A Fight Over a Pack of Cigarettes and a Family’s Endless Grief

When Tahisha Sanchez Crawford thinks of her late brother, she remembers an artistic young boy who loved to draw and watch movies. Growing up in Marcy Houses, a public housing development in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Crawford and her three siblings didn’t go out a lot. Instead, they would entertain themselves by spending hours in front of a television.

Rufino Sanchez Jr., the middle brother, two years older than Crawford, was known as Chino and was particularly fond of superhero cartoons, Westerns and Bruce Lee martial arts movies. But his all-time favorites were classics like “The Warriors,” about New York gangs in the late 70s. “He also liked scary spooky movies,” Crawford, 43, said. “He had a great imagination.”

Rufino Sanchez Jr., also known as Chino, as a child. (Photo courtesy of Pedro Sanchez)

What the Sanchez family couldn’t have anticipated was that on April 15, 2014, their lives would turn into a real horror movie, supposedly over a pack of cigarettes. It began when Chino Sanchez, 41, and Joshua Simser, a 24-year old short-order cook from Texas, were both at Tommy Mac’s Pub, a popular bar squeezed between two dance studios on Avenue N in Flatlands, Brooklyn.

The two men, according to neighbors and other customers at the bar, were regulars and casual acquaintances. They decided to leave Tommy Mac’s and go to Simser’s home nearby to have more drinks and watch movies, neighbors said.

At some point after midnight, according to police records, Simser stabbed Sanchez 29 times in the face and the neck. He then put the body inside a black plastic container from Home Depot and left it in his room for five days. Finally, on April 19, he confessed the crime to his boss at People’s Republic of Brooklyn restaurant in Cobble Hill. His boss notified the police at the 63rd Precinct.

When police officers arrived at Simser’s workplace, he was standing outside smoking a cigarette, according to the police report. His hands were shaking, and he had tears in his eyes. Simser was arrested around 1 p.m. without resisting.

In his statement to the police officers, Simser claimed Sanchez had asked if he could stay over that night. Later, as Simser was looking for cigarettes in Sanchez’s jacket, Sanchez, who had been sleeping, woke up and was startled. He attacked Simser with a knife, according to Simser’s account to police. The short-order cook said he then grabbed the knife and stabbed his guest multiple times.

Joshua Simser lived in the two-story house on the left on East 54th Street, Flatlands, Brooklyn. (Isabela Dias/The Ink)

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Originally from Puerto Rico, Maria Sanchez, 66, and Rufino Sanchez, 81, raised four children in New York — Pedro, Rufino Jr. (Chino), Tahisha and Shawntaia — getting by as best they could on the income Rufino Sanchez earned working as a chef at an Irish restaurant in Manhattan.

Things weren’t always easy. In an interview, Pedro Sanchez, 47, said he was 14 when his mother had to file an emergency transfer request with the New York City Housing Authority to move out of the Marcy Houses after their apartment was broken into and robbed. The Sanchez family resettled in the Breukelen Houses in Canarsie.

Chino Sanchez attended South Shore High School but only made it to the 10th grade, according to Pedro Sanchez. From an early age, he showed late motor and language development signs and took special education classes, although he was never officially diagnosed with learning disabilities, Crawford said. “He was not thriving as maybe a regular child would,” she added. “I think that led to a lot of things.”

Looking back now, she believes her brother also suffered from depression. It was hard to tell at the time since Chino Sanchez would struggle with his insecurities in silence. “There were times when he couldn’t shake the discouragement or the depressive outlook on life,” she said. Drawing was the way he found to fully express himself.

Rufino Sanchez (left) and his older brother Pedro Sanchez (right). (Photo courtesy of Tahisha Crawford)

Holding a job was difficult, and Crawford said her brother’s “lack of mental strength” and “tunnel vision and laser focus” affected his ability to keep even erratic side jobs. He worked for a while as a plumbing assistant and at a bagel shop and, more recently, was trying to get his GED. Crawford believes he wanted to study culinary arts.

Frances Eames, 39, a longtime friend, recalled Sanchez stopping by her work at Carbone Memorials dressed in dirty clothes stained with concrete. “He did handyman jobs,” she said. “He was trying little by little to get everything together.”

Eames said Sanchez was renting a room near the shopping area by Rockaway Parkway in Canarsie, but Flatlands residents who knew him said he didn’t have a place to call home. Sanchez would sleep at different people’s houses each night, just like he did with Simser, they said.

Although the fight supposedly started over a pack of cigarettes, neighbors said they had heard rumors suggesting that Sanchez was involved in drug dealing. Crawford said that Simser testified in court that he was addicted to cocaine and Sanchez was his provider. “Even if that was true, does that give you the right to kill somebody?” she said.

. . .

When Pedro Sanchez identified his brother’s body at Kings County Hospital on the day before Easter Sunday, it was already severely decomposed, he recalled. But two details left him with no doubt it was his brother: a tattoo of a skeleton face on the left shoulder and the missing piece of his left earlobe. Around 10 years earlier, Sanchez had been robbed in Massachusetts, and part of his ear had been cut off.

Pedro Sanchez, a security officer at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, was very close to his brother, whose “chinky” eyes, as he described them, led to the nickname, Chino. When Chino Sanchez was teased because of his speech or for being short, his older brother would get very protective.

“I felt like it was my fault what happened to him,” Pedro Sanchez said. “Because I wasn’t there to protect him from Joshua.

