Bronx man was convicted yesterday in the
murder of six people on Valentine's Day
1993, a killing prosecutors called "a
crime of unspeakable horror" meant as
revenge against one of the victims for
slapping the defendant's wife.
Anthony Casellas, 22, was found guilty
of murder and conspiracy in the deaths
of three adults and three children whom
the police said were lined up on the
living room floor of a Mott Haven
apartment and each shot through the head.
Four other defendants facing charges
related to the killings are awaiting
Caught in Tale of Revenge and Death
By David Gonzalez - The New York Times
February 28, 1993
those who knew him, Elliot Lopez did not seem to be the sort of
teen-ager likely to be seduced by the street code of easy money,
short tempers and rapid retribution. A star athlete with a ready
smile, his goal was college and a way out of a South Bronx
neighborhood whose streetcorners were dotted with dozens of other
young men who had long ago traded the promise of the future for
the grim pickings of the present.
But there were times when it appeared that his
perspective on the crazy life was more than that of an outsider.
"He knew some wild people," recalled Kent
Wargowsky, his track coach at Morris High School, who remembered
him being greeted on the street by swaggering young men with gold
chains. "Elliot was such a nice person, yet he knew who the bad
people were, but not, like, stay away from them."
One person Mr. Lopez knew was Anthony Casellas
-- his sister was a friend of Mr. Casellas's wife, Lourdes.
Flanked by his associates, Mr. Casellas strode through the streets
near East 161st Street and Tinton Avenue, leading a loosely knit
drug gang, neighbors and the police say.
'Tato' and 'Ding Ding'
At some point -- no one seemed quite sure when
-- Elliot joined his crew. They grew close; on the street, Elliot
Lopez and Anthony Casellas were known as "Tato" and "Ding-Ding."
And last week they were arrested and charged with being the gunmen
who lined six people up, face down, in a Mott Haven apartment on
St. Valentine's Day and killed them with single shots to the head.
The motive, the police say, was to avenge Mr. Casellas's bruised
honor after his wife had been beaten up last summer in a fight
stemming from a long-running feud.
Last Wednesday, the authorities say, the
revenge came full circle at the entrance to the Bronx County
Building, when Lourdes Casellas was fatally shot by a friend of
one of the Mott Haven victims. To the people who know Mr. Lopez,
the disquieting thought is how he could have had anything to do
with the violent revenge.
In part, the two contrasted sharply: neatly
dressed and respectful, Mr. Lopez avoided running with any one
clique. He was even-tempered, puzzled by the violence around him.
He had finished high school and had been accepted to Baruch
College, although he never enrolled.
But people in the neighborhood weren't even
sure if Mr. Casellas had finished junior high school, and they
remembered his predilection for the funky, baggy clothes -- the
high fashion of the street -- and how his temper was best left
Thomas Rinaldi, Mr. Lopez's 11th grade English
teacher, remembered Elliot as one of several students who seemed
to be "on the fence."
"They were at that point where they were going
to make a decision," he said. "Temptations were presenting
Friendly to Everyone
He was a gregarious, can-do type who got along
with everybody. That was no small accomplishment in a place where
the orbits of adolescent cliques curtail easy interaction.
His home life, according to his teachers and a
few neighbohrood acquaintances, was mixed: his mother and
stepfather were quiet, hardworking people who lived with his
siblings in an apartment on the 11th floor of the McKinley Houses,
a Bronx project. But his two brothers had had scrapes with the law
and jail, his teachers recalled.
A woman who answered the door at the family's
apartment said their lawyer had advised them not to comment.
His stepfather, a former professional
heavyweight boxer, works in contruction, said the owner of a
grocery store across the street.
Mr. Lopez's teachers said he was a jokester. In
high school, he started a small business, hiring himself out as a
clown for parties and showing up at school events dressed in
shorts and a tie that dangled near to the floor.
