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Bronx Hate Crimes: Hard life, hard time

A warm October light filtered through the leopard print bed sheet tacked above

Photos of Nelson and his girlfriend Jasmine Ferrer on his vanity mirror

Photos of Nelson and his girlfriend Jasmine Ferrer on his vanity mirror. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

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.

1910 Osbourne Place, where the crime occurred. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

1910 Osbourne Place, where the crime occurred. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

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

Nelson Falu while at Taberg Resisdetial Center in upstate's Taberg, NY

Nelson Falu while at Taberg Residential Center in upstate’s Taberg, NY. Photo courtesy of Caroline Ayala

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.

Nelson's certificate from Career Connections. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Nelson’s certificate from Career Connections. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

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.

Nelson's bedroom. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Nelson’s bedroom. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

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.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Hate Crimes, Northwest Bronx, Special Reports4 Comments

Avoiding banks, immigrants save their own way

Denisse Lina Chavez keeps her cash savings in a Heineken bottle that she hides behind the counter of her store in Mott Haven, a practice she has kept for at least 10 years. This unique  savings method helped Chavez pay for her expansion to a neighboring store and then later to open a Mexican restaurant she ran for a while before selling it. While she could have placed that money in a bank and collected interest, she said she doesn’t trust banks and prefers her system instead.
Denisse Lina Chavez behind the counter where she keeps her savings

Denisse Lina Chavez behind the counter where she keeps her savings. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Chavez is one of thousands in the Bronx shying away from the formal financial system. According to a June 2010 report released by the Office of Consumer Affairs Department of Financial Empowerment, the Bronx, at 28.6 percent, is the borough with the highest percentage of unbanked people. While 13.4 percent of New York City residents are without bank accounts, a staggering 56 percent of the roughly 86,000 residents of the neighborhoods Mott Haven and Melrose are unbanked.

But just because many people are not using formal banks does not mean they lack access to savings and credit services. Mexican immigrants bring their cultural practices to the Bronx in the form of informal savings groups called sociedades.   They consist of a group of people who contribute some amount of money on a regular basis. Then,  each member takes the entire pool of money weekly or monthly.

“The point is that you are forcing yourself to save,” said Adrian Franco, director of financial advocacy non-profit Qualitas of Life. “It’s a way to develop an attitude to saving money.”

Chavez is the organizer of a sociedad. In hers, 11 women each contribute $400 weekly, and the pot of $4,400 is given to a different member over the course of 11 weeks. Although the formal group is only 11 women, members without enough money during any given week may ask family and friends to contribute.

“We don’t get rich,” said Chavez. “We just help each other.”

But her group has a much greater chance of bigger returns than most other savings clubs like it. Franco explained that the $400 weekly contribution is extremely high for sociedades, with people normally giving more like $50 a month or $15 or $25 a week. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were as many as 50 or 60 people indirectly participating in Chavez’s sociedad.

Chavez explained that in her sociedad, no interest is charged and the group functions to create opportunities for people to make bigger purchases that may be necessary like clothing and rent, or to cover an emergency. She said that a member and her husband have bought two houses in Mexico with their shares of the money.

Sociedades are not replacements for banks, however, because they don’t provide people with a formal credit history. Experts and financial advocates said they serve to help people, especially women, collect savings and attain some financial independence by creating a social structure through the sociedad. Belonging to a sociedad carries with it certain cultural practices and assumptions.

“There is a social pressure attached,” said Alicia Portada, a financial literacy coordinator at the Union Settlement Federal Credit Union, a non-profit group that works in all five boroughs. “You don’t want to be the one who didn’t give the money. Everybody will wonder why and you’ll get left out in the future.”

It is difficult to track how many sociedades actually exist because members are often undocumented and there is no paper trail. But it’s easy to understand why they are so popular.

