Andrzej Leonik’s problems started one summer night in 2006 after he returned from his carpentry job, changed shirts into a red tank top and took his Boston terrier, Sonia, for a walk on 56th Drive in Maspeth, Queens, where he lived.
Suddenly, a man in a green Cadillac pulled up, aimed a 9-millimeter pistol at Mr. Leonik and shot him in the right leg. Mr. Leonik fell, and Sonia jumped onto his chest.
The bullet shattered Mr. Leonik’s femur and his life, which has unraveled in the ensuing years. Now he and Sonia spend their days and nights living in his 2005 minivan. On cold nights he leaves the engine running, and his dog sleeps on his chest as he reclines in the front seat.
“Recently, I woke up with frostbite on my toe,” Mr. Leonik, 53, said in a recent interview outside the van.
The shooter was Matthew Colletta, an unemployed bricklayer with a long history of mental illness and erratic behavior. Mr. Colletta, then 34, went on a serial shooting spree that night in August 2006, leaving one person dead and five wounded, including Mr. Leonik.
He wandered Queens shooting people wearing red or riding in red cars, prosecutors said, because he believed he was being threatened by the Bloods gang, which is identified with the color red. None of the shooting victims were members of the gang.
Mr. Leonik, the first victim, lay on the ground as Mr. Colletta sped off, but he remembered the shooter’s face and testified before a grand jury to help indict Mr. Colletta, and then testified at his trial. Mr. Colletta was convicted of murder and other charges, and was sentenced to 384 years to life.
“While Colletta’s sentencing served as a measure of justice, it did not, regrettably, undo the immense pain and suffering that he caused Mr. Leonik,” said the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, adding that, “Mr. Leonik today is literally a broken man, who has lost his livelihood and home, and is reduced to living out of his car.”
After the shooting, Mr. Leonik underwent a series of surgeries to repair his right femur. Fifteen long screws were put in, to stabilize the damaged bone. But to this day, Mr. Leonik’s leg still causes him pain and swells to nearly double the width of his left leg, so that he cannot pull on a pair of loose jeans. Since the shooting he has been unable to climb stairs or lift heavy objects.
He lost a full-time job working for a contractor renovating Manhattan apartments and has been limited to part-time carpentry. After a couple of days on his feet, he needs nearly a week of rest to let the swelling and pain in his leg subside, he said. He walks with a cane and is waiting to be scheduled for a knee replacement, which he hopes will allow him to work more than the part-time schedule he puts in for a contractor renovating a townhouse in Long Island City.
George Badinter, who owns the townhouse, noticed that Mr. Leonik was living out of his minivan, and he made many phone calls to city agencies on Mr. Leonik’s behalf. But he had no luck getting him any help. Mr. Badinter found out Mr. Leonik had been the subject of an article in The New York Times by looking him up on the Internet.
Inside his van, Mr. Leonik keeps a shoe box filled with bottles of prescription medicine – he said he takes 20 pills a day — for ailments as varied as pain, high blood pressure and depression.
Mr. Leonik said that after living for seven years in his Maspeth apartment he fell behind in rent and was forced out by a marshal in August. He tried staying with a friend and with his two married daughters, but he felt he was imposing. Mr. Leonik said he emigrated to New York from Poland with his daughters in 2002.
“I don’t want to be a burden on them,” said Mr. Leonik, adding that he has been unable to secure public assistance and other social services because he has not been able to get help completing required paperwork.
Returning to Poland is not an option, he said, because, “Back there, I would just be lost – there is no jobs, no money.”
He had hoped to file a lawsuit against the city or the shooter, he said, but added that, “I asked many lawyers but they said, ‘The city’s not responsible for crazy people, and crazy people have no money.’”
He said that when the cold night permeates his minivan and Sonia is shivering on his chest and his leg is throbbing, he begins to envy others, even the man who shot him. At least prisoners have their meals and shelter provided for, at taxpayer expense.
“Of all the people who got shot, the shooter has the best life,” he said, adding that he still refuses to wear red.
Still, he said, he would not switch places with him. He hopes to borrow money to rent a simple studio and get back on his feet.
“I came here to make a better life and support my kids in college,” he said. “I should be able to prosper on my own and get out of this predicament.”