The Ink.nyc: “Laseam is Gone, But We Still Have To Live Here”

This piece, written as an assignment for Columbia Journalism School, was published on The Ink.nyc in October 2016.

On the morning of Oct. 15, 2010, a 27-year-old man named Laseam Prince Eternal Hogan strolled into his local deli wearing bright blue Nike sneakers and a carefully coordinated baseball cap. His long dreadlocks had recently been cut, his mother recalled. He bought a cup of tea and a copy of the New York Times, and joked with customers and staff, pretending to have won big on a scratch-card and offering them all cash loans.

Outside, he was met by two younger men wearing caps and hoodies, who seemed to have sought him out. A scuffle ensued, according to court testimony, though the two smaller men were no match for Hogan, who spent time training and was powerfully built. One of the men, Malcolm Thompson, then 18, crumpled to the ground. CCTV footage, without sound, appears to show the three agreeing to cross the road and to finish the dispute by their homes at the Pomonok Houses in South Flushing.

pomonok_houses

Between two brick apartment blocks, shortly after noon, Hogan was shot five times, police said. He died on the pavement. Thompson fled to Pennsylvania, where police apprehended him a few days later.

Initially, the men were friends. Thompson had taken his parents’ separation some years earlier badly and, despite the best efforts of his mother, was getting into trouble – truancy, fights, minor drug offenses. Friends remember Hogan as an older brother figure, charismatic and well-liked, with a checkered past of his own: he was on parole after three years in jail for weapon possession, and had ties to one of the gangs in the area. He had many of the trappings of a certain kind of coolness: a large collection of baseball caps and designer sneakers, women who adored him, even a small recording studio.

But by Oct. 15, something had shifted in their relationship. Hogan’s mother says Thompson owed him $200; Thompson’s mother says her son never owed him a cent. Hogan began hounding Thompson. Thompson was moving from one friend’s house to the next, trying to avoid him.

Thompson is small and baby-faced, and stands at five foot five. His mother describes him as “young, mischievous, a sweet person.” His lawyer, Damien Brown, remembers his “beautiful” smile. “You really see the kid in him,” he said, “when he lets his guard down.” He is now serving a minimum sentence of 25 years for Hogan’s murder at the ultra-maximum-security Southport Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Thompson did not respond to a letter requesting an interview.

Althea McMoore, who goes by Crystal, was a friend of Hogan’s from childhood. As adults, they would speak on the phone most days, watching YouTube videos from their respective apartments or practicing pull-ups or boxing together. When she found herself in fights, Hogan would step in to mediate or, if necessary, break things up. Even now, she can demonstrate the right hook he taught her.

“He would say I’m the strongest man-girl he knew,” she said. He made her laugh, and he was kind to her. “He would help when he can, but at the same time, he was a little motherfucker,” she said. “I loved Laseam, but he was no angel.” McMoore, 29, still lives in Pomonok with her four sons.

With Hogan dead and Thompson serving a lifetime in prison, both of their families have left the area. Andrea McGowan, Hogan’s mother, moved to Jamaica, Queens, unable to cope with confronting her grief every day at the site of her son’s death. “I loved him to death,” she said, through tears. “He was my heart.”

Shortly after Hogan’s death, Shawn Singleton, Thompson’s mother, started receiving death threats from his family and friends. “I didn’t want to take any chances,” she said, and, under police supervision, she moved as quickly as possible to another part of Queens, where she still lives.

Singleton lost her father to the streets. “It’s a rough world for these black boys, and they make things harder for themselves,” she said. “These black boys need to stop thinking they’re invincible. They don’t get it, they really don’t.”

By the time she left Pomonok, after 18 years in the area, it was no longer the place she had once known. “It used to be a really nice place to stay,” she said, “and then I got scared. When I first moved there, it was diverse – Chinese, white, black. Now it’s just black, the grounds aren’t kept. They don’t care about the place no more.”

After Hogan died, his friend McMoore attempted to start a nonprofit in his memory to rally the community to pick up litter, start community-run games and sports, and make the area somewhere she is proud to raise her children. But her efforts were thwarted by community apathy and disinterest. “This place is just a stepping stone,” she said. “Everyone’s trying to get out.”

Pomonok Houses is a series of brick apartment blocks spread out in an L-shape. Across the road is Queens College. Two police precincts bookend the development: residents, who are mostly African-American, say they avoid getting too close to either one. The grass is unkempt and plastic drug ‘baggies’ and soft drink cans collect around the fences of the playgrounds. Paving stones are crazed and irregular. “Trip hazards,” said McMoore, pointing to a particularly off-kilter stone by the slide. A neighbor told her she recently tripped on one and hurt her face, but nothing seems to have been done to fix it.

