06.16.12

Triple Homicide Near Columbia University Leaves Few Clues

The victims have been portrayed as violent criminals, but one, Luis Catalan, might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Matthew DeLuca investigates.

Last week’s triple homicide on a quiet Manhattan street left the neighborhood around an Ivy League college reeling, and a lot of unanswered questions in its wake.

Police have said that the June 7 shooting, which took place in a parked BMW across from Columbia University’s main campus, was a drug deal gone wrong, involving marijuana dealers “ripping off other dealers.” The suspect fled the scene, and is still at large. Media reports have described the three victims—Amaury Rodriguez, Heriberto Suazo and Luis Catalan—as violent criminals with extensive rap sheets. But interviews with friends and family, and a review of the men’s rap sheet, suggest the real story isn’t cut and dry. Of the three, Rodriguez, 30, was the only one to serve time at the state level—on a conviction for weapons possession—according to the New York State Department of Corrections.

Catalan, 25, had run-ins with the law, but by some accounts wasn’t violent and hadn’t been known to carry guns.

All three victims hung out in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, some three miles from the crime scene. Makeshift memorials to the men have sprung up here, including one to Catalan outside an apartment building on 172nd Street and Broadway. “R.I.P. Banga” reads the freshly painted graffiti on the building’s painted brick wall, a reference to Catalan’s rap stage name, Lou Banga. Underneath, empty Hennessy bottles are piled up alongside flowers and candles, and nearby, men play heated games of dominoes.

Catalan “used to hang around here,” said Miguel Christian, a 67-year-old Washington Heights resident who, on a recent afternoon, was standing and looking at the crude memorial with two other people. “He used to have a loud mouth and some of the guys around here probably didn’t like him either. He was a little punk.”

Catalan had ten arrests on his record, eight of which are sealed. According to one person with knowledge of the matter, many of the arrests were sealed because they were low-level drug cases that happened years in the past.

Three bodies found in car near Columbia University
From left, a memorial on 172nd Street and Broadway dedicated to one of the victims, Luis Catalan, who went by the name Banga; a second victim, Amaury Rodriguez. ()

Among Catalan’s charges is a 2006 arrest for driving without a license, for which he was given a conditional discharge and sentenced to community service.

Edwin Rodriguez, 18, says he was one of Catalan’s best friends. On a recent afternoon, Rodriguez was standing near a second memorial to Catalan at the corner of 175th Street Broadway, this one made of cardboard boxes sheltering a few empty liquor bottles, a dozen candles, and an empty Sunkist can.

Rodriguez says Catalan used to travel back and forth between his mother’s apartment on the east side and here, where he met Suazo and Rodriguez. Catalan was making another life for himself, said Rodriguez, as a member of D Block, a rap collective connected to the hip-hop artist Jadakiss, and rapped under the moniker Lou Banga. Catalan was making good money as an entertainer, Rodriguez said. Videos are online. He was beginning to earn a name for himself.

Catalan was making another life for himself, said Rodriguez, as a member of D Block, a rap collective

Marjorie Rodriguez, a 38-year-old woman who identified herself as Catalan’s cousin, said Catalan was drawn to the area because he had family who lived on 175th street. Over the years, Catalan became involved with a rougher crowd, she said, as he shuttled back and forth between the city’s east and west sides.

On the night of the murders, Catalan’s mother, Norma Catalan, and his uncle Jose Castellar told reporters that they didn’t recognize the names of Suazo or Rodriguez. Catalan’s mother said her son had a one-year-old boy named Noah.

“He was a good son,” she said of Catalan. “He used to call me 30 times a day just to ask, ‘How are you? How’s the business?’”

By some accounts, Suazo had a more checkered past. He had been arrested seven times, once for possession of a weapon. He was in Yonkers in 2011 for allegedly carting around 12 pounds of high-grade marijuana in his Mercedes. That case was still pending at the time of his death. In his apartment at the time, police allegedly found a .25-caliber handgun and a .380 semiautomatic.

Known on the street as Idi Amin, Rodriguez had been arrested 25 times. In 2008, according to corrections officials, he was sentenced for criminal possession of a weapon. His prison record on his January 2011 release noted, “Satisfactory programming. No violence or serious misbehavior.”

A memorial stands outside Rodriguez’s apartment building on West 171th Street. “R.I.P. Amaury,” a card reads. “You will be really missed!!” A large yellow cross made of flowers is surrounded by dozens of candles.