Tag Archive | "teen violence"

Teen sentenced to five months in jail for killing a Bronx father with a single punch

The family of a Bronx hospital worker who died after a teenager sucker-punched him was dismayed Wednesday when the judge sentenced the assailant to five months in prison on a misdemeanor charge.

Although the family wished to press for a manslaughter conviction, current law does not allow for criminal charges when death is caused by a single punch. Elijah Burt, 17, pled guilty last June to assault and harassment misdemeanor charges.

The incident occurred on June 21, 2014 at the corner of Thieriot Avenue and Lafayette Avenue in the Soundview section of the Bronx when Ildefonso Romero Jr., 59, tried to break up a fight among teenagers outside his home. The father of five fell to the ground and remained unresponsive after Burt punched him with a closed fist directly in the face. Romero Jr. was pronounced dead two days later.

The victim’s daughter, Jennifer Perez, a 30-year old accountant, read a tribute to her father at the sentencing on October 1 at the Bronx Supreme Court.  Perez told the judge and both families present that  her father, who worked as an institutional aide at Lincoln Hospital for many years, was a “hardworking man that did everything to provide for his family.” She spoke of the pain her family has endured over his loss. “The simple opportunity to say, ‘I love you’ is forever gone,” she said.

Addressing Burt directly, she asked, “How much compassion did you have when you decided to put your hands on my father?” Her voice rose as she said, “You may say it wasn’t your intention to end my father’s life, but the intent was there as soon as you chose to viciously hit him.”

The defense attorney argued that Burt had no criminal record and his action was “an aberration.” The attorney’s office said it will continue to work with Burt to “ensure the situation never reoccurs.”

The defense attorney and Burt’s family members who sat behind the teen during the sentencing, declined to comment.

Although Judge William McGuire acknowledged that the charge would not satisfy the family, he sentenced Burt to jail for three weeks shorter than the six-month maximum for his misdemeanor conviction. McGuire claimed the three weeks would place a higher burden on the jail than it would benefit Burt.

The Romero family has not yet decided if it would press for an appeal, but members are working with Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda and Senator Jeffrey Klein to push for harsher punishments in the future for similar one-punch deaths. Sepulveda arrived immediately after the hearing and said that he and Klein would “see how we can allow a bill to increase penalties,” to elevate the charge from misdemeanor to “negligent homicide.”

Community Board Nine chairman William Rivera commiserated with the family and expressed concern at the weak penalties for such serious crimes. He believes “there is an underlying problem” in his community that has enabled high crime rates among teenagers. The youth “get locked up, arrested, and then released.”

The family of victim Ildefonso Romero Jr. outside the Bronx Hall of Justice

The family of victim Ildefonso Romero Jr. outside the Bronx Hall of Justice (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM / The Bronx Ink)

Posted in Crime, Featured, Southern BronxComments (2)

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 BronxComments (1)

Two Strangers and a Shot in the Dark

By Leslie Minora

Religious leaders posted flyers for a vigil along 224th Street after Mitchell's murder. Photo by Leslie Minora

Religious leaders posted flyers for a vigil along 224th Street after Mitchell's murder. Photo by Leslie Minora

She was a 92-year-old widow who enjoyed hosting luncheons for her friends on her newly remodeled back porch and traveling to Atlantic City every few months to play the slot machines. He is an 18-year-old with a tragic history, raised by his grandparents in a well-kept apartment building, a ten-minute walk from her home in Williamsbridge.

They didn’t know each other, but the lives of these two strangers intersected in the most devastating way in the early evening of Oct. 20, 2009.

Sadie Mitchell was watching television and getting ready to prepare dinner. On the streets outside her home on 224th Street in the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, a fight among young people escalated. A teen pulled the trigger, and a bullet pierced Mitchell’s first-floor living room window, taking her life in its path. Two days later, police arrested Jamal Blair, charging him with second-degree murder and weapon possession.

But is he the murderer or a second victim? Or both?

Shortly after the shot on 224th Street, the phone rang in Mitchell’s neighbors’ home. Mitchell told John Fields and his wife, who live across the street, that she was wounded, and they came running. They found her on the living room floor. At about the same time, Blair threw the gun to the crowd and walked off to his friend’s house, according to his confession to police. Forty-eight hours later, he was behind bars.

