A BLOODY KNIFE
From his perch on the witness stand, Angel Loja knew he was doing well — composed, in control, hands folded on his lap. Just as he had been instructed, he was giving straight answers, looking at the lawyer as he spoke, occasionally glancing at the prosecutor or the judge for reassurance, trying to enunciate every word carefully and truthfully, to the best of his recollection. But then the lawyer for the defense mentioned the knife, and Loja, thirty-seven, almost lost his composure.
"Did you ever see a knife?" asked William Keahon, the lawyer representing Jeffrey Conroy, the young man who, at seventeen, had confessed to stabbing and killing Loja's friend, Marcelo Lucero.
"Did you ever see anyone stab Marcelo?"
"No, because in the second attack ... "
"I'm not asking — please stop."
"Sorry. I'm sorry about that."
"That's fine," the lawyer said, and he went on to the next question.
But it was not fine. A simple no couldn't convey Loja's feelings, the nights he had stayed awake thinking "what-if," the hours he had mulled over his actions on the day of the attack. It wasn't fair that the lawyer wanted a simple yes or no. Neither of those answers could accurately describe his fears or his regrets.
The truth was that Loja had turned his back momentarily on his friend and their attackers to run for safety to a nearby alley. He had called out to Lucero to follow him, but Lucero had stood his ground and fought. The truth was that he had not seen the knife. He wished he had.
"And when you got to the police precinct did you talk to a detective or a police officer right away or did you have to wait?" the lawyer continued.
"I had to wait."
"Do you know about how long?"
"Two, three hours. Three hours."
"And during that time, that two or three hours that you were waiting to speak to a police officer, did you learn about what had happened to your friend, Marcelo Lucero?"
"Okay. So, when did you learn that?"
"I didn't find out until the detectives approached me. They introduced themselves. They said they were detectives. The first thing I asked was, 'How's my friend?' "
"And what did they say?"
"They said, 'I'm sorry. Your friend passed away. He's dead.' "
At this point in the trial, Loja could no longer hold back the tears. He wanted to go back in time to Lucero's one-room apartment, shut the door, and stay inside with his friend, watching TV. He wished he had never gone out that day at all. If he hadn't, if he had said no instead of yes when Lucero called the afternoon of November 8, 2008, if he hadn't been so accommodating to his older, wiser friend, perhaps Lucero would still be alive.
He had briefly considered turning down Lucero's invitation that day, but in his friend's voice he had detected something akin to desperation or loneliness. Later Loja would wonder: Did Lucero know that he was going to die that day? Did he somehow intuit that he had hours to live and that's why he didn't want to be alone? Lucero may not have needed a savior that day, for Loja knew he couldn't have saved his friend. What Lucero had needed, he had concluded after the attack, was someone to bear witness.
And so here he was, more than sixteen months after that day, bearing witness.
"And how did you know Marcelo Lucero?" the prosecutor, Megan O'Donnell, asked, unleashing a flood of memories.
Loja cleared his throat before answering.
"I have known Marcelo Lucero since I was five years old."
There was little they didn't know about each other. They were born sixteen months apart, and their mothers were friends and neighbors in Gualaceo, a dusty speck of a town in a valley near Cuenca, a mid-size city in Ecuador known for its colonial buildings, narrow streets, and a river that divides it in two. Their town, though, has little in common with Cuenca, which for Gualaceños is more like a point of reference, a way to anchor them to the better-known geography of a place. Gualaceo, with only one main street, one cemetery, and one bus station, does not have the colonial charm or tourist-fueled relative wealth of Cuenca. There are no fancy hotels or restaurants in Gualaceo, and not one that serves, say, an omelet for breakfast. A tourist would be hard-pressed to find a place to eat after 7:00 p.m., but there are dozens of stores that sell leather shoes in a dizzying array of colors and styles, at least two food markets, two churches, and two local weekly newspapers. What beauty Gualaceo has it owes to nature. Cleaved by the Santa Bárbara River — once believed by the Spanish conquistadors to be brimming with gold — and surrounded by majestic mountains, some locals call it pedacito de cielo — little piece of heaven.
