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For two hate crime victims, jail not justice

While her teenage son was locked up in Rikers Island for weeks in October charged along with 10 others in a brutal anti-gay hate crime, Ada Cepeda was so devastated she stopped eating. The Dominican mother lost 12 pounds in a little over two weeks.
Two of the four men cleared in the Bronx anti-gay hate crime are listed as victims in indictment. Photo by Amara Grautski

Two former suspects in Bronx anti-gay hate crime now listed as victims in the indictment. Photo by Amara Grautski

She was certain her 16-year-old son had been falsely accused, but the truth turned out to be much worse. In another cell, Brian’s 16-year-old friend Bryan Almonte had been arrested for the same crime and placed in protective custody because he suffers from epilepsy and diabetes. Bryan’s incarceration had come only a couple months after his father died from a heart attack in the Dominican Republic.

On October 26, the District Attorney dropped charges against these two youth and two others, citing simply that there was “no sufficient evidence to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt.” What city and law enforcement officials neglected to announce a week later was that Cepeda and Almonte were not only released from custody, they were identified as victims of the crime they were accused of committing.

According to the November 4 indictment unsealed on December 1, five of the seven men charged with aggravated sexual abuse, robbery and assault stand accused of threatening to hurt Cepeda with pliers during the October 3rd attack. They also are charged with intentionally hurting Almonte.

The police had originally claimed there were four victims, three of whom were assaulted, sodomized and tortured at a Morris Heights apartment by a gang of Bronx men who yelled anti-gay epithets. Now the total tally of victims is not four but six, according to the court document, with the offense against Cepeda listed as a hate crime.

When asked about the upgraded victim count, a spokesperson for the Bronx District Attorney’s office said he would not comment because the case is still ongoing.

Politicians and city officials expressed outrage in early October in the wake of the heinous assault that made national and international headlines, urging the district attorney to make sure justice is served.

“These suspects had employed terrible wolf pack odds,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley said at an October 8 press conference. “Odds which reveal them as predators whose crimes were as cowardly as they were despicable.”

At the same press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he was “sickened” by the attacks. “The heartless men who committed these crimes should know that their fellow New Yorkers will not tolerate their vicious acts or the hatred that fuels them,” he said.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn released a statement that same day, calling the attacks  “appalling” and “despicable.” And when Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson dropped charges against Almonte, Cepeda, Steven Caraballo and Denis Peitars on October 26, Quinn expressed her disappointment and said she hoped the remaining suspects would be aggressively prosecuted.

But after the indictment was released last week naming two of the four released suspects as victims, most city officials were silent, except for Quinn, who would not back away from her original condemnation.

“This week’s indictments send a message that if anyone dares to commit such acts of hate in any of our five boroughs, they will be found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Quinn said in a December 8 statement to the BronxInk. “Although I am disappointed by the District Attorney’s dismissals of four of the accused men, I appreciate the work of the office in bringing the remaining suspects to the grand jury.”

The BronxInk contacted a Quinn spokesperson on December 8 to confirm that despite new details revealing that two of the four released young men were actually victims, this was her opinion. In an e-mail, Eunic Ortiz informed the BronxInk that this was Quinn’s latest statement.

While the indictment offers more details of the crime, it did not clarify the involvement, or lack there of, of the other two men who were released.

Caraballo’s mother told The Bronx Ink four weeks ago that a gang member had held a gun to her son’s head the night of the assaults. That detail was not mentioned in the indictment. According to early court documents, Caraballo had hit a young man in the face with a closed fist.

The New York Daily News also published a story on October 10 saying “several members of the Latin King Goonies told detectives they would have been slashed and beaten if they did not help torment the defenseless victims.” The statement suggested in early October that some of the suspects may have been coerced, but the indictment offers no clarification.

Brian Cepeda and Steven Caraballo found refuge inside their apartment building after being released from jail. Photo by Irasema Romero

Brian Cepeda and Steven Caraballo found refuge inside their apartment building after being released from jail. Photo by Irasema Romero

After weeks of anxiety and facing the unknown in prison, Almonte, Cepeda and their respective families were left hoping for a public apology. Now a month and a half after their release, Ada Cepeda is still waiting.

“Who put an apology in the papers? No one,” Cepeda said at the door of her Morris Heights apartment.

“Instead of putting out the fire,” she said, the media “added more fuel to the flames.”

Media heavyweights such as CNN, the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the New York Daily News and NY1 gave space and airtime to the initial crime. But after the release of the indictment, The New York Times’ City Room Blog posted a 200-word story online stating that the two victims were wrongfully accused, and other media outlets like the Associated Press and the New York Post also ran significantly shorter pieces. None of the stories thus far question how two victims ended up being arrested and jailed.

Defense attorneys involved with the case were not providing any answers. On October 14, Almonte’s lawyer, John O’Connell, said his client may not have been “quite as involved” as he was made out to be. But he did not return calls for further comment after the indictment was unsealed. Four calls made last week to Cepeda’s defense attorney Phil Dussek, were not returned.

