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Vicious beatings in S.W. Phila. playground difficult to prosecute

Vincent Poppa, 72, spent 39 days at Methodist Hospital after he was assaulted, robbed, and stomped by a group of youths, the victim of the notorious "catch and wreck" near a playground in Southwest Philadelphia.

Vincent Poppa spent 39 days in the hospital, some in intensive care, after the attack.  (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
Vincent Poppa spent 39 days in the hospital, some in intensive care, after the attack. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Vincent Poppa, 72, spent 39 days at Methodist Hospital after he was assaulted, robbed, and stomped by a group of youths, the victim of the notorious "catch and wreck" near a playground in Southwest Philadelphia.

But the case, which drew national attention for its brutality, has proven difficult to prosecute.

Family Court Judge Kevin Dougherty was forced to find three of Poppa's four alleged attackers not guilty on Monday, after a 13-year-old witness recanted on the stand, saying she had received death threats. The fourth defendant, an 11-year-old boy, was convicted of aggravated assault and related charges, and will be sentenced Tuesday by Dougherty.

"Our hearts dropped," Poppa said during an interview in his studio apartment less than a block from the site of the March 13 attack. "My gut feeling was, it was a big disappointment."

"The judge was infuriated that he had to find them not guilty," said Deborah Rossiter, Poppa's longtime friend and former partner, who moved into his apartment to care for him.

"It is frustrating," agreed prosecutor Adam Geer, who handled the case of the four boys, all ages 11 to 13. He said it was less common for Juvenile Court witnesses to recant than in Common Pleas Court cases.

"We only had one witness," he said, noting that Poppa was unable to identify his attackers. "It was too dark, and the attack was so brutal."

Because of their ages, the middle schoolers' names have not been made public.

"The one found guilty gave a statement," Geer said. "The other three did not."

Poppa's brother, Nicholas, 74, who also attended the trial, was so upset by the outcome, he began shouting at Dougherty.

"They beat a guy half to death and left him there to die," Nicholas Poppa said.

"The overall picture is, they got away pretty clean. . . . It was a just a nightmare to go to 18th and Vine," he added, referring to Family Court.

Dougherty did not return calls seeking comment.

Vincent Poppa is a lifelong resident of Eastwick who ran a candy store at 65th Street and Dicks Avenue for three decades. What happened to him March 13 as he walked near Finnegan Playground, he said, "was like a bad dream."

He was returning to Unico Village Apartments, the seniors' apartment complex where he lives, from a nearby Chinese restaurant with two bottles of Pepsi around 9:30 p.m.

"It was so dark, it was like going through a hallway to your door and not seeing anything and then all of a sudden - smash! Your nose and your eyes are hurting," Poppa recalled. "It was like a freight train hit me."

He remembers "a couple blows to the head, and I weakened. And then more blows came, and then I went down."

When Poppa struggled to get to his feet, he found himself staring at the barrel of a gun.

"When I was down, they pointed it at me," Poppa said. "I could see it was a .45 silver-plated gun."

Police said Poppa was struck in the back of the head with the gun, punched, kicked repeatedly, and stomped. He was left unconscious by his assailants, who stole $200 from his recently cashed Social Security check.

After he came to, Poppa said, he made his way to his apartment, lay down on his bed, and suffered a mild heart attack. The next day, he called Rossiter, who summoned a neighbor, who took one look at Poppa and called 911.

Poppa's face was swollen; shoe imprints were visible on his head for days. He hurt his knee, and had a large knot on one shoulder and bruises all over.

But it was his internal injuries that landed him in intensive care. He had so much trouble breathing that he spent days on a ventilator. Doctors found a hole in his bladder and damage to his kidneys.

"They kicked him so bad, his kidneys bled for 30 days," Rossiter, 57, said. "Finally, he had to go on kidney dialysis."

After Poppa was released, nurses and physical therapists came to the apartment.

"I regained most of the muscle I lost in the hospital," Poppa said.

"Every day I tell him he's getting a little better," Rossiter said, but added that Poppa suffered hearing loss and now has periods of confusion. "It's just a long haul."

During Poppa's hospitalization, doctors discovered bladder cancer. He had two operations and starts chemotherapy next week.

"That's the only blessing out of the whole thing," Rossiter said.

After Poppa's attack, Philadelphia police said he was the initial victim of a violent "game" called "catch and wreck" played by children up to age 15 who congregated at the Finnegan Playground at 69th Street and Grovers Avenue. Police said the youths they questioned said they targeted adults they thought were homeless.

Urban youth experts said the term actually is "catchin' rep" and that it refers to assaults carried out to establish reputations.

A week after Poppa's attack, a group surrounded Belinda Moore, 41, as she cut through the playground on her way home from work about 8:30 p.m. Moore, who was hit and struck with sticks, managed to run to a nearby house, where a resident called 911.

"They roughed me up some, but they hurt that man really bad," Moore said, referring to Poppa. "The only thing that saved me was, I was young."

Four neighborhood youths - the 11-year-old boy implicated in Poppa's attack and three girls ages 12 to 14 - were charged with aggravated assault and related offenses in connection with Moore's attack.

Moore said it was so dark she could not identify her attackers. They were found guilty May 26 of harassment, Geer said.

In Poppa's case, although four boys were charged, he believes his attackers also included older teens who were never identified.

The 13-year-old girl who told police she had seen Poppa's assault recanted. And the middle schoolers charged with aggravated assault elected not to take the stand in Family Court.

The 11-year-old who had previously given a statement to police admitting his role was convicted by Dougherty. The boy and the three girls convicted of harassing Moore will be sentenced July 26.

Before the trial in Poppa's case ended Monday, Rossiter said, Dougherty called a 10-minute recess, and the courtroom emptied.

"We were in the waiting room and the three kids came up near Vince," Rossiter said. "Nobody else in this big waiting room - and they started dancing, clapping their hands and all. I never got the chance to tell the judge that. . . . That was a little intimidation tactic."