John Scarabaggio almost didn’t live to see his 22nd birthday. In 2011, he was 21 years old and instead of going out and partying with his friends, Scarabaggio was deep in his struggle with prescription drug addiction, taking up to 50 pills a day to maintain his high. But he overdosed on July 21 that year, and took so many pills that he went into a coma for eight days.
“I wasn’t supposed to live, I wasn’t even breathing for myself,” Scarabaggio said. “All I remember was waking up eight days later on my mom’s birthday. It scared the hell out of me.”
Scarabaggio’s story is one that’s heard far too often on Staten Island, where prescription drug abuse is rampant. Since 2005, fatalities on Staten Island linked to accidental prescription drug overdoses increased by nearly 150%, more than double the rate of any other borough. But through youth organizations, rehab programs and a city-wide ad campaign aimed at preventing prescription drug abuse, Staten Island’s cry for help has been heard and young adults like Scarabaggio are able to get the help they need.
Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo passed legislation that would dedicate state money to equipping NYPD officers with FDA-approved anti-overdose kits and Police Commissioner William Bratton said officers would be trained in administering the naloxone nasal spray once the bill is passed. State Sen. Diane Savino (D-North Shore/Brooklyn) was in full support of the bill.
"The epidemic of heroin use and abuse has devastated families across Staten Island. It is a dark and painful substance that drags our teenagers far away from the happy and purposeful life they deserve,” Savino said.
“I applaud the governor for recognizing that New York State needs to step in now to save more of our young people before it’s too late."
The anti-overdose kit has already saved more than 10 lives on Staten Island since June, and could have helped Scarabaggio avoid his eight-day coma. But the day he woke up from it marked a turning point in Scarabaggio’s life. He started the long process of recovering from his addiction, a struggle that lasted longer than the time he spent addicted.
Scarabaggio grew up on the South Shore of Staten Island where said he had a good upbringing.
“We were well-off, I came from a good family,” he said. “I had no worries in the world.”
He attended Tottenville High School, had an active social life and played on his school’s football team. When he was 20 years old, Scarabaggio started developing symptoms of a hereditary knee condition and needed surgery on both of his legs, keeping him on painkillers and in and out the hospital for almost a year.
“Before surgery, I always experimented with weed and pills, but I was never addicted,” he said. “But after the first surgery I was bed-ridden and it took four months for full recovery. Then after that, I had to go back for the other knee.”
Scarabaggio’s doctor prescribed OxyContin to help him deal with the pain from the surgeries.
“I started taking them because of the pain, but then I started abusing them and started getting high off them and then I got addicted,” Scarabaggio said.
Former New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley was instrumental in launching the ad campaign aimed at raising awareness and preventing prescription drug abuse.
“Painkillers are very common drugs and their sales have been skyrocketing,” Farley said.
Painkillers, or opioid analgesics, include oxycodone (either Percocet or OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin). Chemically, Farley said they are similar to heroin and they’re just as addictive.
Scarabaggio can testify. He said that by the time he made a full recovery from both surgeries, he was so addicted he couldn’t stop. He kept lying to his doctor and said he was still in pain so he could keep refilling his prescriptions.
“It was so easy, I didn’t need to doctor shop. I’d just go to him and said ‘I need more, I’m still in pain.’ It was as easy as getting cold medicine.”
As Scarabaggio kept using, his tolerance level went up and the more careless he became. He was court-mandated to attend an outpatient rehab program in early 2011 after getting arrested on a drug-related charge. It was his first attempt at recovery. The program was 30 days long, but Scarabaggio left after two weeks.
“It’s a horrible feeling,” he said about getting clean. “You go through the withdrawal, you sweat, shake, throw up. You go through every feeling and all you can think about is ‘why can’t I keep getting high?’”
After the two weeks he spent in rehab, Scarabaggio went back home and was clean for only two days.
“My parents were happy that I was doing good, but I was a miserable person. I didn’t wanna leave my house, I didn’t care anymore,” he said. “I had no heart.”
But he had a change of heart after his overdose. Right after he woke up from his coma, he was transferred to the Dynamic Youth Community rehab facility in Fallsburg, N.Y., where he remained for 13 months.
“I became normal John again,” he said. “I found out things about myself that I never knew before my addiction.”
Last September, Scarabaggio was transferred to Camelot Counseling, a group home for young men at the Seaview Hospital campus on Staten Island, where he was closer to his family. He recently finished the last seven months of his recovery and is currently back home, working at his father’s steel company in Newark, N.J., and is looking forward to taking classes at the College of Staten Island this fall.
“I’m strong now, I have no desire to get high,” Scarabaggio said. “I’ve had opportunities when I came home, people who were supposedly my friends were like ‘wanna smoke blunts?’ and I’m like ‘nah, I’m good.’”
In the summer of 2006, Britt was awakened by a phone call with news that her 18-year-old daughter, Latina “Peanut” Bilbro, had been involved in a shooting. She descended the Redfern tower where she lived and discovered Peanut lying on the pavement with a fatal gunshot wound to her chest.
Five years later, across the city, Murphy’s daughter, Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy, also 18, was shot and killed in a hallway of Harlem’s Grant Houses.
The children’s party where Murphy and Britt met was organized by Wrencher and the Far Rockaway Police Athletic League youth summer camp as both a celebration for the community’s youth and a forum for anti-violence education. That the two met at the “Children’s Day of Peace” event wasn’t out of the ordinary. It seemed as though everyone in attendance had, in some way, been touched by gun violence.
“We were all affected by violence in different forms,” said a former Redfern resident and activist known as Queen Esther. “I’ve had family members killed. Boyfriends killed. I used to be part of that dysfunction and I suffered so much.”
Redfern Houses have been quiet lately. There hasn’t been a single shooting in the past year according to crime data from the New York Police Department. But residents remember a time, only years ago, when weekend shooting sprees would claim several teenage victims in the area.
In 2008, an aspiring dancer, Brandon Bethea, 15, was shot and killed in a shootout between rival crews from opposing sides of the Redfern Houses. Bethea’s family had moved her out of Redfern to get her away from the violence that marred the hallways and courtyards of the complex. She was there celebrating a graduation party when she was gunned down in a hail of 30 bullets.
Days later another teen, Tyrese Johnson, was gunned down in the doorway of the Last Stop Deli, just blocks aways from the houses. The 16-year-old was killed in a case of mistaken identity, police said.
They say that they are still healing from those wounds.
“We’re just trying to come together as a community,” said Wrencher, who lost her son, Andre Saunders, a 32-year-old MTA bus employee, in a 2009 shooting. “I don’t want to see another mother cry out.”
Party-goers wore matching T-shirts with the likeness and nickname of a lost loved one. “For the Love of Dre” read some, in honor of Wrencher’s son. Some women wore pink T-shirts with the words “Stack’s Divas” on the front, in reference to Rayquan Elliot, also known as Stack Bundles, a Redfern resident and rapper who was gunned down in 2007 and transformed into a symbol of anti-violence in the community.
In some ways, the “Children’s Day for Peace” was a kids’ summer party like any other. Wrencher transformed a seldom-used courtyard, donated to the Redfern Houses in honor of a resident who was murdered while on tenant watch in 2000, into a colorful bash. There were balloons, a DJ, a smoking barbecue station, face painting and dance performances. Homemade posters with inspirational words and anti-violence messages adorned the walls. “Stop the Violence, Increase the Peace” read one.
But according to residents, something so simple as an outdoor gathering for the kids at Redfern is an infrequent indulgence for a community that is starved for resources and constantly concerned about public safety.
“The kids need it. It’s a free day. Just a party,” said Denese Mars, 48, the center director for the Police Athletic League youth camp.
“It’s good to see them at least have something like this,” said Spud “Sleepy” Josey, 32, a former Redfern resident and father of two. Josey decided to leave Redfern Houses seven years ago when, in the middle of the day, he heard gunshots as he was getting his infant son out of his car.
“I said, ‘you know what? I’m gonna get out of here,”’ said Josey.
The rare chance to have an outdoor party for the children of Redfern also carried with it an opportunity for many community members to heal from their losses and reinvest in a safer future in the next generation of youth.
“Just seeing the kids, I get so much out of it. It makes me happy,” said Shenee Johnson, 40, who lost her 17-year-old son, Kedrick Ali Morrow, Jr., when he was shot and killed at a high school party in 2010.
“There are two ways to grieve. One is being bitter and the other is to help other people,” Johnson added.
Taylonn Murphy, the father of Chicken, has also rededicated his life to helping young people so that they don’t share the same fate as his daughter. He would like to keep a piece of her with him, he said.
Under his shirt, Murphy wore a beaded basketball necklace along with a frayed, laminated picture of Chicken in her honor.
“We don’t want to see these young people another face on a laminate,” said Murphy as he looked out at the kids enjoying the party.
See more photos from the "Children's Day of Peace" on JJIE's art blog Here.
NEW YORK — The 14-year-old boy sat on the stoop of Hookah Stop in the Bronx, blood pouring from his chest and filling his lungs, and thought: This is what it’s like to die. Moments before 11 o’clock Saturday night, the boy, Javier Payne, had been smashed through the store’s plate glass window by a police officer who had stopped him after an altercation with a man on the street, witnesses said.