In all of Mott Haven and Melrose, there are only eight banks, as compared to the 44 across the river in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  Financial illiteracy also plays a big role in pushing these alternative systems forward, “It might be that they don’t know better.” said Portada. “It takes time to learn the minimum required.”

Lack of English skills also drives people to sociedades, said Adrian Franco, director of Qualitas of Life, another non-profit  group providing financial literacy classes to Hispanics. Immigrants who don’t understand a bank’s policies and complicated procedures prefer these informal savings groups where they can communicate with other members in their native language.

Sociedades and other groups like them have their pitfalls as well. It’s easy for people to run away with the money, which is why these functions work best with friends and family members. “They must be managed well or people can fail to pay and the system collapses,” said Deyanira del Rio, who works at a financial advocacy non-profit organization called the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project. “If it works well, it can be a disciplined form of savings.”

Margarita Gutierrez, a former member of Chavez’s sociedad, used her savings to buy her store on 138th Street. Four of the 11 members of Chavez’s group were recommended by Gutierrez. “It’s good because it gives credit to people who don’t have social security numbers or documents,” said Gutierrez.

Advocacy groups working toward increasing financial literacy in immigrant populations see the value in being part of an informal savings group like sociedades, but are careful to also acknowledge their limitations.

“It’s a tool,” said Catherine Barnett, vice president of Project Enterprise, a non-profit that administers small business loans to immigrants. “It’s filling a gap. It’s not the total gap, but it’s a start.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, Southern Bronx0 Comments

The green roof that keeps on giving

Sedum, a plant commonly used in green roof projects, waiting to be placed outside Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Sedum, a plant commonly used in green roof projects, waiting to be placed outside. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

A small group of alumni and current students from Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical High School in the South Bronx came to school on a Saturday two weeks ago to watch as hundreds of trays of green sedum were loaded onto a low roof of the school.

The event marked the completion of the first city-approved green roof project at a public school in New York City. It is meant to teach students at the vocational school a hands-on approach to building an eco-friendly environment, while also providing cheaper, cleaner environments for Smith.

“It’s really exciting,” said Melany Javier, 17, a 2010 graduate from the architecture program who was valedictorian of her class and member of the Science Club. “This became our baby and it’s finally being born.”

In the blustery wind, for nine hours on Oct. 16, The Green Roof team from Sustainable South Bronx, the local environmental nonprofit that is managing the project, laid 1,400 square feet of sedum, a type of cactus known for absorbing water and reflecting sunlight. Sedum acts as a natural insulator, keeping roofs up to 32 percent cooler in the summer and retaining heat in the winter, and saving up to 30 percent on energy costs, said Smith’s science teacher Nathaniel Wight.

Just hours into the installation, a giddy Wight picked an insect off his shirt he had never seen before, proof that a new eco-system has been created.

The project is not just meant to add a touch of color to the otherwise pebbled roof; it will be the focus of a rich curriculum aimed at helping students apply their skills and knowledge to a sustainable project.

The Smith students’ work can be traced back three years ago with their school’s building trades program. The carpentry classes began building wooden planters for students to grow fruits and vegetables from their native countries.  That project will begin to bear fruit as part of a fresh food initiative in the spring.  Architecture students laid out potential designs of the space, and science students studied the eco-system it would create.

“It’s like a real life engineering problem,” Wight said while directing alumni and current students there to help out. “It’s hard enough to make it something you can use in the classroom, but not so difficult that you need calculus and stuff.”

The City Gardens Club and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation funded the $40,000 project, and Sustainable South Bronx will stay on in a support role for the next two years as everything develops.

The green roof completed. Photo provided by Nathaniel Wight

The green roof completed. Photo provided by Nathaniel Wight

The arrival of the sedum was the first step of many, and the green roof is expected to provide an ongoing platform for learning. Smith students will pitch in to plan and build a rain water harvesting system. Art students will work out initial design issues, math students will calculate the boundaries and figure out how much rainwater will need to be captured, and drafting students will use computer programs to create blueprints.