Ada Cepeda admits she is most upset that more has not been done to clear her son’s name. But she is too weary to push the issue any further. Her family has gone through enough, she said. She cannot afford to take legal action against the city to compensate for Brian’s time in prison. Ada, who works as a housekeeper in a hotel, missed full days of work during Brian’s October court appearances—wages she cannot afford to sacrifice.

“In the end, you know the city has a lot of money,” Ada Cepeda said. “We leave it to God. God is the one who will give justice.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Crime, Hate Crimes, Multimedia, Special Reports0 Comments

Using sports to stop the violence

Verna Montgomery sitting at her desk in her Fordham apartment.

Verna Montgomery sitting at her desk in her Fordham apartment. Photo: Amara Grautski

Verna Montgomery and her pack of curious children couldn’t help but stare at the lifeless figure across the street from M.S. 399. It was a Saturday morning in August, and just like every Saturday morning that month, the 50-year-old African-American woman from Fordham had brought a group of eight- and nine-year-olds to the schoolyard to play basketball. She tried to divert their attention from the corpse, ushering the juvenile flock away from the horde of police officers, reminding them not to be nosy. But she couldn’t hide the fact that barely 100 yards away lay another casualty of violence in the Bronx. A single mother of three herself, Montgomery didn’t know what to tell the children. Their parents weren’t around to help. When one child asked what happened, she replied simply, “Reality.” “How do I tell my little ones what a dead body is?” she asked a group of residents at a 46th Precinct Community Council meeting almost two months after the incident. The vision still haunts her. She won’t stop telling her story. “We need to stop the violence.” While crimes like burglary and grand larceny have decreased in the Bronx this year, according to the New York Police Department, the murder rate in the borough has risen by almost 20 percent. Through October, there had been 109 murders – 11 of them coming from the 46th Precinct, where Montgomery lives. But Montgomery had taken a stance against violence years before her plea at the police precinct in October. In 2007, she founded U.B.A. Sports Club 4 Kids – United Binding Athletes – a non-profit organization and grassroots sports program in the Bronx that is meant to be an alternative for children who might turn to the street. Since then, she has worked with more than 100 children, charging about $50 a program for some of her basketball, baseball and track leagues. She has brought them to high school football games, basketball games at Madison Square Garden and events like the New York Knicks Poetry Slam. And on Aug. 28, two weeks after being confronted with the dead body, Montgomery created the Stop the Violence Basketball Tournament. WABC-TV donated $1,000 and Bronx State Sen. Pedro Espada, Jr. came out to watch part of the six-team tournament that included 84 participants ranging in age from 8 to 21 years old. Montgomery’s effort may seem small in comparison to the enormity of the problem in the Bronx, but experts who study the effects of violence on children say grassroots programs can make a crucial difference. Jim Garbarino, a psychology professor at Loyola University and author of “Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them,” said exposure to community violence can be associated with mental health and behavioral issues if children do not have an outlet to process the trauma. “Any of the normalizing experiences of childhood adolescence can help,” Garbarino said, “after-school activities, sports, going to church, any of those positive experiences.” According to Garbarino, one of the biggest distinctions in a child’s ability to cope with violence is the amount he is exposed to. It is easier for a child to rebound from a single incident of violence than from an ongoing pattern in the community. But violence is hard to avoid in Montgomery’s neighborhood. At 6 p.m. on Oct. 11, police responded to a report of a 21-year-old man being shot multiple times on Morris Avenue, around the corner from Montgomery’s apartment on Walton. Alfonso McClinton was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Barnabas Hospital. Just before 9 p.m., 17 days later, 26-year-old Eric McMillian was also found on Morris, with gunshot wounds in his head and torso. He was dead before he made it to Bronx Lebanon Hospital. “It’s difficult up here,” Montgomery said, as she sat at her desk in her living room last month. Although the heat is on, she wears layers: a maroon track jacket with yellow block lettering for Cardinal Hayes High School, where her 14-year-old son Tajae attended before it became too expensive (he now attends John F. Kennedy); navy blue sweatpants, and thick socks. All that’s missing is a winter hat to top off her cropped brunette coif. She’s restless, fidgeting in her computer chair. Her left foot squirms. “I want to say stop the violence because we shouldn’t have shooting like that. We shouldn’t have it in broad daylight in front of kids and all, and it’s not fair if you can’t walk the streets. You shouldn’t be a prisoner in your own house.” Montgomery stops. Her large, dark brown eyes glaze over, and her toothy smile fades. She’s conflicted. “But this history of the person who got killed, it’s not a good history,” she said of McClinton. “He’s known by cops. Do you defend somebody like that or do you defend the cause? It’s very difficult.” Montgomery isn’t a stranger to violence. Growing up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, she said she witnessed bodies with guts spilling out, “like liver in a supermarket,” tumbling onto the street. She used sports to escape. Her hair braided in pigtails, she ran track with the boys at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School – the 50-yard dash, the 100-yard dash and relays. She advanced to the semifinals in the Colgate Women’s Games, now the nation’s largest amateur track series. She is in the process of training eight girls to try and participate in the same series this month, including Genisis Millan, 12, who lives five floors down in Montgomery’s building. “Track makes me feel good,” Genisis said. “When I tell people that I do track, it makes me feel like I’m doing something with my life and not just sitting around.” She has trained with Montgomery for about four years. She said sometimes they run laps at Bronx Community College. On other days, they do hall-length sprints in their building or hustle up and down the stairs. “It keeps me motivated,” she said. Montgomery ran for a different reason. “I ran to get away from trouble,” Montgomery said. “I ran to get out of trouble. I ran from seeing things, so it was running I liked. I always ran to the store, ran to school, so I just kept running.” She easily could have gotten wrapped up in the wrong crowd. Montgomery had friends who turned to the street, but she went in the opposite direction. She decided to move to the Bronx in the 1990s and began working for Xerox in the World Trade Center, before switching to work for a package delivery service. When Tajae was little, Montgomery decided to use the very outlet that helped her cope with her unstable childhood to help with children in the community: sports. “I’m a sports person,” Montgomery said. “We watch football; we watch baseball; we go to the games. It’s something I like. You work with something you enjoy working with.” Montgomery has lived in her current Fordham Bedford Housing apartment for about eight years, and it reflects her passion for her work. Her back closet overflows with bases, uniforms, sneakers and exercise mats. Her bathroom includes toiletries, baseball bats, basketballs and food coolers. On the walls hang photo collages of the children in her program. In one they’re at a boxing ring in Brooklyn, in another at a Knicks game, and there’s a large black-and-white picture of one group in track shirts.
Verna Montgomery standing in front of her certificates of merit.

