A warm October light filtered through the leopard print bed sheet tacked above
the bedroom window, casting a yellowish tinge on the neatly made bed. Nelson Falu, 18, had not slept in it for over a month.
Two movie bills of Scarface hung on the beige wall next to posters of NBA stars Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and his favorite—Lebron James. A stack of shoeboxes three-feet high peeked out from a sliding closet door left ajar. Strips of photo booth pictures of Falu and his girlfriend were taped to the vanity mirror.
More photos of the couple were strewn across two Bibles lying on the dresser, along with sonogram pictures of a baby in utero. A slip of paper with the scribbled phone number hinted at an upcoming appointment Falu had in a midtown Manhattan office. He never had the chance to make it.
On the afternoon of Oct. 7, Falu attended a GED preparation class at Bronx Community College. The next night at 11:30 p.m. police officers arrested the stubble-faced teen in front of his home on Hennessy Place between West Burnside Avenue and 179th Street. They booked him in connection with an anti-gay hate crime in the Bronx that made national and international headlines.
The brutal crime, committed amidst a series of anti-gay incidents in and around New York City, caused an uproar in the Bronx gay community and drew sharp criticism from local government officials. On Oct. 3, a group of teens the police claimed were part of a gang called the Latin King Goonies were charged with beating a 17-year-old and an openly gay 30-year-old man with the handle of a plunger and a small wooden baseball bat in a Morris Heights apartment. A second 17-year-old was also assaulted.
According to the criminal complaint, Falu attacked one of the victims with a box cutter and said, “You crazy? You lost your mind, you faggot,” before punching the victim in the face. He is also indicted for robbing the apartment of the 30-year-old’s brother.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly vilified Falu and the 10 young suspects calling them “predators” who “employed terrible wolf pack odds,” saying their “crimes were as cowardly as they were despicable.”
For those who know the 5-foot 10-inch teen, it was difficult to imagine him so out of control. Family members are still reeling from the horrific charges leveled against Falu, who is known to them as “PJ.” They described a decent young man who lived through a peripatetic childhood filled with uncertainty, violence, sadness and a period of time locked up in juvenile detention. He was just beginning to finish his high school education and move into young adulthood when he was arrested.
“He’s funny. He’s smart. He’s nice,” said his girlfriend Jasmine Ferrer, 17, outside the courtroom in Bronx Supreme Court where Falu was appearing. She has been dating Nelson since June of 2009. “He worries about people too much for him to do something like this.”
“He’s a very respectful young man,” said Meema Yao-Lengi, Falu’s GED teacher. “He is very nice, outgoing, and did his work.”
When Falu’s aunt heard that her nephew was arrested for the brutal attack, she was shocked and saddened, but not completely surprised. Brenda Ayala, his mother’s sister, said Nelson’s upbringing was so fractured and painful that she
always feared he would get into terrible trouble one day.
“Nelson has issues that need help,” said Ayala, who moved up to New York’s Rockland County from the Bronx over two decades ago. “I always said if you don’t help him now it’s going to be too late and he’s going to end up in jail.
“And look where we are now.”
Since his arrest on Oct. 8, Falu has been locked up in Riker’s Island, charged with 55 counts of gang assault, assault, robbery and menacing. Some of the charges are being considered hate crimes that carry stiffer penalties. If convicted, he could face up to 25 years for each of the charges and spend much, if not all, of the rest of his life behind bars.
His mother, Caroline Ayala, 46, said he has called her everyday from prison, sometimes singing to her and his sisters over a speakerphone. At least once he told her there was no way he could have done what police have accused him of doing. She has grown concerned since his first arraignment on Dec. 1 when he pled not guilty and stopped calling home regularly. Falu is expected to appear again in court for pre-trial hearings set to continue Jan. 4.
Falu’s arrest forced him to miss a major event in his life—becoming a father. On Oct. 21, while his mother and sister waited all day to catch a glimpse of him in Bronx Supreme Court, his girlfriend Jasmine Ferrer was in labor at Bronx Lebanon Hospital. She later gave birth two months prematurely to their son. The young parents had already decided to name him Ayden. Missing the birth of his son, who is healthy and has doubled in weight to over eight pounds, has been tormenting Falu, who has yet to meet Ayden, now almost 6 weeks old.
“He wanted to cry because he couldn’t be there,” his older sister Jasmine Reyes, 26, said.
“He wants to be with his son,” his mother said. “He can’t stop thinking about him.”
Falu abandoned the GED classes he had begun on Sept. 14 at Bronx Community College’s Future Now program, which targets at-risk out-of-school youth. The program coordinator said he had only attended class six times in his three weeks there.
He had attended class enough, though, to make an impression on his teacher.
“I was surprised when I heard about what happened,” said Yao-Lengi. “I could not have expected it.” Yao-Lengi said Falu had a good head on his shoulders and always completed his class work. He recalled that he needed the most help with math, and remembered cracking a joke in front of the class about how low Falu wore his pants. After the joke, the teen laughed along with the rest of the class.
Another neighbor in his family’s Morris Heights apartment building expressed dismay at the charges.
“I’m gay and I live downstairs and I’m cool with him,” said Darcey Ceasar, 31, whose apartment is directly below Falu’s. “I don’t think he would do something like that.”