The boy was bleeding critically and under arrest.
When EMS paramedics arrived at the scene they found the color draining from Payne’s face, his clothes soaked in blood and his hands cuffed behind his back. A witness described the police officers on the scene as “nonchalant” about the emergency unfolding in front of them.
“He looked like a young man who was facing down his own mortality,” said one city employee familiar with the incident. “This is a kid who was staring at his own doom. He looked like he was going to die. And if he didn’t get help when he did, he would have.”
An argument ensued between the paramedics and police about removing the teenager’s handcuffs so they could treat his injuries. Initially, the police refused, but eventually relented, witnesses said.
One of the paramedics had to hold the boys chest wound closed while they rushed him to Jacobi Medical Center. Medical experts said it may have saved Payne’s life.
As he was wheeled into the emergency room Payne was shrieking: “They threw me through a glass window and now I’m going to die, I’m going to die.”
Initially, EMS did not rush to the scene because when the officers put the call over they did not indicate that there was a pediatric emergency, a source familiar with the incident said. Instead they used a protocol normally used for drunks.
The office did not issue a “sheet” — an email to the police press corps detailing newsworthy events — on the incident.
A spokesman for the police department said two teenagers were arrested, ages 13 and 14, at approximately 11 p.m. Officers charged both of the suspects with resisting arrest, obstructing governmental administration and assault. He said he could not confirm the incident involving Payne being thrown through the glass.
“It’s not listed in the report here,” he said.
He said he could not immediately confirm whether or not an investigation by the Internal Affairs Bureau was under way.
Saturday night, Payne was apprehended and placed under arrest by two patrol officers in the Little Italy section of the Bronx on a mixed residential and commercial stretch of Arthur Avenue. During the arrest, and after he was handcuffed one of the officers smashed his face through the plate glass window of the hookah shop at 2491 Ave., cutting his face and slicing open his chest and puncturing his lung, family and sources said.
The NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau has launched an investigation into the incident, according to, Javier’s mother, Cherita Payne, 50. Sunday afternoon, she said police finally allowed her to see her son, after he had undergone hours of surgery. She visited her son on the sixth floor of the hospital’s intensive care unit where she found him lying in a hospital room, incapable of moving, his face covered with fresh abrasions, two incongruously bright, white gauzes taped to his forehead and the left side of his scalp above the ear.
Her son, hooked up to tubes and wires and his head poking from beneath a crisp blanket, told her he didn’t know what was wrong with the officer who drove him through the plate glass window.
When she asked him what happened after he was injured she said her son told her: “I told them I needed to get to the hospital. I’m bleeding. I can feel the blood gushing out. Then the cops told me not to worry about it, that they were going to take me to a hospital.”
During her brief visit, two members of the department who introduced themselves as investigators from the Internal Affairs Bureau interviewed her son. They showed her son Javier pictures of police officers and asked him if he recognized any of them as the ones who had driven his head through the window.
She said he did not identify anyone during her visit.
When Javier saw his mother, he began to weep.
“Mommy, Mommy,” he said. “The cop, he pushed my head through the window while I was handcuffed, Mommy, he pushed my head through the window.”
Cherita said she tried her best to comfort him.
“I said, ‘It’s going to be all right, it’s going to be all right, I’m going to protect you,’” she said.
She began to convulse with sobs as she recounted the anecdote.
“That’s my job,” she said. “That’s my job isn’t it? That’s my job as his mother. I’m so tired of this shit, pardon my language, but I’m so tired, so tired. Help me Jesus, in the name of the Lord, help me.”
She said police officers informed her that she would need to go to the 48th precinct and get a letter of approval signed every day that she wants to visit her son again.
Javier, the youngest of seven children, is her baby, Cherita said. She described him as a typical teenager but that he is immature for his age and that he can’t make decisions on his own. She said he is trying his best to make it into the next grade.
By late afternoon Sunday, the shattered glass had been swept up and most of the blood had been sprayed on to the curb. A new pane of glass had already been installed. Gaudy lights flashed advertising the ornate water pipes behind it. Some of Paynes blood collected in puddles that ran along the curb in front of 2491 Arthur Ave. Some of it had already begin to fade indistinguishably into the sidewalk, a haphazard pattern of splotches and sprays.
Jose Perez who lives in apartments next to the hookah shop, said he left his house Saturday night to grab a soda from the store down the block when he saw the immediate aftermath of the mayhem.
“I came out and saw the the glass and the blood — it was everywhere,” Perez, 34, said. “Thank God he is going to make it. I didn’t know he was just a kid, a young guy like that. It’s a total shock to me. Why would they do that?”
He said his block of apartments and small businesses and pizza shops is peaceful, and that relations between the police and the community is unremarkable.
Nageib Aldaylam, 47, has owned and operated Hookah Stop for almost three years. He agreed with his neighbor that the neighborhood is a sleepy one.
“My friend, I never even had a gate on my store,” he said.
He said he recognized Payne but does not know him well. He said Payne and another teenager had walked into his shop before the violent confrontation with the police. Aldaylam said he came from behind his slightly elevated section behind the counter to greet the customers as his practice. He said they didn’t buy anything, but they didn’t cause any trouble.
“The kids came in normal, and they left normal,” he said. “They did zero, nothing. All the action happened outside.”
As soon as Payne and his friend stepped out of the store and back on to Arthur Avenue the police officers stopped them. He said he heard the boys and the officers arguing and that heated words were exchanged. He said they went back and forth for several minutes when he was jolted by the sound of the glass exploding.
He said the Payne was sitting on his stoop moaning: “I’m bleeding, I’m bleeding.” In the street, the squad car was parked parallel to his shop with a man in it gesturing to Payne. Aldaylam said it was his impression that the man was identifying Payne.
He said the officers questioned him while Payne sat and bled. They asked Aldaylam if he had any security footage. He told them no. And then they asked if Payne and his friend had done anything when they came into his store. Again, Aldaylam replied no.
Aldaylam added that it seemed the boys may have slipped into his store to hide from the police. When asked if he thought the police went too far in smashing Payne through his window, he shrugged.
“What happened, happened,” he said. “The truth is the truth. What more can I say?”
As she left the hospital, Cherita was less subtle about her feelings.
“You got to stop this, you got to put a stop to this,” she said. “We’ve got to stand up for ourselves, for our children. We’re human. We have rights. My kid has rights, too.”
Ronald Vails, Javier’s stepfather, said his stepson does not cut an intimidating figure.
“He’s a little guy,” said Vails, 64. “He’s 14 but he looks much smaller. There was no need for this. They said he still has pieces of glass in his lung.”
Javier’s family said Payne is part of the Persons in Need of Supervision program at MS 22 where he is in the eighth grade; she said she enlisted him to make sure he got more attention. His family said he he loves sports. He had recently taken an interest in basketball, and enjoys playing handball in local playground courts.
Vails said he played wide receiver for the Bronx Steelers, a youth league football team in the Fordham section whose mission it is to reduce violence for children and teens in the Bronx.
Vails said it is too early to tell how his injuries will affect his ability to play for the team in the future.
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NEW YORK — Tears and emptiness marked Tuesday's conviction in the murder of promising basketball star Tayshana Murphy, an 18-year-old girl gunned down early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2011 in the squalid fourth floor of her apartment building in the Grant Houses.
Murphy’s murder and an ongoing violence in her neighborhood around the Grand Houses in West Harlem was the subject of a JJIE story in February. Tears welled in the eyes of Robert Cartagnea, 23, as jury’s verdict was read in New York State Supreme Court in downtown Manhattan Tuesday, and tears streaked the faces of the convicted killer’s friends and family.
Prosecutors said he was the gunman in the shooting of Murphy, the elite point guard for the Murry Bergtraum known affectionately as “Chicken,” shot and killed just feet from her apartment, as retaliation for a fight from the day before.
Cartagena was a resident of the Manhattanville Houses, and Murphy was a resident of the nearby Grant Houses. Residents said both the fight and the retaliatory deadly shooting are the violent expression of a blood feud between the houses that dates back to the 1970s.
Cartagena now faces 25 years to life in prison when he is sentenced on April 28; but that did nothing to provide meaning or fill the emptiness experienced by the family of Murphy.
“We can start trying to heal now, and even start trying to heal the wounds in that community,” Ms. Murphy’s father, Taylonn Murphy, said after the verdict. “As far as justice goes, we took such a tremendous loss losing Tayshana, I don’t even feel a sense of justice. It’s just been a tragedy all around.”
Since the shooting murder of his daughter, Murphy has campaigned to bring an end to the bloody feud that took Chicken’s life. In some cases he has walked the streets in patrols with Derrick Haynes — whose brother was shot and killed in the first life taken as part of this long-running blood feud between rival houses across the street from each other — and physically intervening to quell brewing violence between teenagers from both sides.
Murphy and Haynes have in recent years been advocating to turn a shuttered beauty salon on Old Broadway, the road that divides the feuding houses, into a 24-hour youth community and intervention center so that the teenagers would have something to do and a place to go to defuse conflicts and prevent violence before it breaks out.
