A Cloak of Silence After a South Bronx Killing – By The New York Times

 

The killing of Freddy Collazo remains unsolved, and the silence that frustrates detectives and torments his family seems to be holding, spawning rumors and threats of revenge

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For years Freddy Collazo watched death pool in sidewalk cracks and on basketball courts, leaving behind votive candles and bottles of a victim’s favorite cognac. And he ran from the same fate.

He fled after a man sliced a knife through his right cheek and ear four years ago at his South Bronx housing project. He dodged two men who jumped him last spring outside Bronx Criminal Court, raining punches as he tried to pull his mother to the safety of a waiting taxi.

And in recent weeks, he told people he was being stalked by an armed man near the Forest Houses, where he grew up as a fringe member of a criminal crew called Forest Over Everything.

Mr. Collazo never told the police about the threats, his mother said, preferring to bear the burden of his street feuds on his own.

On a warm Monday in late February, as the sun sank toward the wiry tree line of Saint Mary’s Park — a hilly tract about 15 blocks south of the Forest Houses — a hooded gunman crept up behind Mr. Collazo and his cousin at the park’s southern edge and did not miss. The first bullet severed Mr. Collazo’s spine and blew through his heart, killing him before he hit the pavement. His cousin, Luis Cruz, ran.

Then the gunman stood over Mr. Collazo, 58 days past his 20th birthday, and with a .45-caliber pistol pumped at least six more bullets into his body, leaving a total of 10 entry and exit wounds.

As silence fell over the park, his cousin circled back.

“I was crying, right there, like, ‘Don’t die on me,’” Mr. Cruz said. “I’m telling him, ‘Breathe, breathe.’ And, like, it was over.”

In a bystander’s video, Mr. Collazo’s body lay in the middle of St. Mary’s Street, his hair cushioning his head against the pavement and his black hightops crossed at the ankle, as a police officer delivered quick pumps to his chest. Faint sirens and the murmur of worried onlookers broke through the late-afternoon quiet.

Mr. Collazo had just dropped off gifts for Mr. Cruz’s unborn son: four onesies embossed with monkeys and bananas, six pairs of socks, bibs decorated with cars and a baby bottle.

 

The killing remains unsolved, and the veil of silence that left Mr. Collazo vulnerable to one attack after another — and that frustrates detectives and torments victims’ families — seems to be holding, spawning rumors and threats of revenge.

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Mr. Collazo, showing off certificates he earned in a high school equivalency program.

 

Of the 120 known crews and gangs in the Bronx, many are rooted in the housing projects in and just north of the 40th Precinct, an area that has one of New York City’s densest concentrations of public housing.

Last year, the 40th Precinct had nine homicides — higher than all but 11 of the city’s 77 police precincts — and recorded the largest jump in major crime citywide. With a third homicide last week, the precinct is now the third-deadliest so far this year, behind the 75th Precinct, in East New York, and the 121st Precinct, on Staten Island. The number of burglaries in the 40th Precinct has more than tripled from the same period last year, and felony assaults, robberies and rapes have all increased by at least 50 percent.

“Crime is definitely not headed in the right direction,” James P. O’Neill, the chief of department, told the commander of the 40th Precinct, Inspector Carlos Valdez, at a recent meeting on crime statistics and crime-fighting strategies at Police Headquarters, as department leaders pressed the inspector and others on conditions in their commands.

A long-term drop in homicides in the precinct — down from 83 in 1991, mirroring a decline across the city — has allowed the police to intensify their focus on hard-to-solve killings like Mr. Collazo’s.

He left behind a trail of clues: his name in a police database linking him to Forest Over Everything; his rap lyrics, which were dominated by references to “cokeheads” and “dopeheads”; a Facebook post about shots fired by “my team.” But the mystery over the true motive has had young mothers worrying at public meetings about letting their children play outside and detectives knocking on doors across the South Bronx to reconstruct the provocations and paybacks that made Mr. Collazo a target.

“Freddy had problems everywhere, just like every other kid out here that’s gangbanging got problems everywhere,” said the friend who called himself Mr. Collazo’s “right-hand man” and knew him for several years. “He knew people was after him.”

The Path to Rikers

Mr. Collazo tended to keep his troubles to himself at the Forest Houses, a complex of 15 buildings just north of the 40th Precinct.

He often shut himself in the room he shared with a younger sister, lying on the top bunk of their bed, emerging only to watch cartoons like “Courage the Cowardly Dog,” “Arthur” and “Scooby-Doo.” Headphones always dangled from his ears. He grew his hair long and liked having two braids hang over his temples.

“He was a funny, funny kid,” Ms. Soto said, recalling his goofy sense of humor. But, she added, “He suffered inside.”

