scott met James Hicks in 1993 in midtown Manhattan when on a “midnight drug run”, according to a witness statement she made at the 44th Precinct on Jan. 31 2007, 6 hours after the fire.  “At first, things seemed to be okay,” she wrote, recounting that she brought Hicks to meet her mother and stepfather in Brooklyn. She said she kissed him on the subway on their way to Brooklyn, and knew she was in love.

Even from the beginning of their relationship, Scott wrote that people who saw the couple together would make comments like ‘Oh Boy, girl you have a large large plate of crazy on your hands,’” and would start snickering.  Scott asked them what they meant, but they never explained.

Scott was unemployed, having only completed high school up to 11th  grade. She said she was HIV positive, having contracted the virus from her ex-husband. She received grants from the HIV/AIDS Service Administration, and was also supported by her mother.

A year after they met, Hicks moved in with Scott who was living in a Single Room Occupancy building for the homeless, disabled and HIV positive. Their building, The Malibu, was hardly the setting of an idyllic romance.

“We would fight all the time, maybe like normal people do, except he drank a lot… that wasn’t normal,” Scott recounted in a recent conversation at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. In her witness statement, Scott recalled an incident when she brought Hicks lunch at his workplace, a senior citizen’s center in Manhattan, Project FIND. She said a coworker told her “[Hicks] didn’t want anything from that bitch”, and he later came out and pushed her out of the office.

“He hits a lot, pushes me. I tell him not to do this to me. I love you,” she wrote in her witness statement.

“James Hicks was just someone who was simply not a good person,” said Birnbaum, speaking about the case in early December. He described Hicks as a “big guy” who seemed strong and intimidating.

In 2005, Scott and Hicks moved into apartment D7 of 64 Jesup Place, on the 5th floor. Nilo Martinez, who has been the superintendent of the building for the past four years, saw and heard the couple a lot.

“They were always drinking, always fighting, take a lot of drugs,” he explained in broken English, referring to Scott and Hicks. “The woman, she crazy, she shout at the man all the time.” Speaking in prison, Scott remembered an occasion when she cut up a shirt belonging to Hicks and threw the cotton pieces out of the window.  He was late coming back from work, and she suspected he was cheating on her.

***

Sharon Scott hardly interacted with her upstairs neighbors, but often saw little Amanda Adjivon running up and down the stairs. “I knew the family but we weren’t friends… my only friends were people I got high with. I saw the girl running around a lot,” Scott said in the Bedford Hills interview.

The Adjivons were immigrants from Togo, a narrow strip of land nestled between Ghana and Benin in West Africa. According to Birnbaum, they too had been living at Jesup Place for five years, home to a sizable West African community. He describes the Adjivons as an “extremely hardworking family”. Komi Adjivon, now 41, worked long hours as a janitor in building in the Bronx. His wife, Dolibe Nikabou, also 41, worked as a nurses’ assistant in a nursing home. She often had to get to work in before daybreak, helping the nurses prepare breakfast and medication for senior citizens.

Adjivon and Nikabou shared their sixth floor apartment with another family, unable to afford the rent in full. The Adjivons had two children back in Togo, aged seven and eleven. The children had been excitedly planning a visit to New York to meet their new sister, who had just turned two on Jan. 11 2007.

***

Jan. 30 2007 was Scott’s 42nd birthday. Martinez remembered that she had thrown a big party. “There was a lot of alcohol, drugs. She keep coming down here and talking to people, very drunk,” he said, shaking his head. Martinez was speaking in mid-December in the basement of 64 Jesup Place. “I didn’t speak to her. I don’t want any trouble.” He remembered that she was carrying bottles of alcohol at 4 a.m. and drinking on the sidewalk.

Scott, too, speaking almost three years on, still remembers her birthday clearly. “I had two big candles, one was shaped like a champagne bottle… they were really cute. There was cake, but I didn’t eat much of it,” she said, sitting with her hands on a gray table in one of the prison’s visiting rooms. “It was strawberry shortcake. I don’t really like strawberry shortcake, unless it’s made well.”

Martinez, meanwhile, remembered a much different scene. “She keep shouting, saying the man won’t open the door for her,” he said, referring to Hicks. Scott admitted in the prison interview that she was drunk, and Martinez said she was socializing with the neighbors while Hicks slept upstairs. At about 6:30 a.m., he finally woke up and opened the door. The couple had a drunken argument before Hicks went back to the room, promptly falling asleep.

The noise from Scott’s apartment had died down and all was quiet, but as dawn was breaking, the day had already begun for the Adjivons. Dolibe Nikabou had set off for work. She was assigned to the morning shift at the nursing home that day, according to Birnbaum. Komi Adjivon was awake, and just preparing for his shift.

As Hicks was sleeping, Scott “got fed up”. “I took my hit,” she wrote several hours later in her police statement. “Without thinking” and “in very bad conscience,” Scott wrote that she poured nail polish remover at three spots, surrounding the bed in which Hicks was sleeping, and lit it up with a lighter.

Hicks woke up screaming, and ran through the flames that had almost caged his bed. Pictures submitted to the authorities later show his second-degree burns; the balls of his feet crusty and black with traces of gray. He found Scott sitting in the living room, casually smoking a cigarette, seemingly unaware of what she had done. According to her witness statement, seeing the panic on his face, she ran to get a glass of water to put out the flames. They had now engulfed the bedroom, quickly spreading to the rest of the apartment.

Scott had two cats, Snowball, a beige tabby and Socks, a black cat with white paws. Scott remembers that Snowball ran out of the apartment, but Socks had fallen and injured his leg. “James told me to get out of there as quickly as possible but I was like, forget you, and went in to get Socks,” Scott said. “I loved my cats”. They both ran out of the building, the black cat cradled in Scott’s arms.

The flames had shot up the west wing of the apartment. Most residents ran to the back of the building where the fire escape was, said Birnbaum. But Komi Adjivon picked up little Amanda and rushed to the front door of their apartment instead. He opened the door, only to be greeted by the ferocious flames and smothering smoke. The 38-year-old fell to the ground, his little girl falling out of his arms. Her small lungs unable to cope, she died less than an hour later from smoke inhalation.

***

At 8:40 a.m. the same day, fire marshalls Robert Pinto and Raymond Ott were just conducting preliminary investigations into the incident, according to court documents. Sharon Scott spoke to them, claiming that James Hicks had fallen asleep in the bedroom with a cigarette. She claimed she was just sitting on the sofa, having left Hicks alone. Five minutes later, she said, he came out and there was smoke and fire.

Barely half-an-hour later, she spoke to Ott again, admitting this time that Hicks and her had a fight. She claimed he went into the bedroom, and five minutes later there was a fire.

“He did it. He was smoking,” she said.

It was only five hours later at the 44th Precinct, after she was arrested, that Scott wrote the account of the fire in which she was the perpetrator. After a three-page long description of her relationship with Hicks, including their fights and his abusive tendencies, Scott wrote:

“I’m so sorry about the other tenants. Please, Please, Please, Please 4give me!,

Sharon Louise Scott Claiborne

GOD Bless all of you. Stay safe!!!”

She also spent three lines explaining how fourteen years of abuse led her to act “without thinking,” before continuing in curved, almost child-like handwriting, with large bubble-like circles dotting her i’s:

“Sorry tenants above and
below really really
really
truly sorry
sorry
sorry
I wasn’t in my right state of mind. Lashed out, fed up,
Sorry
sorry
apologize
deeply
deeply
deeply
!!!”
Later in the evening, she made a statement to the Bronx District Attorney’s office, stating: “I wanted [Hicks] to feel pain. I did not want to hurt anyone else.”

It was too late. Almost 12 hours later, Komi Adjivon was just recovering in the intensive care unit of Bronx-Lebanon Hospital. He woke up to the news that his youngest daughter died when she slipped out of his arms after he fell, unconscious, from the smoke inhalation. His wife, whom Birnbaum described as a “broken woman,” was at his side. All of their possessions – painstakingly earned with nothing but their manual labor – were blackened by soot, unrecognizable.

***

Sharon Scott was indicted on Feb. 23 2007, facing 11 criminal counts, including two counts of murder in the second degree, arson in the first degree, two counts of assault in the first degree and reckless endangerment in the first degree. According to court documents, a month earlier, Scott had stabbed hicks in the leg with a knife, but had failed to show up for her arraignment.

“There was not a dry eye in the room when Amanda’s mother testified in front of the grand jury,” Birnbaum said. Nikabou found it hard to forgive herself for not being at home that morning, thinking it could have somehow averted the tragedy that struck their warm home.

Several adjournments, legal discussions, psychological exams and countless tears later, Scott pled guilty to arson on Feb. 1 2010, almost exactly three years after the fire. “I decided to pled guilty because I knew I could be sentenced to life – 25 years for each count. I can’t imagine that,” Scott said speaking in prison.  “I want to walk out of here.”

“I would have liked to see her get a bit more jail time,” said Birnbaum, who said the decision not to go to trial was more the Adjivons’ rather than his. “There was an understanding that the plea would spare the family a lot of pain. Trials are very exciting and dramatic, but in this case, it would have just been bad.”

A picture of Amanda Adjivon sits high on a shelf in Birnbaum’s office – a reminder of why he serves as a public defendant. She is smiling, almost cheekily, with her hair tied in two ponytails.

Birnbaum believed that Scott was a simplistic, childlike individual with low intelligence. She could not understand the consequences of what she had done. In her mind, she was genuinely sorry, and that should have been enough.

“In the indictment, it says that she acted under circumstances showing ‘a depraved indifference to human life’. I think this case is the best example of that,” he said.

“It really did not hit me that I did something bad till the sentencing. I couldn’t turn around to face the family, I was crying too much,” Scott said.

James Hicks never showed up to any court hearings after testifying to the grand jury. Several attempts to locate him failed, and he could not be reached for comment on the incident. Birnbaum remembers that he came into his office a day later, but Birnbaum was unable to speak to him because he had stepped out for lunch.

“I never saw him again after that. I tried to contact him,” said Birnbaum. “I always wondered what he wanted to say to me.”

***

It is mid-afternoon on Dec. 8 2010, and children who live in 64 Jesup Place are just returning home from school. A dozen or so cigarette butts litter the floor and graffiti colors several doors in the building. Instead of choking smoke, the smell of curry wafts through the hallways. Instead of firefighters climbing up the steps, a man working at a Dominican restaurant briskly walks up the stairs, slipping takeaway menus under the doors. Instead of screeching sirens unnerving the residents, Latin music plays from behind closed doors.

A sticker that says “there is no God but Allah and Prophet Mohammed is his messenger,” is pasted on the front door of apartment E6. It was stuck on by the Adjivons. But the Adjivons no longer live on Jesup Place – the sting of memory too difficult for them to face.

“I think about this every day. It’s still very difficult,” Nikabou said in a recent conversation with Birnbaum, She admitted that she sometimes regrets moving from Togo to the United States. Komi Adjivon, too, still lives with the emotional pain of losing his daughter, Birnbaum said, and because of damage to his lungs, still finds it difficult to breathe from time to time.

***

Past many security checks and four metal gates about 20 ft. high, lined with barbed wire, the visiting hall of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women is packed with visitors and inmates.  A husband holds the hands of his incarcerated wife, staring intently into her eyes. Not a single word is exchanged; they just sit, never breaking their gaze. A girl compliments her sister, dressed in the prison-ordained matching khaki green pants and a shirt, on her hairstyle. A mother laughs with her little children, running around excitedly with ice cream sticks in their hands.

“No one has come to see me in three years and ten months, “ says Sharon Scott, peering through the glittery sliver and red frame of her glasses. “I am very lonely.”

She wrote in a letter, dated mid-December, that she is “not really concerned” about being in prison, but worries “every night” about her mother and children, who don’t contact her. No one came to her sentencing in February 2010. The last letter from Deidre Scott, her mother, was sent in May and stated that she would no longer be sending her any money. When Deidre Scott was contacted at her home in Brooklyn, she hung up upon hearing the mention of her daughter’s name.

“I forgive him. I still want to be with him, but I’d be worried about what my family thinks of me,” Scott says, referring to James Hicks. “He was good to me… he knew about the virus, so he always brought me to my health checks and made sure I took my medicine.”

Remembering the fore, Scott said that she “just wanted to scare him.”

“No one was supposed to get hurt. He was not supposed to get hurt,” she said, looking down at the table, almost wistfully.

At Bedford Hills, Scott is learning graphic design and attending math and science lessons. She proudly talked about the Christmas decorations that she printed using “those complicated machines” that now line the visiting areas of the prison. Adamant that she will walk out of the prison gates after her sentence is served, Scott wants to turn her life around.

“I will be 59, but I will get a job and do something good. I want to be a counselor for people who are HIV positive too,” she said.

But she cannot forget the day she turned 42. “At night when I’m in my cell I think, I’m such a mess… I must be a monster. I killed someone,” she said, tears welling in her eyes which remain fixated on her hands.

She is unable to make eye contact. After almost half a minute, she finally looks up, almost smiling. “But they give me pills here,” she says, “I don’t know what they are, but I’m not angry or sad much anymore.”
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Thankful for Inwood http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1669 http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1669#comments Fri, 25 Feb 2011 00:52:38 +0000 John Harrison http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1669 A Taste of Inwood Hospitality

By John Harrison

On these benches, an Inwood man answered all my questions - except one.

Late one October evening, I turned to shake hands with Angela Mateo before leaving her Inwood apartment. An hour before, she had invited me into her home to discuss her experience living in one of the worst residential buildings in Manhattan. The interview proved invaluable, and her account became a major component of my story about life at 23 Arden Street.

I swung around in the doorway to thank Mateo for her time and for sharing her story. But as often occurred during my semester covering Manhattan’s northernmost neighborhood, my interviewee was one step ahead of me.

“Thank you,” she said before my words could escape. “It’s good that someone wants to know what it’s like living here. Thanks for coming.”

This was one of several instances in which Inwood residents were quicker to voice their appreciation than I was to voice mine. Each time, I simply returned the gesture of gratitude, often beginning with the words, “No, thank you.” In retrospect, I fear my words may have seemed but a polite formality to those who, like Mateo, were so eager to thank me for my efforts.

To those courteous individuals, the ones who left me chuckling internally at the notion that I had done you a favor, allow me to set the record straight: I am truly indebted to you, not the other way around. My words were much more than the manifestation of manners, for without your time, your kindness, and your willingness to share your stories, my job would have been impossible.

Cristian Disla, a 16-year-old baseball player, invited me into his group of friends and teammates one September afternoon in 2010. He helped me understand the importance of baseball to Dominican teenagers, the difference in socioeconomic class on either side of Broadway, and the rise of gang activity in local schools. He then showed me where to find the neighborhood’s cheapest slice of pizza.

I walked him home as it got dark, and he explained how he took varying routes to avoid running into certain gang members who wanted to hurt him. As we went our separate ways, he thanked me for escorting him home.

No, Christian, thank you.

Steve Ramos, the executive director of a youth organization that operates a food pantry in Inwood, accommodated my request for an interview with less than a day’s notice before my deadline. He turned away phone calls and put people on hold so he could help me understand how his crew of middle and high schoolers provide food to hungry New Yorkers.

