By BENJAMIN MUELLER and AL BAKER
Up the block came three young men, shoelaces lapping at the sidewalk, faces half-hidden in hoods, to pay their respects to a fallen street soldier.
They stopped at a mural splashed with rubber-banded rolls of $100 bills, next to calligraphy spelling out “Heart of the Hood” and “Money come & go but Legends Live Forever.” The face of Francisco Perez, six feet high and sun-dappled, stared out coolly over his old haunts. A red die showing five sat on a discarded bureau nearby.
“Cisco, 12-26-78 — 4-4-16,” the mural read, referring to Mr. Perez’s street name.
Over nearly three decades, Mr. Perez held court on this block of East 157th Street off Melrose Avenue in the South Bronx. It was here that he climbed the rungs of the street heroin trade, wooed women, muscled out drug rivals from nearby public housing projects and, as he got closer to middle age, counseled young men to save themselves and to get honest work.
By turns brutal and vain, comedic and exacting, Mr. Perez survived police raids, stickups, territorial incursions and a transformation of the city’s drug trade as it came to rely less than it once had on hand-to-hand street sales.
All the while, his crew and a former dealer shot at each other and tallied the hits. The bad blood led to the 2005 murder of a female bystander and, Mr. Perez’s friends said, spawned a round of tit-for-tat shootings in the months before his death. As he turned the corner toward home on a cold March morning, an assailant hiding behind a row of cars popped out and pounded him with .40-caliber bullets. It was the fifth of nine murders recorded this year in the 40th Precinct, the second-deadliest precinct in New York City after the 75th in East New York. The homicide figure already equals the total for all of last year.
Drug violence has plummeted since the early 1990s, when the neighborhoods of Mott Haven and Melrose and the rest of the precinct could see nine killings in a month. But some men still battle, though less conspicuously, over customers, turf and debts on the same corners, little touched by tides of economic change and opportunity.
By the time of his death, at 37, Mr. Perez was a balding father running with men half his age, a throwback whose taste for Biggie Smalls, Air Jordans and knife fights harked back to the ’90s. He promised to start coming home earlier and get a real job, but his past always stayed with him.
“He had beef in a lot of places,” said Nicolas Mendez, 23, a close friend. And Mr. Perez sometimes fanned the flames. “He’s crazy a little bit,” Mr. Mendez added. “He’s a little bugged out.”
The recent visit by his younger friends to the mural was brief. The most deliberate of the three, a coiled spring of a man with dark eyes and an angular face, bent over and lit a $2.50 votive candle dedicated to Our Lady of Altagracia.
Then he announced, “We out,” and they swiveled and strode down 157th Street to their corner.
The mural celebrated the outer layer of Mr. Perez. This was the man of fur-trimmed coats and new Nikes, bottles of Hennessy and talk of accepting a long prison sentence to spare his friends from the same. A cousin, Maddie, said that persona hid a deep well of pain and an insatiable longing for family.
“He had this mask on when he was in the street,” she said, “so he would look likethis guy.”
Born to a mother addicted to heroin and a father whose name and whereabouts were always a mystery, Mr. Perez used to wake up on weekends at 6 a.m. to go door to door in the projects selling The Daily News.
“Papers, Sunday newspapers!” he shouted in the hallways as he and Maddie, both about 9, banged on doors.
They made 50 cents per sale. Mr. Perez supplemented that with a job bagging groceries at a C-Town supermarket, collecting tips in a small bowl.
Once, half-jokingly, he loaded his and Maddie’s socks into the dishwasher because her mother had no washing machine; he added dish detergent, ran the machine and split them between an oven and a microwave to dry.
A crack epidemic and poverty were ravaging the South Bronx in the 1980s, and debris became children’s playthings. They roamed a junkyard where people went for secondhand parts, sitting in stripped-down cars and mimicking an engine’s roar.
Crack vials covered the project’s sidewalks “like pigeon poop,” said Maddie, sitting on her stoop in a city hundreds of miles from the Bronx where she had moved in her 20s. Out of fear for her safety, she asked that neither her city nor her surname be identified. She and Mr. Perez used to shout, “Don’t step on the crack, you break your mother’s back!”
