Two of the four teens cleared of charges in the October anti-gay crime spoke to the BronxInk.
The two Morris Heights teenagers had been free from jail for two days, cleared of all charges against them in a brutal, anti-gay attack in early October against three Bronx men. The city had released Brian Cepeda, 16, and Steven Caraballo, 17, along with two others for lack of evidence.
Still, they flanked opposite walls of the second-floor hallway inside a Morris Heights apartment, reluctant to leave the refuge of their building that October 28 afternoon.
More than two weeks earlier on October 9, the two had stood accused along with seven other Bronx young men of such a heinous crime, the police called them “predators,” part of a “wolf pack,” a gang called the Latin King Goonies. Prosecutors charged all of them with robbery, gang assault and unlawful imprisonment as a hate crime, which carried stiffer penalties.
The world outside still felt hostile to the boys. They were free but not free.
“Outside we are in danger,” Cepeda said. “People outside think we were the ones who did those things, but it truly wasn’t us.”
The teens knew their lives would be forever altered, still subject to the suspicions of those who didn’t believe in their innocence, and to possible threats from rival gangs who may believe they were part of the Goonies gang. Caraballo said they want a chance to live a “normal life” by clearing their names.
“I would like to tell them to put up a public notice that we are innocent,” Cepeda said in Spanish, referring to the New York Police Department. “On the streets, people think we are involved with that gang.”
Caraballo, originally from Puerto Rico, said that before he was arrested from his home he had not heard about the neighborhood gang.
“I don’t go around asking, ‘What gang are you with?’” added Cepeda, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic two and a half years ago.
Caraballo’s lawyer said the only way to clear their names would be if the police commissioner and mayor issued a public apology.
“The assistant district attorney evaluated all of the evidence, and as she said, there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him with those horrible crimes,” said defense attorney Paul Horowitz. “She did the right thing by releasing him.”
Police claimed that on the early morning of Sunday, October 3, a 17-year-old boy was beaten and sodomized with a wooden stick in an apartment at 1910 Osborne Place. Later that night, another 17-year-old boy was also beaten and forced to participate in brutalizing a 30-year-old man. The two teens were targeted by the gang for allegedly having sexual relations with the 30-year-old who was known in the neighborhood to be gay. The older man was lured to the apartment at about 8:30 p.m. for what he believed would be a party.
Caraballo and Cepeda told the Bronx Ink.org they were invited to the party as well that Sunday. When they arrived at Osborne Place around 8 p.m., several men pushed them into a separate room along with Denis Peitars, 17 and Bryan Almonte, 16 – all four were the youngest men at the party, all four were eventually cleared of charges.
The boys knew some of the men from other neighborhood parties, but according to Cepeda, the two groups were never really friends. He said they heard men outside the room talking about what they were going to do to the victims, but didn’t think they were serious.
“They put us in there, and they didn’t tell us anything of what was happening,” said Caraballo, claiming that they were also victims. “I thought it was all just joking around.”
Caraballo said all four boys were let out of the room by the older men at around 9:30 p.m. and told to go home.
At a later interview in Caraballo’s apartment, his mother, Mary Kramer, said the gang’s alleged ringleader held a gun to her son’s head and forced him to hit one of the 17-year-olds. According to court documents, Caraballo hit the young man in the face with a closed fist.
“How the hell are they going to say Steven Caraballo is a monster?” said Kramer, who added that the police said her son was being taken in only for questioning on the day he was arrested. “What about the others?”
Cepeda said he believed they were arrested because people in the neighborhood saw them go into the house for what they thought was a party. Caraballo said the teens couldn’t do anything to stop the assaults once they left.
Kramer said her son did not see the sexual acts committed against the two men who were sodomized.
The Bronx district attorney’s office declined to comment on details of Caraballo’s release because the case is still pending against the other seven men involved. Two more Bronx men were arrested after the initial arrests on Oct. 9. “After a thorough investigation, there was not sufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Theresa Gottlieb, Assistant District Attorney.
Now, Caraballo and Cepeda want nothing more than to return to their lives without being linked to such crimes, or becoming part of a gang war.
“I know my mom will die if something happens to me,” said Cepeda.
His mom, Ada, said she lost 12 pounds in the three weeks her son was in jail. When The Bronx Ink visited Cepeda’s son for a follow up interview on Saturday, Oct. 30, she did not want to rehash the past month, nor did she want her son to say anymore. Holding the door halfway open a little after 1 p.m., she said Brian was sleeping.
Cepeda was now traumatized, she said, adding that she wanted to take him to a psychologist because no one should have to go to jail if they are innocent.
Caraballo and Cepeda do have a small support group in their neighborhood.
On Oct. 28, five residents climbing up and down the stairs in their Morris Heights apartment welcomed them back.
The aunt of another suspect who was recently released stopped to hug both men.
“Sometimes things you don’t want happen,” said Rosa Hernandez, Bryan Almonte’s aunt. She advised the boys to rely on God to move forward.
“This is the first and last time,” Cepeda confidently assured her.
The 10th grader at Bronx International High School was supposed to return to school the next Monday. His mother, who works as a hotel housekeeper, said Cepeda needs to regain his routine for the sake of his 12-year-old sister, who does not know her brother was in jail.
Even after returning to school, finding common ground with other students will be difficult for Cepeda. He said his true friends are in the Dominican Republic.
Before joining his mother in the Bronx, he lived with his father who works as a tailor in Santo Domingo. Although Cepeda visited him last summer, his father’s advice resonates after his experience in a small jail cell eating “bread and sugar.”
“I shouldn’t forget that in education there is a future for everyone,” Cepeda said of his father’s words, and added he now understands.
He has learned key life lessons from this experience, he said leaning on the wall with his hands down in front of him.
“A friend is one that makes you cry, not one that makes you laugh,” Cepeda said reflecting on his choice of friends. “Because there are friends that make you laugh for bad reasons, and there are friends that make you cry because they tell you the truth.”
On that Thursday afternoon, Caraballo, the quieter one of the two, agreed with Cepeda that good friends are hard to find.
He too has choices to make about his future. His father, Jose Caraballo, said some have advised him to take his 17-year-old son out of New York City, because “he said this is an ugly case.”
“We’ve got to see how the situation is going to go,” said Caraballo’s mother about the outcome of the charges held against the seven other men. “If they get out most likely I’m going to send him somewhere else. I’m not going to have him here with them.”
Caraballo said he is waiting for things to clear before sending his son back to complete a GED program. His son wants to become a motorcycle mechanic, something he dabbled in before he and the rest of his family joined his father in the Bronx.
“I know a lot, but I want to continue learning more,” Caraballo said that Thursday afternoon of his plans to go to trade school after completing the GED program.
Caraballo said he has until February to get a job and an apartment. That is because his 15-year-old girlfriend, Genesis, is six months pregnant and expecting a boy. The “G” tattooed between his thumb and index finger is for her. Caraballo wants to make sure he gives his son the life his own parents wanted for him. His family moved from Caguas, Puerto Rico in search of more opportunities, and now his father is the superintendent of the gated building where he lives.
Caraballo said he knows his parents were right about not going out too much. One party turned out to be one too many.
Additional reporting by Amara Grautski.