He then escorted me out of the building, jotting down names and contact information for additional sources while we walked. As we went our separate ways, he thanked me for stopping by.

No, Mr. Ramos, thank you.

John Higgins, a 65-year-old war veteran, approached me in Inwood park when he spotted my notebook and audio recorder. As we hit golf balls together on a vacant baseball field, he helped me understand the drug culture of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and shared his praise for the police department’s crack down on minor crimes in the neighborhood.

Then he packed up his clubs, hopped aboard the A-line subway, and traveled down to the east side of Washington Heights to show me where a different type of crime takes place – the illegal dumping of car tires into the East River. As we went our separate ways, he thanked me for giving him reprieve from his afternoon routine.

No, Mr. Higgins, thank you.

Then there was the 82-year-old Irishman who lives on the corner of Broadway and 213th Street – a gentleman who, despite my most persistent efforts one September evening, never gave me his name. He was never directly quoted in my stories and, because he offered no address or contact information, he will not be available for future contact. I likely will never see him again.

But I learned more during the two hours we spent talking on that park bench than I did at any other point in Inwood. He helped me understand the unique history of the neighborhood, dating back to the 1950’s when he moved to New York. He took me through the changes in landscape, architecture and culture. He explained that the Dominican-owned bodega across the street was once a lively Irish pub, and before that, it was an Italian restaurant.

Then, after I told him I was concerned about covering a neighborhood where I (and my southern accent) stood out like a sore thumb, the man gave me advice that I won’t soon forget. “Just about every one of us is from somewhere else originally,” he said. “You belong here the same as anyone else does.”

And as we went our separate ways, he mustered the strength to push up off the bench and shake my hand. He thanked me for taking the time to talk.

No, whoever you are, thank you. Thank you very much.

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Surviving One Horror, But Not Another http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1641 http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1641#comments Sat, 12 Feb 2011 21:10:59 +0000 Leah Binkovitz http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1641 Jacob Gerstle’s odyssey ended in Washington Heights

By Leah Binkovitz

On the day he was beaten so badly that he died days later, Jacob Gerstle went to morning services, attended a lecture at his synagogue and called his wife to ask if she wanted him to pick her up so they could go to lunch together. She was too tired, she said, go ahead and put the car in the garage. These were not the last words Lore Gerstle said to her husband on May 2, 2006. A short time later, she saw him on the floor of the elevator of their Washington Heights apartment, lying in his own blood. He was found on the second floor. Three more floors and he would have been home.

“The worst part was that I couldn’t say goodbye to him,” Lore Gerstle said of her husband’s death. “I said what happened and he said, ‘I don’t know,’ and that’s the end and that’s what bothers me most.” The Gerstles met in a butcher shop in New York City. She was picking up an order and he was helping out at his cousin’s store. It wasn’t love at first sight, she said in a phone interview, but it certainly became love. Married when she was 22 in 1948, the couple was together for nearly 60 years. Though their families knew of each other back in Germany, the two never met until they were both in New York City.

The synagogue where Jacob Gerstle worshipped on the street where he lived.

Marrying Jacob Gerstle and living on Bennett Avenue meant a return to something familiar for Lore Gerstle. She was four and alone when she boarded a train headed for England. She was one of thousands of German-Jewish children rescued through the British-organized Kindertransport program before the start of World War II. In England, she said, she forgot most of her German and when she was finally able to reunite with her parents in New York City, it was dangerous to speak German in public. German was all Jacob Gerstle’s father spoke. Becoming part of Jacob’s life brought her closer to the life she once lived thousands of miles away, she said.

For four or five blocks along Bennett Avenue, it is easy to forget where you are. Ambulances with Hebrew markings wait outside the synagogue. Bearded men with the black coats and hats of past generations amble down the sidewalks. A pair of pink-sequined shoes catch the sunlight as a row of young girls with long skirts skip across the street to the schoolyard. The community has strong roots in Germany and Frankfurt in particular where Jacob Gerstle lived. “The whole community more or less stuck together,” said Lore Gerstle about the relocation of those who escaped. Jacob Gerstle never missed a service at his synagogue, K’hal Adath Jeshurun.  It was important to him, his wife said, that his children be raised Orthodox like they both were growing up.

The couple had four children, 18 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren keeping them busy. Lore Gerstle remembers the early years were hard, “like they are for people with children today because of finances, but we had a wonderful family life.” Jacob Gerstle worked six days a week at a lamp store on Long Island to provide for his family. It wasn’t until retirement that Lore Gerstle was able to travel with her husband. The two returned to Germany a few years before his death and Mrs. Gerstle said the trip rekindled some bad experiences, recalling how her brothers and sisters got on the train headed for England. “I remember vividly my parents putting us on the train, you stand there and you remember standing there and that really was sad.”

Retirement also meant more time for family and charity. The weekend before his death, family members gathered in Washington Heights to celebrate Lore Gerstle’s 80th birthday. It was not just his family that had fond memories of Jacob Gerstle; from neighbors to his building supervisor and rabbis across the city, many remembered his countless acts of kindness.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Bruce Allen received nearly 50 letters, including one that had 80 signatures, stating exactly how much the community had lost when Jacob Gerstle died. Allen had to decide what sentence to hand down to William Hill, convicted of the robbery and murder of Jacob Gerstle. On March 1, 2010, more than four years after Jacob Gerstle was killed, Allen sentenced Hill to 25 years to life. The jury found Hill guilty of following Gerstle into his apartment building on May 2, 2006 and onto the elevator where he beat Gerstle until he was nearly unconscious and robbed him. Gerstle died days later from head trauma, turning a first degree robbery into a second degree murder.

Jacob Gerstle's apartment building on Bennett Avenue.

In his statement to police, which he later said was coerced, Hill explained he left the homeless shelter where he had been staying on Ward’s Island and “decided I was going to go out and catch a jux. That means to rob somebody.” Hill left his old South Bronx neighborhood in Highbridge at W. 168th St. and walked to Washington Heights. Eighteen blocks further North, Hill continued in his statement, “As I walked on that street coming down the hill, I saw the man. I figured he would be going into a building and he might have some money because he looked clean and well dressed.”

According to court documents, Hill denied being the person in the security video from Gerstle’s apartment building showing a large, black man following Gerstle into his apartment lobby. In the video, released to the media, the man hesitates and then follows Gerstle to the elevator. The two even appear to be talking to each other, about what no one could tell. In his police statement, Hill said they got on the elevator together and at the first stop, “I started to walk out like I was going to get off. When I was by the door I turned around.” Hill, at 6’ 5’’, was more than a foot taller than Gerstle, Hill said he hit Gerstle once with a closed fist. Gerstle fell to the floor where Hill searched through his pockets. With Gerstle’s cellphone and around $300, according to the police statement, Hill fled.

Moments later, Gerstle was discovered by his neighbor Albert Neely who ran to get help and found Ramona Rodriguez entering the building. The two climbed the stairs to the second floor accompanied by another first floor neighbor, Elielce Yoesoep. According to Yoesoep’s court testimony, Neely was trying to talk with Jacob Gerstle. Rodriguez continued up the stairs to the Gerstles’ apartment. Lore Gerstle came down in time to see the EMT arrive and help Jacob Gerstle to the ambulance. That is when the couple exchanged their last words.

Three days later on May 5, 2006, after being put into a medically-induced coma and having holes drilled into his skull to reduce the swelling in his brain, Jacob Gerstle died. The seven-day mourning period known as shiva began and Lore Gerstle said goodbye to her husband.

During those three days Gerstle was in the hospital, Hill slept all over the city—a night at Ward’s Island, a night in St. Nicholas Park and another on the roof of 19 Hamilton Place in West Harlem just blocks from where he lived until he was five, according to his police statement. Hill, the youngest of four siblings, was the only one to end up homeless. In a legal brief written by Sentencing Advocate Beth Kaboski from the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, Kaboski explained that Hill never knew his father and when his mother died in 2000 from cancer when he was only 18, things began to go downhill for Hill.

“It was hard for me to guide him as a sibling and it was difficult for us to bond together because of our ten years difference” in age, his brother Dennis Sheppard said in Kaboski’s brief.

It was after his mother’s death that Hill was first arrested and convicted of disorderly conduct in 2001. About a year later he was arrested again for attempted robbery in the second degree, serving a 20-month sentence. Released in March 2004, Hill made an effort to change. “He moved in with his brother and began working two jobs, one for a construction company and one for a security agency,” wrote Kaboski. In the fall of 2004, he enrolled at the College of New Rochelle and began working toward his GED.

But Hill never got his GED. Instead, the responsibilities proved too much and Hill left after two semesters. His highest grade was a B- in a course titled Translating Experience into Essays, according to his transcripts. Sheppard and Hill’s relationship suffered. Kaboski wrote, “Looking back on that period of time, William admits he knew it was a matter of time before he failed again.”

Before long, Hill was back in prison after a parole violation. Released in March 2006, Hill began staying at the Ward’s Island homeless shelter nestled below the Bronx in the East River, notorious for its isolation. Kaboski wrote, the cost of getting into the city for job interviews made it nearly impossible for Hill and others there to find employment. When Hill was arrested again on the afternoon of May 12, 2006 for the murder of Jacob Gerstle, he had been trying to find work. “He didn’t give it enough time,” said his brother in the brief. “I do know that he never intended to kill the victim, it just happened. I know William and he’s not a killer…I love my brother so much.”

Hill’s first trial in 2008 resulted in a hung jury and some two years later Lore Gerstle had to endure a second trial.

Both Lore Gerstle and Hill found the trial difficult. Gerstle sat in the crowd for the whole trial, joined by her daughter. “That was rough,” Gerstle said of listening to the testimony, “not only that but it dragged out so long.” Referring to Hill, she simply said, “the guy didn’t say any truth.” She still remembered when Nazarine Griffin took the stand. Griffin ran the work placement program Ready, Willing and Able that Hill used as his alibi when he was called to the witness stand. The prosecution walked the jury through the complicated check-in process at the program that required urine samples and a database of all visits, according to court documents. And was Hill there on May 2, 2006, asked the prosecution. No, answered Griffin. “That was unreal, once that was out,” said Gerstle.

Hill still maintained his innocence. As Assistant District Attorney David Hammer presented the prosecution’s closing argument placing Hill at Gerstle’s apartment building, Hill couldn’t help himself. “He is telling a bunch of lies,” Hill interrupted. “I was not there, man,” insisted Hill.

“Every time I approach my seat in the synagogue, I pass and stare shocked at the empty seat that used to be his,” wrote Norbert Hellmann, Jacob Gerstle’s neighbor, in a letter to the judge cited in the court documents. According to Lore Gerstle, her husband never missed a service. Most of the letters to Judge Allen talked about the food pantry he ran, the fund he created to send kids to summer camp or his service on the funeral society helping families through their worst moments. But many also had private stories of kindness.

“Charity was his life,” said his wife. He greeted people with a humbling, “how can I help you?” Ezra Lasdun, another neighbor, wrote in a letter to the judge, “When I was still a student, married with small children struggling to pay my bills, Mr. Gerstle approached me and made me feel as if I was doing him a favor by taking advantage of his food pantry.” The supervisor of his building, Juan Carlo Meyia, said it didn’t matter to Gerstle if someone was Jewish or not, “he didn’t care whether white or black.” Daniel Levi, another neighbor across the block, called Gerstle his mentor and a friend “despite our age difference” of over 40 years. Samuel and Rivka Bodenheim remembered he always gave his phone number when he went away on a trip, in case anyone needed his help.

And they often did. When Yitty Nussbaum, a neighbor, had a miscarriage, he helped her through it. “In fact,” she wrote in her letter to the judge, “when expecting our next child, Mrs. Lore Gerstle was in tears telling me how happy ‘Jack’ would have been to know we were going to be parents.” Everyone agreed, Jack, as he was known to his friends, would not be forgotten. The name on Lore Gerstle’s bright red door still reads “J. Gerstle.”

In the South Bronx meanwhile, Dennis Sheppard waits for his little brother to get out of prison. As the trial ended, the judge asked Hill if he had any final statements to make, according to court documents. He said only, “At this point, I am not going to say anything. I am just going to try and deal with the circumstances of what happened.”

When he delivered Hill’s sentence, Allen said, “Younger inmates will look up to you, that’s the crazy way this world works, and maybe once you have come to accept responsibility here you can turn to one of those younger inmates and tell them that that is not the way to go.” Nineteen at his first arrest, Hill was 28 when Allen sent him back to prison. In a letter in December 2010 from the Upstate Correctional Facility, Hill wrote in tidy cursive script asking for a book on freemasonry and saying only, “I’m innocent. Not that I’m not guilty but that I’m truly innocent.” His has appealed his conviction.

Naomi Sandel wrote her own letter to Justice Bruce Allen. Hill left her without her father Jacob to provide guidance. “I will never know whether he was really proud of who I have become or not. Was he proud of the choices I have made in life?” Sandel wrote. She continued, “Thankfully we have our faith to help carry us through all this, but not having the chance to say goodbye, not being able to say one last time, I LOVE YOU, and even worse, not hearing those words spoken by him to me, that he loved me, has been devastating.”

Hill has turned to faith as well. During his trial he insisted on taking Fridays off to observe the Muslim prayers. In his sentencing, Allen said he hoped Hill could find the inspiration to lead a better life through his religion.

Lore Gerstle and her family, nestled in an Orthodox community that will never forget her husband Jack, relied on religion to rebuild their lives too. It helped Gerstle feel comfortable in a foreign land, find a home and raise her family. In the Jewish tradition, the Mouner’s Kaddish is the prayer recited to remember the deceased. Said slowly, without chanting, the Kaddish is read in Hebrew. It ends, “He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace, upon us and upon all Israel. Amen”

Lore Gerstle remembered watching the video of the security footage saying, “He opened the door for the guy and he held the door for the guy…and they had a conversation, that was my husband he talked to anybody.”

She added that, knowing her husband, he probably would have invited Hill up to have lunch with them.

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A Shattering Moment http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1539 http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1539#comments Tue, 25 Jan 2011 23:27:11 +0000 Nathanael Massey http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1539 Rafael Sanz’ world dissolves in a minute

By Nathanael Massey

Rafael Sanz in January 2011, two years after the death of his wife and son. Photo credit: Nathanael Massey

Dr. Michael Ihemaguba knew he had to act quickly. His patient, Donnette Sanz, 33, had been struck by a van and suffered multiple injuries, including crushed ribs, internal hemorrhaging and deep lacerations to her legs and stomach. Standing by her in the trauma ward at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx on August 14, 2008, Ihemaguba realized there was little hope her condition would stabilize. But he could still save a life. The woman was pregnant, and by some miracle, the heart of the unborn child inside her was still beating.

The patient was anaesthetized and Ihemaguba began a Cesarean section, cutting vertically into her womb with a scalpel. Blood gushed out – a bad sign, Ihemaguba would later testify, because it indicated damage within the uterus.

Not long after, a medical aide met Rafael Sanz in the hospital lobby. “Your son has been born and he’s okay,” the aide told him. “What about my wife?” asked Rafael. “What about Donnette?” The aide had no answer. Court records show that Donnette Sanz died moments after their son, Sean Michael, was born.

