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‘Junior’ Justice: Why prosecutors needed cooperators — not just videos — for a strong case

Posted at 8:26 PM, May 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-22 20:31:48-04

THE BRONX — Before 20-year-old Kevin Alvarez even took the stand this week as the controversial star witness in the “Junior” murder trial, the Bronx District Attorney’s office wanted to explain to the jury why he was given a plea deal.

Lead prosecutor Morgan Dolan asked Detective Francis Orlando from the Bronx Homicide Squad why two gang members involved in the chase of Lesandro “Junior” Guzman Feliz were permitted to make cooperation agreements.

“Because we had no witnesses to identify anybody in the case,” Orlando replied.

That’s the key reason why Alvarez, who beat and dragged Junior from the bodega, was permitted to plead guilty to Manslaughter 1 and Conspiracy in the 4th degree — with the chance to get out of prison with “time served” — if he truthfully testifies in this and future trials.

Alvarez told the jury he was a probationary member of the Trinitarios gang last year, and he gave the name and rank of the five alleged members of the Los Sures set charged with fatally stabbing 15-year-old Junior on June 20.

“He had a lot of information to trade,” said retired NYPD Detective Michael O’Keefe, who investigated gang homicides during a long career with the police department.

“They don’t have to like it,” O’Keefe said of trial followers upset with the Alvarez plea deal. “But it’s the way things work, especially in a gang case.”

“It’s unrealistic to think they were all going to get convicted of murder.”

O’Keefe pointed out there are many gang-related cases where no one talks, so the murder doesn’t get solved.

In Junior’s case, his age and the graphic nature of the violent attack captured on surveillance led many in the public to contact police.

Alvarez turned himself in the weekend after the murder and was the first one officially arrested, then charged with murder in the second degree.

“The first one in the door gets the deal,” O’Keefe said.

But Alvarez was likely the second guy in the door.

During pre-trial hearings, a Bronx detective testified a Witness A showed up at the 48th Precinct early Saturday morning, June 23, 2018.

The witness said he was in one of the getaway cars after the June 20 stabbing with two defendants now charged with Murder 1. He told cops about threatening statements they made in the vehicle.

Prosecutors identified Michael Reyes as the other cooperator during direct examination of Detective Orlando last week. We learned in court that Reyes was quietly arrested in the case in mid-August 2018.

Reyes belonged to the “Bad Boys” set and didn’t know as many Sures members as Alvarez allegedly does.

“You gotta let one or two go,” O’Keefe said about murder defendants in a huge case like this.

Including the two cooperators, 15 men were charged in connection with Junior’s death.

O’Keefe talked about the cooperation agreement reached by a Howard Beach teen more than 30 years ago in the racially-motivated chase of three black men in the Queens neighborhood.

A pack of teens who’d been at a party starting hurling racial slurs at the men when they stopped at New Park Pizza Parlor on Crossbay Boulevard.

A large mob started pursuing the black men with weapons, with one of those being chased — Michael Griffith — running onto the Belt Parkway, where he was hit and killed by a car.

Another man, Cedric Sandiford, was viciously beaten.

A 17-year-old suspect who took part in the chase had a brother in the NYPD and decided to cooperate with Special Prosecutor Charles Hynes, who was appointed to the case.

Robert Riley ended up testifying against four teens in the first trial, which ended up with three of them convicted of manslaughter and assault.

One of the convicted, Jon Lester, received a maximum sentence of 30 years.

Another received a penalty of six to 18 years.

Yet another got a maximum of 15 years.

After Riley testified at two trials, he was sentenced to six months in jail, five years probation, and 400 hours of community service.

“He came forward because he knew he was in trouble,” O’Keefe said. “He was chasing these guys. He was involved in the case to a certain extent. He didn’t want to be involved in murder.”