She says she knows who killed her brother - but no one will listen

Minerva Reynoso holds a photographer of herself (right), brother Pedro Reynoso and niece Yleana Reynoso in her North Philadelphia home. Pedro Reynoso is serving a life sentence for a murder he says occurred while he was in the Dominican Republic.

On July 23, 1991, Marisol Colon-Torres was at home in North Philadelphia when a neighborhood guy, a Dominican drug dealer she knew just as Chuito, came by looking for her brother, Carlos Torres.

Chuito was angry, and Colon-Torres said she already knew he was dangerous. He ran a drug house a few doors down from her house on the 3000 block of North Darien Street, she said, and once, when he’d hired her to clean out another house he owned, he got aggressive with her sexually. Another time, when her husband stole from him, she said, Chuito held him under a scalding-hot shower to teach him a lesson.

So, she recalled, she went around the corner to wait for her brother, to flag down his car and warn him not to come to the block that day.

In the end, she didn’t get the chance.

As she sat on a stoop waiting, her kids came running.

“I will never forget their faces — never,” she said. “My kids ran to me and said, ‘Tio! Tio! Something happened to Uncle.’ ”

She raced back to the block, where, she said, she found her brother and the passenger, a 17-year-old kid named Charles Rivera, had been shot.

Rivera was already dead. Torres-Colon remembers frantically trying to push her brother into the car so she could get behind the wheel to take him to the hospital. Instead, police came and tossed him into the back of the patrol car. She followed, and got the news at Temple University Hospital. She remembers that she lost her shoes somewhere along the way, that she was barefoot on the cold tile floor when her brother was pronounced dead.

“When I come back, Chuito is in the house with a gun in his hand. I said: ‘Oh, you’re ready to kill me, too? Do it.’ He said, ‘I did you a favor.’ I said, ‘You better kill me, too, because I’m going to make sure you’re locked up.’ And he said, ‘Whatever.’ He jumped in the car he drove to kill my brother, and he left.”

After that, she said, her anger outran her fear: She told the police what she knew.

Chuito would not be locked up. Instead, for the last two decades, another man has been incarcerated for the murder.

Colon-Torres said that man, Pedro Reynoso, had not been seen in the neighborhood since a few weeks before the incident. In fact, 10 alibi witnesses, including a priest, all claimed he was in the Dominican Republic.

“We’ve had members of the consulate calling us about this case, saying they also believe he was in the Dominican Republic at the time of the murder,” said Marissa Boyers Bluestine, executive director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. “That’s pretty up there, as far as alibis.”

But in April, a federal judge rejected Reynoso’s habeas petition, the latest effort in a two-decade-long fight for exoneration.

Even Colon-Torres’ 2011 affidavit, in support of the man sentenced for gunning down her brother, didn’t help. “Such a late-proffered affidavit does not carry great weight,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne Sitarski wrote in her report. She found the statement “neither exculpatory nor credible.”

It’s a case that involves the usual issues with eyewitness recantations and questions over interrogation techniques — all of it complicated by language barriers and cultural differences.

Torres-Colon, who spoke virtually no English back then, believes that was one reason police didn’t listen to her.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Bluestine said, “that she’s a disempowered female with issues regarding language and communication, going up against a whole system that is saying, ‘Nope, we got him. We know who did it.’ ”

When Reynoso’s family members would read through the case files, trying to make sense of the convicted murderer in their family tree, they too would wonder what role race and ethnicity played: the white cops, the black witnesses, the Puerto Rican victim, and the Dominican shooter. The police investigation dealt in an overabundance of similar nicknames — “they kind of call them all the same thing: Papi, Papodito, Poppo, Poppo Dito, Papitico,” one niece, Aixa Garcia, said — and a paucity of real names to match them with. Reynoso’s sister Minerva tried to advocate for him for years, but, with her limited English, never got very far.

The original arrest warrant for another man, Felo Garcia, who was sentenced to life for being the passenger in the shooter’s car, lists him as Papodito. Later, that would be revised to a different nickname, Marciano. Then, when Reynoso was arrested three years later, he was Papodito. (His actual nickname, which according to his family is “Papitico,” was not mentioned during the trial.)

