Despite 200 arrests in three years, police say robberies by loose-knit gangs of Dominican immigrants remain a persistent problem in parts of the South Bronx.
Detective Hector Beauchamp of the Joint Robbery Apprehension Task Force said the gangs work methodically, sending out a "santo," or saint, on surveillance missions to collect information on potential victims, usually merchants.
"The individual befriends the business person, tells the bad guys where he lives, his wife's name, his children's name, what time he leaves work," Beauchamp said.
Police think Dominicans "pick on their own" because they believe their fellow countrymen are afraid to report the crimes, he said.
Prosecuting these cases has been tricky.
A borough jury recently acquitted Jose Gonzalez in one deadly case police described as part of the pattern of push-in robberies.
Gonzalez was charged with murder and robbery in the December 1992 shooting death of Felix Vargas, 26, in his Soundview apartment.
Gonzalez, 21, admitted to police that he was the getaway driver in the robbery, and that it was his idea to target Vargas, said Assistant District Attorney Angelo MacDonald. But prosecutors were unable to present his written confession at the trial, and Gonzalez walked free.
"I was disappointed because I felt he was guilty," said MacDonald. "But it was not a strong case from a prosecutor's perspective."
Stronger evidence against Milton Liriano, a second suspect in the case, led to a guilty plea from him last year. Vargas' wife, Judith, identified Liriano as the shooter in a police lineup.
Police also took a full confession from him on video.
Liriano, Gonzalez, and two other suspects, who are still sought, apparently followed Vargas home after he closed his DeKalb Avenue bodega. The group believed Vargas was carrying the receipts from that day's sales, officials said.
While Gonzalez waited outside in the car, at least two robbers ransacked the apartment, taking food stamps, jewelry and a small amount of cash, MacDonald said. Vargas also handed over the keys to the bodega.
Disappointed with the small cache, one of the gunmen reached for Vargas' 5-year-old daughter, Melissa, in an attempt to extract more. Judith Vargas remembers him saying,
Felix Vargas attacked the men. In the scuffle, Liriano's gun went off, piercing Vargas in the neck. The robbers fled, and Vargas died an hour later at Bronx Municipal Hospital Center.
Though Gonzalez denied it in court, MacDonald said Vargas worked in a bodega owned by Gonzalez's father. Gonzalez was also aware that Vargas had opened his own bodega in Norwood, he said.
"They knew everything about him," said Tony Perez who worked in Vargas' store, "except that Felix never carried money home with him."
Perez, who remembers Vargas as a man who worked 18-hour days to support his family, said, "Gonzalez is guiltier than the guy who pulled the trigger because he planned the attack."
Gonzalez faces separate charges stemming from an August 1992 robbery.
"Whatever he gets in the next case is no satisfaction," Perez said. "But what goes around comes around. He'll get it someday."