Mr. Collazo poured out his feelings first as part of a dance crew, where he was called Freddy Tails and known for his light feet, and later as an amateur rapper, writing lyrics about his own life under the name Felony Fredo.

At least one friend of Mr. Collazo has been caught with a gun trying to retaliate for the killing, and others have promised to do the same, all of them going after the men who had been hunting Mr. Collazo for years, said an 18-year-old friend who called himself Mr. Collazo’s “right-hand man.”

Sgt. Michael J. LoPuzzo, the commander of the 40th Precinct detective squad, said Mr. Collazo was “assassinated.”

But Mr. Cruz has told Mr. Collazo’s mother that he will not say who the killer is.

“I told him, ‘Please, you was there, go to the cops and tell them what you know,’” Mr. Collazo’s mother, Glenda Lee Soto, said. “He told me he’s not going to do it. He’s not going to go down for a snitch. He’s not going to rat nobody.”
Crew Complications

The murder created hardly a ripple in the daily pulse of a city that has largely banished fears of targeted violence to impoverished pockets, like Brownsville and East New York in Brooklyn, and Mott Haven, the South Bronx neighborhood where Mr. Collazo was killed. In the 40th Precinct, though — which recorded his death as its second homicide of 2016 — it was the latest in a cycle of crew battles and personal feuds that span generations.

To understand why killings persist in an era of historically low crime, The New York Times is reporting this year on each murder in the 40th Precinct.

In neighborhoods like Mott Haven, a shadow system of street justice holds sway over many young black and Hispanic men who describe addressing grievances through armed payback because they do not trust the police. Witnesses and crime victims often refuse to speak, creating a vacuum of judicial accountability in which people instead turn to guns and crews, loosely organized groups of young men usually delineated by geography.

Crew murders account for many of the killings that persist in today’s New York, leaving detectives to untangle the often petty or impenetrable motives behind them before more violence occurs in retribution. Elected leaders have become numb to the rat-a-tat frequency of such killings, antiviolence activists say.

But to delve deeply into a murder like Mr. Collazo’s is to see the layers of fear, loyalty and provocation that can end in death. For Mr. Collazo, who was in drug treatment and on his way to a high school equivalency diploma, life seemed to be a daily struggle against the pull of the street.

MURDER IN THE 4-0
A Bronx Precinct Where Killings Persist FEB. 18, 2016

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Detectives have told Ms. Soto they need more credible witnesses to move forward. Witnesses do not seem to be saying all that they know. The motive, initially listed as “crew-related,” may have a long, knotty history. Such are the realities of a crew murder in the 40th Precinct.

 

Last year, the 40th Precinct had nine homicides — higher than all but 11 of the city’s 77 police precincts — and recorded the largest jump in major crime citywide. With a third homicide last week, the precinct is now the third-deadliest so far this year, behind the 75th Precinct, in East New York, and the 121st Precinct, on Staten Island. The number of burglaries in the 40th Precinct has more than tripled from the same period last year, and felony assaults, robberies and rapes have all increased by at least 50 percent.

“Crime is definitely not headed in the right direction,” James P. O’Neill, the chief of department, told the commander of the 40th Precinct, Inspector Carlos Valdez, at a recent meeting on crime statistics and crime-fighting strategies at Police Headquarters, as department leaders pressed the inspector and others on conditions in their commands.

A long-term drop in homicides in the precinct — down from 83 in 1991, mirroring a decline across the city — has allowed the police to intensify their focus on hard-to-solve killings like Mr. Collazo’s.

He left behind a trail of clues: his name in a police database linking him to Forest Over Everything; his rap lyrics, which were dominated by references to “cokeheads” and “dopeheads”; a Facebook post about shots fired by “my team.” But the mystery over the true motive has had young mothers worrying at public meetings about letting their children play outside and detectives knocking on doors across the South Bronx to reconstruct the provocations and paybacks that made Mr. Collazo a target.

“Freddy had problems everywhere, just like every other kid out here that’s gangbanging got problems everywhere,” said the friend who called himself Mr. Collazo’s “right-hand man” and knew him for several years. “He knew people was after him.”

The Path to Rikers

Mr. Collazo tended to keep his troubles to himself at the Forest Houses, a complex of 15 buildings just north of the 40th Precinct.

He often shut himself in the room he shared with a younger sister, lying on the top bunk of their bed, emerging only to watch cartoons like “Courage the Cowardly Dog,” “Arthur” and “Scooby-Doo.” Headphones always dangled from his ears. He grew his hair long and liked having two braids hang over his temples.

“He was a funny, funny kid,” Ms. Soto said, recalling his goofy sense of humor. But, she added, “He suffered inside.”

