The March edition of the Mount Hope Monitor hits the street today.
Elks Make Way for Health Center
St. Barnabas Hospital plans to build a 10-story out-patient facility at 2050 Grand Concourse, on the corner of Burnside Avenue. The Elks Lodge currently located there will be demolished to make way for the new building.
With destruction imminent, St. Barnabas expects construction of the new facility to be completed by March of 2010. The hospital claims it will be an asset in the community, although some local residents are unconvinced.
The Elks Lodge was constructed in 1909 and occupied by the group until the early ‘80s. After their departure, the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), a local non-profit, moved into the building. By 1995, the building was abandoned. “Various projects were talked about for the building for years but nothing happened,” said Ken Small, CAB’s development director.
St. Barnabas currently leases 2021 Grand Concourse which houses one of its Union Community Health Centers and its Fordham Tremont Center, a mental health facility. The building was once the Royal Hospital, built around 1927. As such, its facilities are dated.
“We felt really, that it would impossible to bring the building up to a code where we could deliver services,” said Patricia Bellaire, senior vice-president of Ambulatory Care, who spoke at Community Board 5’s February public meeting.
Arlene Ortiz-Allende, senior vice-president of Community Affairs for St. Barnabas, expects the construction project and the facility itself to provide jobs for the community. Though Caldwell Wingate Company LLC., contracted for the construction, only hires union employees, Ortiz-Allende said subcontracting opportunities would be available. “We will hold a job fair in the near future,” she said.
The new site will provide all the services offered at 2021 Grand Concourse and some new ones, including radiology. “We’ve been working with the architect and our building management to design a building that will not only meet the current needs of 2021 Grand Concourse but the future needs of the community,” Bellaire explained. The estimated cost of the building is around $60 million.
Some residents don’t share Bellaire’s vision. “How can they know our needs if they’ve never asked us?” asked Cathy Coleman, a 45-year resident of the neighborhood.
Coleman and more than 30 other local residents shared their concerns at a community meeting held at First Union Baptist Church on March 4. Those in attendance see 2050 Grand Concourse as emblematic of a general lack of community involvement in neighborhood planning. Louella Hatch, the meeting’s organizer, pointed out that St. Barnabas’ intentions were only presented to local residents after an official decision had already been made. She said that, though invited, representatives from St. Barnabas and the Community Board were not present at the church meeting.
Attendees also expressed concerns about health issues that might arise from the building’s demolition and the ensuing construction project. Some claimed to have seen workmen removing asbestos from the building and feared residual dust might cause future problems. Others wondered where all the building’s employees would park and if it would house a methadone clinic. “We will fight this [facility] by any means necessary,” Hatch said.
Ken Small believes the building will be good for the neighborhood. “Anytime a major building is built, it helps to stabilize things; serves as an economic anchor,” he said. At the same time, he understands residents’ concerns. “They are upset because they don’t get to give feedback. People will always be upset about this kind of thing.”
Creston Avenue Man Charged With Murder
On Sept. 1, 2004, a fight broke out on 179th Street between Morris and Creston avenues. Francisco Garcia, a neighborhood resident, was stabbed and killed.
It was a little after 8 p.m. on what was a warm, dry, late summer’s evening. Temperatures were in the 70s. Presumably, scores of people were out on the street. Presumably, scores of people witnessed Garcia’s gruesome demise.
Yet despite a very public death, no one was ever held accountable. No one, that is, until last October, some three years later, when police picked up Adolfo Vargas of 1985 Creston Ave. and charged him with murder.
Vargas, 34, is holed up on Rikers Island. He says he’s innocent.
The Road to Rikers
Rikers Island is New York’s largest jail, with a capacity of 15,000 inmates. It’s located in the East River, on an island of the same name, southeast of the Bronx and north of Queens. Access is via a 4,000-foot bridge from Queens.
A sign close to the bridge - “The Boldest Correction Officers in the World” – both warns and reassures.
Vargas is being held in the George Motchan Detention Center, one of several “mini-jails” on the island. On an afternoon in January, a reporter sits waiting for him in the visitors room. Despite the artwork on the walls, it’s a miserable atmosphere. At a nearby table a young woman weeps silently into her hands, her shoulders shaking, as she waited to see a loved one.
When Vargas appears he’s wearing a grey prison suit bearing the letters DOC. On the outside, ironically, Vargas’ nickname was Doc or Murdoch. That was before. Now it stands for Department of Corrections.
Vargas is articulate and bright. He manages to smile and joke. But when talk turns to his case, his eyes redden and his voice quivers.
He describes the day he was arrested. It was last Oct. 6. Police told him that a witness had come forward. Inside the 46th Precinct, he’s charged with Garcia’s murder. Vargas starts crying. He asks for a polygraph test but isn’t give one. There’s no police lineup.
Later that month, Vargas was indicted. The victim’s mother was in court. Vargas says she looked his way and shouted, “I hope you die.”
A Checkered Past, a Bungled Raid
Vargas, who went to St. Margaret Mary School on Tremont Avenue, has been in trouble with the police before. He used to peddle marijuana, and has several drug-related convictions. As a teenager he was sent to a drug treatment facility, but he’s never been incarcerated before; never been convicted of a violent crime.
