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Graffiti, girls, and bragging rights

This article is by Jennifer Brookland and Ryan Tracy.

Ashley Cardero, second from right, and Angelica Nitura, second from left, stood with friends by a memorial on Cromwell Street, not far from where 18 year-old Juandy Paredes was stabbed to death Friday night.

Ashley Cardero, second from left, and Angelica Nitura, second from right, stood with friends by a memorial on Cromwell Ave., not far from where 17 year-old Juandy Paredes was stabbed to death Friday night. (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Juandy Paredes’s crew hangs out at 1164 Cromwell Avenue at night, or at the nearby park just north of Yankee Stadium.  They smoke, drink, and make too much noise. The cops come arrest people all the time for trespassing and being loud. In fact, the kids from this neighborhood say they see the same cop and the same ambulance on the corner by the park every night, waiting for trouble.

Trouble breaks out a lot.

In this stretch of Mt. Eden, thumping a few blocks away from the 4 train, graffiti colors the exteriors, kids with Spanish nicknames and tattoos fight members of rival cliques, and questions are met with “I don’t know anything,” by people who do.

Next to guys in sweats with ear-buds tracing lines from their pockets to their ears, Angelica Nitura looks almost out of place in skinny jeans and a blue cardigan.  She talks about her favorite memory of Paredes, a 17 year-old kid they all called “Frko,” or fresh boy. It was on April Fool’s Day, and someone from another crew had taken a guy’s hat. Paredes stood up for the guy, fighting the kids who had taken the hat until they smashed a bottle over his head. Paredes walked angrily back to Nitura.

“His whole side of his head is bleeding, like busted up, leaking,” said Nitura. “I like that he came back, after washing off all that blood. I like that he stood up for his friend. That was my favorite time.”

Paredes’s crew calls itself the “F— Your Life” group, or “F.Y.L.” for short, but insists it’s not a gang. More like a family where everyone watches the others’ backs. There are maybe 50 or 60 of them, all from the neighborhood. Today, laminated badges that they designed on computers swing from their necks showing pictures of Paredes and “4/16/2010,” the date he was killed a few blocks away at 167th and Jerome Avenue. They cross themselves and kiss their fingers in front of the memorial they’ve built for Paredes, a wooden table with tall plastic flowers under his picture, a Dominican flag, and a collection of candles with pictures of saints on them.

Juandy Paredes, pictured here in a collage made by a family friend.  (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Juandy Paredes, pictured here in a collage made by a family friend. (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Their expressions are hard. But only four days after Paredes was murdered, tears come suddenly.

Ashley Cordero is known by her friends as “Shine.” She has her brother’s name tattooed on her right hand, and swirls of color filling the gap between her shirt and her waistband on her left side. She breaks down thinking about the first time she met Paredes. It was July 14th, and she was eating Chinese food in the park. Paredes hung out there a lot because he loved inline skating, trying out tricks on rollerblades that were fitted with a panel on the bottom for sliding along curbs and rails. He told her she was beautiful and he was going to make her his. She offered to share her Chinese food.

Now Cordero is planning the tattoo she’ll get with Paredes’s name and a pair of wings on her back. She and Nitura both feel guilty that he was killed, because they encouraged him to leave the building where they were chilling and playing with knives. It was getting too loud, the cops were bound to come. So Paredes left with two other teen boys and according to Cordero, went to the convenience store on the corner.

Paredes was stabbed five times. Cordero said he flagged down a police van nearby and banged on its windows for help.  “I’m poked, I’m poked,” he told the cops.

Then he collapsed. Paramedics attended to him there on the street, but he died before he arrived at Lincoln Hospital.

The man charged with murdering him lives a nine-minute walk from where the mouthpiece used on Paredes lay full of blood in the street, up Jerome Avenue under the train tracks and past tables selling discount perfume and peeled oranges.

At his arraignment at the Bronx Supreme Criminal Court on Tuesday afternoon, Hector Bautista looked much too young to be charged with second-degree murder. The pony-tailed 18 year-old stood silently when the judge denied his request for bail.

