After a Killing: ‘I Only Wanted to Scare Them

 

The sun had yet to rise on a summer Sunday when Selena Tomas, 17, stepped out of a livery cab in the South Bronx. The dress she had worn to her baby shower squeezed her swollen belly, and her feet ached in her high heels.

Her boyfriend, Maurilio Juárez, 21, was talking happily with his brother and sister, all of them in various states of drunkenness. The four had just returned from a hall in Manhattan, and the trunk of the cab was crammed with leftover food and beer and gifts for the baby.

Ms. Tomas got out and hurried up the block to the walk-up where she and Mr. Juárez lived, at the corner of 154th Street and Courtlandt Avenue.

Behind her, Mr. Juárez and his brother hauled some of the beer and gifts down the block and propped open the building’s door with them, Mr. Juárez said in an interview. As they headed back to the spot where their sister was keeping an eye on the rest, Maurilio Juárez heard a commotion behind him and turned to see his brother quarreling with at least three men.

He rushed into his apartment, grabbed a plastic bag and returned to the street, recalled Ms. Tomas, who had already changed out of her party clothes. “He sounded scared,” she said.

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Ms. Tomas followed him. Some men who had been drinking across the street were fighting with Mr. Juárez’s brother, she said. She saw her boyfriend take a gun from the plastic bag and wave it toward the men. She pulled on his sleeve, begging him to come back inside. “I was trying to protect him and he was trying to protect me because I had a big belly,” she said. She heard the gun click, then she heard a shot.

Gunsmoke snaked up in the air. The .22-caliber bullet hit Rafael Guzman in the back, punctured a lung and nicked his aorta. The police found Mr. Guzman, 39, face down on the sidewalk in front of a high-rise at 681 Courtlandt Avenue, across the street from the building where Ms. Tomas and Mr. Juárez lived. He was pronounced dead at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center at 5:16 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 14.

The couple retreated into their ground-floor apartment. When the police arrived, Ms. Tomas went outside to speak to them, telling them Mr. Juárez was inside, “drunk and scared.” Then Mr. Juárez came out. By midmorning, both had provided accounts to detectives at the police station.

Mr. Guzman lived in an apartment on East 154th Street, separated from Mr. Juárez’s place by a small lot with six parking spaces. He worked as a file clerk at a law firm in the suburb of White Plains, but he still dreamed of making it as a rapper, and he held tight to the streets where he had grown up. Mr. Juárez, new to the neighborhood, was fearful of its violence. He urged his girlfriend to stay inside and hoped they would be able to move soon to a safer neighborhood in Queens.

The death of Mr. Guzman was the 12th of 14 killings recorded last year in the 40th Precinct, where The New York Times has been documenting every murder in 2016 in an effort to understand why violence persists in some parts of the New York City even as crime is near an all-time low. In the 40th Precinct, which includes Melrose and Mott Haven, serious crime has risen sharply over the past two years, and in 2016, it recorded more murders than all but four of the city’s 77 police precincts. Earlier this month, it logged its first two homicides of 2017.

Mr. Guzman’s role in the encounter that ended his life remains unclear. The fight began when the group of men across the street tried to take some of the beer the Juárez brothers had used to prop open the door, the police said. Mr. Guzman’s family believes he was trying to defuse the argument between the Juárez brothers and the other men. But detectives say he may have been among the people who tried to abscond with the beer. An autopsy showed his blood-alcohol content was high when he died.

Surveillance video shows Mr. Juárez entering his apartment at 4:36 a.m. and leaving a minute later with the gun in hand, the police said. Another camera shows him on a sidewalk in front of the building waving the gun, Ms. Tomas behind him. Two spent shell casings were found inside the revolver, which officers executing a search warrant discovered under Mr. Juárez’s bed.

The morning of the shooting, Mr. Juárez told investigators in a videotaped statement he had fired a gun twice in the air, but he later acknowledged he might have fired lower, the police said. He was charged with murder, manslaughter and criminal weapons possession, and has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer, Edward Dudley Jr., said he would argue that the brothers were defending themselves from a robbery.