Rafael was escorted to the intensive care unit where the tiny, 3-pound infant lay beneath a tangle of wires and tubes. It isn’t over, a doctor cautioned Rafael. We don’t know the extent of his injuries.

In an instant, the family’s world had been shattered. The father was numb, but that numbness, in time, would be replaced by anger.

*          *          *

On a Thursday morning in August, a black and grey Dodge van pulled up outside John Dagan’s apartment at 174 W. 137th Street. The van was a common sight in the that part of Harlem – it’s 72-year-old owner, Walter Walker, lived just two blocks north, and his aging Dodge could often be spotted rumbling up and down the narrow rows of Brownstones. Tall and gangly, Walker was known around the area as a jack-of-all-trades, often willing to lend a hand or provide a favor. “He was as nice guy,” Dargan recalled in an interview in December of 2010. “He would do anything for you.”

The two men shared a loose kinship through the marriage of Dargan’s brother to Walker’s sister, and though they weren’t close friends, the 72-year-old Dargan would sometimes accompany his brother-in-law on errands and odd jobs. This morning, Walker told him, they were going up to the Bronx. A lady there had some refrigerators she wanted to get rid of, and Walker had offered his van to haul them to a junkyard in Hunts Point.

Dargan considered Walker a decent driver, but he held a much lower opinion of the van. The 1986 Dodge was a study in neglect. The upholstery on the seats was ripped, the dashboard cracked, and the steering column swung loose like a joystick from the body of the car. Within the engine compartment, Walker had replaced the original deep-cycle battery with a cheaper marine battery, held in place by clamps, and stray wires crisscrossed over the engine like copper spider webs. If someone had drawn up a checklist of possible problems, a New York City Accident Investigator would later testify, the Dodge would have earned a mark in every box.

The most serious wear, however, was to the van’s braking system. “We noticed a complete and catastrophic failure of the braking component,” city investigator Anthony Racioppo testified at Walker’s trial in October 2010. “The braking drum was wet and grooved where the brake pads had torn and worn down to the rivet,” leaving only metal to grind on metal, he said.

Dargan thought for a moment about offering to drive his own vehicle, then decided against it. Walker’s van was already piled high with junk – batteries, oil drums, spare parts – a little more couldn’t hurt, he thought.

*          *          *

Early that Friday morning, Rafael Sanz paused in the doorway of his bedroom and looked back at his sleeping wife. She had come to him from another world, the youngest of seven siblings to migrate to the United States from Jamaica in 1999, when she was 24. They had met the day after her 28th birthday, on July 12, 2003, when Rafael stooped down to pick up a flier she had dropped. They married six months later. She was, Rafael later testified, “the love of my life…the only one who ever really got me.”

The two shared another, less common bond. When Rafael had developed kidney disease shortly after they started dating, Donnette donated one of her own to keep him alive. Now he carried it with him, a constant reminder of all they shared.

For five years they lived happily together. Rafael worked as a security guard at the 9/11 memorial site and Donnette had a job as a traffic safety agent in the Fordham section of the Bronx where she was popular among her fellow officers. When Donnette realized she was pregnant, the couple was overjoyed. At 33, Rafael felt ready to be a father.

On that Friday morning, August 14, 2008, Rafael kissed his sleeping wife goodbye. It was the last time he would see her alive.

*          *          *

Joanne Noriega was walking East along 188th street towards Webster Avenue, in the Bronx, when she heard a noise behind her. It was, she would later testify, like the sound of a shovel scraping across cement. It was coming towards her, growing louder.

Standing in the empty intersection between the southeast and southwest corners of 188th and Webster, David Cabell had just fished out a pack of cigarettes and offered one to his friend when he saw him go rigid. Cabell saw his friend’s eyes widen and his mouth drop open. Without a word, the man turned and fled. Cabell didn’t bother glancing behind him. He ran too.

The intersection of 188th St. and Webster Ave.

Juan Losada heard a grinding noise a moment before a black and grey vehicle shot by the spot on 188th Street where he stood. He later testified that the van’s brake lights were flickering as it barreled down the steep incline of 188th street as if someone inside were pumping the breaks desperately to no avail.

Donnette Sanz was returning to work from her lunch break at the 3 Way Restaurant on the corner of 188th and Webster, and was stepping off the curb to cross 188th Street when the Dodge van struck her from the side. Police analysis would later show that the 5,000-pound van was traveling at roughly 37 miles per hour when it ran a red light and hit Sanz, pinning her to the grill and dragging her legs along the asphalt. Carrying the woman in front of it, the van careered right and struck a yellow school bus coming north along Webster Avenue. Sanz was thrown underneath the bus, and the Dodge ricocheted off, back across the street, where it struck a line of parked cars and finally came to a halt.

*          *          *

In the passenger seat, Dargan slowly opened his eyes. The front of the van was crumpled, its nose wedged between a Lincoln Town Car and a pickup truck. Dargan unlatched the passenger-side door and pulled himself out. Across the street, a crowd had gathered around the yellow school bus. It looked as if the people were trying to lift it up. Shakily, Dargan sat down on the back bumper of the Dodge. The cars, the people, the noise all seemed to come at him from a long way off. It was, as he would later say, as if he had entered another world.

Half a block North, Cabell heard the crash and spun around. People were running towards a school bus, and without thinking, Cabell rushed to join them. “I heard someone shouting, ‘There’s a lady under here!’” he recalled in an interview in December of 2010. Cabell looked down and saw a pair of scraped and bleeding legs protruding from under the bus. “Lift it up!” another voice shouted. People in the crowd seized hold of the underside of the bus, and Cabell followed their lead. Putting his shoulder against the side of the bus and gripping its undercarriage, he pulled upward with all his might.

Across the park, from inside his auto-body repair shop, Cesar Ramos had seen the school bus hit the line of cars. Now his son came running into the shop, out of breath. There was a lady trapped under the bus, he said. They needed jacks to get it off of her.

By the time his son had rushed back across the street with the jacks, it was already over. A crowd of between 20 and 30 onlookers and passers-by had lifted the 10,000 pound bus high enough that Donnette could be dragged to safety. She now lay in the street, barely conscious. The crowd drew back, unsure of what to do next.

The bystanders didn’t have long to wait. Court records show that within two minutes, paramedics and an ambulance arrived and strapped the injured woman onto a stretcher.

As the sirens wailed the crowd began to disperse. Walker, who had been among them, walked back towards his van. Soon the police would arrive to arrest him. He sat down on the van’s bumper, next to Dargan, and waited for them. Clouds gathered overhead. Slowly, softly, it began to rain.

*          *          *

Donnette’s death and Sean’s birth made headlines across New York City. The Daily News, the New York Post and even the New York Times told and retold the story of the off-duty traffic officer mowed down in a New York minute, the ordinary citizens whose heroic actions freed her from the bus and the child’s life that was saved as a result. The media tracked the case day-by-day, returning to the crime scene again and again to interview the residents who helped to lift the bus.

As new details in the case emerged, so did Walter Walker’s prior criminal record. Though Donnette’s death was by far his most serious offense, it was not his first. Police records show that Walker had a long history of driving-related misdemeanors. His license was suspended 24 times, and revoked six, for multiple counts of driving without insurance, repeated speeding violations and failure to answer various summonses. He had not had a drivers’ license in New York State since 1989.  But these weren’t the only blemishes on Walker’s record. Records show that he fired a gun on a Harlem street in 1986, and in 1993 was charged with grand larceny after he and another man tried to lure an elderly woman into a fraudulent investment scheme. He later pleaded guilty to fraudulent accosting, a lesser crime, and was sentenced to five days’ community service.

While they dug through Walker’s past, the media were simultaneously tracking the day-to-day progress of the infant Sean Michael Sanz. The Daily News’ prognosis was hopeful, and on August 15 it reported that his condition had been upgraded to stable. But his father knew otherwise.

Though his mother’s body had protected him to a remarkable extent, Sean Michael had not escaped the ordeal unscathed. He now suffered from internal brain hemorrhaging and seizures, court records show, and doctors told Rafael that even if the child were to survive, Sean would likely to have brain damage and have to remain on an oxygen tube for the rest of his life.

Shortly after his delivery, Sean was moved to Columbia Presbyterian Children’s hospital where he was kept in intensive care. Rafael visited him twice a day, once in the morning before going to work and once in the afternoon when his shift ended. On the eighth day he arrived at the hospital to find that the baby’s condition had worsened significantly. Sean’s stomach was distended and blue. “The doctors told me he was in pain,” Rafael later testified. “I decided to end it.”

Sean’s breathing tube was removed, and Rafael held his son for the first and last time. Sean Michael Sanz died in his father’s arms on August 22, 2008.

*          *          *

The funeral for Donnette and Sean Michael Sanz was held on August 25, at the Community Protestant Church in the Bronx. Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly spoke at the service. Kelly called Donnette “…a gift to the department.” Bloomberg thanked Sean for bringing the city together for a brief moment.

Mother and son were buried together, Donnette cradling Sean in her satin-gloved hands.

*          *          *

After the accident, Walter Walker was held for two years pending trial. When his trial began in October 2010, Bronx Assistant District Attorney Susanna Imbo argued that he was criminally negligent for operating a dangerously unmaintained vehicle, and was thus responsible for the deaths of both Sean and Donnette. Walker maintained that he did his best to repair the van and did not understand the full extent of its damage.

Imbo summoned witnesses who had seen the accident. At least two witnesses claimed to have seen a man working underneath a grey and black van at the crest of 188th street shortly before the accident, casting doubt on Walker’s claims that he didn’t know about the needed repairs. The physicians who conducted the autopsies on mother and son testified to the severe injuries both had sustained. City investigators who inspected the vehicle after the accident described how brake fluid had leaked onto the already worn front brake pads on the day of the accident, rendering them useless. A grief-stricken Rafael Sanz told reporters that he hoped Walker would die “a terrible death.”

On October 28, 2010, a Bronx Criminal Court jury found Walker guilty of two counts of Criminally Negligent Homicide – one for each death – and one count of Aggravated Unlicensed Operation of a Motor Vehicle. A week later, State Supreme Court Justice Peter Benitez gave him the maximum sentence of one-to-four years in prison. He is serving his sentence in Ulster Correctional Facility, in Napanoch, N.Y.

*          *          *

John Dargan’s eyes tracked dust as it drifted through his empty apartment. Disembodied voices murmured from a television set in the next room. A ceramic Buddha laughed from a low coffee table.

Seated on a sagging couch, his fingers interlaced over the top of his cane, Dargan spoke of the past. He has lived alone since his wife died five years ago, he said, and he sees less of his neighbors than he used to. He has seen Walker only once since the accident.

At the trial in October, Dargan was the sole witness called to testify on behalf of the defendant. He supported the defense’s claims, contradicting the prosecution’s assertion that Walker had stopped to work on the van’s brakes just before their descent down 188th street. He told the jury that when Walker began to lose control there had been no sound.

Now, with the sentencing over, he seemed resigned to the jury’s decision. He sighed. “If he hadn’t been so hard headed, none of this would have happened,” he said. “It was an old van, anyway.”

Dargan looked away, out the window into the cold December night. He spoke softly, as if to himself. “Old folks shouldn’t outlive the young,” he said. “I should never have gotten in that van.”

*          *          *

Rafael Sanz could see his breath as he walked up Lexington Avenue on a freezing cold morning in January 2011. He had just left his gym, and his skin felt hot against the cold air. Lifting weights is one of the many ways he fills his free time these days. It helps him clear his head, he said.

He did not go back to work for several months after the funeral. He stayed away from his apartment and its ghosts, spending nights with family friends. When he finally returned to the apartment he had shared with Donnette, he took down all of her pictures and stowed them away. Then he got rid of their old furniture. It was time to start again.

Some two years later, he is trying to get beyond the past. “When I meet someone, I don’t lead with what happened to me,” he said. “There are lots of people who don’t know. There are people at work who don’t know.”

Once a year, on Donnette’s birthday, he makes the trip up to Kensico cemetery to visit the plot where his wife and son are buried. “There’s nothing much else that I can do,” he said.

He still struggles with his feelings about Walker. “I’m still angry at him,” he said. “Before I spoke to him in court, before I told him what I thought of him, I apologized to him [for my feelings.] But I hate that man. I really do hope he rots in hell.

“Even though I understand that he wasn’t some kind of super villain, that he wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to kill this woman,’ if he just took care of his car, none of this would have happened,” he said.

“He’s actually the only person I have that I can be angry at. He’s the face that I kind of need to be angry at. Or else maybe I’d start thinking it was my fault, like I should’ve told her not to go to work that day.”

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An ‘Important’ Job http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1507 http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1507#comments Tue, 25 Jan 2011 17:40:59 +0000 Josh Moyer http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1507 Mott Haven’s lessons will be remembered

By Josh Moyer

I’ve been offered crack-cocaine by a man wearing a long black jacket. And I’ve been offered a dinner of rice and beans by a state assemblyman.

I’ve been invited inside the apartment of a man struggling to survive economic hard times. And I’ve had pennies thrown at me from the projects.

A community might be defined by its residents, but it’s hard to define Mott Haven. I’ve felt welcome and out of place. I’ve been confident and intimidated. For every person who rolled his eyes and told me “I’m busy,” “No thanks,” — or “F— off” —there was another person who would hand me his number or invite me inside his home.

I’ve learned a lot about journalism here, but I’ve learned just as much about people: About five teenagers who witnessed shootouts and shrugged their shoulders upon recalling the incidents. About a man who downplayed his membership into the Bloods. About another man who labeled himself “middle class” — even if he was forced to live on food stamps and donations from food pantries. People just want to get by, it seems, and to do that they don’t focus on the negative. Residents of Mott Haven face more drama and more obstacles than most. But teens still want to enroll in college. Parents still want to provide for their children. Everyone wants to better his or her situation. And most want to do that without stirring up any trouble.

Yet the stories were there.

I listened in court to a 16-year-old girl recount, in graphic detail, the times she said her father raped her. She was 7 when the incidents occurred. I listened to a high-school senior recall when his cousin hacked a kid with a machete — the way the victim’s white tank top soaked up the blood like a paper towel, before it dripped from his side. “It sounded just like when you got a meat store and the guy has a butcher knife,” the high schooler said. And then he smiled. “It might be surprising for a person who’s just seeing this for the first time. But when you see this a lot, you’re not surprised,” he added.

I talked to a former drug dealer. I talked to a priest. People in the projects. An AIDS patient. A food-pantry volunteer. A firefighter. An artist. Business owners. Judges. Lawyers. Crossing guards. Principals. Professors. Politicians. I’ve tried to speak with anyone and everyone. And a common theme emerged: Everyone has a story. In the beginning, I wondered why people in Mott Haven would even want to speak with a reporter. Now, I wonder what’s wrong with them if they don’t.

I remember reading once that journalists give humanity to the faces that most people walk past each day. I wondered if the people I interviewed understood that, if they realized what we journalists wanted to achieve. In the late fall, my question was answered.