In the wake of his daughter’s murder, incidences of retaliatory violence escalated between the young people from the Manhattanville Houses and the Grant Houses. Murphy, after considerable reflection and after struggling with his own feelings of resentment and longing for vengeance, approached Arnita Brockington — the mother of Tyshawn Brockington, 23, Cartagena’s accomplice who was convicted of Chicken’s murder in June. Murphy convinced her to work toward ending the violence that sent both of their children away, one to a grave another to a prison cell.
In a press release announcing the conviction, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said he was not going to let Murphy’s killing be in vain and promised to make ending the bloody feud between the houses a “top priority” during his tenure.
“Tayshana Murphy was only 18 years old and dreamed of playing professional basketball, when she was shot to death by Robert Cartagena and Tyshawn Brockington,” said Vance. “We have seen too many innocent victims lose their lives — and too many families grieving loved ones — because of senseless feuds between young people who wreak havoc in their neighborhoods. I will continue to make it a top priority for my office to remove these dangerous weapons from our city and to work closely with our community partners to make our city safer.”
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NEW YORK — Elijah Henriques, 15, always loved to draw. He began drawing on paper, then on his schoolbooks and eventually he started making graffiti. After a neighbor witnessed Henriques tagging mailboxes in his Ozone Park, Queens, neighborhood, police officers pulled him off a city bus and arrested him and his friends.
Two months later on a Saturday afternoon, his graffiti was exhibited at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café in the East Village in Manhattan. His artwork was part of a show organized by the “Paint Straight” program, a nonprofit that’s designed to encourage teenagers who have been arrested for vandalism to express their art in safe and legal ways.
“It helps you understand that doing it illegally is a waste of time. That you can do it on canvas, too,” Henriques said at the “All-City Paint Straight Program Finale.”
Eighteen other young artists who had been arrested for graffiti displayed their work alongside Henriques. Colorful 18-by-21 canvases rested on easels throughout the small dark bar. A DJ spun hip-hop records as probation officers and family and friends of the artists streamed in to view and bid on the art in a silent auction.
Ralph Perez, 49, founded “Paint Straight” five years ago in collaboration with the New York City Department of Probation for teens who have been arrested for nonviolent crimes. The program lasts eight weeks and is often a requirement of probation or offered as an alternative to community service.
“Paint Straight” participants meet once a week at their respective borough’s family court facilities and receive art education and mentorship. Perez said that, out of the 111 kids whom he has helped in the last year, only four have been re-arrested for vandalism.
As Perez addressed the small crowd at Saturday’s graffiti show, he exuded fatherly pride toward his teenage “graduates.”
“These kids, I love them,” Perez said, apologizing as his voice cracked and he backed away from the microphone to regain composure.
Graduates of the program made their way across the stage where Perez gave each student a hug and a certificate.
“I just want you to know that I love you, man,” Perez told one graduate as he embraced him.
Perez, who goes by the name “Tatu,” is a graffiti artist of old-school fame. When he was a teenager, he founded the XMen crew, whose tags and murals filled the subway system during New York City’s graffiti heyday in the 1970s.
“Back then, New York was crumbling,” Perez said. “New York is like Disney Land now.”
He said that as the city’s landscape has changed and property values have raised, so too have the severity of punishments for so-called lifestyle crimes such as vandalism. Graffiti is punishable by fines, community service and incarceration for multiple offenders.
Perez was incarcerated after graffiti led to drugs and other crimes. He said that he began the program to prevent a similar fate for teens who are at an age when intervention is valuable.
“Graffiti was my gateway crime. It started with writing my name on the wall,” Perez said to the crowd at Nuyorican Poets Café.
In some ways, “Paint Straight” is no different than a formal painting class. Perez teaches the participants in the program the basics of how to use a brush and about style and form. Perez says that most of the teens he works with attend schools with little or no art education.
“I get a lot of calls from schools saying we don’t really have an art program in here,” Perez said.
Kenneth Choi, 15, another participant in the graffiti exhibit, said that his art improved over the course of the program.
He created a piece of art for the show that depicted the ocean with a baby blue sky and the word “Supreme” painted in bright red.
“I learned a lot about colors and contrast. Tatu taught us right,” Choi said. He sold his piece for $25 during the silent auction.
By the end of the show, 80 percent of the “Paint Straight” artwork was sold. The rest will be displayed in a Brooklyn Family Court room.
Michael Ognibene, the Department of Probation’s chief of staff, won nine of the silent auction items, the most of anyone in attendance.
“I saw [Keith] Haring’s stuff on the subway and Basquiat and I think I just bought nine more Harings,” Ognibene said of the canvases that were stacked in his hands.
“I wasn’t as bad as they say I was,” said disgraced former Juvenile Court Judge Mark Ciavarella, on his public perception in the wake of the Kids for Cash scandal.
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- After a few beers one evening in the mid 1960s, Mark Ciavarella, in high school at the time and applying the kind of inexplicable logic that experts say is typical of many teens whose brains have not fully developed, conspired to steal a car and go for a joyride with his cousin and a friend. A detective noticed the teenagers suspiciously lingering around the car and pulled over. Ciavarella’s friend and his cousin darted away, but Ciavarella was not so lucky. The detective nabbed him and threw him in the back of his police car.
The officer’s decision would determine the young Ciavarella’s future. Would he arrest and process the suspect, possibly derailing the young man’s promising future? A staggering number of young people who end up in the criminal justice system are more likely to end up in prison than they are to earn a college degree.
During the ride Ciavarella’s heart pounded. Instead of placing the young Ciavarella into the relentless teeth of the juvenile justice system he gave the young man a break and took him home. He was greeted by his hysterical mother screaming, “I can’t believe my son is a criminal!” His father’s feelings were equally clear; he reared back and punched his son in the face.
“Knocks me out cold,” Ciavarella says.
“I didn’t need the system to take care of my problems,” Ciavarella continues. “My parents took care of my problems.”
The tough love, however, did not work. Ciavarella, now a disgraced judge whose name is synonymous with one of the biggest judicial scandals in recent memory, will in all likelihood die behind bars. Ciavarella was a lifelong resident of Wilkes-Barre. Now, he is imprisoned in a federal penitentiary, inmate number 15008-067, more than a thousand miles away from his grandchildren. They will learn about their grandfather from the hundreds of news clippings that detail his breathtaking corruption, and in the movie about his exploits that he agreed to star in.
Ciavarella tells this story in series of riveting interviews -- conducted without the judge’s attorney’s knowledge -- in a new documentary directed by Robert May, called “Kids for Cash,” named after the scandal that dominated headlines, airwaves and dinner table conversations in this industrial town of roughly 40,000, the county seat of Luzerne County, near the Pocono Mountains in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
“It’s the story behind the story,” May said of “Kids for Cash,” which opens nationwide at the end of the month.
Ciavarella is doing time for his involvement in what prosecutors say was an elaborate kickback scheme for accepting what Ciavarella called “finder's fees” from Robert Mericle, head of the largest developer in Wilkes-Barre, which built two for-profit juvenile centers to replace the crumbling county-run facility.
Ciavarella proudly ran on a platform of zero tolerance in the mid 1990s. He ran ads during election season that promised he would teach children how to listen to rules if parents couldn’t. He kept a busy schedule on the lecture tour circuit, telling anyone who would listen that he would throw children in prison if given the chance. His message reflected what many experts say was the dominant one from law enforcement in the wake of the shootings in Columbine.
Ciavarella would put a child behind bars for an infraction as minor as cursing at an adult or having a slap fight in gym class. But here he was reminiscing to May about his time as a teenager, ready to commit a felony stealing a car, and given a break by a police officer.
He grew up to become a juvenile court judge who aped the ultra strict worldview of his father and ended up convicted on a laundry list of federal charges, facing nearly three decades in prison.
May, the Academy Award-winning producer of Errol Morris’s “Fog of War,” tried to point out the mindbending hypocrisy that Ciavarella displayed in recounting that story.
“He missed the irony of it all entirely,” May said as he talked about his latest movie in a Midtown film company office in New York City. “I literally tried to point out the irony on display there. He couldn’t see it that way. I think he was raised by strict parents. He took his father’s word like it came directly from God, and that’s what the judge’s belief system was. His kids said as they grew up, that’s how they described him, that’s what he was -- a zero tolerance father.”
May, who lives in Luzerne County with his wife and teenage son, 17, and daughter, 14, spent as many as 16 hours a day interviewing the subjects in the film. His aim was to tell the whole story, not just make an issues oriented film that preached to the choir, he said. He would have abandoned the project if he could not secure the “villain’s side of the story,” as he described it -- Judge Ciavarella and his accomplice, and once close friend, in the “Kids for Cash” scandal, Judge Michael Conahan.
“No one would ever look at the whole picture,” Ciavarella says. “They only wanted to look at a little bit of the picture.”
On some occasions, he would spend eight hours with a child who was thrown in a detention facility by Ciavarella, and for the next eight hours he would spend in intimate conversation with the judge who put the child there.