He was also an athlete who excelled at
cross-country running and basketball. His track coach said the
young man was almost "like a pacifist," shunning the violence that
sometimes erupted within the walls of the school.
A Beloved Son
"He did not run to blood," said Mr. Wargowsky.
"If there was a stabbing at the school, he would stand against the
wall and say it was stupid."
But he had his passions, especially the son he
had with a previous girlfriend. Mr. Wargowsky recalled how the
teen-ager would buy clothes for the child. "I know the commitment
to his son was hard," he said.
And so was, his teachers thought, his
commitment to the future.
"He acted as if he really wanted out of his
neighborhood," said Mr. Wargowsky.
But there were glimpses of another life.
During some trips to Manhattan, Mr. Wargowsky
recalled how Mr. Lopez would seem to be known to everyone,
especially the stone-faced youths on street corners. One day they
went to a store to buy a soda after a brisk jog when a man wearing
gold chains and flashing a gold-toothed smile greeted Mr. Lopez.
"He'd say, 'That used to be me,' " said Mr.
Wargowsky. "It seemed like he was a person who knew what it was
about but stayed out. He was not naive."
Along the crowded, littered streets of Mott
Haven, where burned-out apartment buildings loom above abandoned
cars and wild youth, Mr. Casellas cultivated a tough reputation.
Several residents -- none of whom would give
their names for fear of retaiiation -- described him as a smooth-talking
man who routinely dressed in the latest style and was often seen
outside a bodega near 161st Street, mingling with youths from the
Girls, Cars and Gold
"What they were about was having girls, nice
cars and gold," said one man who knew Mr. Casellas and his friends.
In August 1992, he was held on Rikers Island on
a drug charge. Three years earlier, he served six months drug
charges. Police records show he also has convictions for assault,
robbery, theft with a deadly weapon and unlawful imprisonment.
Maria Santana, a neighborhood woman, was drawn
to Mr. Casellas -- an attraction that the police say ultimately
cost her her life. She was the sister of Edwin Santiago,
apparently the focus of the slayings on Feb. 14.
Anthony and Maria began dating about two years
ago and soon he virtually lived with her family, spending many
nights at their apartment, where Maria's mother, Julia, cooked for
him and did his laundry.
And while Maria wanted to marry him, according
to one woman, he seemed interested only in the practical
advantages of the relationship. "I don't think he wanted to marry
her," said the woman, a friend of Maria Sanatana. "I always felt
that he was just using her."
Even during one of his prison terms, Maria
Santana remained devoted. "She used to send him money so he could
buy stuff at the commissary," the friend said. "And he used to
phone her collect."
When he was released, Mr. Casellas's romantic
interest wandered toward Maria's old friend, Lourdes Serrano. Mr.
Casellas and Ms. Serrano, those who knew them say, dated without
Maria Santana's knowledge.
When Maria Santana found out about their
clandestine romance, she severed her ties to both of them. About a
year ago, Mr. Casellas married Ms. Serrano, and she later gave
birth to their son.
The animosity between his wife and his former
girlfriend grew, eventually erupting in a fight on a Bronx street
last summer. During the fight, Maria Santana's brother, Edwin
Santiago, came to his sister's defense and slapped the other woman,
causing her to drop her baby.
Plotting From Prison
The police say that Mr. Casellas began plotting
the killings sometime after August 1992, when Mrs. Casellas
visited her husband at Rikers Island and told him about the fight.
At the same time, Mrs. Casellas was growing
close to Mr. Lopez and his sister, according to their friends.
The friendship between Mr. Lopez and the
Casellases was such that Mr. Lopez planned to bring his clown act
to a birthday party for the Casellases' son in March.
"They were tight," said the 18-year-old friend.
The week before the slayings, according to one
woman, Mr. Casellas went to the Santiago-Santana home, professing
his love for the people he would later be accused of murdering.