On the steps to the Patterson Projects, I asked a man if I could interview him. He assented, leaning forward to answer my questions, whispering close to my ear. He would stop talking whenever people walked by.

“Can I ask why you seem to be whispering?” I inquired.

Well, he said, people here just want to keep to themselves. They just want to get by. And not be bothered. He was afraid what people would think about him talking with an outsider.

I was about to ask why he was speaking with me then, but I didn’t have to. He told me unprompted.

“What you’re doing,” he said, “is important.”

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The Setup http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1566 http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1566#comments Tue, 25 Jan 2011 06:04:57 +0000 Umair Irfan http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1566 Chelsea Frazier was the victim of a deadly plot

By Umair Irfan

A photo of Chelsea Frazier from a memorial website.

Gisella Chevettiss yelled at her TV that Sunday afternoon on April 13, 2008. The Mets, playing the Milwaukee Brewers across the river in Flushing, were doing lousy. As usual, she thought. She distracted herself with housework, cleaning and dusting around her second-floor home near the corner of Barrett and Torry Avenues in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx, listening when she wasn’t watching. The windows were wide open and the venetian blinds were all the way up on that cool April day under cloudy skies. The neighborhood, bordering Pugsley Creek Park with its two-story duplexes and townhouses, red brick with white siding, green lawns, and the proverbial white picket fences, was described by more than one NYPD detective as desolate. At least, by New York City standards.

Four gunshots in rapid succession interrupted the tranquility. A former Sea Cadet with a patch in marksmanship, Chevettiss recognized the noises and thought they sounded close. She later testified at Devon Miller’s trial that she looked out her window to see a hunter green SUV parked behind a burgundy red sedan in the middle of the street. The SUV, a Chevrolet Tahoe with Massachusetts plates, took off down the narrow street in reverse, backing into a driveway, before pulling out and speeding off on Olmstead Avenue.

Nearby, Penny Bjork had her windows open and was doing chores as well, according to her testimony. She heard a loud popping sound coming from outside and thought it was the neighborhood kids with paintball guns. She looked out her window to see a red Toyota Camry, also with Massachusetts plates, with its driver’s side door ajar and a body on the ground. A black male with long braids jumped in the driver’s seat of the Tahoe chased by a lighter-skinned man running from the red Camry. From Bjork’s testimony, the bald light-skinned man, Carlos Cruz, 36, gestured as though he were telling the driver to pass him a basketball. The man behind the wheel, Devon Miller, 25, flashed a toothy grin, opened the door and shot Cruz, who was standing beside the Tahoe’s driver’s door, in his right leg before driving off. Miller, in a later videotaped statement, said Cruz was shouting at him, reminding Miller to shoot him as well. This odd conversation resulted from a botched attempt to stage a robbery masking the true motive behind the shooting: A conspiracy to kill Chelsea Frazier, Cruz’s ex-fiancée.

The scene of the crime (Credit: NYPD)

Bjork picked up her cell phone and dialed 911. She ran out to the scene, by which point Cruz dragged himself over to the body next to the Toyota. It was a woman, Chelsea Frazier, two months shy of turning 19. Her chest was heaving and her stomach was distended, but she was otherwise motionless. In the tumult, Bjork heard a baby cry. It was Cruz and Frazier’s 13-month-old son, Alijah. Bjork waited with the two of them, reassuring them that help was on the way.

Officer Sean Higgins and his partner Jessica Thomas arrived at 4 p.m., the first responders on the scene. Frazier was curled in the fetal position, her hand on her face, her feet towards the door of her car and her head resting against the curb, according to Thomas’ testimony at Miller’s trial. She was wearing a blue jeans and a black winter coat with fur around the hood. According to Higgins’ testimony, her face and lips were blue. She was missing fingertips from both hands. From her pockets, police recovered $292, lip gloss, and a rubber ball. Cruz, lying next to her in jeans and a white t-shirt, was agitated, clutching his leg and excitedly grasping at Frazier’s arm, pulling her towards him. He kept asking if she was dead.

Higgins assessed the scene: There was blood on Frazier’s chest, on the pavement, and inside the car. Around the outside of the car there were parts of fingers and clumps of long, wavy, dark-brown hair. It wasn’t until EMS arrived that Higgins even noticed a child in the car. Sitting in his car seat, Alijah was very white, stone-faced, looking straight ahead.

In the car, Higgins found shell casings on the front passenger side and in the back, between Alijah’s legs. He found another shell casing 100 feet behind the Toyota and marked it with a crushed Budweiser can he found at the side of the road. He found more hair along the pavement and against a white fence. Higgins spent more than three hours at the scene, joined by forensics teams collecting evidence, including a small Yankees hat.

* * *

Frazier was born and raised in Southbridge, Massachusetts, a small town of 17,400 near the Connecticut border, proclaiming itself “The Eye of the Commonwealth.” Her mother, Robin Snow, 48, in a December 2010 interview, described Frazier as a little angel until she turned 13. The teen from Southbridge, was loving, affectionate, but sometimes sneaky. She wouldn’t take no for an answer very easily and would often come up with a plan to get her way. The headstrong Frazier was also a devoted Yankees fan in a region full of Red Sox loyalists.

Her stepfather, Raymond Snow, 52, recalled in a December 2010 interview that three days after he met her mother, 18-month-old Chelsea said hello by whacking him on the head with a heavy yellow toy spider when he was over for dinner. She eventually warmed up to “Ray-Ray” as she called him, and by the time she was 14, she accompanied her stepfather to carpentry jobs and proved herself quite handy with a Skilsaw.

A rocking chair she refinished, a wooden carving of Alijah’s name in his room, and the pictures and paintings she hung straight along the walls of her parent’s home are some of the testaments to Frazier’s love and skill in crafts. Her mother recounted a time when Frazier’s older sister grew frustrated trying to build an entertainment center for her stereo. She left the house and by the time she returned, Chelsea, then 10, had finished putting it together.

Every year, Frazier would participate in the Great Strides Cystic Fibrosis walk. With two cousins afflicted with the disease and having lost one, this was a cause very close to her heart. She also loved to cook for her family, but didn’t like to clean as much, a task she often relegated to her mother. When Frazier was pregnant with Alijah, her mother sometimes grew nauseated often coming home from work and being immersed in the smell of macaroni and cheese wafting through the house, an entrée her daughter prepared gleefully almost every day. She did expand her culinary repertoire and would often go next door to discuss recipes with her maternal grandmother, Bernice Rheaume, 68, who lived on the other side of the duplex.

Frazier made friends and trusted people easily. She was socially fearless and felt that there were no bad people in the world. Her parents described how she had friends over every day of the week when she was in school, and she was involved in extra-curricular activities, like cheerleading, though school itself did not hold her interest. She told her parents that the teachers didn’t like her and the only faculty member she connected with was the school nurse. She eventually dropped out of school but she earned her GED on January 21, 2006.

One of the first and most obvious things people noticed about the 5’6” brunette, according to her mother, was that she was very pretty. She was introduced to Cruz through a friend of hers. Her parents suspect she was 16 when she started seeing Carlos, who was 34 at the time.

As a tractor-trailer driver for Maines Trucking in Westboro, MA, he would spend upwards of 60 hours a week on the road. Originally from New York City, Carlos moved to Southbridge to live with his grandparents when he was a young boy shortly after his mother died. He would go still go to the city regularly to see his cousin, Devon Miller. Aside from a misdemeanor drug possession charge, Cruz’s record was clean and unremarkable. Miller, on the other hand, had been convicted on criminal drug and weapons possession charges.

Cruz also had a daughter named Ebony, 10, from a previous relationship to whom, according to Snow, he was very devoted. He was also quite fond of Frazier while they were dating, giving her gifts, like a cell phone, and he plied her with money. Despite all the time Cruz and Frazier spent together, her family did not know much about him, and they said they suspect he deliberately stayed away from them to hide his age.

Eventually, Frazier became pregnant and on February 15, 2007, she gave birth to Alijah Devon Cruz, his middle name after his father’s cousin. It was only after the birth of her son that much of Chelsea’s family met her boyfriend. Though he was friendly, sociable, and quite the comedian around Chelsea’s mother, around her other family members and friends he seldom spoke, according to Snow. Her family was flabbergasted when they found out that Cruz was twice Frazier’s age, since she had misled them saying he was in his 20’s. In a December 2010 interview, Frazier’s grandfather, Robert Manthorne, 69, considered pressing statutory rape charges against Cruz, but Frazier dissuaded him, saying she was responsible for her decision and that Cruz was really a nice guy.

Wanting to build a family and seeking independence, she moved out of her parents’ home and moved in with Cruz at 475 Charlton Street, renting the second floor from Manthorne and his wife, Shirley, 63. According to Shirley Manthorne, Cruz paid the rent, but Frazier paid for almost all of their son’s expenses, including toys, diapers, and clothes.

According to her parents and grandparents, Frazier was a doting and affectionate mother to Alijah. Rather than leaving him with relatives, she would always take him with her whenever she went to Wal Mart, McDonald’s, or other places on errands. He was her sidekick, a partner, according to Snow.

Hoping to work one day at a salon near her parents’ house, Frazier was studying massage therapy and reflexology. According to her parents, she was motivated by a desire to become self-sufficient, and even though she wasn’t fond of schoolwork, she wanted to be able to provide for her son.

Yet, as Frazier sought more independence, Cruz wanted more control over her. He wanted to be constantly aware of her whereabouts but left her alone with their son more and more frequently. According to Frazier’s parents Cruz seemed distant from Alijah, but he would constantly call Frazier demanding to know where she was and who she was with.

He eventually proposed, but Frazier’s grandparents overheard arguments growing more heated more often. Shirley Manthorne testified that she overheard Frazier telling Cruz she thought he was too old for her. Eventually Frazier broke off the engagement and returned the ring, deciding that she would provide for her son on her own and would not endure a faltering relationship, even though it seemed easier. Her grandparents commended her decision and hailed her self-confidence.

Cruz moved out of their shared apartment and back in with his grandmother, but he did not handle the breakup well. In a written statement to Detectives Jalin Bulding and Nicholas Speranza at the 43rd precinct on April 15, 2008, Cruz described how he felt Frazier was moving out of his life slowly. He brooded over these thoughts while alone on the road driving trucks, resenting Frazier for taking their son with her wherever she went.

The breakup came as a surprise to Cruz, who thought he was doing a good job as her fiancé and a father. He lost sleep over the breakup and began to suspect Frazier was cheating on him, citing a black thermal sweater he found when he returned to their apartment to gather his belongings. After moving out, he had a hard time keeping track of his son since Alijah was always out with his mother. In addition, Cruz was angry about paying child support, claiming the payments affected his lifestyle, according to Devon Miller’s written and videotaped statements.

In Cruz’s statement, he said he felt pain in his heart because Frazier was dishonest and disloyal and that his heart was sending messages to his brain painting a dark picture. He described himself as a silent monster with silent rage. The only solace he found was in contemplating doing something bad, so he went to his aunt’s house in New York to discuss a scheme with his cousin. He would bring Frazier to New York and have Miller kill her, wound Cruz, and collect his payment of $1000 and a gold chain, while arranging the appearance of a robbery. Miller agreed and Cruz returned to Southbridge to put his plan into action.

Miller, for his part, in his written statement to Detectives Bulding and Robert Martin, said that he initially refused to assist his cousin saying that he didn’t get involved in those types of things anymore. He said that Cruz came to New York on April 12, 2008 to try to persuade him, bringing his daughter Ebony along. Miller and Cruz hung out in the Bronx, playing basketball, taking Ebony to a park, and chilling at home, like they used to do. Cruz then made his offer of cash and jewelry, agreeing to purchase the gun as well. Miller accepted the offer and when Cruz asked to be shown a quiet, secluded area in the neighborhood, Miller took him to the corner of Barrett and Torry Avenues. Afterwards, Cruz, Miller, and Ebony went to Brooklyn to buy the gun. Miller, in his videotaped allocution, said that Cruz wanted guns like those of T.I., a rapper who was arrested in 2007 for buying three machine guns and two silencers. Cruz stopped the car near Junior High School 292 in the East New York section of Brooklyn. Miller said Cruz and his daughter left the car and walked around the corner. After 20 minutes, they returned, Ebony with an ice cream and Cruz with a gun. The gun was stored outside Miller’s house, hidden between garbage cans. Miller’s wife Tiffina would later write a letter to the court acknowledging that the killing was planned in her home and that she was present when the arrangements were made.

The intersection of Barrett and Torry Avenues as it is today. (Credit: Umair Irfan)

Before the murder, Cruz said that he read the bible a few times, prayed, and talked to his brother’s pastor, seeking relief from his brooding thoughts. Speaking to the pastor brought tears to his eyes because the pastor’s words made sense and offered him some comfort until Cruz began calling Frazier again and became frustrated when she wouldn’t answer. He concluded that even God couldn’t help him and that there was no stopping the plan.

When Shirley Manthorne saw Cruz for the last time before the shooting, he was very upset and while standing in the doorway of her home, he forebodingly told her that if he couldn’t have Frazier, no one would. In her court testimony and in an interview, she said when she asked what he meant, Cruz replied saying that he would take care of it.

Under the guise of making amends, Cruz suggested to Frazier that they go to New York to buy summer clothes for their son and introduce him to Cruz’s relatives in the city. Frazier was excited about the prospect, according to her parents. To her, the trip was symbolic since it showed her that Cruz had accepted her decision to leave him but that he still wanted to be a part of their son’s life.

On Sunday, April 13, 2008, she prepared to leave. Snow was apprehensive, especially considering whom Frazier was going with and their recent history. Frazier, as always, was not worried and tried to assuage her mother’s concerns. Her grandfather said in an interview if he knew she was going with Cruz, he would have stopped her.

By 11:30 a.m., they were on I-84, heading towards the Bronx. Frazier was driving her 2009 Toyota Camry, barely two weeks old, in her favorite color: red. Cruz was beside her and Alijah behind him. They arrived in the city around 1 p.m., stopping at a Kentucky Fried Chicken to eat and use the restrooms. Afterwards, they went to The Children’s Place near the corner of Turnbull Avenue and White Plains Road in Castle Hill, where Cruz spent $126 on baby bottles and other supplies, according to his written statement to police.

Cruz and Frazier returned to the car to put the bags away and to get the stroller out of the trunk. They walked to Old Navy and looked around. Then they went to Jimmy Jazz and did the same, not buying anything there either, along with a couple of other stores along the street before stopping for ice cream from a truck on their way back to the car. Afterwards, they drove about a mile southeast and stopped facing east on Barrett Avenue, a relatively secluded street so Cruz could smoke a cigarette and Frazier could change Alijah’s diaper.

With his cell phone, Cruz had signaled his cousin about his impending arrival in New York and then called Miller again when he finished shopping, informing him that they would be at the intersection they scouted the day before, according to both Cruz’s and Miller’s written statements. Miller was at home sleeping when Cruz initially called, having stayed out late the night before with his wife watching the movie Street Kings in a theater and later sharing a bottle of Long Island Iced Tea. The next day, he drove his wife to work, returned home, and fell back asleep. His phone rang several times but he didn’t answer as he drifted in and out of sleep. When he finally picked up the phone, Cruz told him that he was at KFC.  In his written statement, Miller said at this point he had some time and he wanted to do something nice for his wife so he went grocery shopping. Using $20 cash and an EBT card, he bought some meat and returned home to stock his refrigerator. Cruz then updated him, letting Miller know that he was shopping with Frazier. Cruz then called a final time, telling Miller to come over now. Miller recounted getting dressed and leaving home a little before 4 p.m. in the middle of an NBA playoff game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs.

