N.Y. fire suspect
described as 'down to his last hope'
on the Happy Land fire
NEW YORK - Julio Gonzalez, who was
charged yesterday with igniting a Bronx social club fire that killed 87
people, was described by acquaintances as out of work, behind on his rent
and distraught over losing his girlfriend of seven years.
"From what I know, he was down to his last hope," said John
O'Keefe, the owner of the rooming house where Gonzalez had taped a picture
of Jesus Christ on the wall beside his twin bed. The landlord described
Gonzalez as a "timid person."
Authorities say Gonzalez was anything but timid early Sunday when he
went to the Happy Land Social Club, drank several beers and tried to make
up with his ex-girlfriend, Lydia Feliciano, who worked at the club. They
"She wanted nothing to do with him," said Lt. Raymond
O'Donnell, a police department spokesman. "When he persisted, the
bouncer put him out of the social club."
Gonzalez shouted that he would "shut this place down," said
Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson.
He bought a gallon of gasoline at a nearby service station, poured it
at the club's door, struck a match and stood back to watch the club go up
in flames, officials said.
Officials said Gonzalez knew that the fire sealed off the only exit
from the crowded club, which was operating in violation of city building
codes. Gonzalez "forced the occupants of the club to choose between
remaining inside or breaching a wall of flame at the doorways," the
prosecutor said during a news conference early yesterday.
Few of the club's occupants had time to choose. Some were trampled to
death in the stampede to get out. But most were asphyxiated by the rush of
toxic smoke that swiftly displaced the oxygen in the windowless two-story
club, officials said.
Police said that only five people, including Feliciano, 45, are known
to have survived.
Gonzalez, 36, reeked of gasoline when he was roused from his bed Sunday
afternoon, Johnson said. Police said he broke down in tears and confessed
in a videotaped statement.
Gonzalez was arraigned early yesterday in Bronx County Criminal Court
on 87 counts of second-degree murder in furtherance of arson, 87 counts of
second-degree murder by depraved indifference to human life, one count of
attempted murder and two counts of arson. Second-degree murder is the
state's highest charge for the killing of civilians.
The unemployed warehouse worker, who entered the country from Cuba in
the 1980 Mariel boat lift, was being held in isolation without bail. He
was placed under a "suicide watch," police said, and was ordered
to undergo psychiatric testing.
Investigators yesterday continued to poke through the charred wreckage
inside the brick-and-stucco social club on Southern Boulevard.
City records reportedly show that real estate entrepreneur Jay Weiss,
the husband of actress Kathleen Turner, heads the corporation that sublet
the building to the club operator. The corporation rented the building
from real estate mogul Alex DiLorenzo 3d. Prosecutors said they had not
ruled out charges against the building's owner.
The operator of the club, Elias Colon, 48, apparently died in the fire.
Police said that his wife, Elena, was one of the survivors.
Residents yesterday stood behind police barriers on Southern Boulevard
and spoke in whispers. City tow trucks removed cars whose owners had died.
"I will never let my children go into those clubs again,"
said Rosalita Moreno, the mother of three. She, like most who patronized
the club, is from Honduras.
Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York led a prayer vigil outside the
club yesterday, and visited the nearby school where city social workers
and the American Red Cross were helping relatives arrange funerals for the
victims. Some of those relatives simmered in anger.
"The guy who did this should not be allowed to live," said
Aurelio Nunez, 23, who said he lost a cousin in the fire.
Antoineta Gonzalez, a resident of the 12-room boarding house on
Buchanan Place in the University Heights section of the Bronx, said that
Julio Gonzalez had been involved with Feliciano for about seven years.
Six weeks ago, she said, the two broke up and Gonzalez moved out of
Feliciano's apartment and into his $70-a-week room. She said he had
earlier lost his job packing boxes at a Queens lamp factory.
"I think something went wrong with his head," said Antoineta
Gonzalez, a Honduran who is not related to Julio Gonzalez but said she has
known him for five years.
"I feel really bad about it," she said. "Not only about
him, but those were a lot of people from my country who died."
"He looked crazy, but I never imagined he could have touched off
that fire," said Manuel Marroquin, 48, a mechanic who works on
automobiles in the street.
O'Keefe, the rooming house owner, said that Julio Gonzalez was amiable
and offered to help with chores around the boarding house, but that he had
fallen two weeks behind in the rent of his 8-by-10-foot room.
Gonzalez's room was orderly, although the bed was unmade since police
rousted Gonzalez from his sleep the day before. Room Number 7 contained a
sink, a small refrigerator and a hot plate. The cabinet contained a few
mugs, some shaving items and an empty beer bottle wrapped in a paper bag.
The closet contained a baseball jacket and a few other garments. O'Keefe
said that police had seized some clothes that smelled of gasoline.
Police said Gonzalez was aware that 87 people had died in the fire.
"He was remorseful," said Lt. O'Donnell. "He cried. He
should have done more than that."
The fire prompted Mayor David Dinkins to flex the city's muscle against
the hundreds of illegal social clubs that proliferate primarily in poorer
sections of New York.
Dinkins reactivated the city's Social Club Task Force, 10 teams of
police and fire inspectors formed in 1988 after six people died in a Bronx
speak-easy. The task force had gone dormant in recent months - only one of
its three-person teams was still operating last week, officials said.
Early yesterday, the reactivated teams swept across the city and
discovered that most of the clubs were closed in anticipation of the punch
that city officials had telegraphed on the Sunday evening news. Officials
closed 22 clubs.
"The idea is to close down those that are operating
illegally," said Dinkins, who said he was moved to action by the
"horrendous" scene of bodies that he viewed Sunday. "Not
all clubs are improperly functioning."
At a commemoration yesterday of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire
that claimed 145 lives, Dinkins noted that both primarily victimized
Gonzalez was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in
prison. The families split a $15.6 settlement in 1995 with the club's
owner and insurance companies.