Before next spring, plumbing students will implement the design and build the rain water harvesting system that will sustain the sedum and vegetables being grown. Students will learn how to compost, and then the compost from school cafeteria leftovers will fertilize the garden. The fresh produce from the harvest will be used to prepare healthier school lunches.

The green roof project serves as a bright spot for a school very much in flux. Smith’s building trade programs are in the process of being phased out by the Department of Education, causing uncertainty.  The city said it plans to replace those programs with another building trade program, but the final decision will not be known until next January.

In the meantime, Wight and other teachers will continue to use the roof to educate the students of Smith about ecological sustainability, conservation, and healthy eating.

Two weeks later, the students were back on the roof planting garlic bulbs.

“Green roofs are the wave of the future,” said Colleen Lott, project foreman from Sustainable South Bronx who lives nearby Smith. “And to have a live roof on the top of a school in the South Bronx is exciting.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Multimedia, Southern Bronx1 Comment

Trying to stop the killing

Danny Barber waiting outside the Melrose Public Houses for more youth to arrive for his anti-violence rally. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Danny Barber waiting outside the Melrose Public Houses for more youth to arrive for his anti-violence rally. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Danny Barber is a big man to be pounding the pavement around the public housing projects in the South Bronx where he grew up.

Weighing in at a self-described 320 pounds, the 41-year-old Bronx community organizer worked the grounds of five public houses one warm September afternoon, drumming up  interest in a youth event.

For the last eight years, the tenant president said he has ignored his high blood pressure and heart condition in order to help make the Melrose houses safer for kids.  On this day, he was rallying residents to attend a youth anti-violence event he helped organize along with seven other local tenant association presidents and a Queens non-profit called Life Camp, Inc.

But lately,  his frustration over the neighborhood’s rising rate of violence has given way to despair. Six shootings erupted around the Jackson houses in one-month over the summer, he noted. And on September 10, the day before the anti-violence rally, a 24-year-old was murdered three blocks from his complex in broad daylight.

“I would like to be able to care about, once again, where I live,” said Barber, as he juggled multiple cell phone lines with the grace of a veteran secretary.  “Just to see all the killing stop.”

The spike in gun violence coincided with a decline in his tenants’ involvement in the community—causing Barber to lose some faith in his neighborhood.  At times, he said, he thinks about walking away, but has decided instead to dedicate his time to organizing events like the youth rally.

Organizers hoped to bring at least 20 kids from each of the eight local housing developments to attend anti-violence and team-building workshops, encouraged by performances by local artists and prize giveaways such as laptops and iPods. Instead of the anticipated 160 youth, by 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, only 15 kids and some of their parents climbed on the bus reserved for three of the complexes. About 50 kids altogether came to participate in the morning’s workshops.

Barber placed blame for the low turnout on the recent violence, and in particular, on the murder just the day before. “The series of events leading up the rally had an effect on the turnout,” he said. “People are scared to leave their building. They’re scared to participate in activities.”

Even so, Barber found a silver lining, claiming the smaller group allowed for a richer experience, with the most faithful children, teenagers and parents in attendance.

“Danny Barber is like a mentor to me. That’s my father,” said Brandon Hernandez, 21, who has lived in the Jackson houses for a decade. “He inspired me to go back to school and do the right thing,” Hernandez’ father bounced in and out of prison when he was growing up. “He likes to see kids better themselves,” he said, “and progress.”

Barber began helping people in need at a young age. At age 7, Danny attended programs at the Salvation Army, where he remembers bringing beef soup and ravioli to the prostitutes of Hunts Point and singing in a choir that toured the United States and Canada. He credited his time at the Salvation Army with defining his giving nature.

After high school, he started losing his way, passing up college scholarships.

Barber spreading the word about the rally to community members. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Barber spreading the word about the rally to community members. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

“I chose not to go because I chose to be a knuckle head and hang out with people on corners and do wrong things in my life,” Barber said. “But I still worked. Through everything I still held a job.”