He eventually pulled up behind Cruz and Frazier on Barrett Avenue and approached the red Camry from the passenger side, where the window was rolled down. He reached across Cruz in the passenger seat and with his right hand, pulled the trigger seven times on a 9 mm Luger, Smith & Wesson, Model 439 semiautomatic pistol. Cruz grabbed Chelsea by her hair, tearing it out by its roots as she raised her hands in a futile attempt to shield herself from the bullets. Dr. Margaret Prial, a medical examiner, would later testify that the first bullet was sufficient to kill her, since it punctured her lungs and sliced through her superior vena cava, one of the largest veins in the body, filling her lungs with two liters of blood, half of the blood in her body. She opened the door and fell outside in an attempt to draw the fire away from her son, her grandparents speculated in an interview before Christmas 2010.

The Murder Weapon: A 9mm Smith & Wesson pistol (Credit: NYPD)

Miller grabbed Cruz’s wallet with his remaining cash inside as well as his gold chain, according to Cruz’s written statement. With one round left in the magazine, Miller panicked and ran back to his car. Cruz heroically chased him, as Assistant District Attorney Allen Karen would later sarcastically describe in his opening statements at Miller’s trial. Cruz then reminded Miller to shoot him in order to validate their robbery alibi. With the last bullet firmly embedded in his leg, Carlos staggered over to his once bride-to-be.

After he drove off, Miller went to his house on 1060 Beach Avenue where he lived with his parents. He swapped his father’s Tahoe for his own green 1995 Toyota Camry with Maryland license plates. He discarded the gun in a black plastic bag under a champagne-colored car just off of the Major Deegan Expressway near 138th Street. Miller also jettisoned the gold necklace while driving on Bruckner Boulevard en route to the car. He later directed detectives to the spot where he left the pistol.

Miller returned to the crime scene 40 minutes later with his mother, Miriam Torres, who collected Alijah and looked after him with her husband, Harry Miller, until Frazier’s parents came for him. Sergeant Derrick Mulligan testified that he was livid that Alijah was handed over to his father’s aunt because he had not authorized it. Afterwards, Miller went to Jacobi hospital to see his cousin. In his statement, Miller said he didn’t say much to Cruz and just asked how he was doing. Police at the hospital noted that Miller matched the description of the shooter, but didn’t question him.

In Southbridge, Robin Snow was at work at Wal Mart when she was paged to the front desk. The announcement said that some family members were waiting for her, but she was surprised to find that the announcement referred to Cruz’s parents, who were at the front desk wanting to speak to her. They told her that they heard there was a shootout in a store in the Bronx and the Cruz and Frazier may have been injured, but Snow said she immediately suspected Cruz was somehow involved. Snow asked them pointedly if their son would do anything to hurt her daughter.

The next day, the Tahoe was impounded at 9:30 a.m. Miller went with his father to the 43rd precinct at 2 p.m. of his own volition to answer questions for police. During questioning, he was given two McDonald’s cheeseburgers, but after a few bites into the first burger, he reached for a garbage can and started vomiting.  He spent eight hours in an interview room before making his first written statement, according to detectives, and made a videotaped statement two hours later under questioning from Assistant District Attorney George Suminski.

Devon Miller Allocution Part I

After his release from the hospital, Cruz also went to the 43rd precinct, invited by police to look at photos. Initially changing their stories, first implicating a masked gunman, then each other, both Cruz and Miller confessed to their involvement in the murder in writing and on video. Cruz initially pleaded guilty and accepted a sentence of 20 years to life with the condition that he assist the prosecution in the case against his cousin, who was tried separately. Cruz entered his plea but then claimed he was innocent, violating the sentencing agreement. As a result, the original sentence was revoked and Cruz now faced the maximum sentence, life without parole. Cruz fired his attorney, Harvey Slovis, and subsequently retained the services of Patrick Bruno.

Frazier’s mother and sister, Corey Plouffe, from Webster, MA, read prepared statements at Cruz’s sentencing hearing, describing how much Frazier meant to them and how they both lost a part of themselves. Plouffe said there were no words to express the despair she and her family felt and described Cruz as a psychopath.

Her mother also spoke directly to Cruz and called him manipulative to use the prospect of gifts for Alijah to lure Frazier to New York. She asked him to imagine how he would feel if it was his daughter Ebony lying on a stretcher with a sheet pulled up to her neck.

Bronx Criminal Supreme Court Judge Barbara Newman said she was moved by their letters, as well as letters written to her by Frazier’s friends and family. She also addressed two letters to her from Cruz, one handwritten and one typed, in which he complained about his treatment and conditions in prison, the proceedings, and his representation. The judge said he did not show any remorse or attempts at reconciliation with Frazier’s family.

Carlos Cruz was denied an appeal and sentenced to life without parole on April 5, 2010. He is serving his sentence in Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in upstate New York.

Carlos Cruz Allocution

Despite his confession, Miller pleaded not guilty and went to trial, spending nine days before Bronx Supreme Court Justice John W. Carter. Testimony from two eyewitnesses, a ballistics expert, a forensic specialist, two police officers, five detectives, an ADA and a medical examiner, as well as his videotaped confession and four written statements all implicated Miller as the man squeezing the trigger. He was convicted on June 29, 2010 and is serving his life sentence for murder and criminal possession of a weapon in Auburn Correctional Facility near Syracuse.

Raymond and Robin Snow gained custody of their grandson after his mother’s death. They changed his name to Alijah Cassidy Frazier, Cassidy being a name Robin found in one of Frazier’s journals. It was one of the names she considered for her son.

Alijah’s grandparents are concerned about the day they will have to explain to the child where his parents are. His father is 285 miles away, behind steel bars, reinforced concrete, and barbed wire, while his mother is outside near his grandparents’ living room window, encased in wood under six feet of earth in the sloping cemetery next door to their duplex.

Despite the tragedy, Raymond and Robin, or P and Mimi, as Alijah calls them, are optimistic about Alijah’s future. He recognizes his mother in photos and his grandparents recognize his mother in him, in his looks and his actions. Comparing photos of Frazier as child to Alijah, now three years old, they remark that the resemblance is uncanny. Alijah also inherited a strong affinity for macaroni and cheese. Among his favorite toys are a toy vacuum cleaner, a toy leaf blower, and a toy power washer and he has an affinity for power tools. For Christmas, Alijah said he wanted a grill so he could make burgers and hot dogs for his family. His grandparents plan to redecorate his room soon, with half of it devoted to Red Sox memorabilia and half devoted to the Yankees. They say they will let Alijah pick his team.

Alijah in his room (Credit: Umair Irfan)

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Marcus and Other Stories http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1557 http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1557#comments Mon, 24 Jan 2011 20:25:45 +0000 Anna Merlan http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1557 The rich tapestry of East Harlem

by Anna Merlan

Marcus gripped my hand, removed his black-framed glasses, and bent his head in prayer. In his plaid shirt, dark jeans and stylish sneakers, he didn’t fit my my mental image of a street preacher. As he asked Jesus Christ to show me the path to Heaven, I winced inwardly. I had told him several times that I was Jewish, and was not going to convert. Yet there we were, sitting on a park bench, our heads bowed, attracting curious looks from the joggers going by. It was one of many times during my beat reporting in East Harlem where I was painfully aware of the conflicting purposes and motivations that can exist between a journalist and a source. But a potentially uncomfortable moment soon became a powerful lesson.

Marcus and I had been engaged in an awkward negotiation for several weeks, since I interviewed him for an article about the role of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the religious life of East Harlem. Marcus was an interesting interview subject, a devout born-again Christian who was fervently opposed to Witnesses’ teachings. I met him near Harlem Meer in Central Park as he was handing out bible tracts detailing the road to salvation. After about 20 minutes of conversation, he told me a story that obviously still caused him a great deal of anguish, and went a long way towards explaining his attitudes about Jehovah’s Witnesses. He said his wife had been a Witness, and that she had died as a result of refusing a blood transfusion. The story was detailed and precise, and it stayed consistent each time he told it to me. I felt fairly certain it was true, and I thought it added a heartbreaking but valuable counterpoint to my piece when combined with interviews from the Witnesses themselves.

But Marcus flatly refused to give me any information that would help me corroborate the story: his last name, his wife’s name, the hospital where she had died. After several frustrating weeks, I realized I would never be able to confirm what he had said, and so would be unable to publish my article on our class website.

Each time we spoke on the phone about his story, Marcus was firm: “I don’t see why you need to know any of that,” he would say, as I asked him yet again to give me corroborating evidence. “I’ve already told you so much.” He became convinced that we had entered one another’s lives because he was meant to lead me to Christ. I told him many times, as politely as I could, that I was pretty sure this was not the case. He always replied that he hoped I would keep my “mind open to the truth.”

Marcus also asked, gently but repeatedly, to see the story I’d written. When I finally realized it would never be published, I decided to give him a copy anyway. So I met him in Central Park once again, on a bench overlooking the lake. He glanced at the pages quickly, then tucked the story into his bag, saying he’d look at it later. He asked if he could pray for me and stretched out his hand. With mixed feelings, I took it and squeezed my eyes shut. He prayed for my conversion first, as I had expected. But, in a move that surprised and touched me, he also asked his higher power to grant me other things: safety, insight, and wisdom. He prayed that no harm would come to me throughout my career, that I would learn and grow as a person and as a reporter, and that I would positively touch the lives of the people I met. When he opened his eyes again, we were both deeply moved. After a moment of silence, I thanked him and we walked our separate directions out of the park. I never saw him again.

During my months reporting in East Harlem, I met people of many different religions, ethnicities, and socioeconomic status. Most were insightful, eager to talk, and had profound and varied things to say about the neighborhood in which they lived. Others were weary of journalists and other outsiders rushing constantly in and out of their lives. A very few were downright hostile, suspicious of my intentions and seemingly angered by my notebook and tape recorder. I tramped all over El Barrio in every kind of weather, and a covered a rainbow of subjects. I talked about gay marriage with the elderly owner of a botánica, admired the work of a talented young artist living on E. 119th St., talked with people in a greasy spoon diner about the political implications of Charles Rangel’s ethics charges, got the women standing in line at Yorkville Common Pantry to tell me about their struggles with hunger and food insecurity.

My sources were well-off and homeless, black, white, and Latino, young and old, gay and straight, newcomers to the neighborhood and third-generation residents. Sometimes the conversations were fluid and deep, and I walked away feeling as though another piece in a large puzzle had dropped into place for me. Other times I left feeling as though I’d misunderstood, that I hadn’t listened well enough, that I had fundamentally failed in my task as a reporter, or worse, that I had taken something from these people and given them nothing in return. My task was arduous, it was frustrating, and the returns were anything but consistent. I didn’t become a part of East Harlem in the ways that I had hoped. But I made a start. I did my best. I strove for insight and compassion. I never forgot that these people had a right to their privacy and that when they gave me their stories, it was a gift. I am grateful for, and humbled by, these months in East Harlem.

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An Unfriendly Poker Game http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1547 http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1547#comments Mon, 24 Jan 2011 20:21:22 +0000 Anna Merlan http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1547 Frank DeSena was an unlucky man

by Anna Merlan

Celso Alvarez arrived at his Bronx apartment four seconds after midnight on Saturday, November 3, 2007.  Three men were waiting for him in his living room. According to the testimony of one of those men, Alvarez walked through the door and said three words: “We killed him.”

Earlier that evening, Alvarez had been at the City Limits poker club, where the paint was barely dry on the walls before blood was shed inside it. Located on the 7th floor of a nondescript office building on the corner of E. 28th Street and 5th Avenue, the club had been open about ten days when three masked men, armed with a handgun and a sawed-off shotgun, forced their way inside. They brutally beat and pistol-whipped the cashier, Hahn Lee, and began stealing both the house bank’s money and the wallets of the patrons. Their take, police said, was at least $50,000. But Jorge Rivera, the man holding the shotgun, couldn’t keep his hands from shaking. He dropped the cocked gun, and it hit the floor and went off. Frank DeSena, a 55-year-old father and husband, was in the path of the gunfire. He was hit once in the chest, and died later that night. But it would be nearly three years before anyone was brought to trial for his killing.

In time, authorities would come to believe that four men were responsible for the robbery and murder: Steven Perez and Jorge Rivera, two young drug-dealers from Florida; William “Smoove” Delvalle, an ex-con who had already served eight years for manslaughter when he fired into a crowd and killed a young woman; and Celso “C.J.” Alvarez, Delvalle’s roommate in the Bronx and a bouncer at City Limits.  Despite video surveillance evidence and phone records which prosecutors believed linked the men to the crime, it was only after Steven Perez confessed in December of 2007 that police were able to begin constructing a case against the other three men.

Perez was barely 21 when the crime occurred. At the time, he was living in Tampa, where, according to police and his own sworn statement, he was regularly dealing and using cocaine with his longtime friend Rivera, then 22. Perez had also recently faced domestic violence charges for slamming his girlfriend’s hand in a car door. One day, he told the New York homicide detectives who investigated DeSena’s murder, Rivera came to him with a proposition. Rivera said his uncle Celso Alvarez, 37, had asked him to be part of a robbery he was planning at the poker club where he worked. Alvarez claimed he was a member of a motorcycle gang called the Savage Skulls, a Bronx-based group notorious in the 1970s for their violent rivalry with another gang, the Savage Nomads. Alvarez said he and his friend Delvalle, 36, were planning on starting a Tampa chapter of the Savage Skulls. Alvarez had recently moved to Tampa, where he had bought a house – he has a wife and two children — and was working at a Lowe’s hardware store and trading stocks online with a brokerage firm called TD Waterhouse. He implied that helping with his proposed robbery would allow the two younger men to join the gang.

It was on this slender promise that Perez and Rivera drove north from Tampa towards New York City in early November, along with Rivera’s wife Maria. They were headed towards the apartment that Alvarez and Delvalle had shared for the last three months, after Alvarez moved back from Florida temporarily to work at poker clubs again. He had about four years of experience providing security at poker venues around the city, many of which were frequently raided by police and shut down for illegal activity. Two years after the incident at City Limits, one of its owners, Seth Trustman, 28, would be one of 19 people indicted on racketeering charges, alleging that he took part in illegal gambling and sports betting practices as an associate of the Lucchese organized crime family.

Alvarez’ experience working in these types of poker establishments, Assistant District Attorney Chris Hill would argue at trial, made him uniquely suited to set up the robbery. “He was working in clubs for four years,” Hill said. “He knew there were no guns on anybody in there, because he’s asking everybody.” More importantly, Hill added, Alvarez knew if there would be a “rough crowd” or a group “that will roll over and turn over their money.”