The police said Mr. Casellas and Mr. Lopez, along with three
friends, returned to that apartment to extract their revenge on
the youth who had slapped Lourdes Casellas. Five others were
killed for reasons the police may never know.
Ten days later, a friend of the victims shot
and killed Lourdes Casellas.
At the end of a tale of revenge twice taken,
seven people are dead and six have been locked up and charged with
"I don't think there's anybody out there with
any further axe to grind," said one investigator. "The main
players are in custody. We don't feel there's anybody else there
left to shoot."
COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, FIRST DEPARTMENT
May 30, 1996
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK,
ANTHONY CASELLAS, APPELLANT.
Respondent: Peter D. Coddington.
Concur--Milonas, J. P., Wallach
and Mazzarelli, JJ.
Judgment, Supreme Court,
Bronx County (Steven Lloyd Barrett, J., at hearing and trial),
rendered July 7, 1994, convicting defendant, after a jury trial,
of twelve counts of murder in the second degree (six counts of
intentional murder [Penal Law ? 125.25 (1)] and six counts of
felony murder [Penal Law ? 125.25 (3)]), and conspiracy in the
second degree, and sentencing him, as a second felony offender, to
indeterminate terms of 25 years to life imprisonment for each
count of intentional and felony murder, to run concurrently as to
each victim, but consecutively with respect to the convictions
pertaining to each of the other five victims, and all to run
consecutively to an indeterminate term of 12 1/2 to 25 years for
the conspiracy conviction, affirmed.
morning of February 14, 1993, the police discovered the bodies of
six individuals who had been shot to death. Subsequent
investigation revealed that four victims, Miguel Rivera, 22,
Christopher Hernandez, 15, Edwin Santiago, 17, and Annette Medina,
17, had been shot in the back of the head. Julia Santana, 40, was
shot in the eye. Maria Santana, 26, was shot twice in the head,
while wearing a coat and holding her keys to the apartment. It was
later learned that she had been forced to open up the apartment
for the perpetrators of these multiple homicides.
Although some initial leads pointed to defendant as the mastermind
behind the Valentine's Day execution-style murders, it was not
until some ten days later, after defendant's wife was killed and
his friend shot and wounded in the Bronx County Courthouse, that
the police interviewed defendant. However, as the hearing court
found, and the record amply supports, because shootings inside
courthouses are, thankfully, rare, the courthouse incident "was
being handled with enormous interest and immediacy" and "the
numerous interviews that the defendant underwent at the 44[th]
precinct were all related to his status as [a] victim." Indeed,
because a court officer had discharged his weapon during this
incident, the authorities treated this investigation as they would
treat a shooting in which a police officer had used his or her
weapon. Consequently, at the police precinct there were numerous
senior level police officials and representatives of the District
Attorney's office. Defendant, along with every other witness to
the shooting incident was carefully interviewed, and none were
first given Miranda warnings.
later brought to the 40th precinct, and the police continued to
interview him about the courthouse shooting. While being
interviewed about the courthouse shooting, defendant was informed
that his wife had died. After some further discussion with the
detective, including a religious appeal that the hearing court
found to be the functional equivalent of interrogation, defendant
surprised the detective by making a brief one sentence oral
admission regarding the killing of Edwin Santiago. The detective
interrupted the interview, took a break, and administered the
Miranda warnings to defendant. Defendant then acknowledged in
writing, inter alia, that he understood and was waiving his
constitutional rights against self-incrimination and to counsel,
and proceeded to give a two page detailed written confession that
minimized his role in the Valentine's Day murders.
Several hours later, an Assistant District Attorney again
administered the Miranda warnings, and conducted a brief interview
of defendant on videotape. At this point, defendant declined to
answer further questions, but reaffirmed the veracity of the
contents of his written statement. Based on defendant's statements,
the police recovered certain physical evidence linking him to the
six Valentine's Day murders, including a silencer and ammunition,
found hidden in a television set in a room where defendant had
been staying. The hearing court denied defendant's motion to
suppress all three statements and the physical evidence as the
tainted fruits of unwarned custodial interrogation.