Nelson Falu, like his mother and her 11 siblings, was born in the Bronx. His mother said that his troubled life began as an infant, when his father would not let her hold him out of jealousy. His mother and sister talk about his childhood as a troubled odyssey in and out of numerous foster care homes, removed from his parents by the city’s child welfare agency at the age of four because of abuse by a family member. For the next five years, Nelson shuffled between as many as eight foster homes in Brooklyn—so many his mother and sister could not remember their names.
Dawne Mitchell, the Legal Aid attorney who represented Falu in the abuse and neglect case, declined to comment on the details without speaking to Falu because he was a minor. Noting privacy concerns, a spokesperson for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services would not confirm either how many or in which foster care homes Falu lived.
Still, Falu’s current attorney, Martin Goldberg, doubted a judge would sympathize with his client’s harsh childhood. He described Nelson as “well-spoken,” “respectful,” and “not a stupid kid.”
“The justice system doesn’t care how many foster care homes you’ve been in if you’re charged with a violent crime like this,” Goldberg said. “The purpose of the criminal justice system is to put people in jail.”
In 2001, Caroline Ayala won a long fought custody battle with Falu’s father, and her three children were returned to her. But, according to her daughter Jasmine, Nelson’s early removal from his home and the constant array of foster homes had done their damage.
“He was not a happy kid,” said Reyes, who described him as closed off, emotionally. “He would cry a lot.”
Nelson’s mother said that starting in elementary school, he was always in special education classes because of hyperactivity. His aunt said that he attended anger management sessions as a young teen.
“My nephew has suffered throughout his whole life,” his aunt said. “He was a very angry kid, but a good kid.”
A good kid whose biggest passion was anything basketball. If he was not out playing in the park nearby their house he was talking about it or at home watching it on television. When he was not on the court, Nelson liked to write poetry, play-wrestle with his three-year-old nephew and sing R&B.
“He thinks he can sing,” said his mother in the kitchen of her five-bedroom apartment, which she shares with her two daughters and grandson. “He can’t, but it makes us laugh.”
In 2007, Falu’s mother enrolled him in Alfred E. Smith Career and Vocational High School in Melrose because he liked to paint and do carpentry and other “hands-on” things. She said that he was taken into the automotive program at Smith instead of one of the building trade programs and was not happy with it.
A few months into his third semester at Smith, when he was 15, his mother and aunt said police arrested Falu on gun charges. His mother said that he was sitting in the driver’s seat of a car with older teenagers, and when cops approached the older kids threw a gun under the car, leaving Falu there alone when the police arrived. Details on the case were not available because he was a minor at the time and the files are sealed. He was still on probation for this crime at the time of his arrest on Oct. 8.
Nelson’s mom said her son served 14 months at a juvenile program in upstate New York called the Taberg Residential Center as a result of the weapons arrest. Richard Hogeboom, director of the program that provides counseling, education, and vocational training, would not release any information confirming Falu’s presence in their program stating it would break confidentiality laws. According to Pat Cantiello in the public information office at the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, youth who enter the program usually stay between 12 and 18 months.
After finishing his time at Taberg, Falu returned home to the Bronx in February of 2009. He reentered Alfred E. Smith High School in March, only to drop out several months later. On June 8, Falu, then 16, met Jasmine Ferrer through a friend and they started dating. For the remainder of the year, he stayed home and spent a lot of time with his new girlfriend.
In early 2010, Nelson’s mother enrolled him in a program for out-of-school youth at Bronx Community College called Career Connections. As part of the program, Falu took a course on customer service training. On April 28, two months after he learned he would be a father, Falu received a certificate of completion that would allow him to work nationally in customer service.
Throughout his teenage years, his mother held firm on her policy that forbid his friends from hanging out in her house, one she has grown to regret since his recent arrest. It meant she had no idea who he was befriending.
“He always chooses the wrong people to hang out with,” Caroline Ayala lamented, seated below a wall clock in her kitchen stuck at 6:45. “I should have asked who he was hanging with because maybe this would have never happened. I should have asked more questions.”
Acutely aware of his impending baby, Falu was beginning to look for a job and take his life more seriously. Mark Bodrick, the coordinator of the Future Now program at Bronx Community College, said that while he did not come as often as they asked, he appeared to care about his work and had questions about class assignments when he showed up.
On the evening of Sept. 21, just one week after starting the program, Falu and another teen were arrested for assault and harassment, both misdemeanors, for allegedly beating another teen in Morris Heights on Phelan Street. A judge released Falu after his arraignment on Sept. 22 and the case is still open.
Before his arrest on Oct. 8, Falu attended class six times out of a possible 15. He signed the class roster for the final time at 2 p.m. on Oct. 7, four days after the hate crime and about 30 hours before his second arrest in just over two weeks.
At some point during Falu’s time at Future Now, Bodrick remembered talking with him about becoming a father. As was his normal practice with teens in Falu’s situation, he said he probably gave him a flier containing information about programs around the city that helped teenage fathers cope with the responsibility of parenthood. Bodrick never officially referred him to any of the programs, though. Falu pursued that on his own.
A slip of paper on top of the Bibles in Nelson’s room contained the information of a Montaigne Massac, coordinator of a program at the non-profit Friends of Island Academy called Fathers Moving Forward, a program that helps young fathers build the skills they need to support their child through job readiness and GED training. He said he remembered speaking to Nelson directly and had him in his system as having an appointment sometime in early October.
“It sounds to me like he was trying to receive any help he could,” Massac said. “Young men at that age need a lot of guidance. Unfortunately, sometimes they know the wrong people.”
Those closest to Falu would say Massac was right.