Juandy Paredes' friends scrawled graffiti on the wall across from his family's home  They had nicknamed Paredes "Frko," or fresh boy.  (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Juandy Paredes' friends scrawled graffiti on the wall across from his family's home. They had nicknamed him "Frko," or fresh boy. (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Outside the courtroom, friends took turns defending Bautista, a basketball player who they said was a jokester with a good heart who had stopped attending high school. They insisted he was innocent of the stabbing.  But they admitted he was part of the conflicts that, fueled by graffiti, girls, and bragging rights, permeate the world of teenagers like him and Paredes.

“They lived in different places. That’s it,” said a girl who identified herself as Bautista’s girlfriend but would not give her name.

In the dimly-lit apartment on Irving Avenue where Paredes lived, cousins, uncles, aunts, and friends wore black, about to attend his funeral. They had heard about Bautista’s arrest, but wondered if police would be able to catch the other two teens police told the family were involved in the fight.

The family was calm and poised on Tuesday.  Two unsmiling men went about filling a cooler with ice and bottles of water for visitors. Until, contagious as a yawn, a long, slow wail broke out from one of the dark-clad women. She lowered her head and balled her hands into fists. The high-pitched sounds of her crying spread to other family members and escaped into the bright sunlight outside, where Paredes’s friends had spray-painted white graffiti over the entire brick surface of the opposing wall.

“If you stay for 20 minutes you can read it all. Then you’ll understand,” said Dualis, Paredes’s 10 year-old half-sister.

Paredes’s room was covered in graffiti, too, blue and black scrawls painted by him or his friends swarm across the walls. “F.Y.L” appeared in several places, and on the ceiling, emblazoned with a heart was the name Brenda. The room was a disaster. A bare strip of mattress poked out from under piles of clothing that spilled onto the floor and made walking impossible. Boxes of his favorite designer shoes were stacked head-high. A heads-up penny lay near the doorway.

“He would clean it every day but that same day he’d make the same mess,” said Dualis.

Graffiti and tags from his local crew cover the walls in Juandy Paredes' bedroom.  Paredes, 18, was stabbed to death on Friday, April 16.

Graffiti referring to Juandy Paredes' crew cover the walls in his bedroom. Paredes, 17, was stabbed to death on Friday, April 16. An 18 year-old member of a rival crew has been arrested but is denying the charges. (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Paredes used to play “tickle monster” with her on the bed, where they would tickle each other’s feet. They played board games like Monopoly and “Guess Who?” even though Paredes got so mad when she beat him that he swore he wouldn’t play again. Dualis said she usually won.

A computer with a large silver-framed screen sat on a small desk in the corner, where light from the window illuminated the keyboard. Coralys Nunez, who was like an aunt to Paredes, and says he was creative, smart with computers and could “unblock” any website. He thought about being a game designer, if not a fashion designer. He got all A’s in school.

But Paredes had dropped out of school. He just got tired of going, says Dualis. Even Cordero, who says she and Paredes were always together for the past nine months, didn’t know if Paredes had any goals. They just didn’t talk about that, she says.

One of Paredes’s friends created a Facebook page in his memory. Brendalee Torres captioned a picture of her and Paredes kissing with expressions of grief and love, and also, a threat.

“Whoever did this to you gonna get his, trust me.”

Cordero says none of the crew has been killed before, despite all the neighborhood rivalries. But it’s almost as if she thinks Paredes won’t be the last friend for whom she will be forced to light candles.

“The one person you don’t want to lose,” she said,” is the first one to go.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Southern Bronx5 Comments

VIDEO–Yankee Fans Bring in the Season

Posted in Multimedia, Southern Bronx, Sports3 Comments

For Russians in the Bronx, Distance Makes the Heart Grow Less Anxious, More Analytical

A man places a candle in memory of the subway blasts victims outside the Lubyanka Subway station, which was earlier hit by an explosion, in Moscow, Monday, March 29, 2010.  Two explosions blasted Moscow's subway system Monday morning as it was jam-packed with rush-hour passengers, killing at least 37 people, emergency officials and news agencies said. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)

A man places a candle in memory of the subway blasts victims outside the Lubyanka Subway station, which was earlier hit by an explosion, in Moscow, Monday, March 29, 2010. Two explosions blasted Moscow's subway system Monday morning as it was jam-packed with rush-hour passengers, killing at least 37 people, emergency officials and news agencies said. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)

By Sarah Butrymowicz and Jennifer Brookland

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, less than 48 hours after suicide bombers attacked a Moscow subway, it was business as usual at Premiere Food, a Russian grocery  in Pelham Parkway. Customers took their time browsing the pickles and fresh baked bread, sometimes stopping to read the signs in Russian for bass lessons or apartments for rent, or to pick up a newspaper.