Torres-Colon said the murder tore her family apart; her brother was her biggest supporter, both financially and emotionally. And, she said, she still lives with the looming fear that Chuito will finally silence her. She didn’t want to be photographed for that reason.

She said she’s since spoken with both men convicted of killing her brother. They cried together over the loss.

“What I don’t understand is why they can’t come home,” she said. “And he’s still out there, and the law do not do nothing about it.”

 

Reynoso already had a wife and young son in the Dominican Republic when he moved to New York in his 20s, looking for work. But he fell in  love with a girl from Philly, and followed her here. They had a couple of kids. He ended up living on the same block as Torres, working at a shipping company, and eventually, to make some extra cash, helping out with Chuito’s drug operation.

But in July 1991, his mother grew ill, and he went back to care for her. Once he was back with his wife and son, they begged him to stay — so he did. He got a job at a car dealership. He even bought a farm while he was there, on July 17, six days before the crime. He says the plantation of coconut palms and banana trees, farmed by his 86-year-old grandfather, still supports his family to this day. On July 27, four days after the day of the crime, he got his 5-year-old son baptized by a local priest, an occasion memorialized in family photos.

Camera icon Courtesy of Pedro Reynoso
From left: The Rev. Dionisio Suarez Arias baptizes Juan Alexander Reynoso, age 5, in front of his mother, Catalina Roman, godmother Eunice de la Rosa Cabrera and father Pedro Reynoso on July 27, 1991. The photo was submitted in court in support of Reynoso’s alibi.

Conflicting evidence

In November 1993, his mother died, and the next year, he decided to make the long-postponed trip back to Philadelphia, to visit his kids. On March 23, 1994, when he stepped off the plane in Newark, though, he was quickly escorted into a small room where, through a translator, he learned he’d been charged with two murders.

Reynoso says his initial reaction was surprise — but also confidence the mix-up would be straightened out. He said that even in the Dominican Republic, the gossip had reached him that Chuito had been behind the crime: “Everyone knows he killed these two people. He and Carlos Torres, they all the time had a problem.”

For one thing, Torres-Colon said, Torres was seeing a woman that Chuito also dated. For another, Chuito was on a tear that day, claiming that Torres and Torres-Colon’s husband, Jose Colon, had stolen drug money from him and that Colon’s robbery of an ice-cream truck had drawn an unwelcome police presence to the block.

But the police had a witness, Sarah Robinson, who was selling fake marijuana on the street when the shooting occurred.

Three days after the crime, she told police a guy named Marciano was the shooter, and another man, Papodito, was in the passenger seat. An arrest warrant was issued for Papodito, and police picked up Felo Garcia. A few days after that, she amended her statement: Papodito was the shooter; Marciano, the passenger. Garcia, she claimed, was actually Marciano.

To corroborate her statements, police brought in Robinson’s cousin, Sam Wilkerson. He also gave the shooter’s name as Papodito.

“Mostly, every Spanish bull or Dominican or anything out there, we just call them by Papi. We don’t say their name,” he said at one hearing.

Garcia was convicted in 1992, despite alibi witnesses who claimed he was at Principe Restaurant near Front and Lehigh when the crime happened. Milagros Garcia, his cousin, said that she was there with him — and that she remembers someone coming into the restaurant and telling them about the shooting. She insists Garcia was never known as Papodito, or as Marciano. “Only Felo. Everybody call him Felo.”

At Reynoso’s trial, police brought back the same witnesses, plus a forensic analyst who reviewed Reynoso’s passport and declared one of the stamps a forgery.

The jurors didn’t find his alibi credible. They didn’t believe the neighbor who saw him regularly while he was in the Dominican Republic, or even the priest who performed his son’s baptism.

In July 1996, Reynoso was convicted of both murders and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life in prison.

Witnesses recant but too late

It was 15 years before Colon-Torres would see Reynoso again — this time, in the prison visiting room. She was there to see her husband, Jose Colon, who was incarcerated for an unrelated crime.

Colon hadn’t witnessed the murder, but he was confident in his understanding of what happened: He and Torres had committed the robbery that had triggered Chuito’s anger, and Chuito had responded by leading police to Colon so they could arrest him.

