Looking back on an eventful year

The big stories of 2016 included an explosion, a blizzard, a few daring heists and a rare bloom


The year 2016 in the northwest Bronx began with a blizzard, burst into a deadly blast and bumbled through a barrage of bickering and blunders. But in its turbulent procession, 2016 also saw poignant outpourings of community spirit, a spattering of success stories and a collection of quirks – some of them of a criminal nature. 

As the year draws to a close, The Press takes a look at some of the most meaningful, moving or simply amusing moments of a memorable year.

Devastation on Tibbett Avenue

One of the deadliest and most dramatic developments of 2016 started out as what seemed to be a routine response call. 

In the morning of Sept. 27, firefighters responded to reports of a gas smell around a house on the corner of W. 234th Street and Tibbett Avenue. They evacuated the neighbors and also closed off the block and called the police: The house seemed to have been used as a drug lab and some of its windows were sealed off with metal sheets from the inside, making them impossible to break open, police later told The Press. 

Firefighters were keeping watch on the street, waiting for additional emergency teams to arrive. That was when the blast came. The explosion shattered the house, reducing it to a pile of brick, scraps of wood, metal and shards of glass, scattered over nearby streets. Flying debris from what had once been the building’s roof hit firefighting battalion chief Michael Fahy and killed him. He was 44. More than a dozen other people were injured. 

The Bronx District Attorney’s Office brought felony assault and drug charges against two men arrested in connection with the incident. 

Murder in the Five-O

There were cases of suspected murder in the 50th precinct this year, according to police, each with its own prelude of twists and tensions. 

Four days into the New Year, Adam Garcia, the night manager of a McDonald’s on Broadway near W. 236th Street and lifelong Kingsbridge resident, was trying to keep a homeless man from cleaning himself in the fast-food restaurant’s bathroom. This led to an argument between the man, Rafael Gonzalez, and the night manager, and the homeless man left, police said.

Several hours later, at 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 4, Mr. Gonzalez allegedly returned to the McDonald’s. According to the case against him, he followed Mr. Garcia into the parking lot as the night manager finished his shift and stabbed him several times.

McDonald’s employees of the restaurant immediately contacted the 50th precinct, just across the street from the restaurant, triggering a two-day manhunt for the suspect. 

Mr. Gonzalez turned himself in on Jan. 6 and was charged with murder and manslaughter. 

Cherchez la femme? 

While the McDonald’s killing seemed prompted by a perhaps misguided attempt to get clean, another death in Kingsbridge appeared caused by a most ancient of motives – jealousy. 

On April 19, police responded to a call about a stabbing at 2724 University Ave. and found a 59-year-old victim bleeding in his apartment, and a trail of blood leading down the stairs and out of the building, officers said. The bloodshed, according to the case, was a result of a seeming lover’s quarrel.

The suspect in the case is Jose Torres, the victim’s roommate. At the time of his arrest, police said the two had been involved in some sort of dispute involving the victim’s girlfriend, and Mr. Torres, 51, allegedly stabbed the victim multiple times. 

The motives behind yet another recent killing in the 50th precinct remain unclear. Shortly before 5 a.m. on Oct. 2, several men allegedly assaulted a 36-year-old victim in front of 5223 Broadway. The victim was taken to Saint Barnabas Hospital with major head and brain trauma and died several days later.

News 12 The Bronx reported at the time the three men responded to the victim hitting a woman, but police said they were unable to confirm the account. 

Three men have been arrested in connection to the case and charged with felony gang assault.

A few days after the apparently jealous stabbing in Kingsbridge, another man in the neighborhood was shot to death after some sort of altercation with his suspected killer on Webb Avenue near W. 197th Street.

The victim turned to walk away, but shot several times in the back, police said. A few days later, police arrested a suspect. Some of the help with identifying and tracking down the suspect from the victim’s girlfriend, police said. 

‘Contract killing’

There was also a fifth case, which mostly played out outside the 50th precinct but that drew to an end here. And it had all the makings of a classic New York murder mystery and police procedural, involving an allegedly dirty cop and a silenced witness. 

Robert Bishun, the 36-year-old owner of an auto body shop on Stillwell Avenue, was set to testify against former police officer Merlin Alston, who is charged with acting as an enforcer for a Bronx drug dealer. Mr. Bishun was found dead in a BMW near 6701 Broadway on Sept. 20. 

Mr. Bishun reportedly pled guilty to drug-trafficking charges after police raided his shop in 2012, and was set to testify against Mr. Alston. Shortly before his appearance, according to media reports, men in masks barged into his shop and abducted him. Several hours later, Mr. Bushun was found dead, strangled with a zip tie. 

Judge Colleen McMahon revoked Mr. Alston’s bail after the incident, reportedly saying, “it certainly sounds like a contract killing.”

Violent crime in generally became something of a theme in 2016. Crime in parks rose sharply in the first six months of the year, including two slashings and one shooting on Memorial Day weekend at Van Cortlandt Park. A number of joggers on the park’s Putnam trail were assaulted or robbed, prompting an outcry from residents and leading police to allocate more resources towards keeping parks safe. 

