National News

Arrests and ‘Torrent of Tips’ After Killing of Boy

Posted June 24, 2018 10:42 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Sunday marked two days since the police first asked for help finding the men shown on video last week dragging a 15-year-old boy out of a Bronx bodega and stabbing him to death in a gruesome attack that may have been a case of mistaken identity.

Since then, police investigators have been overwhelmed by a “torrent of tips” aimed at identifying Lesandro Guzman-Feliz’s attackers, the chief of detectives, Dermot F. Shea, said Sunday.

“There’s just a tremendous outpouring, and I think that people are disgusted by what they saw,” Shea said hours before he announced on Twitter that the police had made arrests in the case but offered no additional details.

The Police Department said in a statement that it was “vigorously investigating” Lesandro’s killing, and expected to make additional arrests.

Social media users speculated that Lesandro had been mistaken for another teenager who shared video of himself having sex with one of the suspects’ female relatives. Shea, in an interview, would not discuss potential motives for the killing, but he said there was no information to indicate that Lesandro, who wanted to be a police detective, was “anything but an innocent kid.”

News of the arrests drew cheers from social media users, who praised the police and asked for stiff penalties for the suspects.

“This shook us to our core,” @rifkalove13 wrote in a Twitter post responding to a story about the arrests posted by Rubén Díaz Jr., the Bronx borough president. “No mother has slept peacefully since this happened.” She added, “The #NYPD did their thing and we want to thank them.”

After video of the attack Wednesday began circulating on social media, there were so many calls to the Police Department’s 1-800-577-TIPS hotline that supervisors assigned extra staff members to answer the phones. Many more tips flowed in from social media, where police officials’ posts have been viewed and shared more than 100,000 times on Twitter and Instagram, according to police metrics.

The tips identified several suspects by name and included their names, addresses, photos, hangout locations and gang affiliation.

The response highlighted the combined power of social media and video to help police solve crimes, especially in places where many people are afraid to be seen talking to detectives for fear of reprisals by violent street crews and gangs.

Too often after crimes occur, the police discover that it is difficult to get much help in solving them. Tips trickle instead of pour, if they come at all, and detectives find their door-to-door efforts bear little fruit.

But where detectives might have encountered a closed door before, social media has given them nearly unbridled access to discreet tipsters and outraged sleuths. Lesandro’s case showed that officials were just beginning to harness its potential, Shea said.

“Beyond this case, I think we’re scratching the surface of what we can achieve and how we can interact,” he said. “You’re never going to, nor do I want to, replace the face-to-face. But in terms of getting tips, this is going to be a game-changer.”

As his attackers fled in a light-colored sedan, Lesandro, who was known as “Junior,” ran in the direction of St. Barnabas Hospital a block away but collapsed on the pavement as blood ran from his neck. Soon, video of the episode began circulating on social media under the hashtag #JusticeforJunior, and the police appealed for help identifying six men believed to be Lesandro’s attackers. Several social media users blamed the killing on the Trinitarios, a violent Dominican gang based in New York. Shea said that was a “strong possibility.”

The Trinitarios have been linked to several shootings and stabbings in recent weeks, including a stabbing Monday in Bronx River Park that left a 14-year-old boy in critical condition, Shea said.

There is no video of the earlier stabbing, and it remains unsolved, according to the police.

Video has proved pivotal in helping the police solve a number of cases. But as in the police chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed Staten Island man, in 2014, it has also raised questions about their practices.

Tips from the public helped the police to solve a home invasion and attempted sexual assault that occurred Thursday in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Shea said. The suspect, Darryl Williams, 25, was arrested Saturday on charges including attempted rape and strangulation after officials posted images of him on social media, according to the police.

The police in New York have long used social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to track criminal activity and gangs. But Shea said Lesandro’s case highlighted for officials the potential reward of engaging with communities on social media beyond collecting tips.

“I think the world is going to get very small for some of these gangs in the near future,” he said, “and I think social media is going to be a big part of it.”

Lesandro lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the Belmont neighborhood with his mother, Leandra Feliz, 48, and sister, Genesis, 17. In the living room Sunday, his mother showed photos of him celebrating his 15th birthday and graduating from kindergarten. In one widely circulated image, he is wearing a jacket for the police Explorers, a program he participated in for youths who are interested in law enforcement.

“His dream was to be a detective,” Feliz said. “Since he was 5 years old, he used to love to play with the police toy cars and always said he wanted to be a detective.”

Feliz said she was pleased that people were trying to help the police solve her son’s killing.

The last time she saw him alive, he had been playing a game of “Fortnite” on his PlayStation. He interrupted to tell her that he was going downstairs to lend $5 to a friend. When he took too long to come back, she called and told him, “Mijo"— Spanish for “my son” — “you’re taking too long. Come back.”

He never did.

“I feel destroyed,” she said. “They took away my life.”