Verna Montgomery standing in front of her certificates of merit. Photo: Amara Grautski

There are also reminders of her accolades throughout the years, including a “certificate of merit” from the United Cerebral Palsy Association of New York State for participating in a 1999 jamboree. Others like it and an expired Little League umpire license are mounted above her computer. But she views her greatest accomplishment as the effect she has had on children who may have strayed from the right path. The children she guided to the football field or the basketball court instead of letting them wander to the uncertainty of the street. Some who become derailed still return. Manny Reyes, 17, had trained three times a week with the U.B.A. track league a year ago before he decided to stop. Reyes began acting out; his mother thought he was too much to handle and asked him to leave. He moved in with his father in Hunts Point, then in with his girlfriend’s mother, before moving back home. “Ever since I got out, I’ve been doing the wrong things and making the wrong choices,” Reyes said of leaving Montgomery’s program. He decided to join her indoor basketball league this winter. “I just came back not too long ago, and I started being with Verna again and my life’s getting actually better.” Montgomery knows she won’t have that effect on every child, but the ones she helps make her financial sacrifices worth it. Montgomery has sent her U.B.A. Sports Club 4 Kids proposal out to politicians and community members in the hopes of getting more financial backing for her program, but her packet hasn’t yet drawn any contributors. Councilman Fernando Cabrera sent a return letter asking for more information about how U.B.A. reaches out to the community. Montgomery continues to attend committee meetings, like the one at her local police precinct, to try and solicit food and beverage donations. But the non-profit has taken a toll on her bank account. “Really, I lost,” Montgomery said, sounding somewhat defeated. In 2009, Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro had promised he would donate $5,000 to her program, and although Montgomery said she filled out the proper paperwork, the donation never came through. Castro said he had allocated funds for Montgomery to receive a legislative grant, but the New York State Office of Children and Family Services never received additional information from her when the office had requested it in September 2009. “In 2009, she should have gotten the money and if she didn't it was because of her own negligence,” said Castro, whose 13-year-old son Christopher played in Montgomery’s baseball league last summer. On Sept. 15, 2010, the funding was lost when Governor David Paterson vetoed the re-appropriation of last year’s grants. Montgomery insisted she provided the last bit of information that was asked of her. “We had a meeting at his office,” Montgomery said of Castro. “He said the only thing that was missing was my phone number.” The largest amount Montgomery has received was $2,000 from New Yankee Stadium Community Benefits, Inc. in May. Still, Montgomery tries to remain positive. “But I’m not losing, because I’m gaining in heart. So I’m not looking at it like I’m losing.” When she takes a group to watch the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden and every child but one has money for food, it’s another $6 out of Montgomery’s pocket. And so far many parents haven’t been that supportive with their donations or time. One who has is China Montilla, Genisis’ 33-year-old mother. She used to assist Montgomery with the track league before she gave birth to her son Alays, now 1. Montilla hopes to become more involved again. “She does what she has to do for the kids,” Montilla said of Montgomery. “A lot of parents that want to drop off the kids; they don’t seem to pay for the program. We’re not a babysitting corps here. This is not a babysitting thing. We’re trying to get your kids to be healthy, active and, on top of that, give them something to do not being in the corner smoking weed.” Montilla doesn’t think the $50 fee is expensive. She believes for the services Montgomery provides, it’s worth it. “She does a lot of things for these kids out of her pocket. She’s doing it by herself, but people don’t see that. And the fact that she’s handicapped and does all of this…,” Montilla’s voice trails off. As vocal as Montgomery is about violence prevention, she’s just as reserved when it comes to discussing her physical problems. On Aug. 21, 2001, Montgomery slipped on a wet day inside the delivery truck in which she worked. While carrying a package, she stepped with her right foot but lost her gripping as she fell, injuring the left side of her body. She felt excruciating pain from her hip down to her toes, but the extent of the damage went unnoticed by doctors for years. In 2006, she had her first of eight surgeries. According to Montgomery, her doctor told her she has tarsal tunnel syndrome, the compression of the tibial nerve, in her left foot, as well as a bone infection. A suggested option was amputation. The usually permanent smile on Montgomery’s face diminishes when she talks about her prognosis. When asked about it, she stares blankly at the TV, but it’s not on. The autumnal cold only makes it more painful, she said. To compensate she always wears layers. She’s not ready to lose her foot. “I love the kids too much,” Montgomery said. Amputation would mean losing her chance to spend time with the children. Although she gives back through her non-profit, it is also what keeps her going. She knows she has a job to do. “I think if I didn’t have this, I’d be in a very, very deep depression.” Montgomery has been on worker’s compensation and disability since her fall and hasn’t had another job. She’s been deemed a “high-risk” worker because of her injury, she said. Still, Montgomery presses on. She knows what can happen when she’s not an influence in children’s lives. About a year ago, Montgomery had a set of twins enroll in her basketball program. One of the two was particularly obnoxious and rude. She couldn’t deal with it anymore. Both children ended up leaving the program. “Now one of them has a record, and he has to report in to a parole officer,” Montgomery said. “This year when I saw him, he said to me, ‘Wow, Ms. Verna, I should’ve stayed with you. I probably wouldn’t have gotten in trouble.’ ” He was 12 years old. A brief wave of guilt may have hit Montgomery, but she tilts her head back and gazes toward the collection of merit certificates – the reminders of all she has done for the Bronx – hanging on her wall. “I have to look around me and really see all that I’ve accomplished,” she said. “I’ve got a lot to lose.” Whether she slows down or not, Montgomery has already left her mark on the community. She certainly has had an impact on 15-year-old Markis Faucette, and Markis in turn has on his friend Paul Eromosele, 13. Markis decided to use what Montgomery taught him and pay it forward. Paul was headed for trouble. His teachers told him he could not be a professional athlete unless he brought his marks up, but regardless, Paul was still failing his classes in the sixth grade at M.S. 279. The aspiring football player who often towered over his classmates never thought much of his height advantage until he met Markis.
Jon Warchol, Paul Eromosele, Markis Faucette and Evraldo Benros (from left to right) standing in the gymnasium at M.S. 447. Warchol and Benros, who have mentored Faucette, are physical education teachers at the school. Photo: Amara Grautski