May’s “Kids for Cash” is not a polemic. It is filled with facts and figures that advocates and experts are all too familiar with, but they are not what drives the film’s tense, gripping narrative. It is the specific details of the characters’ stories from all sides of the scandal -- including the judge, the children and their families, scandal-hungry residents, and the diligent reporters who helped break the scandal wide open -- that makes it so engrossing.
His film explores the emotional inner-lives of all the characters whose lives were swept up in the controversy, most intriguingly former judge Ciavarella, who many locals here look at as evil personified.
The residents of the towns in Luzerne County had their first opportunity to hear their hometown villain, Ciavarella, for themselves when May screened the movie last Thursday night at the RC Theatres in the heart of downtown Wilkes-Barre. When Ciavarella became a Juvenile Court judge in Luzerne County he promised to mete out the kind of punishment that informed him as a child. If the parents of Wilkes-Barre could not raise their children then he would.
Whether in a genuine attempt to relate his story, which he feels has been twisted by a vulturish media, or an act of pathological narcissism, Ciavarella agreed to secretly meet with May and his producer Lauren Timmons and answer questions about the scandal.
“I have not told my attorney that I agreed to do this documentary, and maybe me doing what I’m doing is going to come back to hurt me,” Ciavarella says in the film. “But I felt this was an opportunity for me to let people know what really happened. I’m not this mad judge who was just throwing kids away and shipping them out and locking them up putting them in shackles.”
May does not use voiceovers in the film. He said it was both a storytelling decision and a journalistic one. He wanted his movie to feel more like a tense thriller instead of a gussied up newsy docudrama. But he also wanted to put the onus on the audience. He wanted them to draw their own conclusions of Ciavarella.
Ciavarella insists in one interview that he did not take a “penny” to throw children in detention center cells. And it’s in that comment that May tips his hand a bit as to where he comes down in the controversy. He seems to be saying the judge didn’t need money to throw children in prison. He was happy to do it for free.
“The way Ciavarella ran the courtroom,” said one defense attorney interviewed in the film, “you could have had F. Lee Bailey there and the kids were going to go away.”
The money and the implication of quid pro quo and corruption around investors, land developers and money laundering brought attention to what advocates and experts say was the real scandal that was happening in plain sight. Ciavarella, emboldened by the trendy policy initiative coined “zero-tolerance,” used his position of power to throw an estimated 3,000 children into juvenile detention centers, many of them for minor offenses.
More troubling, say experts such as Marsha Levick, is that this all happened in open court in front of prosecutors, public defenders, and other members of the court. Instead of stepping in to stop it they let it go on, while child after child was taken from their families and thrown into detention facilities like something out of an absurdist nightmare.
“I think there's a coziness that happens in courtrooms, particularly in small towns with the same lawyers coming before the same judge over and over again,” she said. “It’s a cocoon of silence; it’s a go-along-to-get-along situation. No one wants to challenge the judge.”
If Ciavarella is the villain in this narrative, then Levick is one of the heroes, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. She helped bring to light the Ciavarella’s draconian system of incarcerating children for minor offenses with no legal representation. She helped get his first victim -- Hillary Transue, who Ciavarella put away for making a satirical MySpace page about a vice principal -- out of the county run juvenile detention center after she learned that the judge had denied her an attorney. The Juvenile Law Center reversed and expunged 2,480 of Ciavarella’s convictions.
Echoing one of May’s themes running through the film, Levick said the real scandal was how cavalierly and routinely Ciavarella violated thousands of young defendants' rights.
“We can hear the $2.9 million figure and most people think, ‘That’s unbelievable, that’s not happening here,” she said. “I think in Luzerne County you had this internal conspiracy of silence. There were professionals in the courtroom every day -- lawyers, probations officers, court officers, public defenders -- who could see every day the parade of constitutional violations that was going on in front of them.”
And the application of zero-tolerance fueled policies is not limited to the imprisoned disgraced judges of Luzerne County, Levick said.
“The day to day violations of the kids’ rights do go on all over the country,” she said. “The dynamics that were present in Luzerne County are present elsewhere.”
May says he is no longer any good at parties. The making of the film, which he started to film as the scandal was unfolding in real time in April of 2009, has transformed him. He cannot participate in a conversation without him dredging up some statistics about the pittance society spends to educate children versus how much it splurges to incarcerate them, or rattling on about the “school-to-prison pipeline."
“I’m serious about this,” he said. “I literally can’t stop talking about it.”
Even his children, he said, have gotten impatient with his newfound passion. After he recently scolded his son for some minor infraction, his son shot back: “It’s like you told me, Dad: my brain isn’t fully developed yet!”
May said he thinks his “a-ha” moment in shooting the film is when he started interviewing Charlie Balasavage, who was sent away by Ciavarella for possessing a stolen scooter. Balasavage wanted to go to school, May said, but he was scared to go because of the ridicule he endured for having a speech impediment.
“Ciavarella thought he knew all he needed to know about Charlie after he flipped through some documents,” May said. “But he didn’t know him. And that goes for this whole system of zero-tolerance. They don’t know anything about these kids.”
For many Luzerne County residents who attended Thursday night’s screening, watching the children describe in exquisite detail the fallout from Ciavarella’s abuse generated strong emotion. Viewers in Auditorium 7 gasped and expressed outrage in hushed tones as the movie delved into the stories.
There was not an audience in the nation who was more familiar with the details May chronicles in “Kids for Cash.” And yet it still stoked an irrepressible sense of rage in the audience similar to the incredulous reaction upon reading "The Count of Monte Cristo" -- if you reimagine Edmond Dantes as a chubby, babyfaced child with a speech impediment.
And May said that’s the point. He said the gasps of shock in the theater did not surprise him. As much as people thought they knew about the scandal, they didn’t know its human scale until they could hear those horror stories in the voices of the people who were affected by the judicial abuse that played out in the juvenile court.
Some of them in ways that could not be undone.
After the viewing, some of the children and parents featured in the film joined a catered after-party, with tables covered in black and white tablecloths decorated with flickering candles. A massive “Kids for Cash” poster of a child in a cage ringed with razor wire stood yards away from a display of Lego characters. A neon yellow sign announced the “Snack Bar” in the movie theater lobby. The concession stand was closed, but beneath the glass, the candy display was filled with a dazzling array of confections from Raisinets to M&Ms, and set on the counter a sign advertised a tub of buttery popcorn and free refills.
Above the carefree innocence associated with movie theater treats was a screen mechanically scrolling through grim statistics about the juvenile justice system.
If someone would have asked Sandy Fonzo what she thought about the juvenile justice system, criminal justice reform and zero tolerance she would have shrugged and looked back blankly at the questioner.
“I didn’t know anything,” she said. “I was absolutely unaware.”
She never considered herself a political person.
“But now I do,” she said.
When May screened the film for her for the first time, Fonzo learned that Ciavarella was also in it. Initially, she said, it felt like “a slap in the face.” But she eventually came to understand that the movie needed balance, and more importantly, insight into their decision making so hopefully what happened to her son wouldn’t happen to other children.
In the film, Fonzo explains how her son, Ed Konzakoski, ended up in front of Ciavarella in a misguided attempt by her son’s father to scare him straight.
“He went in there a free spirited kid,” she says, “and he came out a hardened man.”
Konzakowski shot himself in the heart after years wallowing in a system he was placed in by Ciavarella.
“I don’t think I’ll ever have to see this movie ever again,” she said.
Fonzo has dedicated her life to reforming the system that she blames for taking her son’s life. She runs a blog called Prison 4 Profit. Her business card has the words “Seeking the End of Modern Slavery” written on it in italics. She has lost her innocence, she says, and can no longer go back to the days when she had the luxury not to know what was going on election day.
“I’d never been to court,” she said. “I thought these were professionals, these are people who have the kids’ best interests at heart. They were going to fix things. I was naive. I trusted them. I don’t know that I’ll ever trust anyone ever again.”
Hillary Transue, now 22 and studying creative writing at a graduate program in nearby Wilkes University, said she is happy May’s film has given her and the other victims of Ciavarella’s zero tolerance policies a voice.
“That’s what has the power to make change,” she said.
She said she is used to talking about the inequities of the juvenile justice system.
“I’ve sort of been in this role as as a victim and advocate since I was 15 years old,” she said.
She said even before she was hauled in front of Ciavarella, there was a palpable sense in her community that teenagers and children were looked at warily.
“We didn’t have the words for it then, zero-tolerance, but there was always the sense in our community that we were not trusted by adults. After a while you get to the point where you don’t trust adults.”
Judy Lorah, aunt to Amanda Lorah who was put into a detention center by Ciavarella for fight during a volleyball game, smiled as she chatted with other members of the audience during the reception after the show. As the scandal unfolded, she brought a document to educational administrators showing a list of 153 children from Amanda’s school who Ciavarella had put behind bars.
“I’m proud of the movie, the kids’ story needed to be told,” she said. “I think it’s started the healing process. For all these years we’ve only heard the judges stories. They never really told what happened to the children, how it affected their lives, how it affected their family's lives.”
Amanda’s father did not have time to talk. He had to rush to the hospital. After Amanda had taken some promotional pictures she had been rushed off to the hospital. She had gone into labor. She was going to give birth to her first child.