On this appeal the principal question presented for review is
whether the hearing court erred in finding that defendant was not
in custody for Miranda purposes when he made the first brief oral
admission about the murder of Edwin Santiago to the detective who
was interviewing him about the courthouse shooting. The hearing
court, which had an opportunity to hear, see and otherwise
evaluate the witnesses and their credibility, found that a
reasonable person in defendant's position would have felt free to
leave before making his oral admission, and that therefore
defendant was not in custody. In its decision, the hearing court
found that this was particularly true given that within the realm
of homicide and shooting investigations, a courthouse shootout was
unusual, and thus the sheer length and frequency of the interviews
of defendant was not indicative of custody. The hearing court also
noted that the change in venue from one precinct stationhouse to
another as the site of the interview would not in and of itself
have necessarily signaled to a reasonable innocent person in
defendant's situation that the police no longer wished to inquire
of him about the murder of his wife and the shooting of his
companion. The new locale did not, in other words, transform what
was otherwise permissible non-custodial interrogation into
custodial interrogation requiring the administration of Miranda
warnings. The hearing court also noted that defendant was never
handcuffed or physically restrained, and was left unattended in an
unlocked interview room while the detectives conferred. At no
point was defendant ever told that he could not leave the precinct
at the conclusion of the interview about his wife's murder. In
short, after reviewing a totality of several factors, and without
placing undue emphasis on any one single factor, the court found
that while there had been interrogation within the Fifth Amendment
meaning of the term, the defendant had not been in custody and
Miranda warnings need not have been read to defendant before he
made the single sentence admission inculpating himself in the
murder of Edwin Santiago.
In reviewing the
record, it is clear that the hearing court articulated the proper
legal standard for determining whether defendant was in custody
for Fifth Amendment purposes and properly considered the full
panoply of factors which must be examined when applying this
standard to the particular circumstances of this case ( People v
Yukl, 25 N.Y.2d 585, cert denied 400 US 851). The hearing court
resolved what really is, at its core, a factual question (see,
People v Centano, 76 N.Y.2d 837, affg 153 A.D.2d 494) and found
that defendant was not in custody. Such an inherently factually
driven decision is entitled to considerable deference on appeal
when, as here, it has a foundation rooted in the record (see,
People v Wright, 71 A.D.2d 585).
directly relevant to consideration of the propriety of the
suppression ruling, we note in passing that the issue of the
voluntariness of defendant's statements, including whether
defendant was in custody at the time he made his initial admission,
was also submitted to the jury. The court's instructions on this
issue, spread on sixteen pages in the record, are not challenged
on this appeal. The jury's verdict implies that the jurors, as did
the suppression court, found the defendant's statements to have
been voluntarily made.
In short, examination of
the record reveals that the factual findings on the issue of
custody reached by both the hearing court at the conclusion of the
suppression hearing and again by the jury, after trial, each with
its unique capacities to evaluate the credibility of witnesses,
were proper and should not be disturbed on appeal.
Even if it could be said that the court below erred as a matter of
law on the issue of custody as pertains to the first statement,
the hearing court's finding that the latter two statements were
attenuated and free of any taint is supported by the record. Any
consideration of the prejudice caused by admission of the initial
admission cannot overlook the fact that it was the defense, not
the prosecution, that placed this statement before the jury, when
it elicited it during cross-examination of the detective.
Defendant should not be permitted to be the knowing architect of
reversible error ( People v Rosario, 214 A.D.2d 345, 346, lv
denied 86 N.Y.2d 801). In any event, given the overwhelming
evidence of defendant's guilt, the admission of the first
statement was harmless error, if error at all.
Concur--Milonas, J. P., Wallach and Mazzarelli, JJ.
Ross, J., Concurs in the result only.