“He’s not a violent guy at all,” says his childhood friend, Aneudis Tejada. “I don’t remember a time he had a fight.”
Vargas says he had nothing to do with Garcia’s murder. He was out on the street that September evening. He knew Garcia. He knows how Garcia met his death. But he – Vargas – wasn’t involved.
“If I had to sign that I was guilty and then get out in a day, I wouldn’t, because I didn’t do it,” he said. “I refuse to be a statistic.”
Vargas says his arrest could be linked to an August 2005 police raid on the apartment he shares with his mother. The cops were looking for drugs. They found nothing, Vargas says, but in the course of the raid he was pistol whipped, which broke two bones in his face. The NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau investigated and he was awarded $75,000. Vargas believes the incident made him enemies in the police force. In short, he says he’s convinced he’s been set up.
(The NYPD was asked to corroborate Vargas’ account of the raid, but didn’t do so by press time. Kevin Harrington, the commanding officer of the 46th Precinct, said he wouldn’t comment on the murder charges facing Vargas, because it’s still an open case.)
Life on Rikers
Vargas has been incarcerated for more than five months. As the days tick by, he’s both bored and terrified at the same time. Around 70 percent of inmates are gang affiliated, says Vargas, and they’re always on the lookout for new recruits both willing and unwilling.
“I’m scared for my life right now,” he said. “I’m crying every day.”
In January, when he was on the phone, he watched as an inmate slashed another in the face with a makeshift knife fashioned out of a piece of Plexiglas.
Vargas says he spends his days avoiding trouble, going to church, reading the bible, and researching his case. Sometimes he wakes up in the morning, thinking he’s back at home in his apartment. Then the cold reality sets in.
No trial date has been set. Vargas and his lawyer are hoping it won’t get that far. They’re trying to get a Grand Jury reinstated, which they hope will throw the case out. (According to Vargas, his first lawyer falsely told the judge that Vargas had waived his right to a Grand Jury, whose job it is to determine whether there’s enough evidence for trial.)
A Recent Day in Court
On Feb. 25, Vargas was driven to the Bronx’s sparkling new courthouse – the Bronx County Hall of Justice on 161st Street – for his latest hearing. His mother, sister, brother-in-law, two friends, and one of their mothers were in attendance.
Vargas comes out, holding a bible behind his handcuffed hands. He smiles at his supporters and stands next to his lawyer.
“What we have is a tremendous travesty of justice,” says his lawyer, William T. Martin, to the judge.
Martin says that one witness, “meandering to the police” three years after the murder, shouldn’t be enough evidence to keep his client locked up. He says that if Vargas was the killer he would have left the neighborhood instead of sticking around. He says that local residents know Vargas isn’t guilty because several saw with their own eyes exactly who plunged a knife into Garcia’s chest and back.
A lawyer for the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, who is prosecuting the case, tells the judge that nothing has changed; that Martin’s saying nothing new.
(When asked for comment, Steven Reed, a spokesperson for the Bronx DA, wrote in an e-mail, “It is not our practice to try cases in the press. The sufficiency of the evidence against Mr. Vargas will be reviewed by the trial judge and evaluated by a jury of his peers.”)
Martin asks the judge for bail. It’s refused, as is his request for the reinstatement of the Grand Jury.
The whole thing is over in five minutes. Vargas nods at his friends and family, and is taken away. His next court date is May 12. Another 70 plus days in Rikers to mull over his predicament.
Outside the courtroom, Vargas’ sister starts crying. Martin tells the family that progress is being made and at the next court date he hopes to get both bail and the Grand Jury.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Martin says of the case against Vargas. “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.”
Vargas’ 80-year-old mother has difficulty understanding what Martin or anyone is saying as her English is poor. Later, through a translator, she talks of the pain and anguish that have filled her life since her son’s been taken away. “I cry at night,” she said, “because I’m used to being with him every day.
Her health is bad, and so her doctor told her to avoid stressful situations, which includes visiting her son in prison. “It hurts to see him locked up,” she said.
“Adolfo had nothing to do with this,” said Tejada, Vargas’s childhood friend, whose words were echoed by number of local residents this reporter spoke to. “Every single person in the neighborhood knows he didn’t do it. Everyone knows who did do it. The police know who did it. My theory is that they [the police] did something dirty here.”
In Tejada’s opinion, Vargas’ incarceration is a tragedy. Perhaps it is, but the deeper tragedy here – of course - remains the death of Francisco Garcia on that warm September evening in 2004.
Garcia, 29 at the time of his death, lived at 124 E. 177th St. According to Vargas, the two knew each other because Garcia used to sell him the occasional inhaler to ease his asthma.
Vargas says he was with Garcia that fateful night. He says Garcia and another man got in a fight over a pizza; that Garcia was stabbed; that Garcia ran up Morris Avenue before collapsing on Tremont Avenue. Vargas says he didn’t go the police because he doesn’t snitch; but that, when arrested, he gave them the name of the guilty man.
Friends, family, and family friends, believe Vargas’ story.
Still, only one thing is crystal clear: the reverberations of Francisco Garcia’s murder are still being felt in the neighborhood some three-and-half years after his life was cut short.
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