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The Reyes Killing: What 12 witnesses saw

Eyewitnesses to the killing of Jose Reyes have told The Inquirer that, contrary to the official police account, Reyes was slumped helplessly on his back in his front doorway when he was shot last Saturday by Philadelphia police officer Gerard Salerno.

Police have said that Reyes, 28, was shot while standing at the door of his North Philadelphia home swinging a metal pole at Salerno. The incident prompted an outbreak of rock and bottle-throwing in the neighborhood and led to the arrests of 20 persons.

Twelve witnesses who saw all or part of the fatal incident gave accounts that differed with the police version in these ways:

The statements of all witnesses interviewed by The Inquirer provided a consistent account that contradicted the police version. The witnesses agreed that eyes and his wife, Cecelia, had been acting strangely about an hour before the shooting. The two were breaking windows on their car.

Running away

However, the witnesses said, Reyes was trying to run from the police and was at the door of his house when Salerno shot him. They said Reyes was defenseless when he was shot.

Reyes died almost immediately. Antonio Rivera, 31, who lives next door to the Reyes house on Orkney Street, said he had peered into the doorway seconds after the shooting and saw Reyes lying on his back, his face and chest covered with blood.

"Esto un crimen (This is a crime)," Rivera heard Reyes gasp twice. Rivera said Reyes then began to wipe blood from his forehead, and repeat the Spanish phrase, "Esto un . . ." At that point, Rivera said, Reyes' head dropped and he said no more.

The U. S. attorney's office in Philadelphia, the district attorney and the Police Department are now conducting separate investigations of the Reyes killing.

Officer Salerno has been transferred to the police department's homicide division since the shooting. Last year, as a result of another incident, he was convicted of assaulting a businessman but was allowed to remain on the force. The conviction was later overturned by the judge who convicted him. Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph Braig said that while the evidence in that case proved that Salerno was guilty, the conviction had to be reversed because the defense attorney was incompetent. The reversal has been appealed by the district attorney.

The Inquirer interviewed a total of 15 witnesses in connection with the Reyes case. Twelve of them said they had seen all or part of the shooting incident. Three of the witnesses – Miss Covington, James Gonzales, 25, and Antonia Gonazalez, 21 – who witnessed the fatal shooting, gave sworn statements to The Inquirer and said they would be willing to testify in court.

Police Commissioner Joseph F. O'Neill, told of The Inquirer's findings, did not comment, and referred all questions to Chief Inspector Joseph Golden. Golden said of the witnesses:  "We would like to get to the truth of this. If you are telling me what they (the witnesses) are telling you, then I am telling you that they are out-and-out liars."

Based on the interviews with eye-witnesses, here is what happened last Saturday?

On the narrow 2900 block of North Orkney Street, residents and their children were sitting on stoops, talking and playing ball on a sunny and warm afternoon.

Several houses up and across the street from Reyes' home, several children were constructing a makeshift basketball hoop with metal milk cases.

About 2 p.m., Cecelia Reyes attempted to start her husband's gray 1955 Chevrolet. The car, according to Mrs. Reyes and the neighbors, was used by her husband, Jose, primarily to practice body and engine work.

The ca r would not start. Mrs. Reyes and her husband began breaking the car windows with a cinder block. Several neighbors recalled watching but said they were not upset by what happened. They said Reyes frequently disassembled his car.

"It didn't seem unusual," said Reyes' brother-in-law John J. Papa, 23. Two other neighbors – Vada Watkins and Maria Santiago – recalled laughing as they watched Reyes.

"It was all a big joke," Mrs. Watkins said.

Shopping trip

A short time later, Mrs. Reyes and neighbors said, Mrs. Reyes drove off in another family car to go shopping with with her six children.

Reyes, a native of Puerto Rico, was preoccupied with his car, neighbors said. They described him as a very quiet, peaceful man who spent most of his time tinkering with the car, playing ball with neighborhood children or cooking. Uniformly, they characterized him as non-violent.

