Escape from New York When a police bullet took one of Roma Cedeno's twin boys, she became a reluctant symbol. Then, a little too late, she became an expatriate.


NEW YORK -- When the news broke this summer that a Haitian immigrant had been sodomized with a toilet plunger by New York City police officers in Brooklyn, several Big Apple reporters picked up the phone to call Roma Cedeno for a comment.

It was a natural thought. In April, Roma's 16-year-old son, Kevin Cedeno, was fatally shot -- in the back -- by a New York City officer in northern Manhattan's Washington Heights section. Even in New York, the case stood out. It was a five-alarm fire, a bright white blaze that attracted all the Big Apple moths familiar to readers of "Bonfire of the Vanities": the revenge-seeking ministers, the incendiary politicians, the tabloid arsonists.

In the aftermath of her son's death, Roma walked among these figures, an unforgettable symbol of motherly pain repeated for -- months on the evening newscasts as the inevitable investigations moved forward, dousing the fire but adding to the smoke. But in August, the Haitian immigrant's abuse grabbed headlines and reporters dialed up Roma Cedeno -- and discovered her number was disconnected.

She had disappeared from New York. Disappeared all the way to Maryland.

This is the untold postscript of a tragic story. Roma Cedeno, 45, is living in a three-bedroom house in Essex. She has a solid job, making checkbooks on the night shift at the John H. Harland Co. She is taking care of the three youngest of her six children. She is alive, she says, but not well.

No one here ever knew her son Kevin. Chances are, they've never seen his picture, or the photographs of his grieving mother on TV. In Essex, which despite its crime seems like a country village compared to New York, this ignorance is sometimes hard to accept. But at least it is unintentional, and there are no hard questions from the neighbors. Here, the Cedenos are new faces, not news.

In New York, the ignorance was willful. Kevin Cedeno was the hottest story in town for weeks. And no one -- not the politicians, not the headline writers, not even the supportive ministers -- ever really knew who he was.

Roma says they never bothered to find out. The 16-year-old had become a symbol, and ceased to belong to his family.

"I had to move. I didn't want to be a symbol anymore," Roma says now. "Everyone in town talked about him as if they really knew him, and they never gave me the chance to really mourn. I could spend the rest of my life correcting all the mistakes about Kevin, or I could get away, and give myself a chance to mourn him."

Roma blames New York. It would have taken her other son, Kevin's twin Kern, if she hadn't moved. How could people there be so unfeeling? The mayor condemned her child as a thug while his body was still warm. The newspapers wrote him off as just another kid who had been in trouble and probably would grow up to be a full-fledged criminal. Even the preachers and politicians who tried to turn him into a saint missed the point.

The truth about Kevin is that his life might have turned out any number of ways. The honest answer is that he was a troubled kid, growing up without a father in one of the most violent, drug-infested neighborhoods in the biggest city in the United States of America.

Yet, Roma Cedeno had enough faith in Kevin, and enough wherewithal, to put together a plan to give her boy a new life outside New York.

If only Roma had moved sooner, her son would be with her in this house now.

The safety of Essex was only a day away.

"I should have come sooner," she says, looking at pictures of the son she has lost. "With a little more time, Baltimore and me might have saved Kevin."

The twins

Here is the story that New York never bothered to know.

Roma Cedeno gave birth to twins, Kevin and Kern, on Dec. 29, 1980, in Sipria, Trinidad. By the time the boys were toddlers, their father left. Roma's mother and three sisters lived in the United States, and they prevailed upon her to join them.

Roma moved first with the boys to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. In 1988, she found a bigger apartment, a fifth-floor walk-up at 500 W. 159th St. in Washington Heights, where the landlord accepted her Section 8 certificate.

Of the twins, Kevin was quieter, more sensitive. When his brother hurt himself and had to go to the hospital, Kevin, just out of diapers, put on his clothes and began to walk out the door.

"I'm going to the hospital to make sure Kern is okay," he told the family.

It was outgoing Kern who organized the football and basketball games in the neighborhood, and Kevin, the cooler twin who friends nicknamed "Ice," who followed along. Both boys liked to turn the hip-hop volume on high, but Kevin did something while he listened to the music that Kern recalls as unusual: He read the Bible.