Our Lady of Fatima Blessed Grotto is a clumsy jumble of religious iconography on North Street on the outskirts of downtown set in a horseshoe shaped space blasted out of a rocky hillside. Among the votive candles, cherubic winged angels and carved beatific lambs, there is a white statue of a child kneeling in supplication before a flesh-colored Jesus mounted on a low cliff where a visitor can take in the grandeur of the courthouse.
When it was built in the early 20th Century, the Luzerne County Courthouse was intended to be a soaring tribute to the success of Wilkes-Barre as a burgeoning powerhouse in the tri-state area, a monument to public pride. There are few streets in Wilkes-Barre where residents or visitors do not have a clear view of the majestic courthouse, which sits on South Main Street along the banks of the Susquehanna River. It is a towering beaux-art bulwark with an opulent marble dome buttressed by a series of elegant arches that towers above the mom-and-pop shops, university buildings and well-kept middle class homes that make up the town.
But now, with two of its once most respected judges in prison in the wake of the scandal, to many residents the majestic building is a reproach, a troubling reminder of what happens when absolute power goes unchecked, and how it can determine the fates of its most vulnerable citizens.
Just blocks away from the courthouse, looming on a hill, sits the shuttered county-run juvenile facility, closed to make way for the private detention centers at the heart of the scandal. It is where Ciavarella sent his first batch of zero-tolerance offenders. Approaching it at night beneath a full moon the padlocked mansion-like structure feels like an eerie set piece from a horror movie.
The new facility built, named PA Child Care, is difficult to find. It doesn’t show up on Mericle’s website along with their other properties. It’s four miles away from the courthouse and there are no signs leading visitors to it. It sits at the bottom of a lonely hill sandwiched between the train tracks and Grimes Industrial Park, also built by the same developer charged with paying off the judges. The building looks like it could fit in unobtrusively at a local office park.
“We lived in our own little bubble, all of us, living out our own little lives,” Fonzo said, a picture of her and her dead son engraved on a silver heart that hangs from her neck. “We weren’t aware of any troubles in our town. But now I am. And it’s a scary world out there.”
“A lot of parents out here are scared of their own kids”: Venus Singleton, the mother of a boy shot as part of the blood feud between rival houses in Harlem.
From a Skirmish to a War
NEW YORK — The father of the dead girl takes a look at the brown painted door and shakes his head with contempt. He’s standing where his favorite daughter had danced moments before she was chased down and shot four flights overhead on a cool late summer morning.
“If that door was fixed,” he says pulling at the busted entrance door, “then none of this would’ve happened. She’d be alive. Playing basketball. My life would’ve kept going like it was. But that’s not what happend. It was broken. We’re talking two years later. How can these kids be safe?”
Taylonn Murphy ambles through the same door his daughter, Tayshana, ran through the night she was killed, and into the lobby of 3170 Broadway, one of the nine high-rise buildings that make up the General Ulysses S. Grant Houses, near the border of Harlem and Morningside Heights.
“You can’t believe the emotion that I feel walking into this building,” he said, taking a deep breath, as if to steel himself.
He walks slowly through the squalid lobby. A message is scrawled on one of the mailboxes built into the wall to the right of the elevator. It warns the police to keep out. There are two staircases in front of Murphy marked with signs indicating well A and well B.
See more photos from Harlem on JJIE's Art & Photo Blog HERE.
Murphy chooses B, the one his daughter’s killers took the morning they shot her to death on Sept. 11, 2011.
He explains the details of the case the best he knows them, after sitting in on hours of hearings and court trials. There was a fight between groups of youths from the Grant Houses and the Manhattanville Houses that night. Some youths from the Manhattanville Houses had vengeance on their mind.
“It takes a lot out of you,” he said, huffing as he climbed another of the 43 stairs, retracing the killers route one step at a time. “You try to do the best you can.”
According to the Manhattan’s district attorney’s office, Taylonn’s daughter, known to her friends, basketball teammates and family as Chicken, was outside when two young men from Manhattanville came looking to settle the score. Prosecutors described it as a “cold and calculated hit.” The two men criminally charged with shooting Murphy reportedly said they did not “give a fuck” when she pleaded with them that she was not involved in the fight.
Murphy, a senior at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers, was considered one of the best players in the nation; a point guard. She had aspirations -- realistic ones according to scouts -- of starting for a WNBA team.
“Chicken ran up the other stairs,” her father said, trudging up the staircase. “Them boys, they came this way.”
Somewhere in the flights above, someone slammed a door sending a report echoing down the building. Murphy paused when he reached the spot where the gunman fired the shots that killed his daughter.
“He got here and at about the same time she came out of the other stairwell, and that’s when it happened,” he said. “He shot her. Pop. Pop. Pop. This is basically the spot where she died. This spot is where it went from a skirmish to a war -- to where we are today.”
Ghostly tributes to Tayshana are barely visible on the dimly lit hallway wall. They show signs of being scrubbed off. One wishes the dead girl, a “Happy 20th BDAY.” Taylonn’s daughter was 18 when she was killed.
“Look at this,” Murphy says, clenching his jaw. It’s the one time he betrays any real anger during the tour of his daughter’s murder scene. “They’ll make sure they clean up a birthday message to my dead daughter,” he hisses through his teeth.
Somewhere upstairs a loud voice echoes in the stairwell. Murphy struggles with his emotion. Tears well for an instant. The moment passes and he finds his composure.
“But they can’t find time to fix a door,” he said. “A door. But they sure as hell make sure they clean this up. What does that say?”
A Broken Door Lets In a Killer and Lets Loose Vengeance
The crack in the dented metal door at 5170 Broadway in the Grant Houses is barely an inch wide. It’s hard to notice. The door is supposed to lock automatically when it slams shut behind you, but it hasn’t worked properly for a long time. On its own, nothing is particularly noteworthy about a broken door in a New York CIty Housing Authority property. Many of the doors in New York City’s housing projects are busted, and residents grow accustomed to it.
But shoddy door repairs and poor upkeep do not explain the role this run-down housing complex has in one of the bloodiest and most violent feuds in the city. Murphy’s killing on an early morning in the gloomily lit fourth floor hallway has led to a series of retaliatory beatings, stabbings and shootings. This historical beef between rival houses has turned into internecine warfare between the two sides since the morning of Murphy’s murder.
On the night she died, Tayshana Murphy was chased into her building by residents of the Manhattanville Houses and gunned down -- “smoked,” as the killer described it -- just feet away from the safety of her apartment and her mother. She was not the first victim to be hunted down, shot and killed in the long-standing feud between the residents of the Manhattanville and Grant Houses, massive apartment complexes that sit across from each other like two ominous fortresses at the intersection between Harlem and Morningside Heights in the northwestern corner of Manhattan. And, judging by the fate of those who’ve been beaten or shot since, she won’t be the last.
“It’s called despair,” Taylonn Murphy said. “It’s not just this community, it’s all communities where young men and women are willing to stomp each other, stab each other, shoot each other. This is what things look like when hope is gone.”
Now, with the trial of Robert Cartagena, one of Tayshana Murphy’s accused killers, set to start, there is a palpable fear the violence will increase. Police who patrol the area say it’s just a matter of time until one of those bullets hits a vital organ and kills another teenager in this seemingly pointless warfare between Harlem’s own Montagues and Capulets.
“It’s not like they’re missing on purpose,” said a community affairs officer who works in the 26th Precinct.
No one can articulate why the blood runs so bad between the two houses. Old timers say that in the old days it was about pride, girls, boasting about who was tougher. Back then, fists, not guns, settled the score, residents said.
That is part of what makes the bloodshed so frustrating for people who are trying to stop it. It’s fueled by an almost inscrutable rage against people who live seven-tenths of a mile from one another; who are, they say, trapped in the same predicament of unemployment and listlessness, caught in the crosshairs of a crushing boredom.
“P” is 17 and was born and raised in the Grant Houses. The combatants in this homegrown strife struggle to give a meaningful explanation for their behavior, even though for many it defines who they are. They freely acknowledge that their foes are teenagers and children who, like themselves, have grown up on the same city blocks and have often attended the same school together as little boys. And as teenagers they have more in common, including a shared frustration at their neighborhood and dim prospects. Nevertheless, the rivalry persists.
“When you’re young, growing up, you don’t want to share the block with no one else,” he said. “I want it to stop, but I know it ain’t going to stop anytime soon. We have too much pride, you know? We don’t want them to have the last word. It’s a brotherhood with people you came up with. It’s not about the brick or the mortar, it’s not about the building. It’s about where you come from.”
“That’s what we like to do,” explained a tautological Naquan Brockington, 17, the brother of Tayshana’s killer. “There’s nothing for us to do. We don’t have nothing to do. If we’re not fighting we’re just hanging out. If we ain’t fighting we’re getting locked up.”
Last summer, when Tyshawn Brockington was sentenced to 25 years to life for killing Murphy, Justice Thomas Farber, the judge who heard the case, described the hatred between the two sides as motivated by “desire to create self-worth by creating a sense of otherness in people who should be your brothers and sisters. This is a cold-blooded execution — I can't think of any other way to describe it."