In an interview, Mr. Juárez, now 22, maintained that he was so drunk that night that his memory was fuzzy. He recalled he had “fired a bullet upward.”

“I only wanted to scare them,” he said in Spanish. Asked how many times he had fired, he said, “Twice.” Mr. Juárez added he did not know his bullet had killed someone until the police arrived.

“I never thought about taking someone’s life,” he said. “I regret it. I feel bad.”

Sgt. Michael J. LoPuzzo, the commander of the 40th Precinct detective squad, said a call to the police might have changed the outcome. “No one needed to die here, you know what I mean?” Sergeant LoPuzzo said. “You got assaulted? They are trying to steal your beer? Call the police.”

Two Jobs, and a Dream of Moving

Mr. Juárez, who has a ninth-grade education and grew up in a poor mountain city in Mexico, came to the United States illegally four years ago, his family paying smugglers $4,000 to help him cross the Sonoran Desert and elude the Border Patrol. He made his way to New York City, where his sister already lived, and found work as a busboy at a Manhattan restaurant.

Violent crime by undocumented immigrants sometimes ignites political passions and has become a hot-button issue in Washington since the election. But Mr. Juárez’s arrest drew little attention in the Bronx, where tens of thousands of immigrants, documented and undocumented, live and work.

Mr. Juárez hardly fits the profile of a criminal alien. He had no arrest record, and was working two restaurant jobs to support his pregnant girlfriend.

Indeed, his girlfriend said Mr. Juárez was afraid of becoming a victim himself in the gang-plagued neighborhood, where shootings are not uncommon. Last year there were two other fatal shootings within a block of the couple’s apartment, and over all the 40th Precinct logged 31 shootings, more than most areas of the city.

“The whole neighborhood was really scary,” Ms. Tomas, now 18, said.

Mexican street gangs have grown in influence in the South Bronx in recent years with an influx of Mexican immigrants. Mr. Juárez, however, did not belong to a gang, nor was he involved in the drug trade, the police said. How he obtained the gun that he used to kill Mr. Guzman is a question that vexes Mr. Guzman’s loved ones.

“How do you wake up on Courtlandt Avenue and have such easy access to a firearm?” asked Mr. Guzman’s friend Rafael Torres, 38. “How are there so many firearms on Courtlandt Avenue?”

Mr. Guzman was the middle child of a Puerto Rican family whose life was anchored on East 154th Street in the Melrose section of the South Bronx. After his parents split, his mother lived in the East Bronx and later in Pennsylvania, but it was Melrose, where his father, Pascual Guzman Sr., stayed put, that remained Mr. Guzman’s touchstone and the inspiration for his songwriting.

His father said Mr. Guzman, whom he calls Rafa, had come of age when the neighborhood around the Melrose Houses was wracked with crack dealing and gun violence. Yet while Mr. Guzman had many friends embroiled in that dangerous trade, he managed to avoid being lured into the gangster lifestyle himself.

“Rafa was never into that,” his father said. “He knew all the thugs. Don’t get me wrong. But that wasn’t his cup of tea.”

Mr. Guzman met Rafael Torres, his best friend, in elementary school, and the two bonded over their first name and a love of socially conscious hip-hop and new jack swing.

They both dropped out of high school and worked as nightclub busboys in Chelsea, but as they got older, they realized they needed their diplomas. So Mr. Guzman obtained a G.E.D., and later landed jobs with the city’s Housing Authority and Family Court in the Bronx.

The two friends gravitated to the Nation of Gods and Earths, a black cultural movement founded in Harlem in the 1960s. Mr. Torres took the spiritual name Divine, while Mr. Guzman became C-Truth.

Mr. Guzman infused his songwriting with references to black history and to the more recent struggle of young black men with the authorities. In his bedroom, he kept a picture of Trayvon Martin tucked in a mirror and texts like the military treatise “The Art of War” on a small shelf. He posted photos of himself on Facebook wearing shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Police Murder People.”

