March 12, 2006

Student Is the Latest Victim to End Up in Swampland

By STEVEN KURUTZ

ON Fountain Avenue in East New York, Brooklyn, the view isn't nearly as scenic as the name suggests. Within a mile or so there are a shuttered incinerator; a center for the mentally disabled; a school bus depot stretching for blocks; and a series of brick warehouses and neglected homes separated by several vacant lots, one occupied by a beached powerboat.

Michael Pastore, who works on nearby Linden Boulevard as a field manager for Animal Care and Control, calls this part of the city "the land of the lost."

It was on Fountain Avenue, near where the road cuts under the Belt Parkway and abruptly ends, that on Feb. 25 the police discovered the body of Imette St. Guillen, a murdered John Jay College graduate student. The body, wrapped in a blanket, with packing tape around the eyes and mouth, was lying on a bank that overlooks the brackish waters of an inlet of Jamaica Bay.

It was strange to watch television news reports showing the New York Police Department slogging around the crime scene, which, though it lay not 15 miles from Midtown, seemed as derelict and remote as something out of "Serpico"-era New York.

But for people familiar with that part of East New York and with its grim and violent history, there was nothing surprising about the scene. "That area on Fountain near the Belt is a desolate couple of blocks," Mr. Pastore said. "It's high grass, garbage, big concrete blocks, shopping carts." Of the spot where Ms. St. Guillen was found, he added, "That's one of those five or six locations that you can honestly say, 'I hope I don't stumble upon a dead body.' "

There are parts of East New York, particularly the blocks south of Linden Boulevard, that don't feel like New York at all. This is partly because of the lack of subways, but even more because of the topography, which is expansive and as flat as a tabletop. In the 1960's and 70's, many homes either burned down or were demolished, leaving dozens of empty lots. The houses that remain, one-story wooden affairs sheathed with aluminum siding, appear stranded.

While much of the city is densely built up, one can stand on a street in East New York and see for miles. The only interruption of the skyline is the public housing projects clustered around Linden Boulevard. People from East New York sometimes say that the area has a rural feel, and that is sort of true. East New York is rural the same way the Meadowlands is rural, a marshland of scrub brush and tall reeds, surrounded by city, a contaminated home to birds and fish.

Like the wilder parts of northern New Jersey, East New York has a history as an urban burial ground that dates to well before Ms. St. Guillen's killer got there. In the 1930's, the gangland syndicate known as Murder Incorporated began disposing of its victims there, drawn by the murky swamplands and, later, the garbage dump at the end of Fountain Avenue. Successive generations of mobsters and killers followed, among them Roy DeMeo, who is said to have killed as many as 200 people, disposing of the bodies at the Fountain Avenue dump before he himself was disposed of; his body was found in the trunk of his maroon Cadillac one January morning in 1983.

It is said that bodies are buried all over East New York, and occasionally one of them turns up. Six years ago, construction workers who were building the Gateway shopping center found a human skull. In 2004, the F.B.I. conducted a dig of a reported Gambino burial ground a mile from a pay phone on Linden Boulevard where an unidentified man phoned the police to report a body that turned out to be that of Ms. St. Guillen.

Joseph Trigoboff, the crime novelist, was raised in East New York, and as a teenager in the 1960's, he knew some of the mobsters who were portrayed in Martin Scorsese's 1990 mob movie, "Goodfellas."

"It was a surrealistic place to grow up," he said one morning last week as he drove around the old neighborhood and recalled those days. "There were packs of wild dogs because of the dump. The neighborhood was ruled by street gangs. There was terrible racial tension. You'd be playing baseball, and you would see a bunch of Italian guys chasing a black kid into the weeds, and that would be the last you saw of him."

Mr. Trigoboff, 58, is gray-haired, with a fleshy face and the active imagination of a crime writer, enhanced in his case by his upbringing. "You can't imagine how street smart you had to be to survive," he continued. "It wasn't like Mrs. Goldstein is on her stoop looking out for you. It was a very harsh, relentless environment."

Modern-day East New York has lost little of its harshness. In the square mile or so that surrounds the crime scene, the streets are deeply rutted and sometimes unpaved, and the businesses on these blocks tend toward industries that are excluded from other parts of the city: waste transfer stations, junkyards, food warehouses. A Department of Sanitation depot off Flatlands Avenue houses the agency's street-sweeping machines, which are forever roaming the neighborhood, kicking up dust.

On weekends, car owners come from throughout the metropolitan region to drag race. At night, the area is virtually deserted. As he headed down Fountain Avenue, Mr. Trigoboff pointed to a dirt alleyway that snaked behind a row of homes. "Imagine what this is like at night," he said. "All you have to do is leave a body in the weeds."

Like much of the rest of Brooklyn, East New York is gentrifying. Crime is down. For years the landfill scared away developers, but the dump is being turned into a park, and these days you can't go two blocks without seeing brick-and-concrete condos sprouting where scrub grass grew.

For local officials who have worked hard to bring prosperity to the neighborhood, the discovery of Ms. St. Guillen's body was a reminder of an era they hoped had passed.

"People talk about gangland killings and bodies dumped along the Belt Parkway," said State Senator Carl Kruger, who represents the area. "But I'd hate to characterize this neighborhood as somewhere that, if you have a body, here's the place to dump it."