The neighbors agreed, however, that Reyes was mentally ill, and that he had one major fear:  He was terrified of Philadelphia police. He had been arrested numerous times in recent years for allegedly assaulting policemen and resisting arrest.

Reyes' neighbors said that in several of those cases, Reyes had been beaten by the police. Several neighbors said they had witnessed the beatings.

Reyes' former probation officer Luis Lozada, described Reyes as an "inordinately passive" man who suffered from paranoia. He said that police in the 25th District, which included Reyes' neighborhood, "viewed him as an easy bust" because of his mental illness.

"I've never had a client who was hassled so much by the police," Lozada said.

Harold Watkins, who lived next door, said Reyes was, in effect, "a prisoner of the block."  Reyes, he said, was afraid to venture beyond his street because of his fear of the police.

'Hassled by police'

"It seemed that every time he left the block," Watkins said, "Jose was beaten up by police."

According to witnesses, Reyes was still about half an hour after his wife drove away, at which time police van number 2503 turned slowly on the block – summoned, police later said, by a neighbor who complained about the window-smashing.

At first, no one on the block took much notice.

"I thought it was a routine patrol," Mrs. Santiago recalled. "Nothing was happening on the block then to bring the police."  There were about 15 people, most of them children, on the block at the time, according to witnesses.

Reyes was standing at his car, picking away at a chrome fender with an ax when the van entered the block.

Witnesses said Reyes walked slowly toward the van, the ax held loosely at his side. The van continued to move slowly toward Reyes, and then stopped.

Several neighbors said they heard Reyes say quietly to the two patrolmen in the van, "Leave me alone, leave me alone."  The witnesses did not hear the officers say anything to Reyes.

A moment later – none of the witnesses are certain why – Reyes wheeled around and began to run toward his house with his back to the van. Several witnesses said the van began to move forward again toward Reyes and it appeared as if Reyes might be run over.

With his back turned, witnesses said, Reyes swung his right arm backward and released the ax as he began to run. The ax hit the front of the van, according to witnesses.

At this point, witnesses said, officer Salerno fired a single shot through the van's front windshield toward Reyes. The shot missed.

Mrs. Watkins, who had been standing on her doorstep, said she began running into her house. "I got right to my step," she said. "I could hear the bullet go by my face."

Two doors down, Josephina Rivera, 23, was standing on the steps with her husband and her one-month-old baby. The bullet shattered four glass window panels and then struck her in the chest.

"I felt the sting," Mrs. Rivera said. "I felt dizzy. I felt like I was getting ready to faint."  By the time the bullet hit Mrs. Rivera, its force apparently was nearly spent. She was treated at Episcopal Hospital and given three stitches for the wound.

Stumbled on steps

About the same time, according to witnesses, Reyes was attempting to run into his house when he stumbled on his front steps. Three witnesses – Mr. and Mrs. Gonzalez, who were watching from their bedroom window across the street, and Miss Covington, who was on the street less than three feet from the Reyes house – gave the following account of what happened next.

"I saw Jose stumble up the steps and trip into his house," Gonzalez said in a sworn statement. Gonzalez said that as Reyes fell into the house he knocked the front door against the wall.

He said he could see Reyes' feet dangling out of the doorway and that his feet never moved from that positions.

Mrs. Gonzalez and Miss Covington confirmed this.

As Reyes got into the doorway, the police van screeched to a stop in front of his house. Dragged along beneath the wheels of the van was one of the metal milk cases that the children had been planning to use for a basketball hoop. Two policemen jumped from the van with their guns drawn, according to witnesses.

Mrs. Gonzalez said she was screaming from her window, 30 feet across the street, "Don't shoot!  Don't shoot!"

Robin Covington also saw Salerno poised with his revolver in his hand and heard the screaming. Salerno she said, had one foot in the street and one on the sidewalk, only a few feet from Reyes' doorway.