Jon Warchol, Paul Eromosele, Markis Faucette and Evraldo Benros (from left to right) standing in the gymnasium at M.S. 447. Warchol and Benros, who have mentored Faucette, are physical education teachers at the school. Photo: Amara Grautski

Markis was two years older and a basketball lover who had spent a few years playing in Montgomery’s sports program. A couple years ago, he convinced Paul to give shooting hoops a try, and the now 5-foot-11-inch 13-year-old is hooked and plays for his middle school’s team. Paul loves to follow the Oklahoma City Thunder, especially the team’s star and his favorite player Kevin Durant. He wants to be a power forward in the NBA and credits his increased involvement in sports for his turnaround. “Sports basically helped me express myself and have fun,” Paul said. “My parents thought that I probably got in trouble, that’s why I started doing my work, but I told them actually it was sports and that sports was changing me. And now they’re actually supporting me to do what I want to do.” Now in eighth grade, Paul is currently helping Markis to establish the Young Boyz Basketball League. Inspired by Montgomery and her message to keep children away from violence, Markis is in the process of finalizing his own sports program with her guidance. One of the underlying themes of the program, Paul said, is to show people who might be involved with gangs that they don’t have to hate one another. He hopes that children and teens from different parts of the Bronx will realize they actually get along. Paul doesn’t worry anymore about personally getting wrapped up in gangs, but he does worry about his friends and classmates. Violence is prevalent, even at a young age. Members of the Latin King Goonies were allegedly behind the Oct 3. anti-gay hate crimes in the Bronx. Five of the 11 initial suspects were only teenagers. (Four of the five were later cleared of charges.) “I worry about the people that surround me, because people are killing people,” Paul said. “I think if they had something in the community that actually changed them, it could change everything that’s going on.” Markis’s league was created last summer when he produced his first successful basketball tournament. On Aug. 21, he gathered 64 people of all ages to play at Grand Park in the Fordham area of the Bronx. His former basketball coach Jon Warchol contributed trophies, Markis’s grandfather chipped in for uniforms, and Councilman Fernando Cabrera donated $250. “He was actually surprised because of my age,” Markis said of Cabrera’s reaction to his financial request. “He said there are no other 15-year-old boys trying to do something like this.” This winter, Markis hopes to have 64 participants again for an indoor league and has been negotiating gym time at M.S. 447. But to try and receive funding, politicians and Montgomery both advised Markis to start the paperwork to create his own non-profit. Legally, he has to be 18 to do that so he is asking his mother for help. “I see myself doing more,” Markis said. He has an idea for a year-round program. “Soon I’m going to do a fitness club with running and basketball drills.” Montgomery has a vision of her own. On a November night, she gingerly makes her way out of her apartment and down the street to enter 2287-89 Jerome Ave. To the naked eye, the address is the home to the Liberty Dollar Super Market. But as Montgomery slowly makes her way across the red-and-white tiled floor, she doesn’t see aisles of paper products and candles. She sees potential. The two-floor building is Montgomery’s dream location for her program’s home base. The first floor could be space for an after-school program, and the top floor could house a gymnasium. Aside from the fact that the bottom floor is very much occupied by the dollar store, she said the monthly rent is out of reach. But her goal keeps her focused and her mind off of her injury. After moving up and down the aisles, Montgomery exits the store. She stands on the sidewalk, gazing up at the building one more time. Her imaginative juices are still flowing. “I just need somebody to look at my dream,” Montgomery said wistfully. “I need somebody to say, ‘Here, I’m going to invest and help her. I think what she’s doing is cool.’ ”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Northwest Bronx, Southern Bronx, Sports2 Comments

