Officer Elvin Rivera was going through backyards off Wolcott Street “like a hound dog” trying to find an alleged purse-snatcher. He knew he was holed up somewhere nearby. Suddenly someone whispered to him through a fence: The guy’s hiding in the house on the corner.
The arrest happened last week, on Tuesday. Cops unknowingly laid the groundwork three weeks prior, when they cracked down on a string of burglaries at VB Motors nearby on Ferry Street.
When the crucial whisper came, it was from a worker at the garage who wanted to help the cops after they helped the business, according to owner Ed Vergera. (He said the worker doesn’t want to be named.)
The arrest was a case of “good police communication and community assistance,” said Officer Diego Quintero, the cop who was initially flagged down by the woman.
He and Rivera, who were police academy classmates, sat down this week to talk about how they’ve created bonds with the neighbors in Fair Haven and reaped crime-fighting assistance in return. They’ve accomplished it by solving crimes and—in the case of Officer Quintero, with the help of a shared immigrant experience.
Tuesday, Oct. 18 was a slow morning in Fair Haven, said Officer Quintero. Quintero, who’s 40, has worked the morning shift in Fair Haven for the past three years. When it’s quiet, and he’s not being pulled away by service calls, Quintero cruises the neighborhood with an eye out for trouble. He looks for people who seem out of place, situations that seem suspect. It could be a crowd of people or a kid who should be in school, or a prostitute who’s still working into the morning hours, he said.
Just after 11 a.m., he was driving on Ferry Street when he came upon what initially looked like a traffic accident near the corner of Saltonstall Avenue. A BMX bike was down in the middle of the road. A minivan was pulled over. A group of people was waving him down.
After he got out of his cruiser, Quintero discovered he’d shown up at the scene of an attempted purse snatching.
A woman of about 40 years old, originally from Mexico, told Quintero in Spanish what she could. She was in shock, Quintero said. The group of witnesses filled in most of the story.
The woman had been walking to work at a warehouse nearby when a young guy on a bike approached her from behind. He tried to grab her purse but she was able to hang on to one strap. They struggled, and the man punched her in the face, but she still hung on. He gave up and fled on foot down a driveway at 13 Saltonstall Ave.
Immigrants are often “preyed upon” by muggers, Rivera said. Robbers “know they keep money on them at all times,” and that they sometimes don’t contact police for fear that they’ll run afoul of immigration enforcement. That’s a perception Fair Haven police have been trying to change, Rivera said.
Just a month earlier, Fair Haven top cop Sgt. Tony Zona and another cop saw a Latino man being mugged by a group of four. They caught one of the muggers, but the victim ran away from the scene. Soon after, Zona and Rivera showed up at a Sunday mass at Fair Haven’s St. Rose of Lima church. Father James Manship gave the cops a few minutes to address the largely immigrant congregation; the cops tried to impress the message that they have nothing to fear from police.
It’s a message that Quintero has been enlisted to spread in the past. He’s in a unique position to do so, being an immigrant himself.
Quintero came to Connecticut from Colombia when he was 16 years old. He, his brother, and his mother slept on the floor at his uncle’s house in East Hartford until they could afford a single bed to share.
Quintero learned his first words in English—“Thank you”—at the airport. He said he still remembers the frustration of not being able to speak English.
“I’m able to relate to a lot of immigrants,” he said. “I know what it’s like to not be able to communicate.”
Had it been another officer flagged down that Tuesday, one who doesn’t speak Spanish, the woman who was mugged might not have been able to share a description of the suspect.
Quintero got the description. He quickly radioed it in: a male, about 5-foot-7, turquoise T-shirt over a white T-shirt, jeans, sneakers, and, most significantly, a lazy eye. “That’s what stood out,” Quintero said.
Unluckily for the man with the lazy eye, not only was it a slow morning, but a number of cops happened to be close by. Eight cops showed up immediately and set up a perimeter around a block bounded by Ferry, Saltonstall, Poplar, and Wolcott.