Although many of them have lived in this country for years, they were still following the news of the attack. But with miles and sometimes years between them and their homeland, they also viewed the situation with perspective.

Although no group has claimed responsibility for the Monday attack that killed 39 and injured more than 80, Russian authorities suspect Muslim extremists from the Caucusus region, an area that includes Chechnya. Chechen rebels carried out terrorist attacks against Russian civilians as recently as November 2009, bombing a passenger train traveling between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Tensions between Muslim Chechen separatists and Russian nationalists go back decades, if not centuries, and both sides have committed atrocities.

“Both of them are right, both of them are guilty,” said Vladimir, a Russian customer who did not want his last name printed.

While critical of the government, people were compassionate for those who were killed or injured. “It’s awful for people,” said Alexandra Ablavsky, who left Russia in 1989. It’s “like I’m here but my heart is there.”

But no one viewed the Russian government as a victim; many customers acknowledged that it had long fueled the conflict. Shop owner Alex Porokhin wondered if Russian military officials even had a reason to prolong the clashes with Chechnya, lining their pockets with money meant to finance the campaign.

Svetlana Prokhorov, who has lived in the United States for 15 years, thought Russia should take a political lesson from the most recent attacks about its relationships with the Muslim world and America. “The government has to understand who is their friend,” she said. “They smile to America but give a hand to Iran.” She couldn’t understand why Russia would continue to support a Muslim country when Muslims were suspected of continued attacks. Prokhorov also worried people would retaliate unfairly against innocent Muslims in Russia.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin used harsh rhetoric Tuesday to decry the terrorists, promising that the government will “dredge them from the bottom of the sewers” and destroy them.

Russians in the Bronx believed him.

“Forget about justice in Russia,” Porokhin said. “If the government promises to find someone, they will find someone.”

Even if Putin tracks down the terrorists responsible for Monday’s attacks, Ablavsky was doubtful that it would resolve anything. It’s a “big problem,” she said, comparing the situation to the protracted conflict between Israel and Palestine. “It will be for a long, long time.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Politics0 Comments

VIDEO – After Two Year Effort, Street Renamed for Fallen Soldier

Produced and reported by Michael Ratliff, Eno Alfred and Jennifer Brookland.

In Parkchester, a street is dedicated to a soldier killed in Iraq in 2007.

Posted in East Bronx, Multimedia1 Comment

A Mother Keeps the Memory of Her Soldier Son Alive

Reported and written by Jennifer Brookland, Eno Alfred and Michael Ratliff

The florist on the corner of Hillside Avenue knows that on Sunday mornings he will see Emily Toro. She will buy three dozen roses, for which she will not have to ask. She will place the roses in her car and drive to the Long Island National Cemetery, make her way to Section R Site 2827-O and, depending on the time of year, place either a blanket or a folding chair beside her son Isaac’s grave. And then she will start to talk to him.

They talk about the weather. Emily gives Isaac updates on Cheyenne and Chance, the two nieces who kiss his picture every night before they go to sleep. She tells him how his grandmother’s health is, and how she bought him a cake to celebrate his birthday. She begs him to visit her in her dreams so she can see him again. She tells him that two years of calls and letters have paid off, that she has finally convinced the city to name a street in his name. PV2 Isaac T. Cortes Street will be unveiled in Parkchester on Saturday, right next to the fountain he grew up looking at from his window.

She lays a dozen of the roses on his grave, and places a single rose on the grave of the other soldiers she visits. There are 27 of them, young men who were killed in the same war her son was, whose mothers come on other days. She leaves trinkets on their graves, too. A Yankees hat. A greeting card. A little red heart. She knows the graveyard workers will take it all away and throw it out. So before she leaves, she goes around the cemetery and collects it all again, squirreling it away until they’ve gone.