Mr. Collazo poured out his feelings first as part of a dance crew, where he was called Freddy Tails and known for his light feet, and later as an amateur rapper, writing lyrics about his own life under the name Felony Fredo.

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After Mr. Collazo’s death, friends used lighters to burn a tribute into the ceiling at his Forest Houses building. Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

e.

“Fourteen, runnin’ round, I was snatching jewels,” go the lyrics to one song. “I got older since then, never sober / Runnin’ from your crib, show up like Jehovah.”

Mr. Collazo’s father, who was addicted to heroin, served nearly two years in state prison for drug sales. His parents separated when he was in his early teens.

“My pops wasn’t there, man I think he a crackhead,” Mr. Collazo rapped in the same song. “And my mom by herself, and that hurted me the most.”

He got a .32-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver after the 2012 slashing — a requisite precaution, friends and relatives said, for anyone being chased as Mr. Collazo was. It was in his left pocket, loaded with two live rounds, when police officers answering a 911 call for a man shot in November 2013 pulled Mr. Collazo out of a group that matched a description of the perpetrators.

They also found, in his right pocket, a sandwich bag of marijuana. The gun was confiscated and he faced several serious weapons possession charges. “I got stabbed and robbed a month back so I carry these for protection,” he told Officer Yurantz Assade as he was arrested, according to court papers.

But Mr. Collazo was coy, even with close friends, about why people wanted to hurt him. When Ms. Soto asked how she could help, her son acknowledged being in trouble but insisted, “No questions.”

When he was sent to jail on Rikers Island, his father, whose name is also Alfredo Collazo, was already there, having been locked up four days earlier on drug charges: In spite of the elder Mr. Collazo’s urging him to do differently, his son had followed his path.

“I’m trying to show you and close doors and tell you, ‘Don’t do this, don’t get into no gang,’” the father recalled telling his son.

Ms. Soto bailed her son out, but he did not listen to other relatives’ warnings, either. “Leave those people alone,” his grandfather, Agustin Soto, recalled telling him about his street friends. “He said, ‘Yes, Grandpa, I will do what you told me to, Grandpa.’ But it never happened.”

A Conspicuous Presence

Mr. Collazo was curious about forging his own allegiances on the street and unafraid of straying from the loose boundaries of his crew. His boldness made him enemies.

He had expensive tastes in clothes, favoring name-brand polo shirts. On Facebook groups for selling merchandise he offered a “real Rolex” for $800, size 9½ Air Jordans and G-Star jeans that would have been long for his 5-foot-11 frame. He saved money by leaving cash at his mother’s apartment.

“‘I need some chicken,’ or ‘I need bread,’” Ms. Soto recalled her son saying, using slang for money.

He popped prescription pills, including Percocet, smoked marijuana in the lobby of his apartment building and sold drugs, sometimes under the banner of Forest Over Everything but just as often on his own.

“People just care for him too much, so they always made sure he was protected,” said Mr. Collazo’s right-hand man, who spoke on the condition that he not be named and who said he had sold drugs with Mr. Collazo near the Forest Houses.

Mr. Collazo dropped out of Herbert H. Lehman High School in the 11th grade, despite his mother’s begging counselors for a way to force him to stay enrolled. His father had a daughter with a different woman and was living with them in Mr. Collazo’s childhood home, further straining his relationship with his father. He moved in with his mother near 180th Street for short periods, but was always drawn back to the Forest Houses, a more permissive atmosphere where he helped care for the great-grandmother who raised him and who was battling uterine cancer.

Mr. Collazo was arrested again in April 2014, this time for marijuana, but he only had to pay a fine. He walked around as if he were invincible, friends said, relying on his crew for protection as his street feuds piled up.

His ability to keep avoiding prison time created suspicions among his crew when, later that month, nearly three dozen members of Forest Over Everything and a rival group, Six Four Goons, were arrested in a roundup and charged in a string of attempted murders and firearm purchases, some of them planned on Facebook.

Mr. Collazo appears in the 80-count indictment under his Facebook name, Freddy Staysmack, messaging with a fellow crew member about a gun in June 2011. “U got da 25,” the other crew member, who was charged with conspiring to commit murder, says to Mr. Collazo, according to the indictment. But Mr. Collazo dodged charges.

“People from his own crew felt like they couldn’t trust him,” the “right-hand man” said, alluding to speculation that Mr. Collazo was cooperating with the authorities. “That was never the case; he was never working with the cops.”

But the episode stoked Mr. Collazo’s paranoia about who might be after him.

“He realized the streets either bring jail or death,” said his 18-year-old sister, Ñeca. “He wanted something better. He wanted to live.”
A Look at the 40th Precinct

The southernmost police precinct in the Bronx has the largest public-housing population in the city.