At the same time, Mrs. Watkins said, she ran into her house next door and screamed to her husband Harold, "They're shooting Jose Reyes!"

Mr. Watkins said he ran out the door, with his wife trying to restrain him.

Outside, the Watkinses saw Salerno, his right arm fully extended, pointing a gun in the direction of Reyes' doorway.

"Please don't shoot!  Please don't shoot him!"  Harold Watkins recalled pleading.

"Oh, I'm not going to shoot him," Salerno replied, according to Mrs. Watkins.

At that instant, the Watkinses said, Salerno fired two quick shots.

Immediately after the second shot was fired, Antonio Rivera said he peeked through the shade of his front door, less than three feet from Reyes' body. He said he saw Salerno, with his gun pointed downward.

Rivera opened his door and peered into Reyes' living room. He recalls seeing Reyes, slumped on his back, his face and chest covered with blood. According to the police report, the fatal shot struck Reyes in the head.

Unfinished statement

Reyes gasped, "Esto un crimen. Esto un crimen," Rivera said. He began the sentence again, Rivera said, but never finished it. Rivera said he saw no metal pole in Reyes hands or anywhere near his body.

Miss Covington also approached the doorway and saw Reyes' body. "I think he's dead," she recalled saying loud enough for the neighbors to hear. She, too, said she did not see a metal pole anywhere near Reyes' body.

At that point, Salerno's partner, who had been standing at the side of the van, grabbed her by the shoulder. (The police department has refused to identify the partner.)

The officer, she said, told her, "Get on down the street. Don't look at me like that."  She said he poked her in the shoulder with his nightstick.

Three doors up the street, Maria Santiago also heard the two shots and ran to the Reyes' house. She said she attempted to check Reyes' pulse.

One of the policemen, she recalled, said to her:  "What are you, some kind of nurse?"

"He's bleeding to death," Mrs. Santiago said she replied. "Take him to the hospital."

Ordered away

Mrs. Santiago said the officer would not allow her to take Reyes' pulse. "He's dead," the policeman said, according to Mrs. Santiago. "Will you get out of here?"

Mrs. Santiago said she did not see a pole anywhere near Reyes' body.

Elizabeth and Samson Foat were also watching the incident from their second-story window at 2953 Orkney St. Seconds after the shots rang out, they said, a policeman ran up to them and said, "Get your head out of that window!  Get in that house!"

Within minutes, the block of tiny red-brick row houses was crowded with neighbors and policemen.

Cecelia Reyes, who was shopping nearby at Front and Clearfield Streets, heard the sirens. "I knew," she recalled. "Oh my God, they're after Jose again."

Mrs. Reyes hurried home and ran to the front of her house. Her husband's body was still in the doorway.

"You can't go in there. That's the scene of a homicide," she quoted one plain clothes officer saying.

"This is my house. This is my husband," she cried.

"You get the f--- out of here, or else I'll break your skull!" one officer threatened, according to Mrs. Reyes and neighbors.

At this point, Mrs. Reyes and other witnesses said, Luis Torres, another neighbor grabbed her by the arm and forced her away from the police.

Elizabeth Foat, who had come outdoors by then, said one policeman said to Mrs. Reyes, "If you don't move off these steps, I'll knock you off."

Witnesses said police on the scene hurriedly escorted Salerno and his partner away from the block.

For the next 45 minutes, police blocked off the area in front of the house as investigators examined the scene and Reyes' body.

Around 4:30 p.m., police removed the body from the house and transported him to Episcopal Hospital, where he was declared dead at 4:45 p.m.

About this time, Robin Covington said she walked to the front step and looked into the house. In a sworn statement given to The Inquirer, she said, "I saw three detectives carry a long metal pole from the Reyes' dining room and bring it into the living room."  She said two of the detectives dipped the pole into a pool of blood in the doorway where Reyes' body had been.

"They messed up the puddle. They smeared it," Miss Covington said. She said they then carried the pole out to the street.

"They didn't see me watching," Miss Covington said.