Every day, McMoore meets her sons, 11, 10, 7 and 3, straight off the bus from school. No playing with their friends, no unaccompanied trips to the slide some 200 yards from their apartment block. “We try to do things in the house,” she said. They might make pizza together, using the exercise to practice fractions, or play word association games. A drug test sits in plain sight on the refrigerator, just in case. The site of Hogan’s murder is a two-minute walk from their block.

She has reason to be cautious, having lost other loved ones to gun violence. Her best friend, Pauly Elmentor, was accidentally shot dead elsewhere in the development in August 2011. Ricky Chambers, who fathered two of her four children, was shot in Baltimore. McMoore wants her children to avoid being at either end of the barrel – and to have an education that exceeds her own, which effectively ended in the 10thgrade.

McMoore had her first child at 17. She had already fallen into the patterns of petty criminality and trouble that she said seemed inevitable to her and many of her peers. Those friends and acquaintances have now gone: they are dead, in prison, or have moved elsewhere. These days, she avoids trouble as much as she can. “When I had my son – well, you know the Bible verse?” she said. “I put away childish things and became a man.”

McMoore shares her three-bedroom apartment with her mother, her children, and her brother, who is currently incarcerated. She is embarrassed to invite strangers in. Despite her best efforts, there is a water bug infestation she can’t shake and leaks that never get fixed. The exterior of the buildings has been spruced up over time, she said, but housing officials don’t seem to care about what’s indoors. She does not remember the stairwell ever having been cleaned.

Walls in the apartment block still have lead paint on them, despite a July 2016 meeting of the Pomonok Residents’ Association calling for the Department of Housing to act. Shortly after the meeting, the agency released a statement to local press that said New York City Housing Authority residents “have a far lower likelihood of exposure than residents of private housing.”

On a recent blustery Monday, three teenage boys were bouncing a basketball around one of the development’s courtyards. McMoore’s irritation with them was palpable. But there is nothing else for them to do. The afterschool program where McMoore met Hogan was axed, as was the program that taught them boxing and martial arts. There is no track team, no sports, no nothing. Instead, children must make their own fun, often resorting to pranks. “’Let’s make a fire, let’s ring bells and run’,” McMoore said, her voice souring.

McMoore’s youngest son, who is autistic, gets a bus every day to a daycare center some miles away: the one down the road was closed due to a lack of a kitchen and is now used to house police papers and files.

The other three children have different learning difficulties, as she herself did. She tries to help them with her their homework after school, but finds herself unable to answer their more difficult questions – something that is likely to happen more as they age.

McMoore is doing whatever she can to prevent her sons from becoming casualties like Hogan or Thompson. In 2014, she used the settlement money from a car accident to launch her own cleaning company, Crystyles Clean of Queens. She stays up at night reading reviews online of competitors to see what she could be doing better.

So far, business is going well, she says, though every gain she makes seems to represent a loss elsewhere. The monthly benefit of $226 to support her autistic 3-year-old means a rent increase of $140. “The second you earn a little more than you need to survive, your benefits are cut, and you’re back to square one,” she said. “The system is rigged for us to lose.”

But she wants her children to know that there is more to aspire to. “I want to show them that there are other things out there,” McMoore said. “I want to, I don’t know, be able to take them to Disneyland.”

In the six years since Hogan died, circumstances in the area have not improved. Arrests, whether for gun violence or drugs charges, are common, and the area feels neglected. McMoore wants change. “Laseam is gone, but we still have to live here,” she said. But it’s a challenge to get people to work together to make changes, even when they know what the penalty has been.

McGowan, Hogan’s mother, has adopted three daughters, one of whom she was fostering at the time of his death. She runs a small daycare center out of her home. Though she is engaged to be married, she said she couldn’t imagine doing so without Hogan there. Six years from his death, her Facebook profile picture is of him and his daughter, with the caption “I love him so much.”

Thompson’s mother, Singleton, is also trying to move on – and dress the wounds she says can never heal. She starts work at 4 a.m., driving a public bus around New York. Singleton says she is always thinking about her son and sends books whenever she can. He loves to read. It’s a seven- or eight-hour round trip to visit him in jail, which she does about twice a year, but he has no phone privileges, and she hasn’t heard from him in weeks.

Thompson may be alive, but Singleton still grieves for her lost son. “It’s a story that doesn’t have an end,” she said.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s