Blair, an 18-year-old high school freshman, has pleaded “not guilty” to the charges. His life is on pause in Rikers Island, where he is being held without bail. “I’m sure it’s difficult for him,” Angelo MacDonald, Blair’s lawyer said. “I’m sure he’s obviously very scared and concerned.”

Even before his  imprisonment, Blair had it tough. When he was two years old, his father fatally shot his mother right in front of him. His father fled and was never convicted or even found, according to MacDonald. Blair’s grandparents, who both work, have raised him since then.

The family lives in a comfortable well-maintained apartment building on 233rd Street, nine blocks from Mitchell’s house. “For him to be in this situation is very troubling and sad for them,” MacDonald said. “They’re concerned about him.” Blair’s family is paying his legal bills, and MacDonald has met with Blair’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

If Blair were convicted, the maximum sentence would leave him in prison for 25 to life. It seems Blair’s entire family are doing their best to keep that from happening.

While Blair’s story may be a glimpse of the Bronx’s troubled future, Mitchell’s life is the picture of a more stable past. She was a housewife who was very active in Community Board 12 and in her church, Our Lady of Grace, where she was a parishioner for over 40 years.

“I can’t even eat; it hurts,” said Gloria Lord two days after the murder. She lives across the street from Mitchell, whom she called “the mother of the block.”

The day before the stray bullet ended Mitchell’s life, she and her daughter discussed a trip they were planning to Atlantic City. Mitchell wanted to make sure she had evening clothes to take with her, and talked about shopping for a new outfit. “She loved clothes, she loved shoes…she always dressed…the nails were always done,” said Mitchell’s daughter, Shahron Williams van Rooij, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia.

Mitchell, who read both the Daily News and The New York Times daily, had just come home from an exercise class at a local senior center on the day she was murdered. Her daughter said she was waiting for her favorite game show, Jeopardy, to air on television, and was about to make dinner when the bullet ended her evening plans, ended her Atlantic City vacation plans, and ended her life.

“I never felt the fear of being shot or stabbed,” van Rooij said of her childhood in Williamsbridge. “The Bronx was a very pleasant place at the time.” She said the only gang she knew was in the film West Side Story.

On recent visits to her mother, van Rooij said she noticed that the neighborhood had declined significantly, with more drug dealers, more teens in the streets during school hours, and a lot of young people fighting. Yet, her mother never felt unsafe. “That’s the irony of it,” she said.

Many Williamsbridge residents believe that the stray bullet is a byproduct of stray lives: teenagers who grew up with troubled childhoods in broken families or working families with little supervision or discipline.

“I don’t feel any safer,” said Mitchell’s neighbor, John Fields, on the day Blair was arrested. He is nervous that teens are still a threat to the neighborhood.

An Epidemic of Crime and Fear

Teen crime, especially robbery, has been on the rise, according to a 47th Precinct officer, who would not identify himself by name. He said the precinct’s school unit has increased to 10 officers, doubling since 2007. “I think it’s definitely the way parents are raising their children today,” he said. “Without a doubt.” He has been in the precinct, which covers the northeast Bronx, for 14 years. “The crime up here in general has been going up,” he said.

Relationships between police and Bronx teens are tense as officers try to maintain order in the 47th Precinct. On Thursday, Nov. 19, police walked a teenage boy out of A2Z Convenient Store on White Plains Road in handcuffs as they told a group of about 15 teenagers to leave the area. As police wrote down the teen’s information at the cop car, a girl approached one of the cops to make sure they knew that the boy did, in fact, pay for his juice. The officers were not amused by the situation, but were quite casual, as this was a nuance they had faced so many times before. “They’re really out of control,” one officer said. He blamed poor parenting and said that Williamsbridge has a high concentration of gangs, many involving teens. Another stepped in after hearing the first officers concerns, “They’re not brought up,” he said. “They’re brought down.”

Many Williamsbridge residents remember a time when they did not live in fear. Jacqueline Sams, 74, who grew up in Williamsbridge, remembers a different neighborhood. “In the 1940s, all parents weren’t working, she said.” She never came home to an empty house, but said now so many children are born into either single-parent homes or households with two working parents that no one is ever home. Sams no longer leaves her house after dark. “We actually changed our lifestyle gradually to feel safer.”

Almost all area high school students recognize that many of their classmates are in gangs, and some estimate that up to a third of their classmates may be involved.

