By Michael Musto
By Capt. James Van Thach told to Jonathan Wei
By Kera Bolonik
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By Nick Pinto
By Steve Weinstein
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By Michael Musto
While the neighborhood has always been blighted by violence, West Farms residents say that the late 1980s were especially rough. "I've been here all my life, and I'll tell you, this place was a battleground," says Sonny Lee, a longtime resident of the complex. "It was like Beirut." Even so, says Lee, residents of the West Farms complex looked down on those from the even more troubled Bronx River Projects, calling them "River Rats." "In those days," he says, "the Projects were the center of the crack epidemic."
Phyllis Little says that during this time, Cooper would drop by her apartment, leave Joi there, then disappear for days at a time. Family and friends suspected that Cooper was venturing off to the Projects, "but we never really asked," says Phyllis.
Other times, Cooper would head out to party and leave Joi home alone. Beanna Jones, a friend and neighbor who lived downstairs from Cooper, remembers seeing Joi coming down the stairs at three in the morning, looking for her mother. "I said, 'Where the hell are you going at this hour?' " says Jones. "I was pissed because Selena was out so late while Joi was at home—at three o'clock in the morning. I was more than mad." Jones says that as Cooper started leaving the apartment more and more frequently, she became a frequent impromptu babysitter.
Phyllis grew frustrated with Cooper's extended absences. She warned Cooper that if she left again and didn't stop by to visit Joi, she would petition Children & Family Services for custody of her granddaughter. "She was neglecting her daughter. And I warned her I'd go to Child Welfare, but I wanted to give her a last chance," says Phyllis. "I must have given her eight, nine, 10 last chances." Eventually, Cooper relented and agreed to give Phyllis full custody.
Phyllis began raising Joi in her one-bedroom apartment, one building over from the child's mother. The two had a close relationship to begin with, and their time together brought them even closer. Phyllis moved to the living room, to sleep on the pull-out couch, giving Joi the large bed in the only bedroom. "That was the queen's room," says Phyllis, pointing to the door, the memory returning with a warm smile. "You did not go in there and disturb her stuff."
Phyllis says that in the evenings, Joi would dance around with the verve of her mother, talking a mile a minute and blaring about her passion for math. "I put a chalkboard in the living room, and she'd write up all these numbers and put them together. She'd say, 'Granny, Granny, I can add them!' " When morning came, Phyllis would escort Joi to the bus stop, shielding her from the growing dangers of the neighborhood.
Fleming says that, like the neighborhood, he was hitting his own personal low in the late 1980s. "I've been a crack addict all my life, and back then I was really hitting bottom," he says. Fleming had already been convicted of armed robbery. Now, he says, he was homeless and had learned that he was infected with HIV.
Cooper invited Fleming to live with her in the apartment, where they would smoke crack and have unprotected sex. With a passion that rivals his denial of the charges, Fleming insists that he was not a freeloader. He paid Cooper for the housing, he says, with doses of crack and money he made working construction projects around Bronx River.
Phyllis says that during this time, she never met Fleming or saw Cooper with any man, and that she rarely visited Cooper's residence. Though her apartment was in the same complex, Cooper lived on the fourth floor of her building, and Phyllis says that for an older woman without muscular legs, hiking up the four flights of stairs would have been a trying task. Today, she says, she regrets not dropping by more often.
Phyllis adds that she did not have the option of calling Cooper, since, like many residents in the complex, Cooper did not own a telephone. "If you wanted somebody, you'd go to the window and call out for people," she says. "That's how it was done in those days."
Lee Little, Joi's uncle, remembers returning home from Bethune-Cookman College, hanging out with Selena, and watching her smoke crack. He had taken a philosophy course at Bethune-Cookman about life's tendency toward stasis. "I remember telling Selena, 'I bet we're going to be in the same place next year.' "
But Cooper's circumstances did change, as her addiction grew and her health collapsed. Little remembers returning from college a second time to find a different Cooper. Her flamboyant wardrobe was gone, she looked gaunt, and she had begun twisting her lips to hide a missing bicuspid. "I said, 'Damn, girl, what happened to you?' "
Cooper's sister, Antonia Jones, says that while living in West Farms, Cooper took college courses at Hunter College—but the courses never resulted in a degree. She did not have a steady job, either. Friends and family say Cooper collected government assistance, money she used to purchase drugs.
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