For the next 18 years, Barber worked at the Salvation Army, beginning as a janitor at the age of 15 and working his way up to assistant to the managing director, where he helped oversee a $150,000 yearly budget.

On November 18, 1998, Barber’s life changed suddenly when he suffered a minor heart attack. His doctor determined that he couldn’t work, and he started collecting about $1,000 a month in disability benefits.

Barber prides himself on using his power to be a pest to the numerous elected officials and governmental workers on behalf of his residents. He educates residents about their rights, and said his biggest hope is that those he helps pay it forward.

His activism in the area has one community organization, Nos Quedamos, chasing him to sit on its board of directors.

“We want Danny on our board, because he has a pulse on the community,” said Sandra Quilico, Nos Quedamos’s chief operating officer. “He knows everything that’s going on and can bring to our attention issues of the community that need focusing on.”

After a year of saying no, Barber finally filed an application. He said he chose to because it will increase his involvement in the area and act as a way to restore some faith in his community.

“I get discouraged, but I’m not going nowhere,” Barber said. “This is where I am meant to be.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Housing, Southern Bronx1 Comment

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

Melrose residents shaken by police shooting

Bullet hole in the rear window of a car parked in front of King Deli, where the police shooting occurred. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Bullet hole in the rear window of a car parked in front of King Deli, where the police shooting occurred. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Melrose residents were shaken by a 4 a.m. shooting in front of King Deli early Saturday morning, when police opened fire on a man who turned out to be an off-duty New York City corrections officer.

“I ain’t going outside today,” said D. Satterwhite, 55, who said she was out walking her dog, when she nearly walked into the line of fire.  “I’m scared.”

Police said plainclothes officers from two Anti-crime units stopped Victor Hernandez, 35, a corrections officer on Riker’s Island, after he was spotted walking along Third Avenue carrying a 9-millimeter gun by his side. Police believe he had just emerged from a nightclub on 161st Street. Hernandez allegedly raised his gun at officers after they asked him to drop his weapon, causing them to open fire, striking him in the left arm, police said.

Hernandez is charged with reckless endangerment and menacing and was taken to Lincoln Hospital where he was listed in stable condition, police said.

It all unfolded in front of King Deli at 3214 Third Avenue, where surveillance cameras captured the whole incident on tape.

Satterwhite said she was heading north on Third Avenue to buy a pack of Newports at the Deli, when her dog Hip-Hop began pulling her in the other direction.

When she looked up, she saw a man raise his gun. At that moment, she ducked into a building entryway, covered her head, and a number of shots rang out.

“If I didn’t pay attention to Hip-Hop, I would have walked into the gun fire,” said Satterwhite, who did not want to give her full name because she feared for her safety.

“Hip-Hop saved my life.”

An employee of the deli, who arrived for work at 6 a.m. said he watched the tapes “over and over.” The tapes showed a man raising his gun at officers and the officers firing back.

“It was the first time I saw real action, It was crazy,” said Willie, 30, who would not give his last name. He added that police set up 36 bullet markers in front of the deli. The actual number of shots fired has not been released.

A stray bullet struck the rear window of a parked Mercedes Benz sports utility vehicle belonging to Bamba Mamadou, 42, a resident of a building just south of the shooting.

Mamadou said he heard the shots, and when he came out in the morning to drive his car to work, the police wouldn’t let him. He took a taxi to his job as a truck driver instead.

Another resident Manuel Gonzales, 60, said he  moved away from his apartment window as soon as heard the shots — and for good reason. He said his cousin was killed five years ago while looking out the window during a shooting.

“When I came back to the window,” Gonzales said, “there was a gang of police crowding around. I was afraid.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime1 Comment

Stickball will never die

Stickball in the South Bronx from Nick Pandolfo on Vimeo.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia, Southern Bronx, Sports0 Comments