While Mr. Torres worked on his record deal, Mr. Guzman performed at events and clubs across the Northeast region with friends in collectives like the Courtlandt Cartel, Poor Family and Spartanz MC. He had talent, said one of his collaborators, William Bonds, who performs as RocStarrJim. “His flow was hard and spiritual,” Mr. Bonds said. “It was beautiful.”

As his friends peeled off to the suburbs to start families, Mr. Guzman remained a bachelor bound to the block. With the help of his brother, he found work in 2008 as a law firm file clerk at Malapero & Prisco in Manhattan and, later, White Plains.

But the suburbs held no magic for him. He felt most at home on the streets where he had grown up playing youth baseball and rooting for the Yankees. He was often seen walking outside, striking up conversations with acquaintances on the street corners, or relaxing and enjoying a beer on a bench in the courtyards of the Melrose Houses, his neighbor Ray Soriano said.

“He never had to worry; everybody knew him,” Mr. Soriano said. “Everybody was like his family.”

A New Family, Broken Apart

While Mr. Guzman chased his artistic dream, Mr. Juárez was laboring long hours to provide for the family he was expecting to have. He told his girlfriend’s family he wanted a better life for his baby than the poverty he had endured in southwestern Mexico.

He was born in June 1994 in El Platanar, a small, indigenous village in Guerrero State, where most people speak a Mixtecan dialect. When he was 6, his parents moved the family to a nearby city, Tlapa de Comonfort, so that their eight children could learn Spanish and get educations.

Mr. Juárez dropped out in ninth grade, after his family ran out of money to pay for school. At 15, he was resigned to working on their farm growing corn and pumpkins.

He heard it was easier to make money in the United States, where an older sister lived, so on Jan. 15, 2012, he set out to make the perilous trek across the American border.

It took Mr. Juárez two weeks to make his way to New York from Tlapa, traveling by car, by plane and by foot. He hiked with other migrants through the desert and crossed the border at Nogales.

Three years later, in August 2015, he said, he met Ms. Tomas at a get-together at a friend’s apartment on the Grand Concourse near East 167th Street. She was an American high school student from New England, visiting friends in the city. That night, he found her on Facebook. A month later, he said, he moved to be with her, supporting himself with jobs in a restaurant and then in a vineyard harvesting grapes. They soon got tattoos with each other’s names.

When December arrived, she learned she was pregnant. Her mother, Tara Simmon, wept at the news, fearing Mr. Juárez would abandon her daughter. But he assured her that he was eager to take on the responsibility.

Mr. Juárez, seeking better money, returned to the Bronx last February with Ms. Tomas, who dropped out of school. After a few months of living with his siblings, they saved enough to rent a $1,000 room just up the block, at 688 Courtlandt Avenue.

He held down two jobs as a busboy at expensive restaurants in Manhattan, going to work in a dress shirt and a bow tie. “He would leave one job and — sometimes he couldn’t even change — go right to another,” Ms. Simmon said.

All the while, he was saving money to get married after the baby was born and move to a safer neighborhood.

The baby shower was intended to be another demonstration of his commitment to Ms. Tomas and the child. But the future they imagined has been shattered.

On Aug. 31, Ms. Tomas gave birth to a daughter, Evelyn Martina. Mr. Juárez met his firstborn in a city jail on a barge in the Bronx.

“I was very happy and emotional, but at the same time, sad,” he said in prison, dressed in a gray inmates’ jumpsuit, a tattoo of Ms. Tomas’s first name visible on his left forearm. “This is not how I expected it to be.”

If convicted of murder at trial, he faces a minimum of 15 years to life in prison. Even if he pleads to a lesser charge and receives a lighter sentence, he would spend his daughter’s childhood in prison and would most likely be deported after his release.

Pascual Guzman Sr., 65, the father of the dead man, at home in the Bronx.

Mourners gather on the day of the shooting on Courtlandt Avenue.

Police cordon off the crime scene.

A police van, background right, barricades the block on Courtlandt Avenue where Rafael Guzman, 39, was shot and killed early on the morning of Aug. 14, 2016.

 

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