Emily Toro holds a sign commemorating her son, Isaac Cortes, who was killed in Iraq in November, 2007.

Emily Toro holds a sign commemorating her son, Isaac Cortes, who was killed in Iraq in November, 2007. Photo by Michael Ratliff

Emily will drive back to her apartment in Queens where she lives by herself, surrounded by the objects of her son’s service. She’s careful not to bang the door open into the tile mosaic on the wall that the Bronx borough president gave her to commemorate her son’s sacrifice. She steps past Isaac’s two black military issue trunks, full of his combat uniforms and undershirts. Sometimes when she needs to be close to him, Emily takes out his desert camouflage boonie hat and breathes in Isaac’s scent.

At the archway that leads into her living room, she lingers over the five-shelf bookcase full of the things she’s collected after her son’s death. His Bible and a pack of his Marlboro Reds sit next to a few bullet casings from an M-16 assault rife, the kind of weapon Isaac was so proud to show his dad and brother before he left. A G.I. Joe figurine stands valiantly in 10th Mountain Division regalia on the fourth shelf. He comes equipped with a rifle, a grenade launcher, a helmet and a pair of skis.

On the far wall of the living room hang the medals that Isaac earned in his 10 months of military service, including his bronze star and purple heart, the last two he was awarded. They hang behind glass next to the brass casings that were shot in a three-volley salute at his funeral.

Pulling her plush armchair up to the small makeshift desk she calls her office, Emily checks her Facebook page for updates, and navigates to the tribute page she has made in Isaac’s honor. She scrolls through the pictures she’s uploaded with a small smile, remembering. Isaac playing with Cheyenne and Chance, whom he called his little hippo because she was such a chubby baby. Isaac giving his mom a kiss on the cheek, her brown eyes brimming with tears, at his 2007 swearing-in ceremony. And one of her favorites, Isaac and Chris as kids, their foreheads pressed together, their hands on each other’s shoulders caught between an attack and an embrace, both of them grinning.

After almost two and a half years, Emily can look at pictures of her son without crying. But it’s hard to stay dry-eyed when she watches a slide show of Isaac that her friend helped put together. Maybe it’s the music he picked out, the fitting Jo Dee Messina song.

“I guess heaven was needing a hero. Somebody just like you. Brave enough to stand up for what you believe, and follow it through.”

Emily lowers her head and wipes her eyes, but she watches the slideshow to the end.

In a way, Emily knew she’d end up here.

A week before Isaac deployed with his infantry unit to Iraq Emily had a dream. She saw the humvee that Isaac was in explode. Then, two military officers were knocking at her door, holding a white sheet of paper. One began to read, “I’m sorry to inform you…”

She woke up crying and called Isaac even though it was four in the morning. She told him to be careful. He brushed the vision off, told her not to worry, and said nothing would happen to him.

Emily never thought her oldest son would end up in the military. He was a stubborn kid from the Bronx, and didn’t like to follow rules. When Isaac was about five years old, they went to Orchard Beach. Emily told Isaac and his younger brother Chris to stay under the blue and yellow sun hut so she could see them, but within five minutes Isaac had vanished. Emily panicked, and asked everyone around if they had seen a chunky little kid. Soon, she saw a policeman coming down to the beach with Isaac in tow, his fat belly hanging out over his green Speedo. Isaac had told the officer that his mother was lost and was waiting for them to find her under a blue and yellow hut.

Emily was used to dealing with his mischief. When she put hot water on the windowsills to kill the ants that invaded their Parkchester apartment, Isaac would sneakily scoop the bugs into a cup and hide them under a piece of linoleum in the floor so they’d be safe. He loved all the animals that found their way to the apartment- the parakeets, the turtles, the ferrets, the parrots, and the 18 or 19 baby hamsters he would put into toy cars and zoom around on the floor until a fat one got stuck, and required a makeshift jaws of life to extract it.

But he always knew how to cheer Emily up. It was something small, a wiggling of his fingers up by his chubby cheeks, a scrunching up of his face and a goofy phrase that no one could remember where it had come from. “Fiddling you say!” It made her smile every time, and even when he was grown, Emily would plead with him to say it for her. But he wouldn’t.

