Reporting From a Crime Scene That Is Down the Block

The gunshots echoed on the Lower East Side streets just after 12:30 a.m. early Tuesday, rousing people from their sleep and sending many to their windows to take a look outside. A few minutes later, a notification came across a pager service that reporters use. “Male shot,” the blunt message read, giving the address 85 Pitt Street.

In this case, I had gotten word of the incident even before that bulletin went out. A friend whose windows overlook the intersection of Pitt and Rivington Streets sent a text message: “Think there was just a shooting.”

Over the years I have reported on hundreds of crime scenes, spread across nearly every part of the city; this one was two blocks from home.

I got out of bed, got dressed, grabbed a camera and a notebook and dragged my bike onto the sidewalk. Immediately upon stepping out of my building I saw flashing lights down the street.

The police cars were parked on Rivington Street and a handful of people were standing nearby, gazing north. Part of the way up the block, there in front of Mini Munchies Pizzeria, a dark slick of blood stained the sidewalk.

The victim was inside a nearby ambulance, where paramedics wearing bright green gloves could be seen pumping the man’s chest as residents of Samuel Gompers Houses watched.

“He’s not going to make it,” a woman said. Nobody responded. “I have a feeling about these things and I’m always right,” she added. The paramedics stopped pumping, and the rear door of the ambulance closed. It took off without lights or sirens.

In front of Munchies, police officers stood guard over shell casings next to the blood on the sidewalk. Detectives roamed the crowd asking questions. Few answered.

A man who identified himself as Billy Blanco from Bushwick said he was at home, around the corner on Stanton Street, when he heard about seven shots — two, a pause, then more shots grouped together. Concerned about his girlfriend, who lives on Pitt Street, he ran around the corner toward the sound of the gunfire and saw a man wearing a blue hat lying on his side. He had been shot in the head and in the chest.

“There was no way he was going to make it,” Mr. Blanco said. “You could see the blood pouring out of him.”

Police officers with flashlights checked the street for evidence. A helicopter passed overhead, sweeping rooftops with a spotlight. A man from the Gompers Houses wondered aloud if it was the beginning of a long, hot summer. A woman gazed at the crime scene. “It’s such a shame,” she said, making the sign of the cross and moving on.

A blonde woman wearing a tight, black dress approached and seemed stunned by the news of the shooting. She said she had moved to Pitt Street only a few weeks before and asked if the block was dangerous.

A photographer watched as she walked away.

“Dangerous?” he said to no one in particular. “What do you think?”

Nearly two hours after the shooting, a group of women approached a line of police tape stretched across Pitt Street, looking anxious. A detective walked over to speak to them. As he spoke, one woman wearing a gray shirt, staggered backward and screamed. Her friends broke her fall and the woman screamed brokenly, over and over again, repeating, “Oh, God, no.”

Detectives helped the woman into a silver sedan with an officer behind the wheel. The J train passed over the Williamsburg Bridge, a block to the south, returning to Manhattan. A lieutenant told a group of police officers what radio channel to use to communicate.

Billy Blanco collected some change from strangers and used a payphone to call his girlfriend. She was O.K., he reported.

“I have to move away from here,” he added. “I’m going back to Brooklyn.”

The silver sedan made a slow, wide turn and began driving toward the Seventh Precinct station house, on Delancey Street. Inside the car, the woman wearing the gray shirt was still screaming, and her voice carried through the open windows of the car until it was nearly out of sight.

Around dawn, the police publicly identified the man who was killed as Jonathan Alston, 23, of Brooklyn. By noon on Tuesday investigators had completed their work on Pitt Street. The tape cordoning off part of the block had been removed, and a man with a hose and a thick bristled broom was scrubbing the blood stains from the sidewalk.

Four hours later, the sidewalk still carried traces of the stains, and the broom, its bristles now darkened and crusted, leaned against the side of 85 Pitt Street. 

Six lighted candles in tall glass sleeves stood nearby, inside a cardboard box. And a scrap of cardboard taped to the side of the tenement bore messages that offered some insight into the life that ended on that patch of pavement.

There was: “R.I.P. Banga.” And near the corner of the piece of cardboard, a note: “Always and forever you will live in my heart.”  It was signed, “Your Wife.”

Al Baker contributed reporting.

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