In Mr. Perez’s vast family, women were the anchors; the only male mentors he had were steeped in the aggressive ways of the street, Maddie said.
“You don’t know what a man is, because the only man that society showed you was the one on the corner,” she said. “Pretty much that’s what the Bronx shows you: the man on the corner.”
‘That’s How It Started: Death’
By the early ’90s, the corner of East 157th Street and Melrose Avenue was beckoning local children looking for easy cash, along with middle-class workers, like teachers and mail carriers, who were falling under heroin’s sway.
The intersection was among the Bronx’s busier drug markets, just far enough from the hubbub of the projects and the police stationed there, and a quick hop from several thoroughfares. Arson and demolitions had left a single five-story building on the south side of 157th Street, with a few squatters inside. Heroin changed hands in the lobby and on a second-floor landing.
“We used to call it the Well — you could sit a block off it and just pick off guys who were buying,” said Charles McLiverty, a retired New York police detective who worked in Bronx Narcotics from 1993 to 1997. “People would drive up in cars — New Jersey, Connecticut, upstate New York — and they knew this was the place to go.”
Mr. Perez was in his early teens at the time, watching his mother sink into heroin addiction. The drug was making a comeback across the city as it became cheaper and purer, the first wave in a resurgence of heroin that is now swallowing many middle-class communities.
“She would use heroin as a way to cope with physical and emotional pain, and Mr. Perez learned those habits from her,” a federal defender, Annalisa Mirón, wrote in court papers in 2014 after Mr. Perez was accused of selling the drug.
When he was 13, his mother died from complications of H.I.V. His grandmother took him in, but then she died, too. He lived with an aunt until she moved away. A second aunt, Maddie’s mother, took over raising him; about a year later she also died from complications of H.I.V.
“That’s how it started: death,” Maddie said of her cousin’s street life. “You feel like, ‘Everyone I love is dead.’”
Maddie and Mr. Perez, both around 17, took her mother’s life-insurance check and moved into a one-bedroom public housing apartment in the northern Bronx.
To cover the $550 rent, Maddie took a job folding clothes at a Dr. Jay’s store; Mr. Perez studied for a high school equivalency diploma. He chopped onions and peppers for spaghetti, the only dinner they knew how to make, and pleaded in vain for Maddie to iron his pants before dates.
Home life was weighted with loss and obligation. The corner at 157th and Melrose pulled him back. He told Maddie that the money he earned there would pay for studio time to record rap music, and that he would leave the streets once he became successful.
“I don’t want a girl with extensions in her hair / bamboo sneakers, at least nine pairs,” Maddie said, recalling an early rap, an admiring take, it would appear, on “Around the Way Girl,” the 1990 track by LL Cool J. “A C-Town bag and a bad attitude / That’s all I need to mess up my good mood!”
Street Dreams and Turf Wars
Six-foot-one and strapping, with a deep, easy laugh and a biting sense of humor, Mr. Perez had the personality and the physique to command a corner. He seesawed between being the block’s Robin Hood and his crew’s unforgiving enforcer.
An older woman recalled him paying for her Pepsi, unprompted, at a deli counter. Young children ran up to him, yelled “Cisco!” and jumped into his arms, drawn by gifts of candy. In summertime, he would drag a grill onto the corner and cook steaks, chicken and hot dogs, as Tupac and Slick Rick played on borrowed speakers.
But Mr. Perez was also the first to jump out of his car and start swinging when an argument bubbled over. He often carried around a mound of marijuana, friends said, and took PCP for a time. He was known to have access to guns. When a friend once cracked wise about his fitted hat, Mr. Perez returned a withering look — and then never wore the hat again.
“He had a temper and a half,” Lydia Rosado, who lives in the neighborhood, said. “They would argue about stupid little things — music, girls.” But, she added, “all the guys respected him.”
He was a street-level dealer in a heroin ring besieged by competitors.
The drug landed on 157th and Melrose by way of a dark, beat-up minivan driven from Florida every week by a man in his 40s, whom the police were tracking. Mr. Perez’s crew stashed packages in apartments in private buildings on the north side of 157th Street. Runners as young as 9 picked them up and carried them to the street for resupply, where detectives watched the ballet of signals and handoffs in plain view.
