Memorial for ‘Junior’ Guzman-Feliz cleared but tragic site remains solemn

THE BRONX — A memorial dedicated to the teen killed outside a Bronx bodega is smaller now -- candles and mementos were deemed a hazard and removed -- but the city corner is still marked by an unmistakable sense of sadness and solemnity.

Visitors knelt in prayer before the memorial for Lesandro "Junior" Guzman-Feliz when PIX11 news visited the site on Monday. New Yorkers were quiet as they walked by and only resumed their conversations once they'd passed the site where the 15-year-old boy was killed on June 20 by alleged members of the Trinitarios gang.

The community has been changed by Guzman-Feliz's death and many hope that tragedy could lead to changing the landscape of the Bronx.

Two members of community organization We Are Breaking the Chains sat on folding stools outside the bodega. They have Sharpies for anyone who wants to sign the memorial and they also have plans to transform the site into a community center.

"We're trying to bring back a healthy environment when we pass through the streets of the Bronx," co-founder Jaquim Diaz said.

Visitors pay their respects at a memorial for Lesandro "Junior" Guzman-Feliz in the Bronx on July 9, 2018. (Aliza Chasan / PIX11 News)

He and co-founder James Smalls hope their organization can get rid of all the elements in the Bronx that led up to the death of Guzman-Feliz and more than 40 others in the borough this year. Their organization focuses on restorative justice.

"Junior really ignited it," Diaz said. "We felt it was necessary for the world right now."

Diaz was at home when the news broke that a teenager was killed nearby. His 17-year-old brother, who looks a lot like Guzman-Feliz, shared the tragic news with him.

"It just told me, if that was a mistaken identity, it could have been my brother," Diaz said. "Just because it wasn't something that directly impacted you doesn't mean you didn't lose a family member when Junior lost his life."

A woman who lives across the street from the bodega noted that, since large portions of the memorial were cleared out over the weekend, people have complained.

They've brought new candles even as a milk crate full of them sits next to the still-shuttered store.

A patrol officer at the scene said the memorial had been cleared over the weekend for safety reasons. The Sanitation Department cleared melted candle wax from the sidewalk to keep mourners from slipping,  a department spokeswoman said.

Previously, thousands of candles had filled nearly two blocks of sidewalk in memory of the teen. Two murals have been painted in the area near the scene.

A mom of two from Pennsylvania stopped at the memorial to pay her respects and a dad from California looked up at the mural of Guzman-Feliz as his family wrote messages for the slain teen.

"It breaks my heart every time I look at it," one woman said as she walked by.

Guzman-Feliz's killing spurred widespread outrage and calls for #JusticeforJunior and an end to gang violence.

The teen's mom said he'd dreamed since he was 5 years old of joining the New York Police Department and becoming a detective. Guzman-Feliz had been part of the department's Explorers Program for youth interested in a career in law enforcement.

NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill wrote in an op-ed in the New York Daily News that Guzman-Feliz's death "was like losing a family member we didn't even know we had."

So far, 11 men have been arrested in the case. They're all reputed gang members accused of chasing down Guzman-Feliz, dragging him from a bodega where he tried to hide and setting upon him with knives and machetes. The teen suffered a fatal slash to his throat then ran to the hospital for help, but collapsed on the sidewalk before he reached help.