In 2011, both Colon and Colon-Torres wrote out statements declaring Reynoso was not the killer. Colon said in his affidavit that when he learned of the murder, he had assumed Chuito was the killer because “it was the only one person we had difficulties with.”

Camera icon Courtesy of Pedro Reynoso
Pedro Reynoso, in prison for two decades for a double murder he says he did not commit.

Around that same time, Reynoso also had another surprise encounter. He ran into Chuito himself, during a brief stint in state prison. Though Reynoso was too shocked to say anything, he caught a peek at his name in an inmate log. (Chuito’s full name is included in Reynoso’s post-conviction petitions. However, it’s being withheld here at the request of Reynoso and his family, who still fear Chuito, and because he has not been charged with the crimes.)

There was more good news. Sarah Robinson, the witness, was ready to recant. “I want to clear my conscience,” she said in a 2010 interview with Reynoso’s lawyer.

She also now said Chuito was the shooter. She claimed that she’d told the police that, too — at first. “But they said ‘No!’ ”

Back at the time of the murder, she had two pending criminal cases of her own, assault and car theft, and a bench warrant for her arrest. She said the officers told her that, as long as she identified whomever they brought to the preliminary hearing, “I would not have to worry about my two cases, and wouldn’t have to worry about going to probation or getting locked up.”

She said there was another reason, too: “I believe if I identified him as the shooter and they were looking for him, before they found him he would have killed me.”

Reached by phone, Robinson said she didn’t want to talk about the case. “I’m trying to get my life together,” she said.

In 2011, Colon-Torres also saw Sam Wilkerson, the other eyewitness, in the prison visiting room — and he told her he was also ready to recant.

Two years later, Reynoso had an evidentiary hearing. Wilkerson, who had also had a pending charge, for aggravated assault, testified he’d lied — both because he was afraid to identify Chuito and because police had handcuffed him to a chair and beat him with their fists, a book, a box of Peanut M&Ms.

“When I woke up, they had a sheet of paper with a statement,” he said. He signed it.

At the hearing, the original detective, Charles Bentham, denied those allegations. Contacted by phone, he declined to comment.

In the end, the judge, Benjamin Lerner, didn’t find Wilkerson credible. And, as for the other testimony, there were time limits at play. Reynoso had first heard that Robinson might be willing to recant in 2006. But his lawyer, J. Michael Farrell, didn’t interview her until 2010, after he was informally admonished by the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Bar Association for the delay. He didn’t submit the Torres-Colon and Colon affidavits in court filings until 2013.

In 2017, Farrell was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison for witness tampering and laundering money in connection with a drug ring.

Camera icon File photograph
While Reynoso was urging his lawyer to work on his case, he instead became involved with a conspiracy to launder drug proceeds, according to a federal conviction.

The delays proved disastrous for Reynoso.

“Pennsylvania is one of the most restrictive, if not the most restrictive, court systems in the country for claims of that nature,” Bluestine said, noting the state’s 60-day time clock for filing claims based on newly discovered evidence. “It doesn’t matter how compelling the evidence of innocence — if the court interprets the claim was filed beyond 60 days, it will be dismissed.”

One option that remains is the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit, though Reynoso hasn’t made much progress on that front.

Colon-Torres, a home health-care worker, is staying with a friend in North Philadelphia, because she doesn’t have money for her own place. Two of her three sons are in prison, too. She feels that watching their uncle die on the street all those years ago was a trauma they never recovered from.

“After that,” she said, “all my life went bad.”

Chuito, whose aliases listed in court dockets include “Tio,” “Sol,” “Eddie Rodriguez,” “Elvin,” and “Fnu Lnu” — but not Chuito — served 50 months in federal prison on a heroin-trafficking conviction in 2012. Neither his lawyer in a 2008 drug case in Philadelphia or his lawyer in the federal case knew how to contact him, though the latter, Joseph Zwarotny, said Chuito struck him as “a gentleman” and “a stand-up guy.”

According to U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, Chuito was deported to Dominican Republic in 2016.

Still, Colon-Torres said she has never stopped being afraid.

“He’s on the street, walking around. I was scared for my life and my kids’ life. But what can I do?”