Bodega Where Teenager Was Killed to Reopen, and Community Is Angry
Posted August 5, 2018 4:34 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — The Bronx bodega where Trinitario gang members stabbed a teenage boy to death has become the center of a heated debate over how the space might memorialize the young man’s life.
In the days after the death of Lesandro Guzman-Feliz, 15, neighbors boycotted the shop and forced it to close, complaining that the owner had not done enough to shield the boy from the machete-yielding gang. Family, friends and neighbors of the slain teen flooded the sidewalks outside of what used to be the Cruz and Chiky Grocery with candles, balloons and flowers. The owner gave a tearful apology in a television interview.
But the store has been sold, police said, and the new owners plan to reopen it. The news has angered the boy’s family and other community members who wanted the space to be turned into a youth center or church. A new bodega, one neighbor said, would only cause residents to constantly “relive the same nightmare.”
The store, on the corner of East 183rd Street and Bathgate Avenue in Belmont, has already been converted into a memorial of sorts for Lesandro. A mural of his face watches over neighbors as they walk past the shuttered grate. A collection of prayer candles and pictures of the teen sits by the bodega’s windows. Police officers stand guard as passers-by read the mournful notes and cards left behind by the community.
Two other murals of his likeness are painted on walls a few blocks away from the shop, one in front of his home, one across the street from the hospital that he was trying to reach when he collapsed. Even some mailboxes on the street where the boy lived have been graffitied with his nickname, “Junior.”
To appease his family, the new owners have offered to name the store after Lesandro, but the boy’s mother, Leandra Feliz, said she opposed the idea. Feliz said, in Spanish, she would “love for a church to be opened” in the space, “or a center to help the community.”
“I’d really like that, but they’re going to open a bodega,” she said.
Other residents said they were troubled by news of the store’s sale.
Janery Feliz, 39, who lives down the street from the store, was walking with her children past the shop and became visibly upset when she learned the bodega would reopen. Feliz, who is not related to the boy or his family, said it was too soon; the neighborhood was still mourning.
She said a city office aimed at preventing violence among the community’s youth would be “the most fair thing to do, to keep the memory of the boy alive.”
“They really should’ve opened an office with resources for young people instead,” she said, in Spanish. “The government should’ve stuck their hands in there. Especially for the teenagers, or a resource center for low-income families. That’s what people wanted. Not the reopening of a bodega.”
Gloria Arroyo, 36, a roofer who lives in the neighborhood, said she did not understand why anyone would open a bodega in the same site. She said what the neighborhood really needs is “something to give the kids something to do without having them worry about money, because that’s the main issue around here, a lot of parents don’t want to be paying out the money cause they don’t have it.”
She said she is planning to move out of the area soon.
“The neighborhood is not a neighborhood for you to be raising kids,” she said while holding her daughter’s hand as they walked past the bodega.
Although she used to be a regular customer, Feliz said she will not shop at the bodega again.
“That night is now stuck in the hearts of everyone who lives here,” she said.
Modesto Cruz, the bodega’s former owner, was running the store’s checkout on the night of June 20 when Lesandro ran inside and tried to hide behind the counter, terrified of the gang members who were chasing behind him. In security video footage, a visibly confused Cruz and another worker watched as Lesandro was dragged out of the bodega by the men. Minutes later, just outside the door, the teen was mortally wounded with knives and a machete. Police said he had been mistaken for another gang member.
Lesandro stumbled back inside, a gaping wound in his neck, but Cruz motioned for him to leave, pointing toward St. Barnabas Hospital a block away, the video shows. Lesandro ran that direction and fainted from loss of blood.
Soon after the footage of the boy being dragged out of the store went viral on social media, community members boycotted Cruz and his shop, ultimately forcing him to close the store. In an interview with PIX11 days after the murder, a tearful Cruz insisted he tried to help the boy.
The identities of the store’s new owners have yet to be made public. Some neighbors said they saw Cruz’s wife give food and other goods from the store to passers-by a couple weeks ago, but they had not seen Cruz in the area since the day of the murder. Efforts to reach Cruz or his lawyer for comment were unsuccessful.
Crystal Jones, who lives in the neighborhood, lamented Cruz’s absence as she left a bodega on the opposite corner. The Cruz and Chiky sign had been taken down last week.
“He helped us out when we had to feed our kids and everything,” Jones said. “I have not seen Cruz, but we miss him. He’s still a person. Everybody is making him look like a bad person, but what about the people who actually caused the situation?” Despite community demands to build a youth center on the site, City Councilman Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat, said little can be done to stop new owners from opening a bodega there.
“You could not revoke a license for a new owner based on the conduct of an old owner,” said Torres, who is leading efforts to rename the street corner where the teenager died the “Lesandro ‘Junior’ Guzman-Feliz Way.” His office unsuccessfully attempted to revoke Cruz’s operating license before the space was sold.
Leandra Feliz, though unhappy about a bodega opening in the space, said she does not have any control over what the building’s owner does with the property.
“Any person who rents the space has the right to open whatever they want there, I am no one to say what other people want to open or not,” she said. “Everyone’s lives are going to continue as normal, it’s just my life that was changed and marked forever.”