Isaac wasn’t a child anymore. More and more, he wanted to be a father. When he started dating Lamonica Williams he was only 18. But he knew he wanted to help raise her three month-old daughter, Amaria. Isaac became a dad to her. He watched her grow, took her to the aquarium and the zoo and even to get her hair done. Amaria called Emily “Nana” when she visited, and called Isaac “Daddy.” He cared for her as he held a series of odd jobs; working as a ride operator at Playland Amusement Park in Rye, and as a security guard at Yankee Stadium. But Isaac wanted a job that Amaria would grow up to respect, a job he could feel proud of. He wanted to be a New York City police officer. But without any college credits, he’d have to find another way onto the force.

Emily was upset when Isaac told her he was joining the military. She asked him why, why now? He said there was no better time. It was early 2007. Emily and Isaac both knew there was a good chance he’d get shipped out to Iraq as part of the surge of troops sent to combat sectarian violence.

“Just be proud of me, Mom,” Isaac said. She was.

She watched in admiration as Isaac dedicated himself to losing 80 pounds so the Army would take him. Isaac walked anywhere he had to go, even if it took him hours to get there. He went from a size 40 pants to a 32, and one day as Emily waited for him in front of a club, a handsome young man stepped in front of her. She couldn’t believe it when she realized it was her own son.

Emily was the last mother standing by the bus that would take Isaac to Fort Hamilton for basic training. He begged her to leave. She was embarrassing him in front of the other recruits. They took one last picture together, the one of Isaac kissing Emily on the cheek as tears filled her eyes, and Isaac whispered in her ear that he had signed up for the infantry. That’s when she knew in her heart that her “gentle giant” wasn’t just getting onto a bus. He was going to be sent to Iraq. It was the last picture they ever took together.

Emily wrote to Isaac every day while he was in training. She covered the post cards she mailed with cartoon character stickers even though she knew his drill sergeant forced him to do extra pushups every time he received one. They sent him on 12 and a half-mile marches with a heavy rucksack until he bled through his boots. After one march, the platoon medic Andy Brooks said the front half of Isaac’s foot was practically ripped off. Isaac and another soldier, Specialist Benjamin Garrison, tried to take a shortcut but were caught and forced to do the whole march again. Isaac wrote to Emily three times a day, homesick. He asked her to send him something from home, something that belonged to his “little hippo,” Chance. Emily sent him Chance’s bib. He kept it in a Ziploc bag in his combat pants pocket. When training got really hard and he needed a reminder of home and the people who loved him, he would take out the bib and breath it in.

At his graduation ceremony at Ft. Benning, Georgia, Emily saw a different man. He stood in formation, straight and stoic in his dress uniform, his eyes fixed ahead. At first he didn’t notice Emily standing five feet in front of his face. It wasn’t until she coughed that his concentration broke. Isaac glanced over and knew she was there. After the ceremony, he showed her the ribbons he earned in training, and proudly explained how to wear the rank and insignia. He was so worried about creasing his uniform that he wouldn’t sit down. Isaac told his mom he had changed his mind about becoming a cop. He said the military was his calling.

Isaac came home to say goodbye before he went to Iraq. He said goodbye to his father, to his brother Chris, his daughter Amaria and his friends. Emily waited and waited, but Isaac never showed. Finally, she got a call from her son saying he wasn’t coming to say goodbye. She was hurt and upset, and couldn’t understand why Isaac had done that to her. It was Chris who told her later that Isaac just couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye to his mother. This time there would be no sticker-covered post cards and letters. Emily could not bring a pen to paper knowing her son was in a danger zone. She needed to hear his voice to know he was okay.

He called every weekend. Emily waited by the phone and wouldn’t leave the house until he had called. It didn’t matter what time it was. Emily asked Isaac what it was like over there, but he wouldn’t tell her. He didn’t want her to know what he was seeing.

“You showed me how to see with my heart,” he said, “not with my eyes.”

