Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
March 27, 1990
N.Y. fire suspect described as 'down to his last hope'
Report 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 argued instead.

"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 immigrants.

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. home page   
Recent news
  | Africa coverage  |  Archives  |  Afghanistan coverage  |  E-mail from Africa  |  Magazine articles | Photographs  |  Bio 
African Odyssey
  |  Apartheid's Secrets  |  Democracy's Promises  |  The Forgotten Wars  |  Rwanda: Aftermath of Genocide

Copyright 2001-2006 Andrew Maykuth