Officer Rivera, who’s 47, was one of those cops. He came in on Poplar. While others blocked off the area, he circled, looking for a way to get in to where the guy might be hiding. “We knew we had him boxed in,” Rivera said.
Officer Pete Balloli told Rivera he had seen him in a back parking lot off Saltonstall, hopping a fence and trying to hide under a car. Sgt. Vincent Anastasio had seen him from Ferry Street running towards Wolcott. Rivera followed the sightings, trying to triangulate in on the perp.
“I’m on the move,” Rivera said. “Like a hound dog trying to sniff out.”
“I’m in a rear yard on Wolcott,” Rivera recalled. As he was looking around, a man came up in an adjacent yard. Rivera recognized him as a worker at VB Motors.
The guy’s hiding in the hallway of a house, the man whispered.
“Where?” Rivera asked. He realized the man didn’t want to be see from the house nearby, where the suspect was hiding.
The corner house, the man said.
“We have to get together and try to do the best for our neighbors,” VB Motors owner Vergera said later. He said the cops helped him when his garage suffered a string of some five burglaries in two weeks recently. Burglars had been stealing car stereos, and auto parts, even whole car seats.
Rivera and another cop tried to catch the burglars. They even staked the place out one night, but came up empty-handed. Then one day Vergera spotted a guy dropping into his property from a 12-foot barb-wired fence, and called the cops. Police caught up with the guy just a few blocks away scratched and bloody from the barbed wire. The owner ID’d him, and police arrested him on trespassing charges.
The garage hasn’t been burgled since, a success that led to Tuesday’s tip from the garage worker.
After the worker pointed out the suspect’s hiding spot, Rivera swung into action.
“I go at a slow trot,” Rivera recalled. He headed for the house the man had indicated, at the corner of Wolcott and Ferry, while radioing in the tip. Then he heard something that made him break into a sprint.
“Somebody’s trying to break my door down!” screamed a woman. She was leaning out a second-story window of the house.
“I’m running now,” Rivera recalled. As he approached the house, he saw a young guy with no shirt tumble out of the house. The guy had been running full-tilt down an inside staircase and stumbled as he came to the bottom. “He falls on his butt—boom, boom—on the two bottom steps.”
Rivera was within six or eight feet of the suspect, who scrambled to his feet and ran around the side of the house. Rivera took a gamble and headed the opposite way around the house. It paid off. He cut the man off on that side after he had tried to circle all the way around.
Rivera and Sgt. Tony Reyes, who pulled up in a Crown Vic, apprehended the man after a brief struggle. They noticed he had a lazy eye.
Quintero noticed something else: He recognized the 20-year-old suspect from arresting him on robbery charges years earlier.
“You again?” he said.
Police found a bloody white T-shirt in a backyard. Just like the trespasser weeks earlier, the man had cut himself hopping fences.
Officer Quintero picked up the woman whose purse had nearly been snatched. He brought her over in his cruiser to ID the man.
“That’s him,” the woman said. She seemed relieved that the man had been caught, but still rattled by what had happened.
“I drove her to work and made sure her bosses knew why she was late,” Quintero said. He saw her supervisors and co-workers embrace her/ Je felt relieved himself, he said.
“She was just a hard-working lady going to work,” he said.
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Lloyd Barrett
• Maneet Bhagtana
• Paul Bicki
• Scott Branfuhr
• Dennis Burgh
• Rob Clark & Joe Roberts
• Sydney Collier
• David Coppola
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Robert DuPont
• Bertram Etienne
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Derek Gartner
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Dan Hartnett
• Ray Hassett
• Robert Hayden
• Robin Higgins
• Ronnell Higgins
• William Hurley & Eddie Morrone
• Racheal Inconiglios
• Juan Ingles
• Paul Kenney
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Herb Johnson
• Peter Krause
• Peter Krause (2)
• Amanda Leyda
• Rob Levy
• Anthony Maio
• Steve McMorris
• Juan Monzon
• Chris Perrone
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• Luis & David Rivera
• Luis Rivera (2)
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• John Velleca
• Holly Wasilewski
• Alan Wenk
• Stephanija VanWilgen
• Michael Wuchek