In the months after the verdict, Chicken’s father took that message to heart. He reached out to Arnita Brockington, the mother of his daughter’s killer, and Derrick Haynes, whose brother was the first fatality in the feud, and asked them to help him bring an end to the blood feud that cost his daughter her life. The three have started an anti-violence campaign in the two houses. They have done everything from holding rallies to looking for jobs.
“A lot of the children from the Grant Houses are still angry over what happened to Taylonn’s little girl, Chicken,” Arnita Brockington said. “And a lot of kids from Manhattanville are angry my son is under arrest and in prison. There’s still a lot of hurting on both sides.”
Murphy and Haynes have physically intervened in the feud. They have put their bodies on the line. Pacing the courtyards and streets of Harlem, they reach out to teens who are on the verge of violence, making efforts to negotiate a peace. For a while they were successful. A truce held, but it has since fallen apart.
An Old Feud Fueled By Desperation and Made Deadly by Guns
Dedications to the dead like those to Chicken are familiar in the Grant Houses, as they are less than a mile away and just across Broadway at the Manhattanville Houses. The two apartment complexes sit on superblocks on the northwest corner of Harlem, just a few blocks from Columbia University, which is in the process of building a new science center right in between the houses.
Like much of gentrified New York, the neighborhood has recently transformed in ways that are hard to believe. But even as newer and richer residents have moved in, the prospects for the teenagers in the houses have remained stagnant at best. Occasionally a side street shuts down and some do-gooders roll out a lopsided basketball hoop on wheels, or a scuffed ping pong table or some other ramshackle distraction. But most of the time, it’s a life of monotony. School and the streets, streets and school. No community center, no programs.
“Myself, and Arnita and Taylonn, we’re adamant about this,” Haynes said. “We have a big issue here. Kids are going to die. We negotiated a truce, we got these kids to put their guns down for a while, and check their bad attitudes and be neutral. But there’s only so much we could do.”
The violence can break out anywhere. Haynes and Murphy recalled an incident at the pool over the summer. Some Manhattanville youths saw some Grant youths in the public pool and the two groups collided at the fence and threatened each other through the fence. The violence grew so bad at the juvenile detention facilities that the arrestees from the two houses needed to be sent to different boroughs to keep them from fighting while in custody.
The most recent incident reported to police in this boredom-fueled blood feud occurred a few weeks ago. Some teenagers from the Grant Houses attacked a 17-year-old boy from Manhattanville near a store on Old Broadway.The victim was beaten with an unknown object and suffered cuts to his head and chest. Javon Peterson, 16, and Terrance Milton, 21, were arrested and charged with second degree gang assault, according to police.
A trip to the Lincoln Fried Chicken near Old Broadway, a contested neutral zone where much of the violence occurs, can lead to a brick attack, or a beat down. Often, the victims of these non-life threatening attacks don’t even bother reporting these incidents to police. They bring them back to their people at the houses.
Haynes and Murphy said the local children are indoctrinated into the feud at younger and younger ages. They said boys as young as 11 and 12 are recruited by the older teenagers to start scrums with the children from the other complex. They’ll have them collect rocks, bottles, and any projectiles they can find on the street or rummage from a city garbage can, and go and throw them at their rivals. These lead to fights that lead to beatings that lead to retaliation until the violence ends at the end of the barrel of a gun. And then the cycle of vengeance starts up again.
A Killer’s Mother, A Victim’s Father and a Desperate Plea
It all started with a dance.
Eli Haynes Jr., a 15-year-old, had attended a party one summer night in 1972. He would not make it home to his apartment in the Manhattanville Houses. A trifling dispute over a girl and a dance that lasted too long led to a gun brandished by one of the boys. Eli ran to break it up and was shot. He bled to death on the basketball court. Haynes was 10 when his brother was gunned down. He remembers the frantic moments when the news reached his house, even now as he tries to end the violence that some residents say started this rivalry.
“This right here, we’re two minutes from Ground Zero, so put your helmets on,” Haynes says with a smile.
On the route from Grant to Manhattanville he gives a running commentary of the rivalry.
“A boy was stomped there,” he said pointing to a stretch of wide sidewalk. “Over there one was attacked with bottles. They’ll move from their fists to bottles, from bottles to bats, from bats to knives, and from knives to the gun.”
On the way he runs into an old friend. The Mighty Mike Cee started his rap group in 1972, the same year the feud caught its first body, Haynes’s bother Eli. The band was named the Fearless Four, and it featured two members from Grant and two from Manhattanville. Back then it was no big deal. Now the Mighty Mike Cee, a father of two daughters in Manhattanville, said such a thing would be unimaginable.
“These same kids who are firing at each other and whatnot are the same kids who are going to school with each other,” he said. “It’s about the kids. Ever since that night Chicken got killed there’s been major beef. These kids hope to harm each other.”
Haynes continues his routine patrol, walking back and forth between the Grant and Manhattanville houses when a young man catches his eye. Earlier in the year, Haynes met this boy after he had been arrested and brought into the Bronx juvenile correctional facility where Haynes works. The boy, 16 and a resident of the Grant Houses, recognized Haynes as a prominent resident from Manhattanville. The boy made Haynes a promise that night. He told Haynes that as soon as he got out he’d take care of him on the street.
Now, months later, he is walking along Broadway with a friend near 126th Street. This is the first time they have seen each other since the boy made the threat. Haynes pulls him aside.
“Hey,” he calls out. “You remember me,” he asks with a knowing smile.
A look of recognition flashes on the boy’s face. Haynes approaches him.
“How you doing?”
“Nothing,” the boy responds sullenly.
“What are you doing?”
“You know, chilling,” he responds.
They exchange a few words. Haynes asks if he needs anything. The boy shakes his head sheepishly.
“A job,” he answers without hesitation.
“We’re working on it,” Haynes said, clasping the young man’s hand and pulling him affectionately into his chest . “We’re working on it.”
Both Sides of the Gun
Haynes and Murphy envision turning Old Broadway, the ground zero of all the violence, into a demilitarized zone -- a permanent “play street.” They want to convert two abandoned, shuttered beauty salons into youth community centers, staffed with mediators, intervenors with moral authority, seen by youths from both sides as credible.
“We all are coming together to try to get this thing squashed,” Haynes said. “It’s rare to have parents from both sides of the gun to come together and and bring a message of peace to the community.”
The young people tell Brockington and Haynes and Murphy that they respect what the three survivors are doing. But they add, they need more than three symbols; they need something to do.
“These programs do more than just get them off the street,” Murphy said. “It does more than give them opportunity to get employment. It gives them something else they need -- to show them that someone out there cares,” he said as he walked through the courtyard of the Grant Houses, nodding and making himself visible to anyone who might need his counsel.
While Arnita and Taylonn have been able to set aside their differences, their children have not. Naquan Brockington, Arnita’s son and Tyshawn’s younger brother, and Bam Bam Murphy, Chicken’s younger brother, still resent each other.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of people who are willing to do it, I caught a lot of heat for it, from my mother and my children, but they’re coming around slowly but surely.” “Once we start thinking this is a normal way of life then we’re basically committing to genocide.”
A Passport For Success
It was cramped and hot in the Community Board building. Members from both houses, some of whom had fought in the past, sat scrunched together around a small office table. Outside, Old Broadway had been converted for the day into a “Play Street” with a basketball hoop rolled out for the local youth to shoot around.
A mix of community affairs officers and patrol cops from the 26th Precinct lingered at the end of the street. Inside, Theodore Gershon, an adviser in his 60s from Columbia University’s community affairs office, led a jobs seminar organized by Murphy and Haynes. They described it as a “baby step,” a way to get the two sides to sit down and focus on something other than revenge. Gershon would later comment on how he had never felt so much tension in a room before.
Gershon explained to the teenagers and young adults in attendance, among them Tayshana’s brother, that this was a long step in the often frustrating process of just being able to get a chance to get an opportunity to get in a line for a job. He handed out some forms and leaflets. One of them read: “My Passport For Success” and had bullet points of advice on how to secure and keep a job: “Attitude and Behavior, Initiate and Seek Opportunities, Adapt to change.”
As Gershon walked everyone through what to fill out and where to send it, Bam Bam, 17, noticed through the window that Tyshawn Brockington kept riding and popping wheelies on his bike to get his rivals attention and glowering at him. Bam Bam’s friend elbowed him and motioned with a meaningful expression to Brockington’s display. Their eyes met through the window. Bam Bam exploded.
“This is bullshit man,” he barked. “We need jobs now. Not these forms,” he said slamming his fists on the table.
He got up and headed for the door with his friend in tow. Taylonn hustled after him. Father and son, exchanged heated words. Bam Bam tensed up. Across the street, Brockington kept staring. The young residents from both sides were waiting for something to happen. Police noticed the tension and got ready to move.
Taylonn calmed his son down enough to send him in the direction of the Grant Houses and away from Brockington. He stalked off agitated, but he left without incident.
Afterward, Taylonn was in good spirits.