As Kevin became a teen-ager and spent more time hanging out on the streets, the violence of the neighborhood made Roma nervous. Washington Heights is one of the most aggressively policed parts of New York City, and with good reason. For years, the neighborhood has served as a factory outlet for drug dealers up and down the East Coast.

The cops and dealers occupy separate spheres in this world, and Kevin knew people in both. He felt close to the police, by all accounts. A detective named James Gilmore became a mentor and friend. Kevin and Kern played ball at the local Police Athletic League. Friendly officers took the twins to games at Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium.

"The cops knew my son so well," says Roma Cedeno. "They would knock on our door and ask for Kevin's help with cases."

But Kevin also drifted close to a group of youths who fought Latino teens they did not like. Last year, Kevin spent nearly six months at a Bronx juvenile detention center on an armed robbery charge. His mother was furious.

"After that, I made up my mind to move us out of New York," Roma says.

By the end of January, she had lined up a job and found a home in Essex, with a nice back yard. But it was not as easy as packing up and going. Kevin was reluctant to leave, in part because he had fathered a child, Kevin Cedeno Jr., with a 15-year-old neighborhood girl, Tomasina Jeffrey. "After Tomasina got pregnant, Kevin refused to ignore or desert her," says Mildred Brown, Tomasina's grandmother. "He was a nice, respectful kid. ... He was not the kind you expect to hear was in trouble."

Even after Roma convinced him to go, Kevin faced a legal barrier: He was still on probation for robbery and would have to get his probation moved to Baltimore County. At a February hearing in New York Family Court, she pleaded with the judge to approve the transfer.

Kevin chimed in: "I just wanna get outta here. I just wanna go to Baltimore and live."

The judge seemed to agree. He scheduled one last hearing to finalize the probation transfer. They would meet again on Monday morning, April 7.

Roma agreed to let Kevin spend his last weekend in New York with his friends. She passed Saturday, April 5, in Maryland, doing Kevin's laundry and setting up the house for his arrival. She would take the bus up Sunday, attend the judicial appointment with him on Monday, and then they would return home, to Essex.

Final night

Kevin was determined to make his last Saturday night count. Friends say he cut loose as never before. He attended several parties, and eventually got drunk on blackberry brandy and beer. As a party broke up around 3 a.m., Cedeno and a group of friends became involved in a confrontation with another armed group.

What happened next is sharply disputed, by police, witnesses, Kevin's friends and enemies. But a report by the Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, provides the most clear, detailed and coherent account of a frustratingly ambiguous case.

A fight between Kevin's friends and a rival group of teen-agers broke out at 162nd Street and Amsterdam. Kevin, after leaving the scene briefly, returned carrying a machete with an 18-inch blade.

Officer Anthony Pellegrini and his partner were driving on 165th Street, on their way back to the 33rd Precinct stationhouse, when the call came over the radio for a report of shots fired at 162nd and Amsterdam. They responded. Cedeno's friends heard the police car and urged Kevin, who was on probation, to run away.

He headed north, wearing a black, over-sized T-shirt and blue jeans. The cops spotted him and tried to cut him off in their car. Pellegrini jumped out and began running after Kevin. Police officers told a grand jury that Pellegrini identified himself as a cop and asked Kevin to drop what the officer thought was a gun.

Cedeno, most witnesses agree, stopped, his back turned to the officer. He dropped his right arm, a motion some witnesses saw as surrender and the police saw as the beginning of an attack. Pellegrini fired once. Cedeno was struck in the lower back. As he lay dying, police handcuffed him and called for an ambulance.

Kevin Cedeno was pronounced dead at Harlem Hospital at 4: 53 a.m. on April 6.

A symbol

The fire still needed a spark, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani didn't hesitate to provide one. The day of the shooting, he took Pellegrini's side. Cedeno, he declared, had been shot in the stomach.

Giuliani, as he would acknowledge later, was dead wrong about the facts. Unwittingly, the mayor made Cedeno a symbol.

Pushed by Giuliani, this city's newly aggressive police force has driven down crime all over New York, largely by flooding drug-infested neighborhoods like Washington Heights with young, inexperienced officers who were ordered to make arrests even for the most minor offenses.

