Everywhere Marlene Santos looks inside and outside of her East New York home, she sees reminders of her deceased son, Carlos. Outside, on a wall across from her building, she sees colorful, oversized graffiti that reads “RIP Carlos.” Inside, in her bedroom, she sees a large framed photo when she wakes up and before she goes to bed.
Santos, 47, has other mementos of her oldest child who was murdered on June 18, 2014. In her room, she keeps a bag filled with his pictures, essays, high school yearbooks and other papers. On a counter in the kitchen, sits a box of protein powder that hasn’t been moved since that fatal afternoon. Except for one time. “My nephew came to the house to visit my daughters and took it,” Santos said during an interview in her kitchen, the protein powder in sight. “I started shouting when I realized what happened. ´Where is the box! I want it back!´”
Santos reenacts the scene, waving her hands, closing her eyes and shaking her head. She said the box was quickly returned to its original place, just below a cupboard where she still keeps the last jar of peanut butter her son ate from.
Carlos Santos was 23 on that June afternoon when he was walking down Liberty Avenue in East New York with two of his friends in the late afternoon, according to a police report. Meanwhile, Santos’ ex-girlfriend was approaching with Christian Morales, then 21. When Santos wanted to fight, according to a police report, Morales drew a knife and began stabbing Santos in the face and hands, chasing him up to the entrance of a nearby 99 cent store where Santos had sought refuge.
It was too late. Morales had perforated the vital subclavian artery in Santos’ upper right chest, according to the autopsy report. He was taken to Brookdale Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 5:04 p.m.
After the fight, Morales and the ex-girlfriend fled to Mexico. Four months later, in October, Morales was arrested in Mexico for possession of marijuana, extradited to New York and charged with murder, according to a police report.
At his trial, Morales’ testified that he hadn’t intended to kill Santos. Morales had received information that Santos was looking for him and the ex-girlfriend, said Robert Reuland, the lawyer who represented Morales at trial. According to a police report, one of the first things Morales asked police officers after his extradition was if they had found a gun on Santos. Morales said he attacked because he thought Santos had a gun. “I think he found himself in an impossible situation,” said Reuland. “It was either him or the others. Santos was with two friends and Christian couldn’t know what was going to happen.”
The jury acquitted Morales on the murder charge but found him guilty of first-degree manslaughter. Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Neil Firetog sentenced Morales to 20 years in prison.
“He got a pretty decent sentence,” said Reuland, who is not handling Morales’ appeal, which is still pending. Morales did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article, and his family members could not be located. The house where they lived in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn has since been abandoned.
“He never wanted to talk about it”
Santos had never been in serious trouble, and news of the murder shocked those who knew him. “When I told my family what happened, they couldn’t believe it,” said Melinda Fernandez, Santos’ best female friend. It was not the ending Marlene Santos expected for the son she and others describe as a peacemaker.
When he died, Carlos Santos was working as a tow truck driver, his mother and sister said. He was also going through a rough emotional time, because his girlfriend had broken up with him a couple of weeks earlier. To cheer him up, his aunt invited him to spend few days with her in Florida. Even though he was still a bit down, those days in the south had helped him, said his sister, Anastasia Perez, 19.
Marlene Santos remembers the expectations her son had. Santos wanted to be a police officer, to travel the world and to visit his father in the Dominican Republic, she said. “He was a very positive guy,” added his sister. “He could be a bit down sometimes but would make you laugh or have a long conversation until 3 or 4 a.m.”
The loss of her son has hit Marlene Santos hard. “Never ask me if I am over. Even a little.” she wrote in a post on Carlos’ Facebook timeline last April. She keeps going for her father and her four other children, two daughters and two sons, ages 11 to 24. Her father, a former metal factory worker who lost both of his hands in an industrial accident, and three of the children live with her. The oldest, Christopher Santos, is in prison, convicted of criminal possession of a weapon.
Marlene Santos said she has become extra protective of her children, especially the youngest Alberto, who is 11. “Now we show much more kindness to each other,” she said, as the smell of soup she was preparing for Alberto filled up the apartment. “We say ‘I love you’ all the time.”
It doesn’t help that poverty and unemployment rates in East New York are among the highest in the city or that the 75th Precinct, which includes East New York, had the most murders – 20 – of any precinct in the city in 2016. “We live in East New York, and you know what that means,” said Perez, referring to the area’s violent reputation.
The residents of the City Line section of East New York where the Santos’ live, are predominantly Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census. Marlene Santos’ parents were born in Puerto Rico and her former husband is from the Dominican Republic, where he now lives.
“I think that if his father would had still been here, he wouldn’t have died,” said Marlene Santos. “He was very strict.” The area is rough, she said, and though Carlos Santos never got in big trouble, his father always sat down to talk with his children when there was an issue.
“He would sit with my brothers for hours to make them understand what did they do wrong,” said Perez.
Marlene Santos told the story of how the police stopped Carlos’ father on the road in 2009. One of the headlights of the car was not working. After the officers checked his license, they discovered it was a fake. Santos’ father had been living in the U.S. for years without legal papers, she said. “It was not easy to get the residency, and he didn’t push enough for it,” said Marlene Santos, who was born in the U.S. After the arrest, he was deported to the Dominican Republic, and Carlos Santos found himself the oldest man of the house.
“He never wanted to talk about it,” said Melinda Fernandez, his close friend, referring to the sudden departure of Carlos Santos’ father.
Fernandez now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with her husband and works as a home caregiver. “All I wanted was to get away from all the tragedy,” she said via a Facebook video call.
More than three years after the homicide, friends and family continue to post on Santos’ Facebook wall. “God now how much I am missing you,” wrote Braidz Allday last June. “So many memories just not enough time,” posted Melinda Fernandez earlier this year, with a picture of her with Santos, both of them smiling.
In what would come to be his last morning, Santos uploaded a picture of himself on Instagram. Wearing sunglasses and a black hat, he was standing in front of a mural featuring the Dominican Republic flag. The caption read: “Till the day that I fucking die.”