“That was the first time they’ve been together since Chicken was killed where they have gotten into a physical confrontation,” he said beaming.
We Ain’t No Gang
After Bam Bam left, Arnita led her son over to Gershon. The two had a long conversation, and Brockington took his card with a promise to call him soon.
Bam Bam has a disarming, wide smile and a tattoo that runs the length of his arm that reads “Loyalty Over Love.” It took awhile, he said, for him to come to terms with his father’s mission to embrace the mother of the rival who murdered his sister. And there are times when it’s harder to accept than others.
“At the end of the day we took a loss, we lost my sister, and people have a certain feeling over that,” he said.
He said he is frustrated that outsiders see him and his friends as irredeemable thugs. He says he is just as frustrated by the violence.
“We’re out here strong,” he said. “They labeled us a gang. We ain’t no gang. We just grew up together. We don’t have secret meetings or talk about stuff like that.”
Bam Bam made a motion with his fingers indicating money.
“Listen, man, if we had some money, if we had jobs,” he made a sweeping gesture with his arms taking in both projects. “This whole thing, this beef? There’d be no beef. No one would care.”
Naquan Brockington, although he would never admit in front of Bam Bam, agrees.
“I don’t know why we’re fighting,” he said after a long pause. “We don’t know what we’re fighting for really. Hopefully before someone dies again this thing will be squashed. Nobody knows. Maybe if we had some jobs out here, something to do, we wouldn’t be fighting.”
Brockington said his brother gave him a message to deliver to his people in Manhattanville.
“He tells them all to stop fighting. He gave the call to stop fighting. He don’t want them to be where he’s at. He looks at it, like, that his life is already gone, it’s over. He doesn’t want me or his friends in the situation he in -- behind bars facing 25 to life.”
He talks about his brother obliquely, without explicitly mentioning the killing.
“It’s stressful,” he said about his brother in jail, possibly for the rest of his life. “I’m sad. I’m missing him. I hate that he put himself in that predicament. He don’t really talk about it. When I see him he says he just wants to come home.
“They be trying to stop it, but there’s nothing they can do. They can’t stop it. The only way it’s going to stop is if we stop it. Some of them is listening, but I can’t stop tell them what to do, they’re the same age as me.”
“I want to go to a safe place”
The last thing Venus Singleton remembers hearing as she sat on a bench outside of her building on 550 125th St. in the Grant Houses before the gun shots was her son LaQuint’s voice. He was warning her and his little brother to get inside.
“He went to the little chicken place around the corner,” she said recalling the evening. “He yelled, ‘Mom! You and Karron get back in the building!’ I wasn’t confused. I saw like nine of them together. I yelled at my little son to get back in the building and that’s when it happened.”
She heard five shots. The dents from the bullets are visible on a column above her head where she stands and recounts what happened that evening. Everybody was running up the path toward the building in a frenzy, but not LaQuint. She pushed past the frenzied crowd and headed toward the sound of the gunfire.
“Everybody was running one way and I was going the other,” she said. “Where the hell was LaQuint at? That’s all I was thinking. I needed to see where my son was at.”
When she saw him, at the spot where the pathway meets the sidewalk, lying in a burgeoning pool of his own blood, she thought he was dead.
And then he lifted his head.
“‘Mom calm down,’ he told me,” she said. “‘It don’t hurt that much. I’m money,’ he told me.”
Singleton saw the gunman and his accomplices running across the street toward Old Broadway and the Manhattanville Houses. Someone nearby flagged down a patrol car and paramedics were called. While he was lifted into the back of the ambulance, LaQuint confided to his mother: “I can’t cry, mom. I can’t cry. I can’t cry.”
“It was a lot of pride,” she said. “He wouldn’t drop a tear.”
Singleton said she does not know what the answers are. She said the inexplicable feelings these children have toward each other show no signs of letting up. She wants someone to do something, but isn’t certain what that is.
“In the last few years there have been more shootings, more gunshots, it ain’t getting better, it’s just getting worse,” she said. “A lot of mothers are going to cry if we don’t do something about this. It’s a life or death situation for my sons and I want to go to a safe place but I don’t know where that is.”
A lot changed for Singleton after the shooting. The light went out in LaQuint’s eyes, she said. He used to be full of energy. Now, she said, he just sits and stares. She had to learn how to change a colostomy bag. She consults a sheet obsessively to make sure she is properly following the instructions.
She has learned that the type of bowel movements her son has and the type of bag he uses affects how long to keep the pouch on. He doesn’t have the disposable bags. So she needs to be attentive to wash them out thoroughly. She made an anguished sound trying to explain the sense of shame she felt being disgusted having to handle her son’s excrement.
At first, the process would make her dry heave, but she has started to get used to it. She still calls the nurses several times a day to make sure she doesn’t make a mistake. She worries if she does, that he’ll get an infection. Then, she’ll make things worse than they already are.
NEW YORK — The drawings that once were confined to his notebook were eventually found on light poles, sidewalk curbs and storefront gates along Roosevelt Avenue.
Alexis Serrano and his graffiti crew covered one of Queens most targeted commercial strips with their ominous sprayed-painted tags in June and July.
“We would go around 3 in the morning because not many people would be out,” he said. “We would go from the beginning of Roosevelt up to 82nd Street.”
Most of the tags are gone now. Serrano can’t recall how many businesses and abandoned buildings they hit in those two months. But he says he will always remember standing before the judge in Queens Criminal Court awaiting his sentence. It was his third arrest for vandalism charges.
“The judge told me that I would be charged as an adult,” Serrano said.
But instead of time behind bars, Serrano, 17, was placed in a long-term alternative sentencing program often given to young offenders.
“I did not have any other choice,” Serrano said. “I had charges pending and my lawyer told me it was my only opportunity or I would go to Rikers.”
The Queens District Attorney started the Second Chance Program 25 years ago to give first-time, nonviolent offenders a chance to redeem themselves through community service. After finding teens desecrating a cemetery with graffiti, a group of reverends spearheaded the program.
Graffiti vandals have always been the most prevalent cases.
“We need more programs like these to keep kids out of the criminal justice system for minor offenses,” said Gail Giordano, the assistant district attorney. “Some have a hard time facing what they’ve done and if they can’t do that, chances are they’ll do it again.”
Giordano, who oversees the program, says most defendants with graffiti cases struggle with an addiction.
“It’s almost a scream for help,” she said.
Rick Stanton, a graffiti expert based in California, says tagging accounts for 70 to 95 percent of graffiti vandalism in the U.S.
“The competition is to get your tagging crew’s markers up as many times as possible,” Stanton said. “They want recognition and their primary motivation is for their work to be seen.”
Serrano spent the remainder of his summer cleaning up graffiti with the Woodside Neighborhood Association, a local organization in Queens.
Serrano has tagged what he said were mostly factories, mailboxes and other “easy targets” since the 6th grade.
“Tagging homes is more disrespectful. I like to put emotions, it could be struggle or whatever I’m feeling,” Serrano said. “I try to create a scene and hope someone can understand it.”
Despite growing up in a two-parent household, Serrano said, only one has been present for most of his childhood.
“I've mostly had a feminine influence. My relationship with my dad hasn’t changed since I started the program,” Serrano said. “When I'm in the house, he's not here. I haven't gotten the father side so that's why I'm always mad.”
Nicholai Khan, a graffiti vandal turned notable artist in Bayside Queens, completed Second Chance 13 years ago, but has never left. Now, Khan, 33, teaches art to defendants in the program. He said youth often use graffiti as a tool of rebellion rather than expression.
“They leave their mark in a world that feels hopeless to them,” Khan said. “It is a statement of angst in society and they feel like outcasts, especially in their families.”
Serrano’s case was dismissed in November. Because of his progress, he finished only 70 of his 120 assigned community service hours.
“I’m glad they caught me when they did because I would have ended up doing worse,” Serrano said. “Not a lot of people get their record clean and this program gave me that opportunity.”
NEW YORK — Teenagers file into a nondescript office building, signing in on a clipboard at the front desk. They walk past a small waiting area and into a windowless room with bare white walls. The teens change into blue polo shirts with the Staten Island Youth Justice Center logo.
The teens take on different roles every day at the Youth Court. Today, Michael, 16, is the judge; Brendon, also 16, is the community advocate and Hareem, 17, is the youth advocate. Michael changes into judge’s robes while Brendon and Hareem take notes on their clipboards. Braylon, 16, plays the bailiff.
Jackie Romanoff, Youth Court coordinator, pops her head into the room.
“Do you guys know the offense?” she asks.
“Criminal trespassing,” Hareem says, looking up from her notes.
The Staten Island Youth Justice Center is where the Youth Court holds peer-led hearings. Formed under the Center for Court Innovation in 2008, the court is made up of teens and provides an alternative to family or criminal court for kids age 14-18, where, if the teen is 16 or older, they would be tried as adults, and minor offenses like shoplifting or possession of marijuana would stay on their permanent record.
Braylon gets up from his seat next to the judge to escort the respondent (who would be called a defendant in a regular court). Fifteen-year-old Anton* (*not his real name) walks into the room. Romanoff tells him to put his school bag down, but he refuses to take his coat off. Pulling up his pants, he walks over to his seat and sits with his arms crossed and his hood up over his head. Braylon asks the room to stand in honor of the judge and recites an oath of confidentiality.
