Ubiñas: With arrest, a mother's prayers answered

Lisa Espinosa, right, with Detective Greg Singleton who led the investigation. A banner for the foundation created in Raymond Pantoja's memory is in the background.

This was the moment Lisa Espinosa had prayed for since her youngest son, Raymond Pantoja, was murdered in April.

The text from Philadelphia Homicide Detective Greg Singleton was succinct:

"He was formally charged with the murder today."

After months of relentlessly investigating her son's murder and sharing his story with the public, including in my column, Detective Singleton was writing to let Espinosa know that someone was being charged.

On Oct. 26, a month after I wrote about Espinosa's mission to find her son's killer, police charged 30-year-old Giovanny Perales with murder and gun offenses.

Espinosa, who was at her job as director of an HIV/AIDS program at Kensington Hospital, fell to her knees.

"They got him!" she screamed. "They got him!"

Co-workers rushed to her side and surrounded her as she cried out:

"Thank you, God! Thank you! Finally, God! Finally!"

As hard as Espinosa had prayed for justice, as hard as she had worked to keep her son from becoming just another of Philly's hundreds of unsolved murders, she couldn't believe the moment had arrived.

For the first time since her son was killed, she was able to walk down a street without looking into the faces of those she passed and wondering: Did that person kill my son?

For the first time since her son was killed, she was able to grieve.

Pantoja was killed April 10 outside a nightclub at B Street and Allegheny Avenue in Kensington. The 26-year-old father was shot after an altercation in front of a crowd of people, including some friends.

His friends said they wouldn't snitch.

Other eyewitnesses clammed up, and Espinosa feared that whoever killed her son would get away with murder.

Espinosa hit the streets and pored over social media looking for information. She begged people to talk to police. She went to antiviolence events and worked with politicians and activists to spread the message about unsolved murders in Philadelphia.

If she saw an opportunity to share her son's story, she took it.

It worked.

Detective Singleton said the media attention that Espinosa kept on her son's case prompted an eyewitness to come forward.

"Without the witness, we couldn't have solved the case," he said.

The witness, Espinosa said she was told, didn't want to see a mother in pain anymore.

I'm happy for Espinosa. Happy, too, that a witness found a conscience, however belated.

But what about all the other mothers, all the other loved ones waiting for justice?

What about all the other witnesses to murders who could help families find some peace but instead choose to remain silent? Of the 237 homicides in 2016, only 74 have been solved.

I asked Detective Singleton about people's fears about snitching and retaliation, and although he said there are sometimes legitimate dangers, most times turning someone in only makes people and communities safer.

"People need to understand that this isn't about justice for one family, but about keeping themselves safe, too," he said.

The preliminary hearing for the man accused of killing Pantoja is scheduled for Wednesday.

Espinosa will be there, ready to look into the alleged gunman's eyes to show him that the victim had a family, had a mother who would not rest until someone answered for killing her granddaughter's father.

In the meantime, she plans to keep Pantoja's memory alive with Ray's Rhythm for Justice Foundation. Pantoja was an amateur rapper. Espinosa wants to help provide low-income teens interested in music with studio time. She also wants to continue to help families of murder victims.

"I feel at peace that I was my son's voice for justice, but there are so many mothers and fathers and loved ones out there waiting . . . ," she said. "None of us should rest until they get their justice too."


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

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