Perez told police that he and Rivera arrived in New York on the afternoon of the robbery and headed to the Bronx, where they met Alvarez near his apartment on E. 181st Street. They hung out for awhile in the apartment, then went out to eat dinner. Delvalle met them later, and they went to the house of Felipe Mercado, known as “Blackie,” who was reported by police to be the leader of the Savage Skulls. Alvarez then left around 5 o’clock to go to work at the club. At about 11 o’clock that night, Delvalle, Rivera, and Perez drove into Manhattan, towards the Flatiron District, where the club was located.

City Limits was once located on the seventh floor of this office building in the Flatiron District

When they got outside the club, Perez told police, “Smoove turns around and starts telling Jorge and I how it is going to work. He says, ‘Listen, I’m going to go up… I’m going to get the door opened, and Jorge, you and Steven follow. Come in and C.J. will get us inside. Then Jorge, you take out your gun and you tell the guy to take us upstairs to where the club is.’” Perez said he forgot his own gun in the car. The men pulled down their ski masks as they walked into the lobby, but not before a brief glimpse of their faces was caught on the security camera – too brief, Delvalle’s lawyer would argue later, to prove that it was really him.

* * *

Hours before his death, Frank DeSena said goodbye to his family and left his house in Wayne, NJ for the last time.  His wife Kristine Jones, now 59, recalled the events of that night a little more than three years later, sitting at her kitchen table on a frigid winter night. Her brown hair was pulled up with a simple blue clip on one side and she wore an orange sweater, which she sometimes pulled closer around her as she spoke. The couple’s son Sean, now 20, sat in the next room watching television.  Ace, their Welsh corgi, nosed contentedly in his food bowl on the kitchen floor.

“We were married 22 years when this happened,” Jones said. “It was just a few days before our wedding anniversary, actually. November 10. It was very–” She broke off abruptly, sighed, and shook her head. “Anyway.”

November 2, 2007 was a Friday, and the couple had just returned from listening to live music at the Unitarian church which Jones attends. When they returned home, DeSena decided to go into New York and visit City Limits.  Her husband was fond of poker, Jones said, although he would sometimes go long periods without playing at all. “If there were other things he wanted to do, he didn’t play,” she said. “He liked playing. He was good at it. He liked the camaraderie of it. But he definitely was not someone who was addicted to it.”

A former economics instructor with a master’s degree in computer science, DeSena had taught courses at Baruch and Hunter Colleges. He and Jones, who is a health services researcher and a fellow economist, met in graduate school at Stevens University. They once co-taught a health economics course at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville in Westchester County. “Frank was really a very smart man,” Jones said, which was partly what attracted him to poker. “While it is somewhat of a game of chance, you are really playing intellect against intellect.”

For much of the past year, DeSena had been a stay-at-home father, focused on helping Sean, then 17, complete his junior year of high school. The couple had adopted Sean when he was four. He was born prematurely, and his birth mother had been in a coma for nearly seven weeks. As a result, he has considerable special needs, including serious learning disabilities and impaired vision. “Frank was really key to keeping him in a regular ed curriculum,” Jones said. “He had a lot to do with his success.” The father and son also bonded over their shared love of horror movies, she said.

DeSena left the house around 10 o’clock. “He said bye to me and said he was going out,” Sean said quietly, standing for a moment behind his mother’s chair. Jones, not expecting him home that night, went to bed and awoke early the following morning. “I’m an early riser,” she said, “Or I was at that point. Someone was supposed to come and measure the windows for new shades. I was up and I had read the paper, but I wasn’t dressed yet.” The doorbell rang, and she opened the door, expecting the window-shade company. Instead, it was the police.

“There were two NYPD officers, one woman and one man,” she said, “And a Wayne police officer… I knew that three police at your door was something really bad. I said, ‘Has there been an accident? Has Frank been in a car accident?’ And they said, ‘No, much worse.’” They sat her down on the couch and told her DeSena had been shot and killed. “They asked if there was anyone they could call,” she said. “We don’t have any relatives that live around here… But we’re good friends with the neighbors who live across the street. So the police went over to them, and they came over immediately. And they started calling my friends. They called because I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.”

***

On the Tuesday following the murder, Detective James Piccione of the Manhattan South Homicide Squad, located inside the 13th Precinct on East 21st St., called Celso Alvarez. “He wasn’t a person of interest at that point,” Piccione said in an interview at the precinct. “He was just somebody we needed to speak to, because he worked there. We had already spoken to Marc Lewis, the other bouncer.”

Alvarez said he was in Florida visiting his family, and promised to call the detective when he returned to New York on November 9 or 10. But instead, he phoned the next day and said he was in town and available for an interview. Piccione picked up him at Yankee Tavern, in the Melrose section of the Bronx, and brought him to an interview room downstairs at the 13th Precinct, where Piccione and his partner, Carlos Rodriguez, now retired, interviewed him. “He didn’t seem especially nervous,” Piccione said. “No more so than anyone else is in that setting.”

Alvarez told the detectives that he had come into work around 5 o’clock. He explained the security guards had two posts: one in the lobby of the building, and one on the 7th floor, where the card room was located. The guard working the lobby would allow customers into the building and onto the elevator, he said, while the other guard would pat down the players to look for weapons, check their identification, and then unlock the door to the playing room.  Alvarez worked the 7th floor post until around 8 o’clock, when he switched positions with Lewis. Around 9:30 or 10, he called Lewis and asked to switch back. Lewis agreed.

Alvarez said he was reading the newspaper around 11 p.m. when Lewis walked off the elevator with three men in ski masks following close behind, one of whom had a shiny silver gun to Lewis’s head.

“And here’s one of the things that got me a little interested in Mr. Alvarez,” Piccione said, leaning forward at his desk as he remembered. Alvarez claimed that when he saw the men’s guns, he crouched down, put his hands in front of his face, and said, “Be cool. Take it easy.”

“But I had seen the video,” Piccione added, referring the security camera tapes. “He doesn’t do any of that. He just gets up and opens the door.”

Alvarez said that once he let the robbers into the card room, he was forced down onto the floor with everyone else, where he was also robbed of his wallet. But at the beginning of the interview, Rodriguez had asked Alvarez for his address in Florida. Unable to recall it, Alvarez took out his wallet and began reading the address off a card. “It didn’t look like a brand new wallet,” Piccione said, opening his desk drawer and taking out his own battered one, held together with a fraying rubber band. “It looked like mine. I made a mental note of that.” Soon after, Alvarez said he no longer wanted to talk and asked for a ride back to the Bronx.

***

Two days later, Detectives Rodriguez and Piccione rang Alvarez’s doorbell in Florida. The earlier interview had raised enough questions that they decided to come see him at his home to follow up, Piccione said. Alvarez stepped outside, closed the door behind him, and said, “Am I going back with you guys?”

He was not. Alvarez wouldn’t be indicted until nearly ten months later, in August of 2008.  The first person to be arrested in the case was William Delvalle, who was arrested on November 9, 2007, as the detectives were questioning Alvarez in Florida. But Hill, the assistant district attorney assigned to the case, was unable to convince a grand jury to indict him and he was released. Delvalle’s defense attorney, Brian Konoski, told journalists at the time that the case against his client, especially the surveillance footage purporting to place him at the crime scene, was “weak and tenuous.”

A week later, however, Piccione and Rodriguez traveled to the small coastal town of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, where Steven Perez had fled to his father’s house following the murder. Positively identified from the surveillance tapes and phone records, Perez was arrested on December 1, 2007.  For nearly nine months, he would be the only person held in the case. Over the course of four interviews with him, two in Puerto Rico and two in the United States, Piccione said police were able to convince Perez to cooperate with the prosecution.

“I liked Steven Perez,” said Piccione. “He had to make a decision to tell the truth. And he didn’t tell it the first time I sat down with him.” But Perez soon realized, Piccione said, that he needed to “step up and get the best deal” before the other three men could do so. He identified Alvarez, Delvalle, and Rivera to the detectives. Eventually, he also told them what he said was the truth about what had happened, beginning with his and Rivera’s drive up from Florida and ending with the four men sitting in Alvarez and Delvalle’s Bronx apartment following the shooting. He also said he received $3,000 of the stolen money, while Rivera got $6,000.

Perez’s confession, Piccione said, was exactly the scenario that Delvalle and Alvarez had most worried about when planning the robbery. “I think they all feared Steven was going to be the weak link in this whole thing,” he said. “Alvarez and Delvalle were both in the Savage Skulls. Rivera was Alvarez’s nephew. Steven Perez was a nobody.”

Even with the phone records, Steven Perez’s identification of the men and his narrative about what happened, it still took two more long years of legal limbo before the case was finally brought to trial. During that time, Hill struggled to secure an indictment against Delvalle, Alvarez changed lawyers three times, and all four men filed at least one motion to dismiss or reduce the charges against them. The waiting period, said Kristine Jones, was “horrible” for her: “I would say that although it wasn’t the worst thing, it’s definitely traumatizing on its own. I had some really bad times.”

In exchange for his cooperation, Steven Perez was offered and accepted a plea agreement.  The murder charges were dropped, and he accepted a sentence of eight years for robbery in the first degree. Jorge Rivera also accepted a plea agreement for robbery in the first degree; he received 15 years. Delvalle and Alvarez were then tried together on five counts of murder and robbery.

The State Supreme Court jury convened on May 5, 2010 in Manhattan, and the trial, heard by Judge Lewis Bart Stone, lasted three weeks. Once it began, Kristine Jones came every day. “I wanted [the defendants] to see me,” she said. “And sometimes they had family members there. I just really didn’t want Frank not to be represented.”

***

Throughout the trial, both Alvarez and Delvalle’s attorneys questioned Perez’s credibility, pointing out his history of drug use, dealing, and domestic violence. Frederick Sosinsky, Alvarez’s lawyer, called Perez both a “cokehead” and a “pathological liar,” saying in his summation, “You cannot get away from the fact that the man who puts the meat on the bones of the phone records is a liar, the worst kind of liar, someone who would, without blinking an eye… frame somebody and have them go to prison for the rest of their life charged with murder.” He maintained that Alvarez was a victim in the crime, not a perpetrator, saying, “Is he to be faulted because he opens the door to the club when they come out of the elevator and he sees his colleague at gunpoint with these people?”

Meanwhile, Konoski argued that Delvalle still could not be positively identified from the surveillance tapes. Three alibi witnesses had given statements to the police saying Delvalle had spent the entire night with them at a bar called Lucky 7 Lounge in the Bronx, although they were not called to testify. In his own summation, Konoski called Perez’s testimony “horrendous.”

Alvarez, who is in Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, New York, did not respond to letters in prison asking for his version of events. But in a letter dated December 9 of this year, Delvalle wrote from Upstate Correctional Facility and again denied any involvement in the crime. “I was unjustly convicted,” he wrote. “…Steven Perez who was the major witness against myself and Celso Alvarez admitted countless times that he is a liar. He lied under oath several times. Story kept changing. Would like to get out of trouble and plenty of other things. This alone should’ve rendered him unreliable and not credible.” He said another witness who claimed to be able to identify him gave “conflicting statements,” contradicting both Steven Perez and an earlier description he gave to a police officer. He also said fingerprints and a doo-rag with DNA evidence on it from the crime scene both failed to link him to the scene.

Delvalle said his life had been “affected emotionally,” by his conviction, especially, he said, “when all this and so much more was in my favor and it meant nothing to the A.D.A. or judge, people who are supost [sic] to be in the interest of justice.” He closed his letter by saying, “Love your family and friends full heartedly for you never know when either of you will be taken away from each other as in my case.”

Delvalle’s lawyer, Konoski, did not return repeated phone calls. In a brief interview, Fredrick Sosinsky said the case for the two men might have been damaged because they were tried together. “I think you always have a better chance when you’re tried separately,” he said. Of his former client he said, “We got along perfectly fine.” He said Alvarez’s family would not want to discuss his background or the charges against him: “I doubt very much the family is going to want to discuss anything outside the trial record.”

The jury was unconvinced by the defenses of the two men. They reached a verdict at 11:50 a.m. on the morning of May 26, 2010, finding Alvarez and Delvalle both guilty of one count of murder in the second degree, three counts of robbery in the first degree, and one count of robbery in the second degree. Each was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Both are appealing their convictions.

“It was a long case,” said Detective Piccione, who also testified at the trial. “But I certainly feel justice was served.”

* * *

At the June 22 sentencing of Alvarez and Delvalle, Kristine Jones read a brief impact statement, as she had done before in both Rivera’s and in Perez’s cases. “I am asking the court to sentence both of you to ‘25 to life’ for your crime,” she said. “It does not clear the books. Not nearly. You murdered a kind, gentle, funny, warm, lovable human being. I hope you think about what you did. That you can take responsibility for your actions. To atone in any way you are able. I know you are going to some very bad places and will have difficult times. While I want you to be put away, I ask also that you stay safe.” At the Perez hearing, she appealed to him to spend his time in prison developing “a conscience, a sense of right and wrong… and some legitimate skills.” She ended with some simple words to her husband: “Frank — I did the best I could. Sorry.”

“I felt a real difference once the final sentencing was done,” she said.  “I felt relief.” But still, she said, “People do not absorb that this is not over for me.” She said she struggles with depression, worries about how Sean is coping with the loss of his father, and has trouble concentrating on her work. “I feel like I don’t know what my future is,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of plans, but whatever we were going to do, we were going to do it together. And now I don’t have that. It’s just an empty space.”

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A Very Long Life … And A Brutal Death http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1512 http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1512#comments Wed, 12 Jan 2011 00:06:30 +0000 Josh Moyer http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1512

Nellie Hocutt lived in the two-story home, right, at 3765 Laconia Avenue in Williamsbridge. Her friend, Lavonne Daniel, lived immediately next door. Photo credit: Josh Moyer

By Josh Moyer

Nellie Hocutt hunched forward as she rolled her shopping cart through the white-tiled aisles of the grocery store. Some butter here. Some frozen chicken cutlets there.

The grandmother wore a maroon cap and matching winter coat, as a light snow fell outside. At 91, she was as independent as ever.

Hocutt would often hop into her black Buick Century and drop off younger neighbors at church on Sundays. She would drive herself to the doctor. She would travel to her car mechanic.

And, on Jan. 9, 2003, she would drive 15 minutes — past tall trees and weathered telephone poles — to Pathmark at Bay Plaza. She would be murdered, brutally, before she put the groceries away.

After she checked out at one of Pathmark’s 20 counters, she drove to her Bronx home at 3765 Laconia Avenue in Williamsbridge — a neighborhood that felt more like the suburbs with its bumpy roads and front yards. According to court documents and interviews, Hocutt was greeted at her semi-attached brick house by two young women, who were not from the area and were after some easy money.

Nellie Hocutt was murdered by Sparkle Daniel and Nadine Panton on Jan. 9, 2003. Photo credit: Kieron Whitfield.

Nellie Hocutt wouldn’t live much longer.

Sparkle Daniel, three months removed from her 18th birthday, asked if she could call her aunt Lavonne — Hocutt’s next-door neighbor — from the white phone in Hocutt’s home. The stout teen with puffy cheeks was accompanied by a friend, Nadine Panton, eight years her senior. Hocutt allowed the women in. But no calls were made that day, assistant DA Christine Scaccia would later say in court.

