Emotion runs high as murder trial begins

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A tranquil lunch break outside the Bronx County Hall of Justice was unsettled last week by screams and the charge of officers as tensions between two sides of a murder trial spilled onto the Grand Concourse.

Within seconds, officers were outside the courthouse where the man accused of killing Nicolas Vargas Jr. — Andy Lora-Soto — was appearing before a judge. One man, wearing a “Justice for Nick” T-shirt, was taken away in handcuffs.

“We’re the victims two times now,” Rosie Kennedy, 50, yelled at the officers surrounding her. She, too, was wearing a shirt in support of Vargas, who was shot Aug. 31 while the 22-year-old was in a car on Broadway not far from West 238th Street.

Kennedy’s comments likely were among the kindest officers heard for nearly 10 minutes from the huddle of close friends and family. One young girl, not yet a teenager, laced together a string of expletive-laden criticisms at the officers, standing mere feet away.

“Some of the officers are just very rude,” Kennedy said later.

The Kingsbridge murder was the fourth murder in the 50th Precinct this year, pushing the 2018 violence total up over the year before. Family members cite various news reports that the entire alleged confrontation between Lora-Soto and Vargas was over a long stare exchanged between the two before bullets flew.

Sept. 20 was the first court appearance attended by Vargas’ mother, Natasha Betancourt. She coordinated three cars full of family and friends to accompany her to the Grand Concourse courthouse. What she found in court didn’t make her any happier, especially with an unidentified woman she said was associated with the accused killer.

“That lady snickered in court,” Betancourt said. “That made me so angry and disgusted.”

Vargas supporters began shouting the moment Lora-Soto was walked into the courtroom, Betancourt said. Nicolas Vargas Sr., the victim’s father, apparently lunged at Lora-Soto, causing court officers to swarm and the judge to jump from her seat. The hearing ultimately was postponed to Oct. 5.

Betancourt, however, didn’t regret her outbursts. “They are not going to intimidate me.”

With emotions running high, court officers stood by the front entrance as the Vargas supporters — about 20 in total — walked out of the courthouse. The altercation broke out within minutes.

Yet, it didn’t appear like the confrontation ever got physical. Officers stood passively as Vargas supporters voiced their displeasure at the handcuffing of Vargas’ friend, Anthony Levy, and the general disposition of the court officials. Some found the courtroom professionals indifferent to their situation.

“He was definitely just a docket number to them,” Kennedy said of Vargas.

One court officer, who earlier had taken the brunt of the young girl’s complaints outside the courthouse, acknowledged the difficult situation officers are put in during emotionally charged trials. Though he declined to be identified, he said he understood how the bureaucracy of the court proceedings could be jarring for grieving families and friends.

Eventually, Levy was released from police custody with a warning, and the crowd followed Betancourt and Kennedy across the street.

“When I was back there, the officer told me, ‘Take it back to the hood,’” Levy said. “They assume everyone who walks in is a criminal.”

As Betancourt prepared for a meeting with prosecutors, Vargas’ friends rattled off memories of their deceased friend.

“He never wore blue jeans,” one called out. “He had the ‘flyest’ Nikes,” another said.

“He’d give you the shirt off his back. A great friend, a great father of two. Nicky was Nicky.”

With those words of encouragement, the anger withered away from Betancourt’s voice as she headed for the district attorney’s office to find out what would happen next.