Their squadron was doing a lot of combat patrols. They brought military leaders to meetings with Iraqi officials and escorted the teams who destroyed weapons caches. They had been on three or four raids even though most of the guys had never deployed before. They were all nervous and scared but they didn’t talk about their feelings. Instead, they joked around and made fun of each other, talked about sex and the zombie apocalypse, harassed Isaac for drinking Corona beer and making “fifteen-point turns” in his armored humvee. Specialist Benjamin Garrison put mousetraps in their beds.

On Thanksgiving, Emily waited all day for the call she knew was coming, and when Isaac finally called around 8:00 p.m., he said he was going to tell her something and she could never ask him to do it again. It was something she’d longed to hear for years, something that always made her feel better.

“Fiddling you say!” Isaac said for her, one last time.

The next day, Isaac called back unexpectedly. He sounded tired. Emily knew there was something wrong when Isaac said over and over again that he loved her, and told her to take care of herself. He asked her to look after Cheyenne and Chance, to make sure his dad took his medication, to tell his daughter Amaria and his brother Chris that he loved them. Emily could hear the concern in her son’s voice. It sounded like a goodbye call.

In her heart, she knew it was.

Isaac’s troop hit improvised explosive devices often, but usually the blasts just spider webbed the glass and rattled their truck. On November 27th, Isaac was driving the third of four trucks in a convoy near Amerli, Iraq, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, when an IED exploded underneath them.

It was the first mission that medic Andy Brooks hadn’t gone out on. He was supposed to go on leave, and Private Robert Pinkham took over that day as the convoy medic. But before Andy left, he heard a report over the radio that one of their trucks had been destroyed.

“Two litter, two expected,” he heard.

Two wounded, two dead. Isaac and Benjamin had been killed instantly.

Finally, one of the soldiers who survived the attack made it back to camp. Another stunned sergeant ran up to Andy with blood on his pants. They hurried back to the platoon tent where everyone was in shock.

”Some guys were crying, some just staring off into space, everyone smoking cigarettes. Private Pinkham came up to me and said I’m sorry man, I couldn’t save them,” Andy said.

A few days later when she was at home, Emily heard the doorbell buzz. She opened the door and saw Chris coming up the stairs. A few steps bellow she saw the hunter green of an Army dress uniform. It was a military officer, just like in her dream, holding a white piece of paper. The casualty notification officer began to speak: “I regret to inform you…”

Emily barely remembers the day she buried her son. Isaac had told Chris before he left that if anything happened to him, he didn’t want their mom to see. But when everyone but the family had left and Emily opened the casket, it looked like Isaac was just sleeping. All she saw was a little bruise under his eye.

Back in her apartment, Emily waited for the phone call from Isaac that she knew would never come. She felt like he was giving her the silent treatment. Isaac knew she hated the silent treatment. She needed to hear his words one more time. And then she realized, she already had them. Isaac had sent her a card a few weeks ago that she hadn’t understood.

“Why are you sad?” it read. “You have me.”

Now Emily felt that Isaac had meant for her to read the card after his death. Another greeting card addressed to her came back with Isaac’s things, along with the care package she’d sent full of Yankees memorabilia and lemon pies. The pies had turned rotten and green. On the cover of the card was a rainbow arching up to the heavens over a rolling green mountainscape. It read, “I can C U already, I love you brighter than any color of the rainbow. – Ur soldier son. P.S. I am always here.”

Emily vowed she’d make it so. She started researching the explosion, trying to find out every detail about that day in Iraq. Isaac’s obituary appeared in a Puerto Rican newspaper and showed the mangled remains of a humvee, the driver’s side crushed and bent. She made call after call to the military, trying to find out if that was really the truck her son was driving when he was killed. Finally an answer. It wasn’t. She started contacting people he might have known in Iraq, anyone that could give her information. She spent 12 to 15 hours online a day. She emailed over 100 soldiers from his regiment. She made the tribute page on Facebook, and one on,, and another page that plays the song “Unforgettable” as the flag of New York and Puerto Rico ripple over Isaac’s serious face. Even with all the pictures of her son online, it took her a year to be able to hang anything of his on her walls.