Not long before the murder of his younger brother, Pedro Sanchez had suffered another important loss in his life. His wife of 15 years, Leslie, died of a brain aneurysm at age 34. Meanwhile, his father was in a nursing home getting treatment for diabetes and heart disease.

Pedro Sanchez, 47, the older brother of Rufino, Tahisha and Shawntaia (Isabela Dias/The Ink)

In May 2014, one month after Chino Sanchez was killed, Pedro Sanchez tried to take his own life by slitting his throat with a razor at his home near Ozone Park in Jamaica, Queens. He was stopped by his daughter Vivica, who called 911. He spent a week in the hospital.

“That was the breaking point when I couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.

For almost a year after his brother’s murder, Pedro Sanchez kept Chino’s ashes in a box on a top shelf of his closet. But having endured a funeral with a closed casket, Crawford, his sister, wanted closure and a proper burial service. “It bothered me to know that his remains were in this box,” she said. “He was left there, just like his body had been discarded in that plastic bin. … He was just forgotten. He deserved a place to rest.” Chino Sanchez now lies in the urn garden at Cypress Hills Cemetery, in Brooklyn.

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In Crawford’s mind, her family underwent three different periods in their grieving process. First was the cremation, then the burial and finally the trial in Brooklyn Supreme Court, which took place 18 months after the murder.

Throughout the trial, including when Simser testified claiming self-defense, no one from Simser’s family was present, according to Simser’s defense attorney Hermann Walz. The family could not be reached for comment, and Simser did not reply to interview questions sent to to him prior to publication of this article.

Several of Sanchez’s family members attended the trial every day. They sat through detailed evidence about knife wounds on Sanchez’s hand and watched the prosecutor simulate his unarmed hands trying to avoid blows from a knife.

According to Walz, the 29 stabs declared by the medical examiner might be an exaggeration of the brutality of the crime because of the double-bladed knife Simser used.

“Whatever breaks the skin is considered a stab wound,” Walz said. “So what was a cut would also be considered a stab. There were a lot of cuts, but the kind that could have killed would be only one or two.” The fatal blow hit Chino’s jugular.

Walz believes that the number of stab wounds persuaded the jury to find Simser guilty of second-degree murder. “This is a case in which he came forward,” Walz said. “That’s probably the only time I’ve seen that. I personally think that had it been less stab wounds, it might have been a different result.”

Rufino Sanchez and his sister Tahisha Crawford holding her daughter Midori Kae Crawford. (Photo courtesy of Tahisha Crawford)

In her victim impact statement, read at Simser’s sentencing hearing in December 2015, Crawford addressed the man who killed her brother. “My family and I have been forced to accept this reality against our wills,” she said. “This heinous act has destroyed our family! I personally have suffered from depression, panic attacks, anxiety, paranoia and many sleepless nights. I welcomed instant death at times during the peak of my grief.”

Simser was sentenced by Justice Alan Marrus to 20 years to life in prison. Even three years since the murder took place, Crawford still can’t bring herself to say Simser’s name. “I really don’t mean to humanize him,” she said. “I don’t consider him a human being.”

With the assistance of the Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA), she sought therapy. “What he did to my brother,” Crawford starts with an unsteady voice as she takes a few seconds to catch her breath. “I can’t even articulate the pain and the turmoil that still lingers to this day. It was the darkest time I’ve ever had in my entire life, and that’s just scratching the surface.”

For Pedro Sanchez, holidays are the hardest time of the year. The brothers used to spend them together, except when Chino Sanchez would go to New Bedford, Mass., to visit his son Jayden Antonio.

Last April, on the anniversary of his brother’s death, Pedro Sanchez went to visit his 11-year-old nephew for the first time since his baptism. It was part of the healing process for him.

“Knowing that my brother’s son is alive and that he looks like my brother, it helps me,” said Pedro Sanchez. “I have a part of my brother still alive.” Every year on Christmas and Jayden’s birthday, Pedro Sanchez sends him gifts.

Friends and family members recount that Sanchez was very devoted to Jayden. “He really really loved his son,” Sanchez’s friend Eames said. “That’s pretty much all he talked about. Making sure that his son was okay.”


Rufino Sanchez and his son Jayden Antonio (Photo courtesy of Pedro Sanchez)


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The last time Crawford saw her brother alive was in January 2014, just a few months before he was killed. Their father was very ill, and the whole family had gotten together in New York. Crawford, who left home in 1992 to join the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school, was living in New Jersey, where she currently resides. “We thought he was gonna die,” she said of her father.

Crawford and Pedro Sanchez agree that Chino was a selfless, giving person, a lot like their father. “He always wanted to make sure that people’s needs were met,” she said. “He didn’t show partiality, he didn’t discriminate against people. If I have it, I’m gonna give it, that’s who he was.”

Eventually, his willingness to trust people was what got him killed, she believes. “He befriended way too many people,” she said. “He was too friendly.”

Sometimes Crawford still thinks her brother is alive. But when reality sets in, she gets discouraged and angry. If she is still living, she said she plans on giving another victim impact statement when Simser is eligible for parole in 2034 in hopes of reducing his chance of being released.

“My brother was brutally, savagely murdered and slaughtered like an animal,” she said. “When someone is taken away from you in such a traumatic way, you’re left to carry this burden for the rest of your life.”