[Photos by JUSTIN ROMAN]
BY JEFF DEENEY Possibly the largest and most elaborate memorial we’ve seen so far is the mountainous pile of stuffed animals, votive candles and other assorted personal objects stacked up on the corner of American Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. There’s a reason for its enormity: On Jan. 13, three young Latin kids from nearby neighborhoods were killed here in an auto accident that rocked the community and spurred an outpouring of sympathy for the victims’ families. The accident was a hit-and-run — the other vehicle’s driver, Hanifasim Saed Presley, fled the scene on foot but was caught not long after and charged with vehicular homicide.
The centerpiece of this memorial is the actual bumper of the car that Wilfredo Treveno, 18, Esteban Santiago, 19, and Louis Figueroa, 17, — aka Fredo, Macho and Lou — were riding in the night they died. The bumper is anchored to a lamppost and acts as something of a buttress for the rest of the structure. Other objects of remembrance and mourning are nestled inside it, as if under an amphitheater’s protective dome. The memorial is growing old at this point, nearly four months after carnage, and its weather wear shows. The fur on the stuffed animals has become matted, their colors washing out. Balloons have deflated, some of the votives have been knocked over and broken on the sidewalk, and junk food wrappers and other pieces of garbage have blown into the midst of the memorial and stuck there like flotsam washed up on a beach.
Like other Latin memorials we’ve documented, the presence of Catholic iconography is strong here in the form of votive candles bearing the images of Saint Clara and Saint Anthony; the former is the patron saint of good weather, perhaps placed here as a hope that the memorial will endure, and the latter is the patron of the poor. Also, there are photographs of the boys in various life-stages taped to surrounding lampposts. One shows a little boy’s face circled in red marker in a Little League baseball photo. The team is dressed in orange and black and there’s a sign propped in front of them that reads, “Norris Square baseball, Orioles, 2001.”
A MySpace search turns up an elaborate memorial page replete with a flashy, custom graphic design and a photo album with nearly 100 pictures of the victims. These were the good kids some readers might have been hoping to find memorialized in this series — kids without criminal histories, kids who don’t flash gang signs or money rolls, kids that don’t advertise their thug lifestyle by posting pictures of their illegal handgun collections on the Internet. In some pictures, the boys pose tough but you can tell it’s a charade. They called their crew “No Limit,” but you can tell it’s just a name for a group of school friends, not an organized drug set. The boys’ eyes are clear and bright, their smiles broad. The party pictures posted here are positively wholesome, not nasty; no red eyes peering through blunt smoke haze, no half -naked young women or proudly brandished liquor bottles here. These kids knew how to have genuine fun — they weren’t ashamed to goof around and were self-confident enough to risk looking corny, making silly faces for the camera.
Fredo was a part of the celebrated North Philly dance troupe Groupo Fuego, and the memorial page has pictures of him in full regalia on Market Street, dancing with a pretty, elaborately costumed young woman as a part of a Puerto Rican pride parade.
Not surprisingly, the page’s comment section has been busy with statements of grief, remembrance and adulation for the boys. One of the comments links to a homemade music video made by two neighborhood boys named LOS and JR. The video has footage of a young Latin boy rapping at the memorial site on American Street, the boys’ gravesites and inside the church where their funerals were held. In each shot, he’s surrounded by a large pack of friends and family all wearing airbrushed hoodies and t-shirts bearing warm messages for the deceased, hanging their heads ceremoniously. The raps are a little stilted, lacking a natural’s smooth flow, the video certainly isn’t Hollywood quality and when the boy sings he tends to come in off key, but it’s a stirring devotional display based on homespun technological ingenuity.
It’s hard to determine why, exactly, Presley fled the scene on foot after the accident. Newspaper accounts said Presley was driving at a high speed but didn’t mention DUI charges, nor do any DUI charges appear in the court system. The only other charge appearing in court records for Presley prior to the accident is a disorderly conduct from December, 2006. A bench warrant was issued for Presley in October of last year, presumably after he failed to complete the 25 hours of community service he was assigned by the court for pleading no contest to the charge. The bench warrant was withdrawn later the same month, but there’s a chance that Presley didn’t know this. Maybe he fled on the night of the accident not because he knew the extent of the damage he caused but because he thought he was already wanted by the law.
The details are too scant to draw firm conclusions, but Presley will likely spend a good chunk of the rest of his life behind bars both for causing the accident the killed three bright, beloved young kids and for fleeing it, possibly as a partial result of not doing a paltry 25 hours of community service for a misdemeanor charge. It’s the kind of bad, patently dumb decision that has to be hard to share a jail cell with.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is currently working on a book about life in the crossfire of poverty, drugs, guns, and the bureaucracies designed to remedy them, all of which informed his experiences as social workers in some of the city’s most dire and depleted neighborhoods.