But crack cocaine dealers from the Melrose and Jackson housing projects a block west coveted Mr. Perez’s crew’s more lucrative turf and sometimes tried to steal their drugs or money. The rivalry was stoked by race and class, too. Mr. Perez’s friends, many of them living in private walk-ups, disdained dealers from the projects, whom they saw as more wanton in their violence. The project crew was mostly black; Mr. Perez’s was Latino.
As his crew’s muscle, Mr. Perez was targeted for robberies and beatings, friends said. Going to the police was akin to self-imposed exile. He built a reputation on responding with startling force.
“In the streets you just don’t make money, and then get power and respect,” said a friend who worked with Mr. Perez, and who like many people interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid unwanted attention from rivals or the police. “Hell no. You’ve got to put in some type of work, meaning violence.”
The police arrested dealers in buy-and-bust operations only to find most of them quickly back on the street, whisked through the revolving door of an overburdened court system. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s crackdown on so-called quality-of-life crimes, especially on blocks considered in need of new development, intensified the pressure to make arrests, despite detectives’ knowledge that younger dealers were waiting in the wings.
Mr. Perez was arrested in December 1997, at 18, for selling heroin on 157th and Melrose. Two days after he was released and referred to drug rehabilitation, in February 1998, an undercover officer told him “two” and put $20 in his hand, according to a criminal complaint. Mr. Perez was accused of giving the officer two glassine envelopes of heroin.
After he was sent to state prison for three years, the arrests picked up again: five in the next three years, on gun and drug charges. Being a felon made it hard to get a job, his family said. And staying in the drug trade for so long saddled him with a growing cast of jealous enemies.
“He’d tell me, ‘Watch the projects,’” Mr. Mendez, his friend, said. “It was probably beef over who want the block since, like, the ’90s.”
A Code of Silence
Threats to the crew’s reputation from the inside took a bigger toll. Mr. Perez played a central role in tit-for-tat shootings in 2005 directed at a dealer who owed him and his friends money, court papers show.
Drug bosses often worry that one late payment will embolden other addict dealers to default on their own debts. So the leader of Mr. Perez’s crew went in search of the dealer on a brisk March night in a friend’s Mitsubishi Galant.
The rival dealer struck first. He raked the Mitsubishi with bullets, wounding the leader, Eric Martinez, and killing a neighborhood resident, Yvette Salamanca, who had agreed to drive him as a favor. Sitting in the car were 10 bloodied envelopes for heroin, stamped “Lucky Charms” and “American Dreams.”
The homicide investigation languished, without an arrest. Officers caught the dealer less than a block from the shooting and matched him with witness descriptions. He had been smoking so much PCP, though, that detectives could not get anything coherent from him and let him go. The wounded victims — Mr. Martinez and another heroin dealer — would not cooperate, either.
“I see them walking around all the time, and it pisses me off,” Annabelle Olmeda, Ms. Salamanca’s younger sister, said of the witnesses. “I’m sure they know who did it and they’re just not saying anything. I doubt it’s because of fear. I guess it’s the code they have.”
Instead, Mr. Perez sought revenge on behalf of his crew. Three days after Ms. Salamanca was killed, he fired at the dealer. He missed, but the police retrieved 12 9-millimeter bullet casings as evidence. Court papers say he tried again four days later, wounding an associate of the dealer, though his family contends that the police confused him with another gunman in that case.
Mr. Perez’s jailing on gun charges weeks later did little to slow the bloodshed. The unsolved killing festered; without justice from the system, retaliatory violence spread like an infection.
Mr. Martinez’s brother, Christian Irizarry, shot and wounded the dealer and another man in the back on June 24, court papers say.
The detectives investigating Ms. Salamanca’s killing stopped showing up at her family’s doorstep after a few weeks, her sister said. They shifted their attention to building a drug case against her old friends. Even decades after the peak of the drug war, targets like Mr. Perez’s crew carried valuable currency in the Police Department. The United States attorney for the Southern District of New York charged Mr. Irizarry, Mr. Martinez and Mr. Perez with running a violent narcotics conspiracy.
