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2nd Attacker Pleads Guilty in Community Leader’s Death

By: Corey Kilgannon
Published: April 28, 2004

Five years after a prominent East Village community leader was beaten to death on a street in Queens, a New Jersey man pleaded guilty yesterday to manslaughter, bringing a case that had galvanized the victim’s friends and family close to a resolution.

The attacker, Shaguye Colbert, 29, of Newark, entered his plea in State Supreme Court in Queens, admitting his role in the April 1999 killing of Armando Perez, 51, who had risen from an East Village street gang to be an elected Democratic district leader in the neighborhood and a longtime member of Community Board 3 there.

Justice Robert J. Hanophy indicated that he would sentence Mr. Colbert on June 16 to 10 years in prison for first-degree manslaughter. The sentence did not satisfy Mr. Perez’s loved ones and friends, who had fought to bring his killers to justice.

‘He doesn’t have any remorse,’ Marianne Kunitz-Perez, 47, Mr. Perez’s widow, said of Mr. Colbert. ‘He doesn’t seem to realize the gravity of what he’s done. It’s horrible. I hope he doesn’t walk out alive.’

Mr. Colbert was one of two men to admit guilt in Mr. Perez’s killing. The other assailant, Malik Hill, 26, of Newark, pleaded guilty to the same charge in June 2003 and is being held in jail while awaiting sentencing.

It could not be determined yesterday why he had not been sentenced yet.

Mr. Perez, who had been separated from his wife at the time of the attack, had been visiting her in her apartment in the Ravenswood Houses in Long Island City on April 3, 1999, the night of the attack.

Outside the apartment, he became involved in an altercation with Mr. Colbert and Mr. Hill, the authorities have said. He was severely beaten, suffering fractured ribs, a lacerated spleen and brain injuries, and died the next day at Elmhurst Hospital Center.

Mr. Perez’s death was not initially investigated as a homicide, prompting friends and family to work feverishly to convince the authorities that he was a victim of foul play. His friends suspected homicide because, they said at the time, he had made enemies as an outspoken community advocate.

Mr. Colbert, who has been in jail since January 2002, appeared in court wearing a gray sweatsuit and handcuffs. He said he chose to plead guilty to manslaughter rather than be tried for second-degree murder, for which he was indicted in 2002.

‘I just want it over with,’ he said. ‘I want to move on with my life.’

His lawyer, Todd D. Greenberg, said that Mr. Colbert fought back in self-defense after Mr. Perez started the fight.

‘He said he just lost it because the deceased tried to punch him,’ Mr. Greenberg said.

But Ms. Kunitz-Perez dismissed the possibility that Mr. Perez had attacked the much younger men. Although he had a wild side as a young man, she said, Mr. Perez shunned violence as he grew into middle age and refused to be provoked.

‘The last 10 years of his life he would cross the street to avoid groups of teenagers,’ she insisted. ‘He’d say: “I’m older now. I can’t get into any fights like a young man.”‘

Ms. Kunitz-Perez said her anger over her husband’s death persuaded her to become a school safety agent at a Queens school.

‘I had a lot of anger at these thugs and wanted to learn more about the law,’ she said.

After his death, Mr. Perez was mourned by several hundred people in the Lower
East Side with protests, poems, a mural and a garden dedication.

The young Mr. Perez joined an East Village street gang and later turned to community activism, helping in 1979 to renovate a dilapidated school building on East Ninth Street in Manhattan and create the Charas/El Bohio cultural center, with space for artists’ studios and theater groups.

At the time of his death, Mr. Perez was fighting the sale of the building to a developer.

The Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, said yesterday, ‘The crime that ended the life of an inspirational community leader who had worked tirelessly to make things better for others was the result of a sidewalk dispute that escalated into mindless violence.’

Councilwoman Margarita Lopez of the Lower East Side, a longtime friend of Mr. Perez’s, was in court yesterday for the guilty plea. She agreed with Ms. Kunitz-Perez that the 10-year sentence for Mr. Colbert was much too lenient.

‘He gets a 10-year sentence for taking the life of a human being?’ Ms. Lopez said. ‘There’s something wrong with this process.’