Teens have their own ideas about why some of their classmates are drawn to gangs. “They’re easily vulnerable, so they do things that they shouldn’t,” said Matthew Anderson, a senior at the Evander Childs High School Campus on Gun Hill Road. He focuses his energy on acting, playing Malcolm in the school’s performance of Macbeth, and he credits his mother with keeping him on the right path. “My mom is still strict,” he said.

“I worry about getting robbed,” said O’Dell Davis, a freshman at the Evander Childs Campus. He hangs out casually with some teens who are in gangs, but keeps his distance because he does not want to become involved. “They don’t all carry guns,” he said. “Most of them fight.” But he added that around Williamsbridge, “you can get a gun faster than you can get a job.”

Teens have handshakes and hand signals that are specific to their gangs, and they make signs to each other during class, said Davis’s friend, D’shawn Stevens, also a freshman at the Evander Childs Campus. “They’re nice in school, but after school they’re a whole different person,” said Stevens, who has recently been staying inside more often, especially at night.

Other Bullets, Other Victims

An escalation of violence in the last few months justifies the uneasiness. Mitchell’s murder fits an alarming pattern of teen violence, stray bullets, and unintended victims.

In September, a stray bullet killed 25-year-old Aisha Santiago in front of her son as she was about to help her best friend do laundry in Mott Haven. A 25-year-old was charged with second-degree murder and a 16-year-old with attempted murder. In November, a stray bullet struck 14-year-old Vada Vasquez on her way home from school in Morrisania. After brain surgery and two weeks of fighting for her life at Lincoln Hospital, Vasquez has moved on to rehabilitation and doctors expect a full recovery, according to the Daily News.

On Nov. 23, at the National Day of Outrage vigil at the Bronx County Court, Aisha Santiago’s mother wept openly as she shared her pain. “I have problems sleeping because I still see her body lying there,” Yvette Montanez said. “I struggle to get up in the morning to go to work.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. held the National Day of Outrage, to stress the need for community action. “We will be proactive from now on, we will not be reactive,” he said.

Diaz pointed out one problem in particular that has led to teen crime. “Many of these young men don’t have male role models,” he said. “The Bronx has the highest number of single mothers. Fathers need to step it up.”

At the vigil, Heriberto Rodriguez, 20, who graduated from Banana Kelly High School in the South Bronx, said Bronx communities are partially responsible for teen violence. “There’s not a lot of programs for the youth,” he said. He added that the Bronx needs more community centers, an issue that has been addressed by many local activists lobbying for a center in the Northeast Bronx. Rodriguez now interns at Banana Kelly and helps organize a group of teens against violence called United Playaz, several of whom attended National Day of Outrage, where they held a sign that read, “It takes the hood to save the hood.”

George Stewart, 42, who grew up in the Northeast Bronx and whose family has been active in the community, blames his generation for problems with teens even though he has no children of his own. “My generation specifically, we’ve dropped the ball,” said Stewart, who is president of a debt recovery business. “We have to get black men engaging these young black males,” he said. Out of frustration, he sometimes stops kids on the street to tell them “where that style of grunge came from.” Wearing pants too low, he explains, is actually a signal used in prisons: “The farther down your pants, the more available you are.”

A Confession and a Life on Hold

The concern for teens that has been pouring through the Bronx recently may be too late for Jamal Blair.

“I went to a bush and pulled out a .22 caliber gun, and shot one shot in the air,” he confessed to police before pleading “not guilty.” “The gun belonged to an older man who lived on the block…and told me anytime I need it it’s there.” Blair said he and two friends were being chased by teens from the nearby Edenwald Houses when he shot the bullet.

Police have not found the gun, or if they have, no one has told Blair’s lawyer, Angelo MacDonald. The police have not released their investigation, so MacDonald has not formulated his defense. He has heard a rumor that Mitchell was struck by a 9 mm bullet, which would significantly weaken Blair’s original confession of shooting a .22 caliber gun. It’s still unclear whether Blair’s confessed shot was the shot. MacDonald implied that the case may not even go to trial if there is not quality evidence, and a murder weapon would certainly constitute quality evidence.

So, Blair sits in Rikers Island, waiting. His future depends on whatever evidence police uncover. He will appear in court on Jan. 8, when pre-trial motions will be made.

Meanwhile, Mitchell’s home on 224th Street appears exactly as it did when she was living inside. From the street, there is not even a visible crack in the window, but now the tidy light green house with a small fenced-in front yard is empty.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, CrimeComments (1)