By Sarah Ferguson
After five frustrating years of police investigations and legal proceedings, the murder case of Lower East Side community activist and Democratic district leader Armando Perez was finally brought to a close on Tuesday when the second of his accused killers pled guilty to savagely beating Perez to death outside Perezs wifes apartment complex in Long Island City, Queens.
Shaguye Colbert, 29, of Newark, N.J., agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter in the first degree and to waive his right to trial in exchange for a 10-year sentence, two years of which he has already served.
But Colbert, whose nickname is Country, showed little remorse for the death of Perez, who was co-founder and creative director of CHARAS/El Bohio, the former Latino community arts center on E. Ninth St. Dressed in a gray sweatsuit with his hands cuffed behind his back, Colbert appeared emotionless before the court, barely turning to acknowledge Perez wife, Marianne, and the half dozen supporters, including Lower East Side Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who turned out for the proceeding to ensure that justice was served.
When Supreme Court Judge Robert J. Hanophy asked Colbert to concede that he intended to cause serious physical injury to Perez when he got into a street brawl with him in the early morning of April 3, 1999, Colbert claimed Perez had started the fight. Mr. Perez punched me in the face and I lost it, Colbert replied. He hit me and we got into it. He punched me a couple of times.
Judge Hanophy pressed further: But do you agree that your actions were intended to cause serious physical injury?
Colbert: He hurt me and I intended to hurt him back.
I didnt mean to cause the death. I cant speak for the other guy, Colbert added, referring to the second defendant, Malik Hill, 26, also of Newark, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter last June for his role in the brutal attack in exchange for an eight-year sentence.
Asked by the judge whether he acknowledged his actions had in fact caused Perezs death, Colbert paused for a moment, then stated: Yes.
After his half-hearted admission of guilt, Colbert told the court that he has been under attack by fellow prisoners as a result of the case and his testimony against Hill, whom he claims to be a member of the Bloods. My legs been messed up and Ive been burned in the face, Colbert said. He requested that he be segregated from the general prison population when he is sent Upstate. He will be formally sentence June 16, at which time family members will have the opportunity to address him.
While the convictions of Colbert and Hill closed the case file on a murder that galvanized the Lower East Side, their sentences did not satisfy Perezs wife and his supporters.
This sentence is too short for a homicide, especially when you consider the brutality of what they did, Marianne Perez said. What did they steal, about 25-30 years of his life? Its totally absurd. Perez also strongly disputed Colberts claim that Armando had thrown the first punch. I dont believe it, she said. In the last 10 years of his life, Armando avoided fights. Hed say because he was in the public eye as a politician, he couldnt afford to get into any trouble. He would cross the street to avoid fights.
He was streetwise, Perez added, Hes not going to start a fight with a guy who's 30 years younger than him whos got a bunch of other guys around him.
But law enforcement sources said the confusing circumstances of the early-morning altercation and the fact that four previous defendants had had their charges dismissed would have made it very challenging to obtain a stiffer sentence had the case gone to trial.
In a statement, Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown said, The crime that ended the life of an inspirational community leader who had worked tirelessly to make things better for others was the result of a sidewalk dispute that escalated into mindless violence.
The fatal beating took place aound 4 a.m., when Perez left his wifes apartment at the Ravenswood Houses in Long Island City to move his car. When Perez got out of his car to go to a store, witnesses say Colbert sat on the hood and then asked, You dont mind if I sit on your car, do you? Perez reportedly objected, pointing out that there were numerous benches nearby, and the dispute became heated, with Hill joining in.
According to the police and district attorney, Colbert and Hill punched, kicked and choked Perez to the point of unconsciousness. Autopsies revealed Perez had a broken arm and nose and swollen fists suggesting that he fought back. But he also suffered four fractured ribs, collapsed lungs, a brain hemorrhage and the complete laceration of his spleen severe injuries that caused internal bleeding that led to his death.
Ironically, the Puerto Rican-born Perez had been a gang leader in his youth on the Lower East Side. But he forswore violence in 1967 and with Chino Garcia and several other former gang members formed The Real Great Society, a youth outreach group that encouraged teens to stop fighting and work to meet the needs of their communities. The group later formed CHARAS (the name evolved out of their first initials) and helped organize some of the neighborhoods first sweat-equity projects including the then-abandoned P.S. 64 school building on E. Ninth St., which they opened in 1979 as a community arts center.
Lopez, who credits Perez with inspiring her to run for office, said the case against Colbert and Hill might have been stronger had the police moved to investigate sooner. Not only did the police fail to secure the crime scene for more than 15 hours after Perezs body was found, but officers at the 104th Precinct initially treated his death as an accident.
I still believe if we did not collect money for our own private autopsy, this case would have never gone forward, Lopez said.
First they insisted he tripped and fell, then they asked me if he jumped off the roof, then they said it was a hit and run, Marianne Perez said. And then when the medical examiner said it was a murder, they decided it must have been me, so they were spending all their time following me around.
Indeed, Lopez claims that it was not until she personally went to District Attorney Browns office with Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Steve Sanders, State Senator Martin Connor and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez that a new investigation was launched. Perez herself says she went door to door investigating. A woman from the neighborhood approached me with several names, including Colbert, she claimed. The police were taking too long to talk to her, so I took her to lunch and interviewed her, then wrote up her story and turned it over to the police, Perez said.
A police spokesperson declined to comment on their handling of the investigation.
Colbert was eventually picked up in New Jersey, where he was wanted for an outstanding warrant on a robbery case. His other previous convictions include convictions in Georgia for robbery, criminal damage to property and assault.
Perez says her husbands murder shattered her life, and devastated his family members. But she says it was partly her experience investigating the crime that led her to enroll in the Police Academy to become a school safety officer. She graduated in December. I have an anger at thugs and I did want to learn more about the law, she said.
Lopez said she wont find closure until two things happen: The next step is I have to get a gravestone, the councilmember said, explaining that much of the money raised for Perezs funeral went to pay for the private autopsy. And then the second step is to recover the building, she said of CHARASs former headquarters on E. Ninth St., which was auctioned by the Giuliani administration to a private developer in 1998 for $3.15 million, and could now face demolition if a scheme to build a 23-story college dormitory goes forward. Weve been very strong in not letting that building be developed so far, Lopez warns. In Armandos memory, we need to get it back.