Brendon reads his opening statement as the community advocate, followed by Hareem who reads an opening statement in the respondent’s defense.
“[Anton] is 15 years old, a sophomore at Curtis High School with a 70 average. He plays basketball and lives with his aunt,” Hareem says. “Please keep this in mind when you hear his story.”
The hearing continues, and Anton tells his version of the events that led to his criminal trespassing charge. He was also charged with smoking marijuana, which he denies doing. The jury takes turns asking questions and Hareem leads her peers in a vote for Anton’s sanctions. He is ordered to attend a decision-making workshop and is assigned a 200-word essay. Then he is introduced to Romanoff’s intern Helen Hyppolite, who will track Anton’s case and make sure he fulfills his sanctions.
“I’ve been here since September,” Hyppolite, 24, said, “and I haven’t seen any repeat offenders.”
According to Court Innovation’s website, the court saw 158 cases in 2012. More than 94 percent of respondents completed their sanctions. But of the three cases that were scheduled this day, only Anton showed up. The ones who didn’t arrive will have their cases heard in criminal court, with a real jury and a real judge.
“[Anton] seemed kinda remorseful,” Brendon said.
“He was nice, I feel bad,” Anna said, a member of the jury.
“When you get really good kids in here and they get into trouble,” Brendon said, “it’s really sad.”
NEW YORK -- On a wooden bench in the back of a small courtroom in downtown Manhattan, public defender Donna Henken is deep in conversation. She speaks in hushed tones to the district attorney on one of her cases, then turns to a middle-aged African-American woman sitting one row back.
“When he gets out of jail, will you let him back into the home,” Henken asks.
“I’m concerned because they keep talking about supervision for him and I have to work,” the woman says.
The D.A. watches the exchange closely. Henken tries again.
“He will probably still do some time, but in two or three years, will he be able to live with you?”
This time the woman doesn’t hesitate.
“Yes,” she says. “I’m the only Grandma he knows.”
The conversation ends with a victory. The district attorney agrees to recommend Henken’s client for Youthful Offender status. As a Youthful Offender, he can still be punished for his crime. However, his records will be sealed so that crime won’t hurt his future educational or employment prospects.
Henken is pleased, if somewhat surprised, by this turn of events. The district attorney’s office is not always keen to compromise on her cases.
“My personality is to have a conversation and not a fight. Sometimes you can back the D.A. down with that, but I think the D.A. often comes in as the great punisher and I don’t really understand that,” Henken says later. “They should be able to see that these are young people who often come from very disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Henken works for the Legal Aid Society’s Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Project. Lawyers in this specialized unit handle cases in which 13- to 15-year-olds are charged with felony crimes. These adolescents are known as juvenile offenders and they are tried in adult criminal court rather than family court.
Henken’s clients struggle with the same issues as juveniles in the family court system. According to the Legal Aid Society, about 20 percent of these youth have experience with the foster care system. Almost two-thirds have special-education needs and about 25 percent of them have significant mental health issues that require ongoing care.
The lawyers in Henken’s unit work closely with a team of social workers to ensure that their clients get the same type of rehabilitative services they’d be eligible for in family court. With a range of 75 to 100 clients, Henken’s caseload is also much smaller than that of many public defenders. It allows her to really spend time forming relationships with her clients.
Juveniles In Adult Court
New York’s juvenile offender law was created in 1978 in response to public outrage over the case of 15-year-old Willie Boskett. Boskett, a self-described monster created by the prison system, shot and killed two men on the subway. Although he had a history of violent criminal behavior, Boskett was sentenced to a five-year placement in a juvenile facility, the maximum possible juvenile sentence at the time.
By July 1978, the state assembly had signed a new law that said that 14- and 15-year-olds could be held criminally responsible for certain crimes, including second-degree murder, arson and first-degree assault. In addition, judges were prohibited from using non-jail sentencing alternatives such as probation in these cases. The law also prevented juveniles from receiving Youthful Offender status.
[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]“Because it’s an adult court, the paradigm really is, what’s the crime and what’s the fitting punishment? Whereas in Family Court, it’s about what’s best for the child.” [/module]In the 35 years since it was first enacted, the law has been stripped of some its more draconian aspects, experts said. The judges who preside over juvenile offender cases in the “Youth Parts” of New York’s criminal court now rely heavily on alternative-to-incarceration programs.
They also frequently grant Youthful Offender status to juveniles who successfully complete the court’s requirements. However, the stakes are still much higher for juveniles tried in criminal court than for those tried in family court.
This distinction is not lost on Judge Eduardo Padro, who presides over Manhattan’s Youth Part.
“In some ways, because I don’t have the same volume of cases as Family Court, I can spend more time with the youth. In other ways, I’m more limited,” Padro said. “Because it’s an adult court, the paradigm really is, what’s the crime and what’s the fitting punishment? Whereas in Family Court, it’s about what’s best for the child.”
Part of Henken's motivation for her work comes from a belief that adolescents should not receive criminal convictions, as some juvenile offenders do.
"A conviction is like a scar on their lives," she said. "You're talking about the poorest people in the city and then you're saying, we're going to make it harder for you to get a job, education, housing."
Yet, in some ways, she's happy to bring her cases before the Youth Part rather than Family Court, which is over-burdened with cases.
"When I was a lawyer in Family Court, people were really quick to remand kids and put them in detention," she said. "I feel that Judge Padro is much more thoughtful about his decisions to do that."
Boskett’s case sparked major changes to the juvenile justice system, but the truth is that extreme violence in juvenile cases is rare. In New York City in 2010, only about 3 percent of juvenile cases involved weapons and fewer than 2 percent involved sexual offenses. Arson and homicide each made up about 1 percent of juvenile crime.
Henken says that the crime she deals with most often by far is robbery. Her next case is no exception.
It started two years ago when her client, a 15-year-old girl named Melissa, was charged with second-degree robbery. Melissa, whose name was changed for this story, and another girl punched a woman and stole her phone.
[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]Her case has become less about her initial crime and more about the kind of violations normally handled in Family Court. [/module]Because Melissa had never been in trouble before, Padro gave her a second chance. He placed her in a yearlong program with the Center for Community Alternatives. Melissa successfully completed the program and seemed to thrive at CCA.
Then things started to go downhill.
Melissa’s mother suffers from bipolar disorder and her home situation is unstable. In the past year, she has run away from home several times, violating the court’s conditions. Each time she runs away, Padro places her in a detention facility for a few days, most recently two days ago.
Her case has become less about her initial crime and more about the kind of violations normally handled in Family Court.
“She has a lot of people who really care about her and see her as a loving person with a lot of drive,” Henken says of her client. “But she’s not attending school regularly and she’s leaving home. I think that the judge feels like he’s not asking her for much.”
Henken is concerned that Padro intends to keep Melissa in detention for much longer than a few days this time, so she has rallied the troops. Melissa’s case manager, her family counselor and her court advocate have all come to speak on her behalf.
The court officer brings Melissa to a small hallway just off of the courtroom. Henken tries to talk to her about what might happen during the hearing, but Melissa just sobs and repeats, “I want to go home; I want to go home.”
Eventually, a stoic Melissa makes her way into the courtroom, hands cuffed behind her.
Now it’s Henken who appears less than composed.
“Do you know that she was sent to Riker’s?” she asks the judge, unable to keep the edge from her voice.
Padro is surprised by this news. Adolescents are usually sent to juvenile facilities, not the 10,000-person prison known for its brutality and violence.
Henken requests a conference with the judge.
In a chamber just off of the courtroom, Padro, Henken and the advocates sit around a table and try to hash out Melissa’s fate, while she sits in the courtroom waiting for their decision.
The judge’s main concern is that Melissa will disappear again.
Melissa’s advocates have a plan. When her home situation becomes untenable, she will call one of her contacts at CCA to let them know where she is going. This way, she won’t violate the court’s conditions by going AWOL.
“Are you sure that home is the place for her to go?” the judge asks. “Because I came in here ready to keep her through the holidays at least.”
“She wants to be out and I think this is workable and we have a plan,” Henken says. “But if you do put her in, I think she should just do the time and that should be it and done.”
Eventually, they come to a compromise.
Melissa will spend 30 days in a juvenile detention facility. When she is discharged, Padro will grant her Youthful Offender status and her case in the Youth Part will finally be closed after two stressful years.
Back in the courtroom, when Melissa hears the news, her whole body relaxes in one great sigh of relief. She is prepared to spend 30 days locked away if it means bringing an end to this. As she is led out in handcuffs, she looks at Henken and the advocates who have fought so hard on her behalf for two years.
“Thank you,” Melissa says. “Thank you guys so, so much.”
For Henken, the moment is bitter sweet. She thinks the end of Melissa’s case was long overdue, but it also represents a hard truth about her work.
“In some ways, the hardest part is reviewing people’s lives and realizing that you can help in a small part,” Henken says later. “But there’s also a lot of despair that you just can’t fix.”