For Lucero and Loja, Gualaceo proved to be too small a piece of heaven. They wanted more.
Loja came from a large family, one that had known unimaginable pain and addiction but also redemption, prosperity, and perhaps even a miracle.
He was the second-oldest boy of a family of nine, but knew only six of his siblings. By the time he was born, his parents, who had once been too poor for medicine or doctors, had lost three daughters, ages three, five, and six, to mysterious ailments that no amount of home remedies could cure. At that time, Loja's mother was supporting the family, while her husband buried his helplessness and sadness in alcohol. The couple and their surviving children lived with Loja's father's parents in a modest house in the countryside; the arrangement upset Loja's mother, who thought each family ought to have its own house.
She moved out with the children and, with sticks and stones, built a hut with her own hands. Jolted by her move, Loja's father sobered up, pulled his family from the makeshift shed, and became a devout follower of the Virgin Mary. During the day he worked in construction. At night he prayed the Rosary with friends and neighbors. The family prospered and moved to the center of town. The father did so well that he eventually began selling construction materials, a much less demanding and better- paying job. The Lojas, though never rich, managed to reach a lower-middle-class status. Loja, unlike Lucero, never went to bed hungry.
When he was nine, Loja had a vision that changed his life. He was playing with his brother Pablo, then seven, outside their grandfather's stone house. An uncle had died and the family had just returned from the funeral. The adults were inside, tending to their elderly and setting out the food. Eventually stars became visible in the twilight. The brothers looked up, marveling at the beauty of the sky, at the sudden way the sun had disappeared behind the regal mountains of the Azuay province in the highlands of the country, where some peaks reach fifteen thousand feet above sea level.
It was quiet but for the faint sounds of sobs coming from inside the house and dogs barking in the distance. Suddenly, it seemed to the boys, the brightest star exploded and its light traveled down to where they were playing, illuminating a spot a few steps from them. It shimmered and flowed, like the river in summer afternoons. Loja wanted to touch it but held back. Openmouthed and paralyzed by fear and excitement, the boys saw an image of Jesus Christ take shape in the light. The figure, which appeared to be floating and looking directly at them, wore a white tunic; the arms were extended, and the pale hands were pierced and bleeding, just like in the countless images of Christ they had seen in church. Pablo took off running to get his parents, but Loja stayed put. After a few seconds, the image went up with the light, leaving behind a thick curtain of fog and a boy who, from then on, felt special, protected by a divine force.
Later, after he had become a star athlete, Loja had no doubt that God had been illuminating a path for him. Later still, after he had survived a desert passage and made it to New York in a nineteen-day journey, he felt indebted to God. With God on his side and his well-honed athlete's instincts, he felt invincible, an indispensable feeling for a dark-skinned Latino to have in Suffolk County at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
Every Latino in Suffolk County knew that gangs of youngsters roamed the streets looking for immigrants to harass or beat. Some people were even afraid to go to the library at night for the free English classes because they knew that, upon leaving, thugs could be waiting for them. Loja and Lucero had heard the stories, but they thought the attacks happened mostly in Farmingville, a nearby community where tensions between Latinos and non-
Latino residents had made news for almost a decade.
They had heard about the two Mexican day laborers who in 2000 were lured with promises of work to an abandoned building in Shirley, about fifteen minutes from Farmingville, by two white men who beat them savagely. More recently there had been reports of beatings and confrontations in other towns in Suffolk County, and they knew that Patchogue was not immune.
From his kitchen window overlooking a parking lot, Loja once saw a Latino man being attacked by a group of white teenagers. The youngsters pushed the man down, made him kneel and brace himself as if for a rough landing in an airplane, and then ran their bicycles over his back. The teenagers took off on their bikes and the man got up, dusted himself off, rubbed his face with his hands, and left the parking lot before Loja had time to react. Loja, if not Lucero, knew that Patchogue too could be a dangerous place.
Excerpted from Hunting Season: Murder and Immigration in an All-American Town by Mirta Ojito (Beacon Press, 2013). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.