Yankees host Brooklyn football champs

Fort Hamilton (13-0) celebrates its PSAL City Championship on the field at Yankee Stadium.

Fort Hamilton (13-0) celebrates its PSAL City Championship on the field at Yankee Stadium.

The ball wasn't round and the weather was too cold. But the final score of this football contest might have been the result of a recent Yankee game with A.J. Burnett on the mound. Fort Hamilton High School defeated Lincoln High School, 8-6, last night at Yankee Stadium to claim a Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL) City Championship. It was the second-ever football game at the current ballpark. Last week, Lincoln defensive tackle Wayne Williams said the key to shutting down the Tigers would be containing Brandon Reddish, the 6-foot-tall wide receiver and safety who posted 115 receiving yards and two touchdowns against the Railsplitters when Fort Hamilton ended their playoff run last year. History repeated itself with a title on the line. Down, 6-0, with three minutes and 12 seconds left in the third quarter, Marvin Centeno hauled a 26-yard pass into Reddish’s arms to tie the score. "If we want that big play we had to go Reddish,” Fort Hamilton coach Danny Perez said after the game. “I knew once the ball was in the air, I knew he was going to come down with it.” Centeno connected again for the 2-point conversion, finding an open Dylan Campili to take the, 8-6, lead. On Monday, the Tigers practiced the play four times, and each time Campili had dropped the pass. The senior held on when it counted. “When that play came on in the game and coach called it, everything ran through my head,” Campili said. “The only thing I could think of was, ‘I got to get this ball. I want this ring.’ So I came down with it, and I got up, and it was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had.” Lincoln (12-1) had scored its touchdown in the waning moments of the first half. On third-and-inches with two seconds remaining, junior running back Kareem Folkes powered into the end zone to cap off a 12-minute drive. Fort Hamilton’s (13-0) goal of the season was to finish. Much like the Yankees before their 2009 championship, the Tigers entered the title game after a recent string of strong regular-season showings and playoff heartbreaks. Fort Hamilton went undefeated the last three regular seasons, but lost in the title game two years ago and by 1 point in the semifinals last year. “I just feel so glad for the kids,” Perez said. “They came to the championship as sophomores and they lost, and now they’re able to come on the big stage at Yankee Stadium and finish the job.” The first football game at the House That George Built was Notre Dame’s 27-3 victory over Army on Nov. 20. The Yankees had allotted 10,000 tickets for this event. By the time the game was in progress, most of the lower bowl had filled up. Brian Smith, the organization's senior vice president of corporate and community relations, said at a Dec. 1 press conference that the Yankees hope to continue hosting the city championship. “The New York Yankees are proud supporters of the PSAL,” Smith said. “We're looking for this to be one of the premier events at Yankee Stadium, and hopefully something we can continue to do on a year and year out basis.” With the Yankees reaching out to host high school and college football games, the Bronx can expect a surge in Highbridge even after October.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Sports0 Comments

