More than 250 people packed the pews of Our Lady of Sorrow Church on Pitt and Stanton streets this Monday to mourn Armando Perez, a leader of CHARAS/El Bohio, the embattled Lower East Side community center. But there was no closure, for the circumstances of Perez's death remain mysterious. In the 10 days since the 51-year-old Democratic district leader was found bleeding from head wounds, no one has been able to say who murdered him or, indeed, whether he was murdered at all.
Perez was discovered at 5 a.m. on Saturday, April 3, outside his wife's apartment complex in Long Island City, Queens, and he died of massive internal injuries later that evening. Police have stopped short of calling his death a homicide, pending further investigation.
While Perez's wallet and glasses were missing, many of his friends say the brutality of his injuries a brain hemorrhage, fractured ribs, and the complete laceration of his spleen make it difficult to dismiss the case as a simple robbery. Perez's family has initiated a private autopsy, and says it is outraged that police did not open an investigation until 12 hours after Perez was found.
According to his wife, Maryann, she and Perez had spent the night drinking beer and watching videos when Perez stepped outside for a cigarette. Fifteen minutes later, police arrived at her door to inform her that Armando had been found bleeding on the sidewalk. "His nose was broken," Maryann recalls. "One of the soles to his shoes was completely ripped off, and the tops were all scuffed up as if he had been dragged. I immediately thought this had to be a fight." Maryann Perez says she pleaded with officers to investigate the incident as an assault.
By 4 p.m., when it became apparent at the hospital that Perez's injuries were life-threatening, a friend of the family called the 114th Precinct in Queens to request an investigation and was told that no record of the case had been filed. "I had to call 911 just to get the detectives to show up at the hospital," maintains Perez's nephew, Alex Perez.
Police defend their handling of the case. "Even if he had his head bashed in, we can't call it an assault unless someone saw it happen," says detective George Nagy. When officers responded to the scene, Nagy says Perez was "highly intoxicated and belligerent," and "gave no indication that he had been assaulted." Counters Maryann Perez: "He was not drunk and belligerent. He was in a lot of pain, and moaning. He kept asking to have the restraints they'd put on him removed because he said he couldn't breathe."
Perez's death has galvanized the Lower East Side. Last week, mourners by the hundreds gathered outside CHARAS, which Perez helped found in 1979. Some called Perez's death a political hit by real estate developers. Though there is no evidence to link any developers to the attack, for the last nine months Perez and his followers have waged a bitter campaign to fight the sale of CHARAS to developer Gregory Singer. They have picketed Singer's home and offices and staged boisterous protests each time Singer has attempted to tour the school building, which he bought for $3.15 million at a city auction last July.
"The last time Singer came here he was chased down the street by 50 angry protesters and the police pulled up and had to hail him a cab," says CHARAS volunteer Susan Howard. "We were making his life very difficult."
Admittedly, the notion of a real estate hit is unlikely. The courts had just rejected a second appeal by CHARAS to revoke the sale of the building, and though Singer has not specified a community-use plan, city officials claim he has so far met all the conditions of sale.
A more likely motive may be Perez's recent efforts to rid his wife's building of drug dealers. In February, Perez distributed leaflets inviting residents to "Fight Drug Dealing With a Phone Call." Several dealers were subsequently arrested, says Maryann Perez.
Still, many believe Perez died for CHARAS; and, indeed, he is fast becoming a martyr to the progressive causes he espoused. A former gang member, Perez went on to organize against street violence in the 1960s as a member of "The Real Great Society," the activist group he helped found with longtime partner Chino Garcia. Through CHARAS, Perez helped spark other groups on the Lower East Side, including University of the Streets and Adopt-A-Building.
Perez and CHARAS squatted in the Christodora House, constructed geodesic domes with Buckminster Fuller, and, in 1971, helped build the nation's first homestead on East 11th Street. Many Latinos credit Perez along with Garcia and the late poet Bimbo Rivas with nurturing the "renaissance" of Loisaida culture, and some, such as actor Louis Guzman, consider themselves CHARAS's "progeny."
Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who likened Perez to a soul mate, credits Perez with inspiring her to run for office. "Without him, we would have never have won the council race, we would never have gotten all those people from the projects out to vote," Lopez said outside Perez's funeral. Lopez has vowed to continue her efforts to save CHARAS. "That's your home, brother," she shouted, fist raised in the air, as a hearse took Perez past the CHARAS building for the last time. "Armando Viva!"
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