The blizzard

Amid the man-made violence of the year, 2016 also saw a few tempests of a more natural kind. 

The first major snowstorm of the year hit the Bronx on Jan. 23, and it was powerful. Winter Storm Jonas brought more than two feet of snow, making it the heaviest snowstorm on record in New York City, according to NOAA. 

Five people died in New York while trying to shovel the snow brought by the blizzard, all apparently suffering heart attacks, according to official data. In the northwest Bronx, scores of people spent hours digging out their cars from beneath snowbanks, while cab drivers upped their rates. But the blizzard delighted many children, who got to play in the snow and sled down hills. 

School battlegrounds

Some of the biggest disputes of the year revolved around the area’s public schools, all of which are suffering from overcrowding and at least one of which, the Spuyten Duyvil School (P.S. 24) has been left without a permanent principal for more than a year. 

A former principal of P.S. 24, Donna Connelly, resigned in November 2015 amid a series of conflicts and controversies, and acting principal Andrea Feldman took over the helm for a while. Meanwhile, an assistant principal, Manny Verdi, has sued Education Department officials and a local politician, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, for millions of dollars, accusing them of trying to block minority enrollment at the school. 

The dispute has cost at least two people their jobs, when an education superintendent resigned and Ms. Feldman was demoted to assistant principal this fall. A former teacher development coach, Steven Schwartz took over her role, but his job title of “interim acting principal” underscores the continuing instability at the school. 

Another school, the Luisa Pineiro Fuentes School of Science and Discovery (P.S. 307), faces the risk of losing its space when its lease expires next year. This development, if it happens, would be similar to what had happened at P.S. 24, which lost an annex after education officials failed to renew the lease. 

With or without a renewed lease, the plight of P.S. 307 appears set to continue. A resolution adopted by Community Board 8 in December described the school’s current building as “inadequate,” but with no better space in sight, called for the school to remain at the same location. 

While education officials have been battling each other, students at the Bronx High School of Science staged their own fights – battling in a park near their school, in front of an audience of their fight-club peers, according to a Daily News report this fall. 

In a follow-up article, one of the Daily News reporters said he had been receiving threatening calls and online messages over the publication. The Education Department pledged to investigate together with the police. One of the students accused of sending a threatening message has been arrested, The New York Times reported. 

Colorful crimes

Despite the four murder cases so far this year, crime in the 50th precinct is hardly a rampant issue, and rates are relatively low compared to city averages. But what Riverdale’s criminals may luckily lack in prolificacy, they make up for in bursts of creativity and daring. 

A woman has been charged this year with robbing two banks and trying to rob three more – by simply walking in, asking for hundreds of dollars and leaving.

Police say Christina Teifer became addicted to painkillers over the past year and decided to fund the habit by taking money from several local banks, including two Chase branches on Riverdale Avenue.

Police said she passed notes to tellers saying it was a robbery. She never made any direct threats, and in three instances, when the teller declined to give her money, she simply walked away, police said. 

Ms. Teifer’s husband turned her in to police, and she has pled guilty to one count of felony robbery, police said. 

Also in north Riverdale, a 27-year-old man from Yonkers was arrested on suspicion of burglarizing the same Verizon Wireless store three times in two months. 

He is accused of walking to the Verizon wireless store at 5909 Riverdale Ave. from his Yonkers home, throwing a rock through the store’s window and taking whatever merchandise was closest to the door. The same man was also charged in connection to burglarizing a Subway restaurant across the street.

Traffic troubles

On Feb. 15, a woman was struck by a car and injured when she was walking home at the corner of Riverdale Avenue and West 231st Street. Over the next several months, even as her injuries were still healing, Elisha Bird threw her efforts into advocating for traffic-safety improvements at the intersection. 

She worked with local politicians, state Sen. Jeff Klein and Councilman Andrew Cohen, on improvements that included school crossing signs on Riverdale Avenue to accommodate increased foot traffic from students at the International Leadership Charter School, which had opened in January.

In December, Mr. Cohen recognized Ms. Bird’s efforts with the second monthly “Activist of the month” award.

Other traffic problems took a more tragic turn. 

A 77-year-old woman was fatally struck by a car on Nov. 19 on a stretch of Broadway where the city had installed — but had not yet switched on – traffic lights to improve pedestrian safety. 

Local residents and politicians had been calling for traffic lights along the stretch of Broadway for months, but the lights, when they were installed, for weeks remained covered by sheets of black plastic. They were switched on after the deadly incident. 

Races to remember

Local political campaigns may have been overshadowed by the surprise outcome of the presidential election and the outrage many people felt about it, but a few races in the northwest Bronx this year have been described as historic by some of those who followed them. 

Adriano Espaillat emerged as the winner in a crowded race for New York’s 13th congressional district  to replace Rep. Charles Rangel, who is retiring after 46 years. 

Mr. Espaillat received no endorsement from Mr. Rangel, whom he had challenged during two previous election cycles, but won the vote to represent the district, which includes parts of Harlem, Washington Heights and Kingsbridge. 

The victory makes Mr. Espaillat the first Dominican-American to serve in Congress, as well as the first member of Congress ever who had once been an undocumented immigrant. 