Chris couldn’t bring himself to touch anything in Isaac’s Bronx bedroom. He won’t even clean it. Now everything in it looks grey, covered with two years of dust. He refused to throw anything out either, even a little button of Isaac’s that he keeps in a box. An old battered table that Isaac gave him became the centerpiece of a prized workbench in his new home in the Poconos. He decorated his basement ‘man cave’ with every piece of memorabilia he could find, from Isaac’s boots to military buttons.

Isaac had told Chris that he wanted to be cremated, his ashes spread at a campsite on the Delaware River they used to go to as kids. The first time Isaac went camping he was just six months old, a fat-cheeked baby in a stroller beaming up at his mom and dad. The campsite was right on the water, by rushing rapids, where the boys used to cut down wood and build fires, go swimming and roughhouse. They’d practically grown up there. But Emily couldn’t bear to have Isaac scattered to the wind, out of reach. She needed her son nearby, even if it was just a slab in the ground. She needed to be able to talk to him.

After the street has been renamed, and the friends and family have left, Emily will return to the florist on Hillside Avenue. She’ll buy three dozen roses, and she’ll drive to the cemetery to talk to Isaac. She’ll tell him about the ceremony, which of the guys from his squadron showed up in uniform, the buttons she handed out, the problems getting the city to provide a public address system. She’ll tell him about the donated pizza she served at the party she threw him afterward. And then she’ll start dreaming about the next thing she can do for him. She wants to do something else, something even bigger to make sure he’s remembered. She promises him she’ll come back next Sunday.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, East Bronx2 Comments

Judge Overturns Verdict in Firefighter Death Case

A Bronx Supreme Court Judge this morning overturned the conviction of a landlord found guilty in the deaths of two firefighters.

Cesar Rios was found guilty of criminal negligence after Lt. Curtis Meyran and Firefighter John Bellew were killed trying to battle flames in his Tremont apartment building. But in a rare move this morning, Judge Margaret Clancy of Bronx Supreme Court set aside that 2009 verdict, deciding there was not enough evidence to show that Rios was aware of the dangerous conditions that led to the firefighters’ deaths.

Six firefighters responded to the January 2005 fire that investigators said started when overloaded and spliced wires sparked, igniting bedding material. The men became trapped inside the apartment because of an illegal partition that blocked access to the fire escape and made thermal imaging of the fire less accurate. The partition also trapped the heat until it reached explosive levels, sending a fireball coursing through the narrow hallway and cutting off any escape route.

The firefighters were forced to jump out of the window onto pavement five stories below. Meyran and Bellew were killed on impact.

Rafael Castillo, the tenant who built the illegal partitions, was found innocent of negligent homicide in 2009. But a separate jury found Rios guilty.

Judge Clancy cited “complex issues” in the court’s decision to revisit the case, including the revelation that a juror contacted one of the firefighter witnesses over Facebook before returning a verdict. Clancy emphasized it was not this breach of conduct, but the lack of sufficient evidence that led her to overturn the guilty verdict. She said the prosecution never proved that Rios had actual knowledge that Castillo had built the partition that led to the deaths.


Jeannette Myran, seen five years ago with her children at the funeral of her firefighter husband, criticized Tuesday's decision in Bronx Supreme Court. (Photo: Associated Press Archive)

Family members, including the widows of the two firefighters killed in the blaze, watched bleary-eyed from the benches of the courtroom, trying to interpret the decision. “She let him go,” cried Jeanette Meyran, her brash voice tinged with bitterness at what she called a ridiculous liberal decision after six months of waiting.

“I hope she has a big pillow to put her head on tonight,” Meyran said. “The scar’s just been opened again and again.”

Surviving firefighter Jeffrey Cool was furious that Clancy could single-handedly overturn a verdict reached by 12 people. It is uncommon for a judge to set aside a conviction, although no one keeps statistics on how often it happens. “She’s supplanting a jury,” said defense attorney Delmas Costin. “This is huge.”

Columbia Law Professor David Richman said, “It’s certainly unusual.” But a judge may review the evidence and decide no reasonable jury would have convicted.

The Bronx District Attorney’s Office has yet to decide whether it will appeal.

“There’s no consideration for the families,” said Jeanette Meyran. “It’s going to be 10 years before this is all over.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, East Bronx0 Comments