Hate crime stats more accessible

About a month after a brutal anti-gay hate crime shocked the Bronx and the nation, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed legislation that will require the city to post hate crime statistics on its My Neighborhood Statistics website. On Nov. 8, Bloomberg signed two bills into law that aim to make statistics more accessible to the public for hate crimes for domestic violence incidents. My Neighborhood Statistics, which was launched in 2002 on nyc.gov, provides quality-of-life data by neighborhoods, community districts, police precincts and school districts. “In light of the recent hate crimes in the city, any additional data to help understand and fight both hate crimes and domestic violence will be beneficial to individual neighborhoods and the city as a whole,” Speaker Christine Quinn said in a press release. “The more we can track these crimes, the more hope we’ll have to reduce domestic violence and hate crimes throughout the city.” Although scattered hate crime and domestic violence statistics are available to the public, starting in 2011 this data can be found in a more centralized location. Information on domestic violence can be found through the Mayor's Management Report. Hate Crime in New York State annual reports provide city and borough information. According to the 2008 report, there were 17 reported hate crimes in the Bronx and 259 in New York City. Of the 596 reported hate crimes in the state that year, those motivated by bias against a person’s sexual orientation, like the attacks in the Bronx, was the third most frequently reported by victims, followed by anti-Jewish bias (36 percent) and anti-black bias (25). Bias against gay males was the most common of those motivated by sexual orientation and accounted for 11 percent of the total hate crimes. Nationally, reported hate crimes and those motivated by sexual orientation have decreased, according a report released by the FBI this month. There were 1,384 less reported hate crime offenses in 2009 than 2008. Although the number of single-bias hate crimes based on sexual orientation decreased by 181, the amount of violent crimes – simple and aggravated assault – remained relatively the same. Dirk McCall, the executive director of the Bronx Community Pride Center, believes having local hate crime statistics more accessible may help the city’s numbers-driven administration put more resources behind these issues. “I think it’s good,” McCall said. “I think the more you know about what’s happening and where it’s happening and who it’s happening to is helpful. Bloomberg’s really big into statistics.” Having the data available may only be half the battle. McCall said many hate crimes go unreported and that people who are victims of anti-gay hate crimes in particular often come to the pride center as a resource to discuss their options. “A lot of people are not certain why they were attacked, or they’re embarrassed they were attacked, or they’re not ready to talk about it,” McCall said. “It’s just a matter of whether things are being reported. If they’re not being reported, [the law] is not making a difference.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Blog, Crime, Hate Crimes, Special Reports0 Comments

Absence of Love for the hungry

Love Gospel Assembly days after the fire destroyed it. Photo by: Connie Preti

Love Gospel Assembly days after the fire destroyed it. Photo by: Connie Preti

When the Love Gospel Assembly was destroyed by a four-alarm fire over the summer, the Fordham neighborhood not only lost its Grand Concourse church, it lost one of its most important resources for the poor during one of the borough’s most economically strained periods yet. Love Gospel had served anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 meals a month. Its loss is still causing added stress to local food providers, particularly in the holiday season. “The fire was a debacle for us over the past three months,” said Maureen Sheehan, director of Part of the Solution food pantry and kitchen that operates a mile from where Love Gospel once stood.  Her kitchen staff found that traffic from August to October was up 30 percent this year compared to the same period last year. “It’s awful, because we’re such a tight space and we really can’t handle overcrowding," said Sheehan. "We were overcrowded to start with.” The July 25 fire came at a time when the need for food assistance was increasing in the Bronx. A January report by the Food Research and Action Center found the South Bronx is the neediest congressional district in the country in terms of food and poverty. Three-quarters of the food banks surveyed in the Bronx reported to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger that demand for food continued to climb in recent months. The POTS food pantry, which is separate from the kitchen, experienced a 36 percent increase from 2009 during the three-month stretch. In August through October last year, there were on average 650 families a month visiting the pantry. During the same time this year, there were 885 families per month. Sister Mary Alice Hannan, who has been the executive director of POTS since 1996, said they were prepared for the influx in August, a time when the Love Kitchen usually closed its doors, but were not for the months to follow. POTS expects its expanded $6.5 million facility will be ready in February. But until then, the organization needs "more funding for what we do,” Hannan said. Even on Nov. 29, long after most people had already received their Thanksgiving Day packages, there was a long line for the food pantry that spilled onto the street by 9 a.m. Five years ago, POTS provided 210,000 meals. In 2009 the number jumped to 330,000. This year, the pantry will provide over 380,000 meals, said Sheehan. In order to meet the upcoming holiday needs, POTS is asking food banks that served the Love Gospel Assembly to send any surplus food to its facility. Although Hannan said they have cooperated, POTS can always use more. The most recent statistics from the Department of Agriculture show that food insecurity in the country is at its highest since 1995. A 2008 report found that 14.6 percent of households did not have enough food for all family members at some time during the year. But the greatest need may be in the 16th Congressional District, which makes up part of the South Bronx. The food resource report, which used data from a Gallup poll that surveyed more than 530,000 people, stated that more than 36 percent of this congressional district reported there were times during the past year when they did not have enough money to buy the food they or their family needed – the highest percentage of any congressional district in the country. “The demand that we’re seeing from families has just been increasing so much,” said Khushbu Srivastava, the director of marketing and communications for the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, which is located on 168th Street in the Bronx. The housing and social services group partnered with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger to try and raise awareness about food insecurity in the borough. “I think that the biggest thing that we see is that more and more working families are needing support for food, and I think that’s been a really difficult thing.” The Coalition found that more than half of the city’s food pantries and kitchens said they could not meet the growing need. “In what is still the richest city in the history of the world, it is unacceptable that more than half of the city's food pantries and soup kitchens do not have enough food and money to meet the growing demand,” Joel Berg, executive director of the Coalition, said in a press release. “It is no wonder that one in eight state residents now face food hardship, with most barely hanging on. The only bit of good news is that the massive increase in federal nutrition assistance in New York prevented a full-blown hunger catastrophe.” According to the Coalition, in 2010 the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/Food Stamp Program will provide more than $3.2 billion of federal funding for food in New York City. The figure is $458 million higher than last year. The latest report from the Human Resources Administration said in 2009, 29 percent of the Bronx was using food stamps. “We really believe that the government needs to do more in terms of supporting emergency food services,” Srivastava said. “We’re giving out less food than we did last year. Last year at this time, we were giving out 150 bags per week. We’re only giving out 80 bags of food per week now, but the demand’s probably twice as high as the year before.”
POTS Mission Statement. Photo by: Connie Preti