But some other things never change. State Sen. Gustavo Rivera and city Councilman Fernando Cabrera faced off again in a rematch of a 2014 race, competing in the democratic primary for the 33rd state Senate district. They traded insults throughout the race, mostly by comparing one another to Donald Trump. 

Mr. Cabrera frequently called the incumbent a “bully,” and a “do-nothing senator,” largely citing a lack of capital funding to the district, which includes parts of Marble Hill and Kingsbridge. Mr. Rivera parried that Mr. Cabrera had “a fundamental problem with the truth.”

The incumbent’s arguments apparently proved more convincing in the end to the few votes who cared enough to show up, and Mr. Rivera won the Sept. 13 primary amid a low turnout. He garnered about 63 percent of the vote, or 2,487 more votes than his challenger received. 

A Red Tail’s final voyage 

When an event in the northwest Bronx gains nationwide headlines, the news is usually that of a loss, grief or tragedy. 

Roscoe Brown, a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen and longtime Bronx educator and Riverdale resident, died on July 2 at age 94. 

One the first African American men to serve in the U.S. Air Force during Ward War II, Mr. Brown flew 68 combat missions during his service. He shot two fighters out of the air, including a German jet that flew 150 miles per hour faster than his own P-51 Mustang fighter. He destroyed three Luftwaffe planes on the ground and wrecked 13 locomotives in ground attack missions.

The Tuskegee Airmen received less-sophisticated planes than their white counterparts. But they gained a reputation for staying tight to bombers, even when locked in battled with German fighters, earning them the nickname Red-Tail Angels. The stories of their exploits were adapted into the 2012 film “Red Tails.”  

When he returned from the war, Mr. Brown went on to earn a doctorate in exercise physiology, and spent 17 years as the president of Bronx Community College. He he moved to Riverdale in 1990 with his wife and children and became one of the founding members of the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park. 

Standing Rock

As protesters in Standing Rock, North Dakota, battled against the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, one of the worst injuries in the many months of the protest was sustained by Sophia Wilansky, 21, of the northwest Bronx. 

Her arm was severely injured on Nov. 21 by what her father, Wayne Wilansky, said he believed was a concussion grenade thrown by police, The Associated Press reported. The local sheriff’s office denied the use of any concussion grenades by law enforcement officers, the AP reported. 

Ms. Wilansky underwent a series of surgeries in Minnesota as doctors have been trying to save her arm. She returned to the northwest Bronx in December, and the “Sophia Wilansky Support” Facebook group on Dec. 11 posted a photo of her with her dog, accompanied by a single word and an exclamation point: “Home!”

Discord and the grace of unity

Against the backdrop of an array of significant events that took place in the northwest Bronx during the past year, a few other developments stand out in a different fashion: They did not happen. 

What makes them significant is the activity of the community that prevented them from happening. 

One of such projects was a plan by the Department of Environmental Protection to cover Jerome Park Reservoir by lines of bird-deterrent wires. The wires, according to critics, would have marred the historic reservoir’s vistas and would have taken it one step further toward becoming an industrial facility and away from a scenic recreation spot it had been decades ago. Community Board 8 members and other local residents vehemently opposed the plan, and the city suspended the project in December. 

But the community saw less success in opposing other city projects. When the Department of Homeless Services placed homeless families with children into the Van Cortlandt Motel this fall, Community Board 8 accused city officials of reneging on their promises to stop using the motel as a shelter and argued that the seedy motel was not a fitting place for children to stay. On Oct. 18, an infant was found dead at the motel, lying on a bed where the mother had also been sleeping, police said at the time. 

Whether or not the homeless families had been welcome neighbors, once they were here to stay, the interfaith Clergy Conference of Riverdale, Kingsbridge, Spuyten Duyvil and Marble Hill organized a drive to collect food, toiletries or clothes for the families at the motel. By Thanksgiving Day, many dozens of boxes showed up, and then more than 100 people came in to help pack the items and deliver them to the families. 

And a few months earlier, in the wake of the June 12 massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando – the deadliest mass shooting by a single assailant in U.S. history – dozens of clergy and members of the community gathered at vigils at Riverdale Monument and at the Bronx County Courthouse.

As the names of the 49 victims were read, attendees followed each name by chanting: “Love.” 

Corpse Flower

For the first time in 80 years, an amorphophallus titanium, or corpse flower, bloomed at the New York Botanical Garden in late July.

The rare plant takes 10 years to develop a bloom, if it succeeds in blooming at all, and then the flower lasts for only a few days. The corpse flower is known best for its fetid odor, resembling that of rotting flesh.

Despite its stench, the flower drew large crowds to the Botanical Garden and even larger to the garden’s website, where live video streaming allowed horticulture enthusiasts to monitor the plant’s status without dealing with its odor.

The plant had been an official flower of the Bronx from 1939 until 2000, when borough officials decided to replace it with the more fragrant and decorously named day lily. 

Perhaps it was fitting that it should have bloomed during a year that saw its share of troubles and unsightliness, yet sometimes succeeded in bringing out a beauty and a surge of unity in response.