But in Washington Heights, the increased police presence is viewed as a mixed blessing. As crime has declined in the neighborhood, civilian complaints of police misconduct and brutality have soared -- a trend that was largely ignored by the New York media until the Cedeno case. Shortly after Kevin was shot to death, the 33rd Precinct voted on an officer of the month. Its choice? Anthony Pellegrini.

The police officers' indifference only heightened the outrage. The fire had attracted moths, and they brought gasoline.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who was running for mayor, appeared by " Roma Cedeno's side and flogged the tragedy at every campaign speech. The Rev. Jesse Jackson prayed with Roma. Kevin's funeral, attended by 2,000 people, was overshadowed by marches in Washington Heights and near City Hall. Roma participated throughout. She soon lost track of the number of times she appeared on radio or TV.

Roma says she did it all in a haze, too hurt and too angry to think about the symbol she had become. "At the time, I wasn't thinking," she says. "I did so much TV, so many radio shows. For a while, talking about it did help me."

But at some point, even while Sharpton and the ministers and the politicians were still talking, the fire went out.

'Roma wants justice'

She finds it hard to explain or put into words. Don't misunderstand, Roma says: She is no less outraged now about Kevin. The trouble, she says, was that she had no opportunity to grieve. People who didn't really know her, or Kevin, wanted her to march and protest. The media wanted interviews. Her identity, she says, became aggrieved mother, rather than Kevin Cedeno's mother.

"You know there are a lot of mothers of police victims who are hanging around, following Giuliani around the campaign trail," said attorney Michael A. Hardy before the mayoral election. Hardy is representing Cedeno in a wrongful death claim against the city of New York. "Roma wants justice, and I thought she might become one of these mothers. But she surprised me."

Roma says she felt a strong desire to honor her promise to Kevin, by going forward with her move to Maryland. And she began to feel a growing fear for Kern.

After Kevin's death, Morgenthau convened a grand jury, which heard testimony from 36 witnesses and saw 34 exhibits. Over the summer, Morgenthau announced his decision not to charge Pellegrini (who did not respond to a request for an interview). It was a close call, the district attorney acknowledged, but the officer is back on the street.

"I had a bad feeling that would happen, and I promised myself I'm never going to live in fear," says Roma. "I had been on TV, and in the newspapers. The police knew who I was and where I lived. I needed to get away."

Back to Essex. Back to the new life she had planned for Kevin. There was a support network waiting. Roma already had a job. Her mother, Joyce Cedeno, had moved from New York to a townhouse in Essex four years earlier.

"It's not been easy for Roma," says Joyce Cedeno. "Her whole life in America has been in New York. But it wasn't just the fact that I was around. She moved because it was something she had to do for both twins, Kevin and Kern."

Breaking the ties

Convincing Kern to leave New York has not been easy. He did not want to move out of the old apartment. He says he wanted Kevin's room to remain the same forever, with the hip-hop posters on the walls, the pile of jeans in the corner, the magic marker graffiti on the wall, the Bible on the dresser.

Even after the family moved, he insisted on spending much of the summer with his older sister in Washington Heights, while participating in playground basketball tournaments dedicated to Kevin's memory. Almost every day, he would walk to the corner where his brother died.

"I don't want to leave him behind," Kern says. "I told my mom I don't really want to go to Maryland. Essex is really slow."

That is as much as Kern will say. He is 16, and uncommunicative. But his grandmother says his feelings run deeper.

"In Essex, no one will know his brother," says Joyce Cedeno. "He feels that if he left he would be closing down on his brother, giving up."

Kern is allowed to return to New York to see family and friends, and at times Roma has trouble coaxing him back down to Maryland. Roma herself still has business in New York: a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city government for wrongful death. And she is helping her lawyers push for a federal civil rights investigation of Kevin's death by the U.S. Justice Department.

It makes Roma sad, but at least one Cedeno won't be making the move to Maryland.

Kevin Cedeno Jr. is 10 months old. He lives on W. 157th St. with his teen-age mother, Tomasina Jeffrey, and her grandmother. They are just two blocks from the Cedenos' old apartment.

One day recently, while he was in New York, Kern passed the two women as they wheeled Kevin Jr.'s stroller north along Amsterdam. It was the same direction Kevin was running before the policeman shot him.

The baby spotted his father's twin, and waved. Goodbye.

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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