Andrew

Jackson

Houses

BRONX

Melrose

Houses

WESTCHESTER AVE.

Bronxchester

Houses

John

Adams

Houses

St. Mary’s

Park Houses

Patterson

Houses

Betances

Houses

Mott Haven

Houses

ST. MARY’S

PARK

Mitchel

Houses

Mott Haven

Mill Brook

Houses

Port Morris

MANHATTAN

RANDALLS ISLAND

By The New York Times
A Promising Turn

Last May, Mr. Collazo entered a residential drug-treatment program in Brooklyn run by Phoenix House, a nonprofit rehabilitation organization, telling people that he would keep getting in trouble if he stayed on the streets and that it would help him avoid prison.

He won a relapse-prevention award in September, as he received help with his marijuana habit. A counselor in a course on healthy relationships, Lydia Peterson, recalled his making juvenile jokes early on, but eventually asking serious, if somewhat cryptic, questions about women.

“Well, what if I trusted somebody and they betrayed me?” Ms. Peterson said he asked.

By October, he had earned a chance to leave each morning to study for his high school equivalency diploma at the Isaacs Center in Manhattan.

He left a similar program two weeks earlier because he was not allowed to wear a hat, but he was desperate enough to plead for a second chance after a counselor believed — in error, it turned out — that he was involved in a fight during orientation.

“He cried, he cried, and said to please give him another chance because he knows if he’s not here — if he doesn’t get this opportunity — he won’t do it anywhere else,” the counselor, Ana Dominguez, recalled.

On long walks he told Ms. Dominguez he was trying to overcome a past clouded by difficult family ties and “beef here and there.” His anxiety ran so deep that Mr. Collazo once badgered a new student who he thought had been looking at him too much. Ms. Dominguez suspended him for a day and asked him to explain himself in a letter. She said he wrote about dreams of a big house with a wife and children, and when he returned to school he insisted on moving into a harder reading group.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to live life, but I will if I have to,” she said he wrote on the double-sided note.

On a collage he made for Thanksgiving, he wrote, “I am thankful to still be alive after everything I been thru.”

But he also told his counselors that the streets of the South Bronx were still what he knew best, and that he did not know where else to go.
Treacherous Terrain

Neighborhood crews sometimes begin more as groups of friends than as criminal enterprises. But the stakes rise as crew members obtain guns and move to protect turf.

“The reason we talk about it so much is it is much more violent because of the guns and the easy access to them,” said Assistant Commissioner Kevin O’Connor of the Juvenile Justice Division at the Police Department.

Teenagers know where they are allowed and where they are not, though sometimes they get a pass to move through rival turf where a grandmother lives, or where they play basketball. A strong family life is often all that stops young men from succumbing to the pull of a crew.

“I never heard him talk about his father,” Ms. Peterson said. “He had to resort to finding that love or respect or confidence in the street.”

Forest Over Everything holds sway at the Forest Houses and has long clashed with the young people from the McKinley Houses, to the south, where 20 Blocc, a subset of the Bloods, has reigned. The boundary between the two groups is East 163rd Street. The investigation that resulted in the takedown at the Forest Houses in 2014 was prompted by the fatal shooting of a 4-year-old there.

But some feuds are harder to explain. At the Mill Brook Houses, the dividing lines are within the complex itself: On one side, up a hill, is Killer Brook Up, or KB Up; on the other is KB Down.

Along with the crews are localized subsets of notorious national gangs — Bloods, Crips and Latin Kings — many of which take shape at Rikers and drive violence across the city.

Robert K. Boyce, the chief of detectives, who commanded the 40th Precinct from 2000 to 2003, said the groups attached themselves to certain locations and started battling.

“These alpha personalities, someone’s got to be in charge,” said Chief Boyce, who also commanded all Bronx detectives for three years.

Phoenix House was a form of self-exile for Mr. Collazo — free from crew affiliations and far from rival terrain. But in text messages to a friend in January, he described his need for money even as he plunged deeper into his schoolwork.

“Education the key n I’m jus now noticing it now,” he wrote. He added, “I’m litt I jus gotta find a way to get money again n

 

A Conspicuous Presence

Mr. Collazo was curious about forging his own allegiances on the street and unafraid of straying from the loose boundaries of his crew. His boldness made him enemies.

“People from his own crew felt like they couldn’t trust him,” the “right-hand man” said, alluding to speculation that Mr. Collazo was cooperating with the authorities. “That was never the case; he was never working with the cops.”

But the episode stoked Mr. Collazo’s paranoia about who might be after him.

“He realized the streets either bring jail or death,” said his 18-year-old sister, Ñeca. “He wanted something better. He wanted to live”

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