A block from Erica Boynton's Brentwood home, a utility pole wrapped in Teddy bears and plastic flowers marks the spot where her 15-year-old son was fatally shot.
On an evening last November, in his best friend's front yard with adults standing nearby, Christopher Hamilton was struck down, part of a wave of violence that has swept through this community in the past year.
Now Boynton and friends are forming a new civic group hoping to fight back. And she's demanding answers from police on the unsolved killing of her son, whom she described as a big-hearted kid who looked out for his younger cousins and rapped about standing up to peer pressure.
The terrifying succession of attacks in Brentwood and neighboring Central Islip - responsible for nine deaths last year and five already this year - is galvanizing residents like Boynton.
"I'm not afraid. That, I'm not," she said quietly, sitting in the living room of the home where her son was shot. "It has to stop. The streets are getting out of control."
Brentwood has seen wrenching changes over the past three decades: The bakery and psychiatric hospitals that employed hundreds, if not thousands, of locals closed up shop. Absentee landlords replaced longtime homeowners. Graffiti blanketed fences.
It's a community not easily defined. One of the most diverse areas on Long Island, with whites, blacks and Hispanics, Brentwood saw one of the first clusters of Puerto Ricans on Long Island, and has since become home to a large Salvadoran community. It has lost several high school grads in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some spots - including a country club and a horse farm - remain tranquil and beautiful. But even those are now coming under the searchlights of police helicopters as community members feel the growing presence of gangs: the Bloods, the Latin Kings, and MS-13.
Big employers are gone
Once a working-class neighborhood, Brentwood's rhythm was dominated by the giant Pilgrim State psychiatric hospital, whose quitting-time whistle signaled to children in the street that their parents would be home soon. At its peak in 1954, the hospital housed 13,875 patients. Its closing as an inpatient facility, along with the closings of the Central Islip Psychiatric Center and Entenmann's bakery, were blows from which the local economy has not recovered.
"My father was a recreation therapist for 35 years at Pilgrim State," said Bob Martinez, 51, who grew up in Brentwood and now works as chief of staff for Suffolk Legis. Ricardo Montano (D-Brentwood). "It was like a coal mine town . . . The sounds of my childhood were the 4:30 whistle at Pilgrim and the train coming into the Brentwood station."
Too often now, some residents say, the sounds are gunshots. While some residents say they are ready to leave, others are rallying to organize neighborhood watch groups, offer kids an alternative to gangs, and demand more resources from elected officials.
Frustration had long been simmering when in June, 13-year-old Wilson Batista Jr. was caught by a bullet as he played basketball in Brentwood's Timberline Park. As the boy fought for his life, residents began to speak out. Police added more patrols. The Town of Islip installed surveillance cameras in the park.
But victims continued to fall.
On Sept. 12, grocery worker Miguel Peralta, 57, was killed in a bodega robbery. On Nov. 20, Christopher Hamilton was killed. On Dec. 3, Valentino Sanchez, 21, was shot dead. And in February, four deadly attacks rocked Brentwood and Central Islip, including a shooting relatives said was gang-related, and the discovery of a 19-year-old and her toddler son, both murdered.
The anger and fear of a community under siege boiled over.
More than 500 people crammed into the Brentwood Public Library on March 3 to rail against the elected officials who they said had abandoned them - and to encourage their neighbors to stand up and fight.
"Nobody knows what a parent goes through when they lose their child," Boynton told the crowd. "You don't know if your child is next on line. So don't hush them up. Let them come out and tell what they know."
Anger over gang violence has sparked anti-immigrant rhetoric, and members of the Salvadoran community were incensed over this comment by Brentwood school board president George Talley: "When the Italians had the Mafia, the Italians brought them down. You can't take an Irishman and expect him to turn MS-13 out. You need people from the Salvadorian community to go after the Salvadorians."
Members of the Salvadoran community in Brentwood say they feel they're being unfairly blamed for a problem they, too, are working to solve.
Bitter feelings linger among Salvadoran-Americans over El Salvador's civil war, in which 75,000 people were killed between 1980 and 1992, but now - for the first time on Long Island, which is home to one of the largest concentrations of Salvadorans in the United States - leaders of the two sides are coming together for a common cause: fighting violence in Brentwood.
Members of the Salvadoran community met last Monday night for the first time to tackle the issue.
The convergence of the two sides is "unique and historic," said Luis Montes Amaya, an aide to Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood) and the son of the former Salvadoran consul in Brentwood.
Meanwhile, nearly 1,700 people have become Facebook fans of another new group: Brentwood Residents Against Violence Everyday. Its executive director, Lenny Tucker, 43, coached Wilson Batista's basketball team and owns the home where Christopher Hamilton was shot. It is marked by two bullet holes.
"I have to relive a nightmare every time I walk out my front door," said Tucker, who was standing near Christopher when someone fired a gun from across the street. Police say they are actively investigating the case. They have made no arrests.
"My son begged us: 'Can I have a party?' " Tucker said. "With all the precautions that we took, with parents dropping kids off, we took phone numbers. . . . Now my son doesn't go out that often. There's an emptiness in both houses because [Christopher] is gone."
Police offer 10-point plan
The day before the March 3 meeting, Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer released a 10-point plan to combat gang violence in Brentwood, including adding cops, a seventh overnight patrol car, and emergency service and canine units to help patrol. The FBI's New York chief is scheduled to meet with Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood) in Washington on Wednesday. Federal agents, who have been investigating gang activity on Long Island since 2002, already are considering how they can help local law enforcement respond to the escalating violence in Brentwood and Central Islip.
Nevertheless, Dormer said in an interview that the surge and killings - which jumped from four per year in the two communities to more than twice that in 2009 and accounted for more than one in four of Suffolk's homicides - is a "spike," not a trend.
Department statistics show that violent crimes have increased since 2007 in Brentwood and Central Islip, by 16 percent and 25 percent, respectively, but are on par or just below the level of violent crime in 2000.
"When people say that crime is out of control in Brentwood, they're doing a disservice to the community," Dormer said. "We're keeping it under control."
That is little comfort to Marisell Arzuaga.
Last week her family was awakened by a neighbor who saw two men trying to steal a car owned by Arzuaga's mother, she said.
Arzuaga, 28, lives in Brentwood's northern section, a quiet neighborhood with motorboats parked in driveways.
'Trying to get out'
"I've been living in this part of Brentwood 19 years now and it's never been this bad," she said, citing drugs, robberies, vandalism and gangs. "I don't want my son going to the school district. I'm definitely trying to get out."
Others say they'll stick it out.
On the Timberline basketball court one recent afternoon, a handful of young men played a pickup game. In the past, on one of the first balmy days of spring, a dozen more would have been waiting on the sidelines to play, they said.
"I'm more worried about my little brother," said one teen. "That'd be heartbreaking news to hear that my brother got shot. We grew up here to play basketball, not to dodge bullets."
In a playground nearby, Juan Ayala, 28, watched his 5-year-old son Angel zip down a slide.
"It's the only distraction for him," he said. "He likes it a lot. They put up cameras, so I feel safer."
Erica Boynton - whose group aims to refurbish public planters, mobilize a neighborhood watch and advocate for better after-school programs - says she is heartened by the gesture her son's friends and classmates make every month, marking the day he died.
Before heading to school, they pull on T-shirts that say: "RIP Christopher."
|Murders in Central Islip & Brentwood|
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