POTS Mission Statement. Photo by: Connie Preti

POTS and WHEDco rely on government assistance, donations and the Food Bank. Srivastava said less has been available to take at the Food Bank, and what is available goes fast. It doesn’t look as if the Love Kitchen will come to the rescue anytime soon either. Jeffrey Williams, who is in charge of coordinating the soup kitchen and pantry service for Love Gospel Assembly, said there are no definite dates for its reopening. “We have to dig out and clean inside,” said Williams, who used to depend on meals at the Love Kitchen. His role is now to direct patrons to other local kitchens and pantries. “That’s what we are working on right now.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Food, Food and Beyond, Northwest Bronx, Southern Bronx, Special Reports0 Comments

Activists react to anti-gay hate crime

The Bronx Community Pride Center is expected to hold meetings later this month to formulate a plan to educate  the community on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

The Bronx Community Pride Center is expected to hold meetings later this month to formulate a plan to educate the community on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

New York politicians, law enforcement agents and gay advocates expressed shock and dismay this week over the violent anti-gay assault against three men in Morris Heights, and the arrest of 11 other Bronxites this week who were charged with the crimes. Governor David Paterson called the crimes “heinous.” Police commissioner Raymond Kelly used the word “despicable,” and the city's openly gay city council speaker Christine Quinn said the crimes were “appalling.” And on Oct. 14, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Quinn launched a public service advertising campaign called “Love Love. Hate Hate” that aims to “celebrate” diversity and “condemn” hate crimes in the city. Local Bronx pastors, artists and community advocates are beginning to rally to plan a constructive response. “The general response here among folks is shock,” said John Backe, the pastor of Fordham Evangelical Lutheran church, “and upset that this could happen and sort of puzzlement over how people can do that to one another.” The horrific crime occurred after two other tragic anti-gay incidents this fall that captured national attention: the suicide of a Rutgers University student after he was secretly taped having gay sex and the attack on a gay man at Greenwich Village's infamous Stonewall Inn.  The spate of hate crimes against homosexuals placed a spotlight on the numbers of hate crimes in the city. According to reports by the FBI, in 2008, 17 percent of reported hate crimes in New York City were based on sexual orientation. And as of Oct. 13, the New York Police Department had reported a total of 22 hate crime incidents in the Bronx, although they were not categorized by motivation. Quinn spoke for five minutes from the pulpit at Fordham Evangelical Lutheran on October 10 to the assembled congregation of 60 parishioners. The church’s previous pastor Katrina Foster, who declined comment, is also openly gay. “In the sermon we sort of recommitted ourselves to making sure our children are being taught,” Backe said of the importance of educating the community’s youth on the anti-gay attacks. “It’s not enough to assume that kids know what they’re doing sometimes. We need to be specific and say, ‘Treating people like this is wrong.’ ” The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has been active under the spotlight. On Oct. 11, GLAAD asked Universal Pictures to remove what it believes to be an anti-gay scene from the studio’s new film called “The Dilemma.” Two days later, GLAAD announced its partnership with Facebook to try and work together to remove anti-gay comments, after “hateful” ones were posted the previous week on a page devoted to anti-gay bullying. Activists in the Bronx believe this is a teaching opportunity for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community and are also looking to capitalize. “We need to strike while the iron's hot before people forget this,” said Dirk McCall, executive director of the Bronx Community Pride Center. “It’s a chance for us to actually teach people about tolerance, and teach people about the LGBT community and introduce ourselves.” McCall announced to a group of 40 attendees at an Oct. 13 pride center meeting that the center was going to work toward three goals: forming a rally, becoming involved in town hall meetings and developing a school outreach program. Bronx Community College advertised a silent March for Dignity on Oct. 28 "in light of the recent events near and around” campus. “Our silence when a hate crime occurs, is interpreted as permission,” said Ben Stock, the president of Brainpower, a New York City non-profit organization that teaches art to LGBT homeless youth. Stock does not believe sending young people to jail will solve the problem. “We need education, and we need to live together.” Arthur Aviles, the art director of the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, said he believes a rehabilitation program could be the answer. “I would love it if we had some kind of system that helped them come to their victims in a way that was sorrowful, in a way that smacked them upside their head with their humanity,” Aviles said. “Going to jail? I don’t think there’s much there. They just punish you. They don’t teach you anything. They were taught some horrible things that they shouldn’t have been taught, and we should get them untaught.” Starting Friday, print ads for the mayor's “Love Love. Hate Hate” ad campaign are expected to be placed at 200 locations throughout all five boroughs, and campaign videos to air on local television stations and appear on screens in New York City taxis. Bloomberg and Quinn’s press release said ads will be in English and Spanish and appear until at least the end of the month. An existing ad campaign called “I Love My Boo,” created by the New York City-based, non-profit organization the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, seeks to increase the visibility of black and Latino gay men. "Boo" is a slang term for a significant other, and the ads show black and Latino men as couples. According to the 2000 Census, 35.6 percent of the Bronx is black or African American and 48.4 percent is Hispanic or Latino. About 1,000 ads are expected to be posted in subway cars and 150 subway stations during the month. The success of these initiatives is yet to be seen, but Stock believes the LGBT community needs to draw something positive from the anti-gay attacks. “We’re going to take this and make something good out of it,” Stock said. Additional reporting by Nick Pandolfo and Yardena Schwartz