Panton grabbed some grocery-filled plastic bags and headed up the stairs. She placed them by the fridge. Police from the 47th Precinct would still find them there a day later.

***

On Jan. 10, 2003, Evelyn Parker — who was 78 at the time — knew something was wrong. Parker and Hocutt moved into the neighborhood in 1957, just months apart. And Hocutt never parked her car in the driveway. Never. It was always in the garage. “I had a bad feeling about it,” Parker said in an interview in December of 2010.

Parker talked with other neighbors on that chilly Friday morning. Although Parker and Hocutt were best friends, Parker did not have a spare key to Hocutt’s home. “She didn’t give me one because she told me I was always at church when she needed it,” Parker recalled. Another neighbor, Jeff Fletcher, had one instead. And he was just as worried.

Parker warned him not to go inside. What would he find? What if something bad happened? Fletcher relented. He alerted the police instead. And what officers from the 47th Precinct and Bronx Homicide Task Force saw in the living room that day, they likely would not forget. Hocutt was tied to a hard-backed wooden chair with a cord — one yanked from the wall, connected to that white phone — and transparent packing tape was wrapped around her arms and legs.

Crime-scene photos showed Hocutt slouched forward like a scarecrow. A beige, plastic Pathmark bag covered her head, secured by a red scarf knotted at the neck. Droplets of water were on the inside of the bag — a result of Hocutt’s last breaths, forensic pathologist James Gill would say. She died a slow death from asphyxiation. Panton would later confess Hocutt was flailing the whole time. It was not a quick or peaceful death.

Hocutt’s short black pants did not quite reach her ankles, and her limp right hand dangled from the armrest. Hocutt wore a purple, black and green sweater. Dried red wine was spread across her chest. “Jesus Christ,” Andrea Martin, 69, the former girlfriend of Hocutt’s son, would later mutter in the courtroom upon seeing that photo. “Dear God.”

A dishrag was stuffed inside Hocutt’s mouth. The broken stem of a wine glass was found near her and later tested positive for two cleaning agents, one of which was rubbing alcohol. Daniel and Panton tried to poison Hocutt. Her tongue was cut. Her ankles and wrists were lacerated. A bottle of Dewar’s White Label scotch was near her, and an empty wine bottle of Taylor Lake Country Red lay under her chair.

The contents of Hocutt’s black pocketbook were scattered on the white tablecloth in the dining room. Drawers in two upstairs bedrooms were still partially open. Clothes were strewn everywhere. The only items taken: $120 in cash, the gold chain around Hocutt’s neck, liquor and rolls of paper towels. The blinds in Hocutt’s bedroom remained open, and a photo of a man in a correction officer’s uniform —likely her son, Tommy — was found on the dresser next to her pink-and-white bed.

Hocutt outlived her husband, also named Tommy, who died in the 1970s. She also outlasted her two children, Tommy and Nellie, who passed away in the 1980s. Her family still recounted with smiles how the 91-year-old grandmother would hit the dance floor at parties and reunions. “Grandma can still dance!” Omar Whitfield, 44, said she would always say — before slowly shuffling to her left and then her right. Whitfield, who was not related to Hocutt but was raised with her two grandchildren, said he considered her a second mother. He gave the eulogy at her funeral.

***

Four years after the murder, Detective Nick Ciuffi of the Bronx Homicide Task Force was running out of options. Everyone — friends, family members, neighbors — had been a suspect, and he had compared their fingerprints to those recovered from Hocutt’s phone receiver. No luck.

Hocutt’s family members who stood to gain an inheritance? Cleared. The neighbor who had an extra key? Cleared. The neighbor who worked for a moving company? Cleared. The 16-year-old paperboy? Cleared. The police checked more than 24 suspects’ fingerprints, Ciuffi testified, and not one matched those found in Hocutt’s home.

Ciuffi — with slicked-back hair, bronze skin and a thin mustache — looked strikingly similar to actor Vincent Price. He knew whoever was involved in the murder had to know Hocutt. She didn’t open the door for strangers. And the front door was locked. The suspect, or suspects, must have come in through the basement.

And then came the big break in the case on June 6, 2007 —  a phone call to the Homicide Task Force.

Detective James McSloy said in a recent interview he didn’t expect anything when he picked up the black phone at his desk. On the line, a woman said she wanted to report a robbery that happened a few years ago. She wouldn’t give her name, but she would say it involved a “really old woman” and occurred “somewhere in the Bronx.”

McSloy pressed her. The woman said she called the 47th Precinct and Crime Stoppers, but they were of no help. The woman later added the victim was killed. That changed everything.

Do you remember anything else? McSloy asked her. Yes, she replied, there were two Italian detectives working the case. She saw them on “New York’s Most Wanted,” but she couldn’t remember their names. Then it hit McSloy. There was only one Italian detective left on the Bronx Homicide Task Force — Ciuffi. He phoned Ciuffi right away. And Ciuffi knew instantly what case this woman was referring to — the one that had eluded him for four years. The Hocutt case.

The unidentified woman vowed to call back again in a few days, McSloy said in court. She did. And then she met the detectives at the Task Force office at 1086 Simpson Street. Her name was Larissa Kirby, a large woman whose head seemed two sizes too small for her body, and she used to be friends with Sparkle Daniel. She also met Panton no less than five times, but just through Daniel. She and Daniel would skip school every day, she would testify, talk about boys and hang out in the Bronx. On weekends, the two would spend time in Queens.

Daniel was the type who always had a smile on her face and it was easy for her to make friends, Daniel and her aunt would later say. She was always curious. And impatient. One Christmas, when she was 10, she discovered the hiding place for her presents. She pestered her mother, Pamela, to let her open them. Her mother consented — and then made Daniel re-wrap every single gift. Daniel still feigned excitement for the camera the second time she opened the presents, in the afternoon, when the rest of her family arrived.

She was the middle child of the family —  she had two brothers — and never seemed to get into trouble. She had no criminal record. And, if it weren’t for Kirby, she still might not.

Kirby, whom she became friends with in 2001, testified she overheard a call between Daniel and Panton in August 2003. She called Daniel after watching “New York’s Most Wanted.” Kirby told her: “I know what you did.”

“Hold on,” Daniel told her, according to Kirby’s testimony. “I need to talk with Nadine.”

Instead of putting Kirby on hold, Daniel accidentally activated a three-way call. Kirby stayed quiet. Daniel told Panton she was having nightmares; she didn’t want to get caught. Panton told her not to talk about it over the phone. The two argued about what happened the day of the homicide, and Kirby learned information no one in the press had known: Cellophane tape was used. And so was red wine.

Kirby admitted in court she didn’t betray her friend for the greater good. No, Daniel ticked her off. Kirby’s imprisoned husband, Andre, received a letter from Daniel, saying that Kirby was cheating on him. “I was so upset I called Crime Stoppers on her,” Kirby testified.

Ciuffi and McSloy tested Kirby’s fingerprints. Maybe she was the killer. No match. Maybe, then, they really did find the two murderers …

They would later discover Daniel’s right thumb and pinky were an exact match.

***

In 2007, Daniel still lived with her mother and two brothers on Malcolm X Boulevard in Brooklyn. They resided there for about a year, after moving from Long Island.

Daniel was almost never away from her mother long. When Daniel moved to Medina in upstate New York to pursue business technology at Job Corps, it wasn’t easy. She couldn’t find a job for skills in Word and Excel, so she returned to Job Corps as a 21-year-old to become a certified nursing assistant. She said in a December interview at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility that she moved back home afterward and stayed there until July 19, 2007.

Daniel still remembers July 19. It was a sweat-inducing day, and she was hungry. She said she threw on boxers, her younger brother’s T-shirt and red slippers. It was about 5 p.m., and Daniel headed to the corner store where she ordered a cheesesteak with everything on it. She planned on grabbing a Lipton Brisk, her favorite drink, once the order was ready. She kept $10 in her bra, along with the house keys.

In the meantime, she stepped outside to chat with her older brother, Ruben. That’s when the police approached. That’s the last time she spoke with her brother as a free woman.

McSloy identified himself as a police officer and asked Daniel to identify herself, according to court documents. Daniel became agitated, refused to say her name and began screaming obscenities. A crowd gathered to watch the exchange. “I am fucking Sparkle Daniel,” she finally admitted.

McSloy cuffed her and guided her into the back of an unmarked silver Toyota Camry. Daniel said she had never been handcuffed before, and the cuffs painfully dug into her wrists. She looked out the window, emotions swirling, and tried to reassure herself: “1-2-3, and I’ll be back home.”

In the prison interview, Daniel’s attitude shifted when the arrest was brought up. Her smile faded, and she began to massage her forehead with her right hand. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said at first. “When bad things happen, I try to push them out of my head.”

Things would only get worse for Daniel on the day she was arrested. At 6:55 p.m., she was placed in a 10-by-12 foot interview room in front of a long table at the Homicide Task Force office. There was a fan, some magazines and a window with blinds. According to court records, Ciuffi asked her if she realized why she was at the precinct. Daniel said no. “You know what I am talking about,” Ciuffi told her.

Daniel relented. In 15 minutes, she initialed the Miranda sheets. In 47 minutes, she confessed and the notes were read back to her. Eight minutes later, Daniel made another statement. And, at 11:15 p.m., she agreed to a videotaped confession.

In the videotape, the normally jovial Daniel was stonefaced. She spoke in soft tones. Ciuffi described her as calm and subdued. A blue can of Pepsi and a Styrofoam container of Chinese food sat in front of her. She never did pick up that cheesesteak.

She folded her hands and answered questions for 28 minutes. In a twist of irony, the black-and-white poster above Daniel’s head pictured a woman speaking on a telephone: Call 1-800-577-TIPS. Kirby would later testify she saw those posters everywhere and knew the number by heart. She knew exactly whom to call.

Daniel blamed Panton in her confession. She said her friend threatened her inside Hocutt’s house with a long-but-thin bladed knife from the kitchen. Later, Panton would point her finger at Daniel. But the details converged. And so did some of Hocutt’s final words.

Hocutt didn’t cry before she was tied up, Daniel said in her confession. She was brave: “Why are you doing this to me? You don’t have to do this. I won’t call no cops.” They wouldn’t listen. Hocutt kicked when the women tied her feet to the chair. But, in the end, the grandmother who tended to her roses nearly every day in the summer and baby-sat the next-door neighbor’s 8-year-old girl was murdered because, Ciuffi said in a phone interview, the convicted killers feared being identified as robbers. “It was a crime of opportunity, I believe. I don’t think it was planned until they got in.”

Daniel and Panton were tried separately in the Bronx Supreme Court, starting in late September of 2010. Daniel was smiling throughout the trial, two of Hocutt’s family members said. The grin disappeared when Judge John Carter sentenced her in October to 25 years to life for second-degree murder. Panton was also convicted in December 2010 and sentenced to 25 years to life.

*****

Daniel will be 47 when she comes up for parole. Until then, she sleeps in a cell at Bedford Hills, a maximum-security prison tucked into the hills on the New York-Connecticut border. Her family — usually her mother, Pamela — now greets her inside a yellow visiting room instead of at the dinner table.

Several dozen wooden tables and purple, plastic chairs dot the area, reached by visitors after they pass through five locked gates. Some couples embrace, silently, for more than 20 minutes. One woman, her hair pulled back in a grey ponytail, stares straight ahead with dead eyes. Daniel walks slowly.

She is wearing a green sweatshirt and baggy, green pants. Her cheeks are still puffy, but she’s no longer baby-faced like in her mugshot taken three years ago. There’s something behind her eyes, dark eyes that watched a 91-year-old struggle for her last breath.

“I don’t want to talk,” Daniel says at first. She says to come by another day. She’ll talk then.

On another morning, Daniel smiles — constantly — and wears that same green clothing. “That’s all we’re really allowed to have,” she says. She tries to keep busy, she says, the time passes faster that way.

She has few close friends in prison. Most know what she did. Some inmates tell Daniel they read about her in the newspaper. Daniel says she doesn’t care. She stopped reading the papers long ago.

Now, she sticks to her afternoon Bible readings — she attended Bible Study and church on Long Island, a church Elder testified in court — and ghetto books “about drugs and stuff,” Daniel says. The weekends are better. She’ll normally watch a movie — she most recently watched “Predator” — and will see her family between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. in the visiting room. She relishes her 3-year-old cousin’s visits. “She’s so cute,” Daniel beams. There’s a playground outside, a playroom inside and large colorful letters, resting on a rainbow, that are plastered on the south wall: “Joy is unbreakable so it is perfectly safe in the hands of children.”

Sometimes, she’ll play Spades. Other times, she says, she’ll make herself a turkey sandwich from the cooler she is allowed to keep inside her cell. But her days are mostly the same: 7:30 breakfast. Noon lunch. Fresh air from 1-3:30 p.m. 4:30 p.m. dinner. Hit the gym. Call her mother. And distract herself until lights out at 10:45 p.m.

The girl who once volunteered in soup kitchens, the girl who once collected food for the needy, the girl who changed radically and rode the subway instead of attending class and the girl who was convicted of killing Nellie Hocutt, this girl might be stuck behind bars for the rest of her life.

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Flashing Back – Over and Over http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1492 http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1492#comments Tue, 04 Jan 2011 20:07:47 +0000 Atossa Abrahamian http://theuptownchronicle.com/?p=1492 Eddy Espinal’s Deadly Retribution

by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

Franklin Rodney at the Punto del Sabor restaurant in December 2010

When the door of Franklin & Ernesto’s barbershop swings open a little too quickly, Franklin Rodney holds his breath.

If, in mid-trim, Rodney catches a glimpse of a figure striding down St. Nicholas Avenue towards 188th Street, he will pause for a moment to compose himself.

And if he sees, in the wall-to-wall mirrors, the reflection of a man cloaked in a black hooded sweater, Rodney will put down the clippers.

More than five years have passed since Eddy Espinal burst into the barbershop at 1577 St. Nicholas Ave. with an unlicensed .357 caliber revolver, killing Rodney’s twenty-five-year-old business partner, Julio Ernesto Filipo, shooting Rodney in the abdomen and injuring two other men.

Like the bullet-sized cavity in his left side and the thick scar that stretches from his ribs to below his navel, the memory of October 9, 2005, will stay with Franklin Rodney forever.

“I still get flashbacks,” said Rodney on a chilly December afternoon over a meal of white rice, beef and vegetables at the Punto del Sabor restaurant on St. Nicholas Avenue. “There are times when everything will remind me of that day.”

“Other people don’t understand,” he added, his voice trailing off. “I tell them to move softly, but I can’t explain…”

Rodney, 37, is a trim father of four who moved to New York from the Dominican Republic in 1996. A lifelong barber, he cuts hair meticulously. When he works on a fade cut or trims a client’s sideburns in the second chair from the door, his eyes narrow to gauge the evenness of a hairline. In the moment, he seems unflappable.