The case hung on the kind of unsavory alliance the police often stitch together to secure cooperation in drug and gang investigations: A central witness against Mr. Perez and his crew was the same dealer who the police were certain killed Ms. Salamanca.
“I think he feared for his life,” Mr. McLiverty, who had transferred to Bronx Homicide and investigated the killing of Ms. Salamanca, said of the witness. “He figures: ‘If I rat these guys out, they’ll be away. At least I’ll be safe.’ It’s like a survival mode.”
Detectives hoped that Mr. Perez’s crew, too, would break down and inform on one another or on more senior drug leaders. But none of them spoke.
“Cisco had an opportunity to work for the government at the time,” Mr. Perez’s lawyer in the case, Richard Herman, said. “And he didn’t do it.”
So prosecutors came down on him hard, threatening to bring his four prior felony convictions before the court, potentially doubling some of the mandatory minimum sentences he would face to a total of at least 30 years. At his lawyers’ urging, he pleaded guilty to ammunition charges and was sentenced to six and a half years.
The crew’s leader, Mr. Martinez, and his brother had their charges dropped after the evidence against them crumbled — an example of how drug investigations often lock up street soldiers and let their bosses walk free.
Sharon McCarthy, the chief of the violent crimes unit in the United States attorney’s office at the time and a defense lawyer now, said that multiplying mandatory minimum sentences, as the government sought to do against Mr. Perez, cheated people out of a fair chance to defend themselves at trial.
“I think it was used a lot of times by the government as a sort of threat that would be hanging over a defendant’s head, to essentially bludgeon them into taking a plea,” she said. “It’s coercive.”
No Second Act
After Mr. Perez got home in 2011, he and his longtime partner, Tara Sullivan, went to two counseling sessions together before she let him continue on his own, so he could “express himself more and be open and honest with the therapist,” she later wrote to a judge. He also completed a job training course.
“I think it was being out of prison that allowed him to see, ‘I don’t really want to go back there; I don’t want to live that life anymore,’” Ms. Mirón, Mr. Perez’s federal defender, said in an interview.
His chief source of encouragement was his daughter, born three months before he was locked up in 2005. He took her to school when Ms. Sullivan had to work, along with her boy from a previous relationship. He brought them to run on the track at Van Cortlandt Park.
“His thing was, he was going to be here till she got older,” his cousin, Maddie, said. “Because he didn’t have parents. He wanted to be here for her because his mother, everybody else, was gone.”
But prison had also introduced Mr. Perez to more powerful drug distributors who, once he was back on the street, started supplying him with large quantities to resell, said the friend who worked with Mr. Perez. He encountered resistance when he tried to expand his crew’s footprint by selling farther north.
Men his age often become more cautious about selling drugs, or at least move off the streets into less visible roles. In the time he was locked up, many criminals had gone on to less violent, more lucrative schemes, like identity theft.
Mr. Perez, though, had no second act. “Five-seven is sweet,” a woman who knew him from around the block said. “There’s always something that brings them back.”
At the top of the drug trade, money was becoming concentrated in fewer hands; lower down, dealers like Mr. Perez were struggling to make as much as they used to, said William Cook, chief investigator for the city’s Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor. His crew was just eking out a living.
Mr. Perez strutted through the public housing courtyards of rivals, boasting, “This is nobody’s block — it belong to America.”
But in recent months he had showed signs of worry. He owed money to his distributors and to his friends. He kept a steak knife hidden in his car, friends said. He told people about gunmen coming to 157th and Melrose, but was evasive about why. He was shot at, but not hit, by a man angry at him over a romance.
In a rap, he wrote of his enemies, “They wish my day would come.”
Investigators are exploring whether drug associates thought that Mr. Perez had been “skimming,” stealing drugs he was supposed to sell. Detectives believe he had recently tried to buy a big cache of guns. A man questioned in a separate case offered a different lead: that Mr. Perez’s killer had shot him over a continuing dispute and then fled to Miami.
