Bronx family carries graduation cap for teen fatally burned in stairwell


THE BRONX — The family of Winston Ortiz attended what should have been his high school graduation this week, 10 months after the 18-year-old was fatally stabbed and set on fire in a Bronx stairwell.

“I cried through the whole day,” Winston’s mother, Joan Tamarez, told PIX11 in her family’s living room. “We had so many plans for him, when he finished high school.”

The oldest of three boys, Winston Ortiz told his parents he wanted to be an engineer; his mother and father would send their sons to summer programs at Hostos Community College.

Winston’s family, which has a fierce devotion to God, described the teen as quiet, “with such a good heart.  He was so humble.”

The mother revealed that her son was praying when a female police officer was summoned to the fifth floor stairwell on Woodycrest Avenue last August 12, where Winston was dying.

“She said to me, ‘Do you know you’re a very good mother? Your son was praying,'” the emotional mom recalled. “She said that he said, ‘Lord, forgive all my sins.'”

The teen’s father, also named Winston, said “Without the Lord, I don’t know where my mind would be.”

Some of the details behind their oldest son’s murder are still a mystery to his parents, who are Dominican immigrants.

Winston’s mother, who works with special needs students, also served as a Bible study teacher for preteens at the family’s local church. She said that’s where Winston, then 17, met a 14-year-old girl that he liked. The mother was concerned about the relationship but said her son was only talking to the girl.

Two days before Winston was killed, his brother, Wilmer, recalled the teen came home upset.

“He was definitely heartbroken,” Wilmer Ortiz remembered.  “He went to my mom and started crying.”

Winston’s mother remembered:

“He said, ‘Mom, she doesn’t want to talk to me anymore,'” Joan Tamarez added, referring to Winston’s young friend.

The teen had already endured so much: before the pandemic started, he experienced headaches in 2019 and was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain aneurysm.

A year later, when the city was in lockdown, the family had received good news from a doctor on Zoom, when the specialist told them a one-time radiation treatment had successfully treated the aneurysm.

“We were so happy, we were jumping,” the mother remembered.  “We were going to celebrate his life, and then, this happened.”

On August 12, 2020, Winston stayed home when his parents ran some errands with his two brothers in downtown Manhattan and New Jersey.  

His mother recalled Winston was feeling better a few days after the breakup, doing exercises in the living room and laughing.

On the way back from New Jersey, the family received a cell phone call that Winston was in Jacobi Hospital. The teen was transferred to Harlem Hospital with burns over 90% of his body and three stab wounds.

Joan Tamarez said her husband didn’t want her to enter the hospital room.

“He was still alive; he was in a coma,” the mother told PIX11. “My husband went to see him, and my husband didn’t want me to see him.”

That moment was heartbreaking for her.

“I felt like I left him alone,” the weeping mom said.  “I was afraid, too, to see him like that.  And then my husband said it was the best choice. “He said, ‘That was not our son in there. That was not our son anymore,'” the mother remembered.

The 22 year old brother of Winston Ortiz’s young friend, Adones Betances, was arrested for murder, and the next court hearing is scheduled for late July

The family moved to a new apartment in the months following Winston’s death, and their middle son, Wilmer, started college. Their youngest, Wilkin — who is 12 — just finished 6th grade and remembered that Winston used to play X-Box with him.

Wilkin Ortiz said he tries to comfort his parents the best way he can.

“I either rub their back, give them a hug, or just stay close to them,” Wilkin told PIX11.

Regarding the violence that touched his family in their Bronx community, Wilkin added, “It happens almost every day in the whole world.”

“We help and hold on to one another,” Winston’s father added.  

Speaking of his two younger sons, Ortiz said, “We still need to nourish them, the way we have raised them, and they need us, too.”

On Tuesday, administrators from Metropolitan Lighthouse Charter School provided the Ortiz family with a blue cap and gown, along with a memorial plaque in Winston’s honor, at the high school graduation ceremony on Randall’s Island. 

“I prefer everyone to remember Winston the way he was, how lovable he was,” his father said. “How kind he was.”

The parents and their two surviving sons walked together, as Winston’s brother, Wilmer, carried his blue graduation cap.

“Walking there, I felt like I was walking in place of him,” Wilmer Ortiz said.  “He was, like, walking next to me,” the brother added.

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