On a warm Tuesday night in the Bronx, a couple of dozen young people took refuge from their stuffy apartments in a courtyard between two redbrick towers in the Melrose Houses. They laughed, drank and smoked freshly rolled blunts as a speaker pumped out rap music.
A few minutes before midnight, a gunshot cracked the air outside 305 East 153rd Street, echoing among the towers of the public housing project. People took cover under the green wooden benches in front of the building.
Adrian Maldonado, who dealt drugs on a nearby corner, sprinted away from the battered front door, the police said. He made it across the street before collapsing next to a school playground. A bullet had ripped into his back and through his chest. He lay face up, arms out, blood bubbling to his lips.
Mr. Maldonado, 24, was declared dead a half-hour later, at 12:22 a.m. on July 20, at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center. Around the Melrose Houses, a story spread like gospel: A 25-year-old woman who had been carrying on an affair with Mr. Maldonado lured him to the building with a phone call and shot him because he had broken off the relationship.
Yet while the street buzzed with word that the woman was seen with a gun moments after the shooting, none of the people in the courtyard were initially willing to tell the police what they had seen. The project had no security cameras, and officers found little evidence beyond a spent .40-caliber shell casing and an unfired round lying near the building’s door.
“The whole project knows about it,” Sgt. Michael J. LoPuzzo, the commander of the 40th Precinct detective squad, said a few days later, frustration in his voice. “The only one they’re not telling is me.”
Mr. Maldonado’s death was the 10th murder logged this year in the 40th Precinct, a two-square-mile trapezoid in the South Bronx where deadly violence persists at a high rate even as it has fallen to record lows across much of New York City. To understand what drives the violence, The New York Times has been documenting the murders this year in the precinct, which, with 14 so far, has recorded more than all but two other precincts.
The police posted a routine $2,500 reward, and a few people contacted detectives with tips. Two people said they saw Mr. Maldonado’s former lover and two men arrive at the building around the same time as he did. After the shooting, both witnesses said, the woman came outside and handed a pistol to one of the men before all three hurried away.
But neither witness was willing to testify before a grand jury, much less at a trial, detectives said. One of the witnesses, who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity, said he feared reprisals from the woman’s brothers, who the police said were members of God’s Favorite Children, a violent gang in the Melrose Houses.
“The people that did this, you don’t want to mess with them,” he said.
Cowed Into Silence
Within days of the killing, the investigation fell into the sort of inertia that plagues many homicide cases in the Bronx. Particularly in public housing, gangs that control narcotics trafficking threaten witnesses. Often, tenants refuse even to answer the door when a detective knocks.
In the 40th Precinct, the police have faced a similar silence in their efforts to solve the deaths of Freddy Collazo, a 20-year-old gang member gunned down in February, and Jessica White, a 28-year-old mother killed on a playground in June.
In two of the precinct’s other unsolved killings this year — those of Jequan Lawrence in August and Kevin Thomas in October — the victims were embroiled in conflicts with criminal groups in their housing developments, according to police investigators.
The killing of Mr. Maldonado was at least the 13th murder since 2010 in the Melrose Houses and the neighboring Jackson Houses, several of them stemming from gang conflict, the police said. Just six of the murders have been solved, and three of those were closed only after federal investigators stepped in and brought a racketeering case.
Federal investigations have been a potent, if painstakingly slow, alternative for local authorities trying to crack down on gang violence, especially in public housing. The sweeps often ensnare people who can be pressured to share information about other crimes.
Sentences in the federal system are much heavier, especially for drug-related offenses, providing a powerful incentive for a defendant to cooperate with the authorities, and the federal rules of evidence can make it easier to prove the existence of a criminal enterprise, prosecutors said.
But such investigations take years, so justice, when it does come, is often delayed, and the violence is often long-forgotten by all but those closest to the victim.
The wait can torment the victim’s family and friends, while leaving an impression in neighborhoods that the police are not working hard to solve the crime. Mr. Maldonado’s girlfriend, Shalima Jordan, 25, said she was pained by a recent sighting of the woman rumored to have shot him. “Why haven’t they brought her in for questioning?” she asked.
The woman did not return several messages that reporters left on three telephones listed under her name and with people at her family’s apartment on Morris Avenue, where records show she has lived her entire life.
The Times is not publishing the woman’s name because the police have not declared her a suspect and because the information that might implicate her is circumstantial and based on witnesses unwilling to testify or go public.
“We still need a witness who can say, ‘This is what I saw,’” Sergeant LoPuzzo said.
Source: The New York Times | JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr., ASHLEY SOUTHALL and AL BAKER