Reading about all the murders of children within the city of Philadelphia this summer I can’t help but reflect back to another long hot summer in Philly’s history, the summer of 1989 and the death of 15 year old Stephen Crespo. To the city of Philadelphia, its press, and police department the young child murdered on July 4th, 1989 was known as Stephen Crespo. To his family he was “Steve” and to his neighborhood homeboys he was known as “Raze”. To his murderer he was just a “fucking rican.” I knew Stephen Crespo. We both lived in the Feltonville section of Northeast Philly that summer and we were both the same age. though Stephen was a bit shorter. He wore his baseball cap up high on his head and brushed his hair forward so that it banged out under the brim of the cap “prettyboy” style. I preferred to wear mine pulled down tight and low. Stephen always had a smile on his face though some could consider it a smirk or conceited expression but I think it was just the confidence and arrogance of youth that we all at one time had.
I wish I could say me and Stephen were close friends but I can’t. Though we were from the same neighborhood and hung out occasionally on Wyoming Avenue, “the Ave”, in front of the Pizza Shop we never had much to say to one another other than the occasionally nod. We had too much in common in terms of attitude and viewed each other as competitors for the neighborhood respect and girls. My last encounter with Stephen before he was murdered was, unfortunately, as opponent in a fist fight and it was the last I saw of him.
Like all adolescent males Stephen had a mischievous streak in him that was exercised with efficiency on my brother-in-law one boring hot day in June. My brother-in-law worked the counter at a Video Rental store on Wyoming Avenue.
Stephen had gotten his hands on some cherry bombs and thought it would be funny to toss a couple through the mail slot in the back of the video store and when they went off my brother-in-law practically flew over the counter in shock. Shock turned to anger and my brother-in-law promptly gave chase to Stephen but 15 year old legs beat 24 year old legs nine out of ten times and besides he wasn’t going to beat up a 15 year old kid. Why do that when he had a 15 year old little brother-in-law living at his house so later that day a girl from the Ave came by and told me my brother-in-law needed me to kick Stephen’s ass for throwing firecrackers into the video store. Duly summoned I got up and donned myself for battle in my best sneakers and clothes, gotta look good in the hood even in battle.
I strolled onto the Ave and caught up with Stephen walking beside the video store with two girls. He always had girls around him, a little romeo. I confronted him and we started to fight as a large crowd gathered around us, including my brother-in-law from the video store. I carried the fight that day, stayed on my toes and ripped off combinations. I won not because I was the better fighter or because Stephen couldn’t fight, there was just no way in the world I was going to lose in front of my brother-in-law. After the fight we parted ways and Stephen threatened to get his older brothers who I knew I couldn’t beat. So I did what any young kid in the hood does when faced with fighting multiple brothers. I got outta dodge for a couple days and went and stayed with my Mom.
When I returned a week later and strolled onto the Ave I was met with long faces by the crowd in front of the Pizza shop. “Yo, you heard about Raze?”. I shrugged my shoulders, “Why?” “He’s Dead!” I’m ashamed to say I remember a brief cocky laugh escaped my lips. That sounds callous but it was the cocky demeanor of a youth whose mind had yet to comprehend the utter finality of death. To me “He’s Dead” registered as “he’s in trouble” or “he’s been locked up and will be out next week.” I expected to see him a week later strolling down the Ave. It wasn’t until I absorbed the vibes of everyone on the Ave and days later started to notice the absence of his cocky smile and raised baseball cap absent from the crowds on the Ave that it registered he was gone and wasn’t going to come strolling down the Ave. Through word of mouth and eyewitnesses I was filled in on Stephen’s final moments. On the 4th of July Stephen and a couple other kids from the neighborhood decided to strip a stolen car that was abandoned next to Tacony Creek park. Tacony Creek park was the dumping ground of stolen cars and its banks were littered with the gutted and charred remains of stolen cars. It was a tradition for neighborhood youth to strip the cars and earn money from the parts to party, especially in the summertime. The white guys in the neighborhood were the first to do this but in the late 80’s as more latinos and minorities moved into the area we learned the tradition from watching the white guys. It soon turned into a competition as bands of latino/black youth and white men would skirmish over the rights to strip stolen cars abandoned by the creek and usually the group with the most numbers won. Ironically, it was always the older white guys we had problems with or fought with as we got along well with and sometimes hung out with the white kids our age that lived in the area. On that hot 4th of July day Stephen and his friends were outnumbered by a group of white guys who wanted to strip the car themselves. Racial slurs were exchanged and the whites gave chase. They outnumbered Stephen and friends ran but Stephen’s 15 year old legs didn’t carry the day and one of the men chasing him, a former high school athlete, from a distance of 5 feet threw a tire iron at the back of Stephen’s head which penetrated and wedged into the back of his skull. He collapsed, bleeding profusely. One of the pursuers later testified that the man then reached down and grabbed Stephen’s hair with one hand and yanked the tire iron out of the back of his head with the other hand. When police arrived they found a large crowd around the moaning body of Stephen. 15 year old Stephen “Raze” Crespo died at 2:00 am on July 5, 1989 on the operation table after bleeding to death during surgery. I often think how easily that could have been me had I not been at my Mother’s house.
Initially the white men that gave chase and murdered Stephen were described by an unnamed police source as would be hero’s who went too far. After public outcry the police department’s spokesperson stated they wouldn’t consider anyone a hero who caused the death of a 15 year old. Nevertheless to this day the perception remains that on that day the confrontation was between a group of white youth attempting to stop a group of Latino youth from stealing a car. Around the neighborhood we knew better but no one thought to ask our opinions, after all what do 15 and 16 year old kids know?
Months later my life would take a somewhat similar turn for the worse though not as immediately fatal as Stephen’s. Like Stephen’s my life was swallowed up by the streets. At 16 and sitting in a cell at the Youth Study Center charged with murder as an accomplice in a homicide, I read a newspaper article about the sentencing of the men who murdered Stephen Crespo. One of them while out on bail for the murder was arrested for a bar brawl and while being arrested bragged that he “killed that fucking rican in Philly.” So much for remorse. Both of the men, ages 22, were sentenced to 5 years probation. Months later, while a juvenile, I went in front of a judge expecting justice and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for being an accomplice in a murder. Such is justice in the City of Brotherly Love. Rest in Peace Stephen. We both lost more than our youth during that long hot summer of ‘89.