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'Justice for Junior:' The killing of a teen touches the Big Apple

By Brian E. Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Jul 3, 2018 - 1:34:30 PM

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New York City united to mourn with a family of Dominican immigrants whose hope and promise was snuffed out with the brutal slaying of Lesandro Guzman-Feliz, 15, on a Bronx, New York street. The teen was viciously attacked with knives and a machete in front of eyewitnesses.

The killing of “Junior” in the Belmont neighborhood drew shock, anger and united chorus against violence. Junior was a good kid from a hardworking family, said those interviewed by The Final Call.

“He never had a fight in his life, in 15 years,” said Jason Rodriguez, a community activist. “The family right now … is overwhelmed but holding it down … dealing with the situation as best as possible.”

Mr. Rodriguez said Junior’s death “opens up a door” for people of different denominations and colors to come together. 

The Bronx neighborhood isn’t unfamiliar with crime and violence, but the savagery of Junior’s killing roiled residents and others across the country who viewed footage on social media from public surveillance cameras and cell phone video. The footage showed Junior running inside the Cruz and Chiky grocery store, frantically trying to get away from his pursuers. Seconds later the teen was dragged out of the store by several men who stabbed and slashed him with knives and a machete, leaving him mortally wounded. A camera inside the store showed a bloodied Junior entering back in the store seeking help, only to be shooed away. He struggled, trying to get to nearby St. Barnabas hospital. Junior didn’t make it, bleeding out on the street.

The store came under heavy criticism for not aiding Junior and the NYPD is under fire. Community residents said two officers stood by while Junior lay on the pavement near the hospital. A spokesperson said NYPD is looking into allegations against the cops.

“It was an act of savagery, and a savage is a person that has lost the knowledge of himself and is living the life of a beast, and so a beastly act was done,” said Abdul Hafeez Muhammad, East Coast regional minister of the Nation of Islam and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan.

Police blamed the Trinitarios, a Dominican gang, for the murder. The attack was widely reported to be a revenge killing over a sex tape involving a female relative of one of the gang’s members that was posted to social media. NYPD said its investigating whether Junior was mistaken for another youth featured in the tape. A gang leader also reportedly apologized for the killing of the wrong person.

Tyriek Anderson, right, asks for silence at a memorial to Lesandro Guzman-Feliz near the site of his murder in the Bronx borough of New York, June 25. Several suspects are in custody in New Jersey and awaiting extradition in connection with the killing of the 15-year-old boy in the Bronx that has sparked community outrage. Police said that Guzman-Feliz's death was gang related. The teen was attacked outside a bodega by a group of men and died after getting slashed in the neck with a machete. Photo: AP/Wide World photos

“This situation is a wake-up call,” said Bishop David Maldonado, Jr., of the Las Maravillas del Exodo Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. It “should never had happened” and the community has a lot of work to do, but in unity, he said. It takes a village to raise a child, there’s no more village, he lamented. “We are Junior, right now,” Bishop Maldonado said. “We’re left behind, so what are we going to do about the situation?”

He said he believes healing will come out of the tragedy and a greater feeling of responsibility and connection is needed.

Police made arrests in connection with the killing, the Associated Press reported June 25. One of the suspects was 19-year-old Kevin Alvarez, of the Bronx. The wire service said he was arrested with murder, manslaughter, and gang assault. Junior was killed June 20.

Eight people were arrested in New York and New Jersey for the killing. In a June 26 Facebook Live stream of an extradition hearing in N.J., six suspects listened to charges filed against them through a Spanish translator. Murder, manslaughter and assault charges were read before a judge and state-appointed attorneys for the accused.

The Passaic County, N.J., prosecutor’s office identified the suspects as Jose Muniz, 21, of Paterson, N.J.; Jose Tavarez, 21, Manuel Rivera, 18, Danel Fernandez, 21, Santiago Rodriguez, 24, of the Bronx; and Joniki Martinez, 24, of Freeport, N.Y.   A June 26 statement from NYPD announced an unnamed eighth suspect was arrested in the case.

“Gang members who drag a young teen out of a bodega and then hack him to death repeatedly with knives and a machete deserve to rot in prison for the rest of their lives,” said City Councilman Richie Torres, who serves the district where Junior died. The councilman wrote Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark demanding the accused be punished to the full extent of the law.

Councilman Torres, along with several councilmembers, wrote a letter to the Department of Consumer Affairs demanding the store owners be stripped of their business license for inaction. The letter noted a legal requirement for operating a business in New York City is good moral character.

“While it might be unfair to expect a business owner, untrained in law enforcement, to perform heroics in the midst of savage gang violence, the failure to do something as basic as calling 911 is morally unconscionable,” the council members wrote.

By June 27, a separate online petition to shutter the store attracted 169,246 supporters, close to its goal of 170,000 signatures. The petition called for the site to be made into a memorial for Junior.

“I literally didn’t know him, nor do I know his family, but I know what they are going thru, what it’s like to lose a loved one to a senseless act,” wrote Peggy Hernandez, the author of the petition. “I lost my daughters’ father to a gun two years ago.”

Culturally the Dominican community is a close knit one where bodegas, or small storefronts, are also places of refuge, said Mr. Rodriguez. “They’re very close; they do stick together and that’s why its shock that the grocery store owners let it happen. Usually if the elders would have mentioned something, they probably wouldn’t have done nothing,” the activist explained. 

After a brief 90-minute funeral June 27, pall bearers dressed in N.Y. Yankee jerseys—Junior’s favorite team—carried his body out of Our Lady of Mount Carmel church to crowds chanting “Justice for Junior!” and cheering for his grieving family. Mourners turned out in heavy numbers to pay last respects. Many did not know the teen but felt compelled to show support for him and his family.

Abdul Hafeez Muhammad said the Nation of Islam shared with Junior’s family empathy for their pain and would continue to offer “divine guidance” based on what Min. Farrakhan teaches.

“There is no quick fix solution. We have to stay vigilant in the streets,” Student Minister Hafeez Muhammad told The Final Call.

Members of the Fruit of Islam—men who belong to the Nation of Islam—came to support to the family and the community at Junior’s wake and funeral. The wake went on for two days with thousands saying goodbye to Junior and just hugging the family, said Arthur Muhammad, student assistant minister at Harlem’s Muhammad Mosque No. 7. “The culture of violence is no stranger to the Bronx,” said Arthur Muhammad. “People are often numb to the violence and murders … but this one there was a collective response of anger, frustration, grief.”

Junior “was a kind, sweet, respectful young man, always smiling, who had so much potential,” said a press statement from the Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health and Science Charter School. Junior was a sophomore there. The school is “heartbroken at the loss,” it’s hard to understand the senseless violence that took his life, the statement said. Junior dreamed big and had big plans. “Since he was five years old, he used to love to play with the police toy cars and always said he wanted to be a detective,” his mother Leandra Feliz told the New York Times. Junior was a member of the NYPD Explorers program for high school students. A $5,000 scholarship was announced in his name by the NYPD on June 29, it is given annually to two graduates from the Explorers program.