One in an occasional series
She was a sweet little girl, the kind a preschool teacher always remembers.
Even after 10 years, Iriana DeJesus lives shiny and smiling in former teacher C.J. Waddy's memory, glowing with a sort of pigtailed promise that announced she would rocket out of Hunting Park and be remarkable somewhere safer and bigger.
But in the summer of 2000, Iriana was abducted, raped, and strangled at age 5 by a stranger who had enticed her to walk off with him. The suspect, identified as Alexis Flores, 24 at the time, is still at large, believed by police to be in Honduras.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The grinding recession is taking its toll in neighborhoods across America as a record number of people plunge into poverty.
A national poll reveals that Philadelphia’s First Congressional District is the second-hungriest in the country.
In an occasional series, The Inquirer goes behind the scenes in the district to chronicle the struggles, hopes and challenges of the people who live hidden in plain sight in the heart of the country’s sixth-largest city.
Find the entire series here.
Even for the First Congressional District - one of the poorest places in America - the crime was rare and monstrous, and it was profiled on television's America's Most Wanted.
"It crushed me," said Waddy, 35, who taught in Iriana's preschool, the East Frankford Daycare Center, which his grandmother cofounded. "I was enraged. I had her in my care, a teeny little girl who didn't do anything to anybody. There hasn't been a day gone by I haven't thought about her."
Unable to ease the torment over the years, Waddy finally hit upon an idea that would at least blunt the nightmares: He's writing a children's book, illustrated by his 11-year-old son, Chafik, about the dangers of children interacting with strangers.
In the book, a boy hero with super powers rescues a kidnapped little girl before she's harmed.
Nowhere among the pages is there a weeping mother, or a funeral, or a dismal memory that festers forever in a still-mourning teacher's head.
"I've daydreamed about saving Iriana over and over," Waddy said. "In the book, I just change her name to Anna, then change the ending to have what I wanted to have happen.
"I just had to write this book. I just had to take the hurt away."
"Mr. Big's . . . worker, Snails, yells up to the second level of the barn where Anna is being held. 'I want to go home,' Anna cried. If only she had said no to strangers, she would be home playing with . . . her dolly and sharing cookies with her daddy right now."
- From Waddy's "U Nooo [You Know] Tito, Boy Hero Says No to Strangers"
Violence has long been part of Waddy's life.
He grew up in the Whitehall Apartments in Frankford, a housing project that Waddy recalls with little affection.
"Frankford was always tough," said Waddy, who still possesses the muscular build he had as a standout defensive end on the Frankford High School football team.
Throughout his life, he said, there were rough characters, bad days.
"I have seen so many things out here," Waddy said. "The killings and the robberies. It's stuff out of horror movies."
Along with hunger and poverty, violence is a big part of the First Congressional District. The district includes an area of Kensington that has the city's highest concentration of violent crime, with more than 800 violent crimes per square mile, an Inquirer analysis of police figures shows. That section - bounded by Ontario, E, Cambria, and I Streets - also includes the poorest part of the district.
The area of Frankford where Waddy taught and still lives is tied for the second-most-violent sector in the city, with 600 to 800 violent crimes per square mile.
Throughout his life, Waddy said, his mother, a certified nurse's aide, and his father, a janitor at the old Spectrum, among other jobs, stressed the importance of staying as far as possible from street violence. Waddy tried.
Rare among his buddies in the neighborhood, Waddy had the grades to graduate from high school and to go on to college.
When he went to Western Connecticut State University to study elementary education, he was amazed at how his mostly suburban classmates would hang on his every word whenever he recounted tales of gunshots in the night.
"It was entertainment to them," Waddy said. "But I started keeping journals, writing things down."
A born writer, Waddy found he had no choice but to recount the mayhem in his notebooks. His output was a kind of therapy to deal with the anguish.
There was no shortage of material. When Waddy was 22, his cousin Calvin was shot and died in Waddy's arms.
"He was fighting for his life, lying on the ground," Waddy recalled. "I was picking him up to get him into the police car, trying to keep him alive for his little daughter. It wasn't drugs, but I know that he had a gun, and four others did, too. I don't know what really happened."
