National News

After Police Raid Kills Man, 69, Family Asks Why Trigger Was Pulled

Posted December 13, 2017 10:41 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — It was around 4 a.m. on Dec. 5 when Natalio Conde woke to the sound of men moving through his railroad apartment on Brook Avenue in the Bronx. He was frightened. Ninety-two years old and in fragile health, he knew he was no match for intruders.

Then he heard a commotion and saw his brother-in-law, Mario Sanabria, 69, in the doorway. Sanabria had lived with him for seven years, looking after his food and medicine in return for room and board.

The lights went on. Conde said he saw a burly man pushing Sanabria into the room, holding him by the collar. They were close together, no more than a foot apart, he recalled.

Conde pulled the sheet up over his head and laid back, pretending to be asleep. “What’s happening?” he heard Sanabria say in Spanish. Then he heard a shot.

“It was like a bomb going off,” he said.

The men turned out not to be robbers, but New York City police officers from the elite Emergency Service Unit executing a search warrant. Dressed in tactical uniforms, they had broken down the door without warning and searched the apartment, room to room.

A few hours later, the Police Department’s chief of patrol, Terence A. Monahan, said that Sanabria, who spoke no English, had confronted two of the officers with a machete. Sanabria refused an order to drop the weapon and came toward them, the chief said. An officer, later identified as Detective Ruben Leon, fatally shot him once in the chest.

Conde said that in the seconds before he took cover, he did not see a machete in his friend’s hand. The machete the police recovered belonged to him, he said, not to Sanabria. It was a souvenir from the Caribbean — and he kept it behind a door in his room. He said he doubted Sanabria even knew where it was.

The family of Sanabria, who worked for decades at an ice cream factory in the South Bronx, has sharply disputed the police account of his shooting.

The police were not looking for Sanabria, but for his nephew, Miguel Conde. The officers had received information that Conde — Natalio Conde’s 38-year-old son — had a gun and narcotics in the apartment, the police said.

But they found no drugs or weapons, beyond a crumbling stub of a marijuana cigarette and a pocketknife, Miguel Conde said in an interview. Miguel Conde had been taken into custody when he showed up at the building hours after the shooting, but after being questioned for several hours, he was released with a summons for the marijuana and the knife.

Now, the deadly raid and the investigation that led the police to the apartment are under scrutiny by the Police Department and the Bronx district attorney’s office, and the family plans to sue the city.

“Five police officers can’t figure out a better way to take down a guy who is 69 years old and all of 5-4 and 160 pounds, other than shooting him the chest?” the family’s lawyer, Robert Vilensky, said. “Something happened in that room. We are going to have to take testimony to find out.”

Sanabria’s death marks the third time since October a person in the Bronx has been shot and killed by the police inside their buildings in encounters involving a knife or machete.

Authorities have yet to make the search warrant public, nor have they identified the judge who issued it. Officials said the warrant remains sealed because it is part of an ongoing investigation.

Though the raid was led by the Emergency Service Unit, the underlying investigation was unusual in that it was initiated by the Strategic Response Group, a citywide unit established in 2015 primarily to provide a rapid show of uniformed force for large-scale emergencies, civil unrest and violent crime hot spots. How a unit with such a mission ended up spearheading a relatively low-level drug-and-gun investigation rather than handing off its information to detectives from the local precinct or a narcotics unit is one of many unanswered questions surrounding the killing.

In the interview, Miguel Conde, a construction worker whose criminal record consists of two misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession, denied he owned a gun or sold drugs.

“I make a thousand dollars a week, clean, after taxes,” he said. “There is no reason for me to sell drugs.” Early on in the questioning, an investigator accused him of being responsible for Sanabria’s death. The accusation hit him so hard he broke down in tears.

“I was just crying — that’s the fact of it — as a grown man,” he recalled. “I didn’t know where my father was. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Still, the police and prosecutors had had enough credible information from one or more confidential sources to persuade a Bronx Supreme Court justice to allow officers to search the apartment and to use a no-knock warrant, permitting them to break down the door without first announcing themselves, law enforcement officials said.

But Miguel Conde said he had not lived in the apartment for seven months, having moved into his mother’s home in the Van Nest neighborhood of the Bronx, which the police also searched later that day. He also said the detectives who interviewed him seemed confused about his identity. They told him they were looking for someone who was named Daniel Conde and who had a different birthday than his.

Stephen P. Davis, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said that because the incident remained under investigation he could not provide additional details.

Sanabria grew up in Honduras, the son of a nurse and an author who was also a captain in the army. Like his father, Sanabria went into the military after graduating from college, serving in the brief “Soccer War” with El Salvador in 1969, and a decade later participated in the fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Sanabria had a law-and-order ethos, his son, Yeudy Sanabria, said. He had no tolerance for illegality and often instructed his three children to strictly obey officers.

“When I heard what happened, I was in shock, because he always respected the law,” Sanabria’s son said. “If he got a ticket on the car, he would run out to pay it.” He retired as a lieutenant in 1990 and emigrated to the Bronx, where his sister Seccy lived with her family. He landed a job at Delicioso Coco Helado, the fabled Bronx ice cream company on St. Ann’s Avenue.

He worked there until three years ago, when he eased into a modest retirement on Social Security. He started most days at the Camaguey Restaurant on Brook Avenue, where he always had coffee and two tamales and reminisced with the owner about Honduras. Then he often went to a bodega on East 138th Street, where he bought lottery tickets and whiled away the afternoons with a couple friends over beers.

“He used to tell us his story, how he had been in the military,” said one friend, Magdaleno Sanchez, 54. “He never had any problems. The police never detained him for anything.”

On Sundays, he would visit his sister’s apartment for supper, his family said. Sometimes he imbibed too much, but he was jolly. “He was just a chubby, happy guy,” his nephew, Yibrin Ruiz, said.

In recent years, Sanabria was the caretaker for Conde, who for decades had run a bar on Brook Avenue. Sanabria bought Conde meals and made sure he took his medicines, family members said.

Last Sunday, Sanabria was laid out in a coffin at the La Paz Funeral Home on East 149th Street, wearing a black cap, a work shirt and gloves to hide the signs of the autopsy. His sister Darcy Lema knelt and said the rosary over his body, while his friends and family members stood and prayed with her. “Dios te salve, María, llena eres de gracia, el Señor es contigo ...”

“It was an injustice,” his sister Seccy Rojas Sanabria said. “We want the man who did this to go to jail. It’s an injustice to attack a man who was so humble and didn’t hurt anyone.”