His friends, though, are fixated on how the feud with the indebted dealer in 2005 had roared back recently, possibly snaring Mr. Perez. The rivalry reignited last year, the friends said, when an ally of the dealer wounded a friend of Mr. Perez’s in a spat over women. As they tell it, a 20-year-old man from the dealer’s circle was then killed.
Mr. Perez’s friends concede that others might have wanted Mr. Perez dead. But talk on the street, true or not, has turned to how the dealer wanted to avenge the 20-year-old’s killing by gunning for the strongest, most intimidating man on 157th and Melrose: Mr. Perez.
He was staring down a 1 a.m. curfew, set by his partner. They often fought over his girlfriends and his late nights; he had promised her he would return home early on March 18. But 1 a.m. came and went, and Mr. Perez stayed in an apartment around the corner from his crew’s drug spot and drank from a gallon bottle of Hennessy.
“He was like, ‘You know, she’s already mad at me, we was arguing, so I’ll be home later on tonight to make it up to her,’” Mr. Mendez, his friend, said.
Mr. Perez sometimes joked about how he was old enough to be his friends’ father. But their youth also gave him an escape, and he trusted them easily.
Around 2 a.m., after waffling a bit over going to a music studio for the night, Mr. Perez settled on driving Mr. Mendez and his girlfriend home and then facing his partner at their new apartment on Union Avenue, in a pocket of the 40th Precinct that was quieter than his favorite corner, but still only a short trip away.
Mr. Perez was “drunk talking” as he drove, Mr. Mendez recalled, and he urged Mr. Mendez’s girlfriend “to take care of him tonight.” He peeked at the side mirrors of his white Nissan Altima, as he often did, looking for the police or rivals.
After dropping them off, surveillance video showed Mr. Perez zigzagging through the maze of streets around his apartment building, parking and then grabbing a bag of Doritos from the car. There was a bounce in his step as he neared his building door.
Two gunmen waited about a dozen steps away, crouched behind several parked S.U.V.s. Two other assailants were positioned at the other end of the block. The ones closer to him slinked between the cars and the green plywood boards of a construction site.
Then one of the gunmen, slightly built and quick, lifted a .40-caliber pistol chest-high and squeezed off seven shots, shuffling like a boxer as he fired. He and the other gunman, who was trailing behind, took off running for a maroon van, got in and drove off.
Bullets tore through Mr. Perez’s groin area and left arm. Another pierced his forehead. Blood emptied onto the sidewalk. Somehow, he wriggled on the ground and screamed for help.
“He said, ‘I fell, I fell,’” said a woman who had rushed to his side. “I’m like, ‘No, you got shot.’”
Seven brass bullet casings lay beside him. The woman said it seemed as if he were being deliberately vague.
“I think he knew who his shooter was and didn’t want to say,” she said.
Mr. Perez, his brain swelling, was put on life support at the hospital.
Detectives collected ballistic evidence, but never matched the casings to another crime. They cataloged Mr. Perez’s final calls on his cellphone. They found two unused cigars wrapped in foil that the second gunman had dropped.
Surveillance video showed the maroon van and a second, smaller car following it away from the crime scene, and detectives pulled video from nearby businesses to trace the getaway. But the video trail dried up past a Con Edison substation near an expressway.
Sergeant Michael J. LoPuzzo, commander of the 40th Precinct Detective Squad, worried about having to parse street talk that was sending him in several directions.
“The more time goes by, the more stories you hear, and stories go from one guy to the next guy and facts change,” he said. “It’s like everything’s different from what it really is.”
In the weeks after the March 18 shooting, Mr. Perez’s friends streamed to his hospital bed. They held smartphones to his ear and played his favorite song, “Lockjaw,” by French Montana, a veiled boast about not snitching to the police. His body flinched, and his eyelids twitched. But he never spoke again. He died on April 4.
Almost two months later, the sidewalk was still nicked where bullets had hit. A dark blood stain was fading. Two police posters, unchanged since his death, hung on the ground floor of his apartment building. Titled “A NON FATAL SHOOTING,” they offered $2,500 for clues about the wounding on March 18 of an unnamed man.