Waddy wrote an unpublished short story about the shooting - "urban lit," he calls it. It's from the perspective of P.A. - Perfect Angel - Waddy's alter ego:
"There were shots and more echoes of shots. The girls were scared. 'They shot Cal.' Cal was still breathing . . . P.A. had no time to be scared. The warm flow of blood started. . . . P.A. was the last person Cal ever saw."
Recalling the killing, Waddy said, "I wasn't right again until I was cutting the umbilical cord for my son, who was born two years later to the day."
But even good guys like Waddy can run into trouble in the star-crossed First Congressional District. One day when he was 25, a year after Iriana's murder, Waddy saw his younger brother being roughed up by police on the street. Waddy tried to intercede and, although he and witnesses said he didn't hurt anyone, Waddy was charged with aggravated assault.
His previously clean record kept him out of jail, garnering him five years' probation, court records show. But he has been unable to get a teaching job in a school since.
Waddy has been making money working for a service that drives people to medical appointments. But he's most passionate about writing, and hopes to find success as a children's author.
Walking tour of mayhem
Looking to self-publish his book, Waddy took to the streets one day recently, trying to drum up cash.
He walked into J & R Mini Mart on Harrison Street and announced himself to Javier Castillo, the owner, who stood behind Plexiglas, listening:
"I used to be a teacher down here. One of my kids had a situation. She was kidnapped and murdered. Since then I've been writing a fiction book, trying to get the message out to kids to say no to strangers.
"It's a recession, and I'm trying to get you to pledge $10 a book. It's a pre-publication sale. I'm trying to make some moves, man."
Castillo agreed to buy two copies of the book when it's done. No money was given over. Waddy simply recorded the pledge in his notebook, then walked on.
Block after block, hitting corner stores and barbershops, Waddy repeated the same pitch, adding that he would give 20 percent of any profits to antiviolence organizations.
Along the way, he provided a kind of visitor's guide to local mayhem, recounting the shootings, stabbings, and other nefarious events that had occurred on every corner.
"Eight people were shot in a two-week period around here in the last year," he said as he walked along Frankford Avenue in a chilly rain. "It gets hard."
At Fly Guy's Barbershop on Frankford, men who have known Waddy since birth pledged to buy the book. "If you can reach the kids through this book, that's good," said John Jeffcoat, 52, a haircutter. "This is still a violent place."
Outside, Waddy ran into Tianna Gaines, 31, the wife of a childhood friend.
"This is an entrepreneur, a humanitarian, and an influential young man," Gaines said, lauding Waddy. "You hear a lot about deaths in Frankford, but you don't hear stories about people like C.J.
"He was defending his brother and now he can't teach again. But he's a caring black man trying to provide a good family environment for his children."
Waddy, who isn't married, has a second child, a daughter named Chaniya, 1. Both she and Chafik live with Waddy in his parents' house much of the time.
Back at the house one day, Chafik and Waddy sat at the dining room table. Under a painted mirror depicting the Last Supper, father and son consulted about their book.
"Tito has the control," Chafik said, referencing the hero. "But he has to have a weakness. All superheroes have one."
"It's challenging keeping up with his creativity," Waddy said, smiling. Chafik, a sixth grader at Hill-Freedman Middle School, is "mentally gifted," according to Karen Howell-Toomer, principal at his former school, Rhawnhurst Elementary. "He's an out-of-the-box thinker," she said. "Look for him in the future."
That's Waddy's message about his son, too. Whether or not the book ever takes off, Waddy said, he believes that the three to four hours a week he works with his son on it is invaluable time that will help propel the boy to success.
"A lot of people don't get the opportunity to spend time with their kids, let alone build something together," Waddy said. "This is nothing but positives."
And those positives will, Waddy prays, help Chafik avoid the cruelties that plagued many of the people in Waddy's life - including Iriana DeJesus.
"I kicked the door in with a thunderous force. . . . I decided to teach Mr. Big a lesson about taking other people's kids away. 'This is for Anna,' I said as I hit him. . . . 'Thank you so much,' Anna said. . . . I tell her, 'Say no to strangers. You know Tito does.' "
Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or firstname.lastname@example.org.