But at lunch, Rodney was all nerves. He fidgeted with his fork, his mobile phone and an iPad, as he recalled the shooting.  “It changed me a lot. I think more about things before making a decision now,” he said. Rodney feels guilty about surviving after witnessing Filipo’s final moments. Filipo, said Rodney, was “a good guy… a funny, happy presence” in the shop, and a real friend. It’s not the same without him there.

* * *

Sunday October 9th, 2005 was a normal business day at Franklin & Ernesto’s barbershop. According to court documents and interviews with witnesses, sixteen-year-old Pedro Pablo Rosa, who is Julio Ernesto Filipo’s cousin, stood at the chair farthest from the front window, giving an eight-year-old boy a haircut. To his left, Jonathan Cabrera, 20, was cutting another young boy’s hair, while Cabrera’s uncle, Bienvenido, held the child’s cheek to keep him steady. Two chairs over, Ernesto Filipo, 25, was working on Kelvin Checko, while Franklin Rodney, 32, stood at the second chair from the window. It was 3 p.m., and he had just finished giving a haircut to an older gentleman and was checking for stray hairs.

Satisfied with his work, Rodney grabbed a damp rag to clean the nape of his client’s neck and took a saltine cracker out of a blue tin he kept by his chair. He put the cracker (which he would refer to in court as a cookie) in his mouth when, from the corner of his eye, he saw the reflection of a hooded figure approaching his shop.

“At that moment…I became suspicious,” Rodney testified in court in May 2010. “When I turned around, when I was putting the cookie in my mouth, right there he uncovered the hoody and he removed his hands” from the front pocket.

Rodney recognized the light-skinned, portly Dominican man in his late thirties as Eddy Espinal. Espinal had been cutting hair in the neighborhood for seven or eight years, and most of the men at Franklin & Ernesto’s – including three who testified at his trial – knew him by sight, if not by name. Espinal had run his own barbershop out of 1577 St. Nicholas Ave. until the landlord evicted him for not paying his rent in June 2004, and witnesses at Espinal’s trial testified that he had been acting strangely ever since.

In the summer of 2004, Eddy Espinal heard that Rodney and Filipo, who were both barbers at Chiquis barbershop on 190th Street, had plans to open their own business. Rodney recalls Espinal making him an offer: If Rodney and Filipo paid his outstanding rent debt and gave him a chair to receive clients, Espinal would let them take over the lease. Rodney and Filipo declined, opting to rent the space directly from the landlord instead. The building’s property manager, Alex Bonnet, testified in court that their lease was executed in July for a September 1 occupancy.

That September, Espinal filed a $12,000 claim against the two men in New York County Civil Court for stealing the barbershop equipment left in the store. Filipo’s cousin Pedro Pablo Rosa, who goes by Pablo, said in a recent interview that Espinal was being unreasonable and that the only things he had left in the shop were a couple of old baseball bats stashed in a cabinet. The case was dismissed in January 2005, but Espinal continued to threaten Rodney and Filipo verbally, standing outside their shop and shooting them threatening glances and even telling them that they would “pay with blood.”

According to Rodney, Rosa, and Cabrera, Eddy Espinal came to the barbershop to demand money three or four times between the time of the lawsuit and the shooting. At the time, no one had taken him seriously. “In my country,” said Rodney, recalling the events, “you say these things, you say them but you don’t do them.” But this was not Santo Domingo. It was Washington Heights, and Espinal had a debt to settle.

And on Sunday, October 9, 2009, he would settle it. Witnesses testified that Espinal strode into the shop wearing a black sweatshirt with a white stripe and carrying a black drawstring bag. Inside the front pocket of his hoodie, his gloved hands held the .357 loaded with six live rounds of ammunition. Facing Rodney, Espinal pulled out the gun.

“I told you what would happen if you didn’t pay me,” said Espinal, and he shot Rodney in the left side. He tried to shoot Rodney a second time but missed and then opened fire on Filipo, who was crouched behind his chair. “I heard Ernesto say, ‘Why are you going to kill me?’ But Eddy shot him anyway,” Rodney said.

Rosa and Cabrera dived to the ground and covered the children with their bodies. Rodney’s first instinct was to run to the bathroom to hide, but the closed space made him nervous. When he came out seconds later, he found Filipo lying on the floor, gasping, “Don’t let me die.”

The next few moments were a blur for Rodney. But Rosa – now a stocky, tough-looking 21-year-old who looks at least 10 years older – said in an interview in December 2010 that he saw Espinal fire six shots and heard him say, “I told you, cocksucker,” before shooting Filipo in the chest. “He knew exactly what he was doing,” said Rosa. “He had the look of a man with a plan.”

As Rosa lay on the floor with Filipo writhing next to him, the teenager was overcome with anger. They had been roommates for two years and were more like brothers than cousins. Just that morning, Rosa had picked up a sausage and cheese sandwich and an orange juice for Filipo at the Dunkin’ Donuts up the street. Now, he was lying on the floor, dying.

Rosa jumped to his feet and grabbed a baseball bat from a cabinet by the bathroom.

“I’m not gonna lie to you – I wanted to put him down,” he said, referring to Espinal.

The feeling was mutual. From ten feet away, Espinal pointed the brown-handled gun at Pedro and pulled the trigger, twice.

The gun was empty.

“It went click, click,” Rosa testified in court. “So he took off out of the door and I came out after him.” With Jonathan Cabrera, he went after Espinal, who had fled and was running down St. Nicholas Avenue.

* * *

The next thing he knew, Rodney was sharing a hospital room in the emergency ward of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital with Ernesto Filipo. As the two men lay side by side with only a thin blue curtain separating their beds, Rodney’s mind was reeling. Was his friend dead? Would he himself survive? Rodney’s mouth felt hot and dry, and he could taste the pasty thickness of the saltine cracker he had eaten before Espinal attacked. He thought of his four-month-old baby boy, his two-year-old twin girls, and his four-year-old girl, wondering if he would ever see them again.

Hovering doctors interrupted his thoughts.

“The doctors were giving him electric shocks to revive him,” Rodney said about Filipo. “And they started operating on me to take out the bullet.” The doctors cut off Rodney’s jeans, pulled off his t-shirt, and gave him sedatives through a drip. He says he doesn’t remember anything else. He passed out before they cut him open.

While serious, Rodney’s injuries – perforated small and large intestines – were not life threatening. Court documents show that Bienvenido Cabrera, who was shot in the leg, and client Kelvin Checko, who was grazed on the back by a bullet, were not in any danger either.

Filipo was less fortunate. According to the testimony of Dr. John Hayes, a medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Filipo, the young man had been shot three times: once in the leg, once in the shin, and once, fatally, through the chest. The doctors tried to resuscitate him with oxygen and a defibrillator, but by the time Filipo’s friends and family arrived at the hospital, he was dead.

* * *

Eddy Espinal and Pablo Rosa—both broad-shouldered, thick-necked and rather short—were not natural runners. But fueled by anger and fear, they sprinted out the door of the barbershop without a second thought.

Court documents describe Espinal fumbling with his backpack halfway between 189th and 188th Streets on St. Nicholas Avenue with Jonathan Cabrera and Rosa close behind. Espinal was trying to reload his gun with the spare bullets he’d brought in his bag, but, unable to move fast and load, he threw the pistol under a car. According to a source with knowledge of the case, Officer Eric Rodriguez heard shots coming from Franklin & Ernesto’s and notified the 34th Precinct that there was a “man running down 188th towards Broadway.” A security-camera tape played as evidence in court showed Espinal running down 188th Street towards Wadsworth Avenue and dropping his backpack.

Police officers Almonte Perez and Lieutenant Joseph Kourakos were dispatched to the scene and picked up Rosa at 187th and Wadsworth. The policemen and Rosa finally caught up with Cabrera and Espinal in front of the Ortiz funeral home at 190th Street and Broadway. It was 3:15 p.m.

Espinal was identified by Cabrera as “the man who did the atrocity in the barbershop” and arrested on the spot. Rosa still had the baseball bat in his hands. He said in an interview that he would have beaten Espinal to a pulp had he not been forcibly restrained.The next time Rosa would go to 190th Street and Broadway would be for his cousin’s funeral.

* * *

“Thousands of people came to Ernesto’s funeral,” said Filipo’s older brother, Fermin Alex Filipo, 32, in an interview in December 2010. “The whole Washington Heights neighborhood came. It was so packed you couldn’t get in.”

According to Alex Filipo and his uncle, Gustavo Arias, 43, every inch of the Ortiz Funeral Home’s ground floor was occupied. People spilled out into the baroque gold-and-black lobby, crowded around its cherub-adorned fountain, and even stood out on the street while a priest performed a Catholic service.

Ernesto’s friends and family weren’t surprised with the turnout. He had always been charming, charismatic, “a bit of a player” but “a real warm-hearted guy.” According to Arias, “He always said hello with a hug and a kiss.” Pablo Rosa and Alex Filipo also mentioned how openly he embraced those close to him. “It’s unusual for a guy his age,” said his brother. “Most people shake hands.”

Ernesto was also stylish and took care of his appearance meticulously. He would ask Rodney to trim his hair up to three times a week. Photos of Ernesto on Alex Filipo’s phone show a good-looking, well-groomed young man with a gleaming smile and the same dark, glossy hair and warm brown eyes as his uncle and brother.  “See this outfit?” asked his brother, pointing to the tan pants and shirt. “It was his favorite. I have it hanging in my closet, it’s the only thing of his I kept. I haven’t had the guts to wear it. Maybe I’ll give it to my son.”

Julio Ernesto Filipo, who went by Ernesto, grew up in a big, tight-knit family just outside Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Alex Filipo said they were two of eighty-three grandchildren who frequently organized large family gatherings. Ernesto’s  younger brother, Alberis, also lives in New York but could not be reached for an interview. His parents, Teresa Polanco and Olmedo Filipo, who are separated, live in the Dominican Republic.

An American citizen by birth, Ernesto moved to New York to attend community college in 2000, but dropped out after a semester because of financial and academic difficulties. It was then that his uncle urged him to start cutting hair. “I wanted him to do something practical, so I bought him his first haircutting kit,” said Arias in December 2010. “He practiced on some kids when we took a trip to D.R., and when we came back he worked at a barbershop I owned at 1495 St. Nicholas. It was a classic shop, for an older crowd, but it helped him. He worked hard and learned a lot.”

Alex Filipo also spoke of his brother’s success as a barber. “After one year, he went to work at Chiquis, where he met Frank . . . when they started their own business, they were profitable right away. But Ernesto worked too hard. He’d take 150 to 175 clients a week. He’d work all day, he would complain that his legs hurt, he was tired. And then, he’d go out with friends. He only slept 4 or 5 hours a night.”

Ernesto never turned anyone down, and his clients loved him. He was especially popular with Washington Heights’ teenage population.

“A group of seven guys would line up and just wait for him. They wouldn’t take haircuts from nobody else, even though there were five empty chairs in the shop,” said Alex Filipo. “He was getting famous. When they had sweet-sixteen parties [to go to], he would go from eight in the morning ‘til twelve just cutting hair.”

Alex Filipo teared up remembering his brother. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he said, about Ernesto’s death. “Sometimes, I couldn’t even feel my body. When I found out in the hospital that he was dead, I almost fainted.”

Gustavo Arias can’t get used to him not being around either. “He would always come late to gatherings because he was so busy,” said Arias. “But he would always come. The party didn’t start until he arrived. Even now, when we’re all together as a family, I still sort of expect him to burst through the door and hug and kiss everyone. You know how with 9/11, there was a before and an after? Well, Ernesto’s death was this family’s 9/11.”

* * *

None of Eddy Espinal’s family members were at his trial in May of 2010. According to Daniel J. Gotlin, Espinal’s attorney, Espinal moved to Washington Heights from the Dominican Republic some fifteen years ago, leaving behind his ex-wife and a daughter. Espinal’s lifelong dream was to open his own barbershop. His business, said Gotlin, “defined him.” When it failed, he didn’t just lose his job.

Though Espinal pleaded not guilty to murder and attempted murder charges, he refused to make a statement or testify in court. He maintained, and continues to maintain, that he had nothing to do with the murder.

“It was the only case I ever did where I went in with nothing to say,” said Gotlin in a November 2010 interview.  “He was obviously out of his mind. The event must have been so painful for him that he blotted it out entirely.”

Gotlin was hoping to pursue a defense of Extreme Emotional Disturbance, or EED, to try to shorten Espinal’s near-certain life sentence. According to the State Bar Association of New York, a valid EED defense shows that the suspect was exposed to “extremely unusual and overwhelming stress” and has “an extreme emotional reaction to it, as a result of which there is a loss of self control.” If the judge accepts that a suspect’s circumstances led to EED, a murder can be prosecuted as manslaughter. Gotlin said this was Espinal’s “one semi-viable defense.”
To argue EED, Gotlin needed Espinal’s approval, but Espinal continued to insist that nothing was wrong. “His head was in the ground. He wouldn’t accept any of it,” said Gotlin. The only way he could pursue this defense without Espinal’s consent was if Espinal was found to be unfit to participate in his defense, so Gotlin had his client’s mental health evaluated while he was in jail.

“The first time, he went upstate to the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric hospital. He was found fit and came back,” said Gotlin. “But as time went by, he was, like, in a dreamland. He gave me some cock-and-bull story about how he didn’t do it, nothing rational at all. They agreed to examine him again, but he came back exactly the same as before.”

Espinal, who refused drug therapy because it “made him feel strange,” according to his lawyers, was only ever diagnosed with “unspecified psychosis” – a condition that, according to New York State law, does not impair a defendant from participating in his defense.

Gotlin called attorney Anne Rudman to assist him and talk some sense into Espinal. Rudman, who sat by Espinal during his trial and spoke to him at length through an interpreter, described him in two phone interviews as a “really sweet guy who loves to talk about the Roman Empire” and who took classes at Rikers Island to learn more about history and geography. Rudman said he was friendly, if a little humorless, but the moment anyone brings up the murder, he clams up completely. “Zippo. Zilch. He says he’s totally innocent.”

Espinal’s lack of cooperation did not help his case. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison by Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Ruth Pickholz on June 16, 2010. Espinal is currently serving his time at Great Meadow prison in Comstock, N.Y., and has filed an appeal

* * *

On Thursday, December 9, 2010, at 3 p.m., it was business as usual at Franklin & Ernesto’s barbershop. Loud Latin music blasted from the shop’s speakers, while Franklin Rodney concentrated hard on a client’s fade cut. Jonathan Cabrera chatted with the gentleman at his chair near the back, and a half dozen men milled about, talking about sports in Spanish and waiting their turn for a haircut or shave.

Every inch of shelf-space in front of the shop’s mirrors was covered with brushes, dryers, hairspray and styling products. Lopsided framed certificates from the American Barber Institute hung on the mirror above each barber’s chair. The mood was jovial. The customers were happy.

A new barber in the third chair sheared off a sheepish teenage boy’s Afro. His thick, frizzy coif fell to the tiled floor, tuft by tuft and curl by curl. The boy grinned as his silhouette shrank.

Nothing would suggest that Julio Ernesto Filipo died in that same spot for no good reason five years ago. Nothing, except the dents in the plaster walls, the holes in the black barber chairs, and, beneath piles of hair clippings, the bullet-sized cracks in the tiled floors.

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