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Education, Hate Crimes, Northwest Bronx, Special Reports3 Comments

Attorneys for hate crime suspects ask for more time

Ten of 11 defendants connected to the anti-game hate crime attacks appeared in Bronx Supreme Court on Thursday afternoon.

Ten of 11 defendants connected to the anti-gay hate crime attacks appeared in Bronx Supreme Court on Thursday afternoon. Photo: Amara Grautski

Defense attorneys representing 10 of the 11 alleged gang members connected to anti-gay hate crimes requested more time with their clients while appearing in Bronx Supreme Court Thursday afternoon. Lawyers said more time with the defendants, thought to be part of a gang called the Latin King Goonies, would help familiarize them with the facts of the case before pretrial hearings resume next week. Jason Foy, who represents suspect David Rivera, said he had only met his client moments before appearing in front of the judge. “Sometimes everything isn’t clear when an arrest is made like this,” said John O’Connell, the defense attorney for Bryan Almonte. “Maybe someone isn’t as guilty as it appears in the paperwork.” According to O’Connell, Almonte, 16, suffers from diabetes and epilepsy. He said because of this, his client is the only suspect being held in protective custody. Almonte and Rivera were two of the young men, ranging in age from 16 to 26, arrested after allegedly brutalizing two 17-year-old boys and a 30-year-old man, whom they presumed to be gay. The initial attacks took place in the early evening of Oct. 3 at 1910 Osborne Place in Morris Heights. Later that night, some of the suspects robbed and assaulted the eldest victim’s brother in his apartment. Charges against the defendants include abduction, unlawful imprisonment and assault, as hate crimes. The 11th suspect, Luis Garcia, was not apprehended by the New York City Hate Crime Task Force and Special Victims detectives until Thursday at 5 p.m. from his Bronx apartment on Hennessey Place. Although the defendants haven’t been indicted, news of the crimes has provoked outrage among community members, as well as city and state officials. “These suspects had employed terrible wolf pack odds,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at a press conference last Friday. “Odds which reveal them as predators whose crimes were as cowardly as they were despicable." But defense lawyers tried to combat generalizations about the defendants. “Not every one of the defendants is going to be indicted,” said Benjamin Heinrich, counsel for Ruddy Vargas. “Ruddy is as appalled as everybody else.” Defense attorneys won’t have a chance to make their case until as early as Oct. 21, when eight of the defendants return to court. Until then, Sanders Denis, the lawyer representing Ildefonso Mendez, hopes the media will let the court system play out before making assumptions. “Stop making him a monster,” Denis said of Mendez to reporters outside the courtroom.There is a system of justice; he is presumed innocent.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Hate Crimes, Northwest Bronx, Special Reports0 Comments

Fordham freshman found dead

An entrance to the Fordham University campus on East Fordham Road.

An entrance to the Fordham University campus on East Fordham Road.

A Fordham university freshman was found dead yesterday around 11:30 a.m. in his third-floor Alumni South dormitory room. According to published reports, Jacob Miller, 18, was found hanging by a belt. There is no indication of foul play. “Jacob’s family and the Fordham family are shaken with grief,” said Joseph McShane, the university’s president, in a press release. “His sudden loss, especially at such a young age, is heartbreaking and shocking.” Alumni South residents said a building meeting was held at 6 p.m., in which the dorm’s resident assistants and the university’s resident directors gathered to introduce the grief counselors who are available to counsel students. Matt Guzman, 18, a freshman who lives in the basement of Alumni South, said he has friends on the third floor who were unable to enter their rooms because police had taped off the entire floor. Although Guzman didn’t know what Miller was studying, he said the third floor students were primarily science majors. “I don’t think there’s one person in the building who wasn’t affected by it,” Guzman said. “Even if you don’t know someone, it just makes you think.” One freshman who lives on the first floor of Alumni South, learned of Miller’s death after he left his dorm at noon and saw a large group of police cars outside. “Two kids who knew him on my floor were definitely upset,” said Luke Poirier, 18. “They stayed in their rooms.” An interfaith prayer service was held at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening in Our Lady’s Chapel in the University Church, and students said additional services were expected to be held on campus later at 9 p.m.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Northwest Bronx2 Comments

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