By Dustin Brown
The attorney for a Newark, N.J. man accused of murdering Manhattan activist Armando Perez outside the Ravenswood Houses in 1999 told a judge last week that one witness said Perez started the fight that ultimately killed him.
Shaguye Colbert, 27, entered a plea of not guilty to charges of second-degree murder, manslaughter and robbery at his arraignment last Thursday before State Supreme Court Justice Robert Hanophy, who set bail at $750,000.
His attorney, Todd Greenberg, had argued for his client’s release by pointing out that only one of four witnesses was able to identify Colbert, whom he said watched the beating but never participated.
Following the hearing Greenberg described the bail amount as “extremely high for a guy who was not identified by three eyewitnesses.”
Perez, 51, was found beaten on the cement in front of 34-04 24th St. early on the morning of April 3, 1999, and died later that evening at Elmhurst Hospital. Neighbors said at the time that he had been visiting his estranged wife Marilyn, who lived in the Ravenswood Houses.
An autopsy showed that Perez died of blunt impact to the head and torso, according to Ellen Borakove, spokeswoman for the chief medical examiner’s office. His injuries included fractured ribs, lacerations to his spleen and brain hemorrhage, Borakove said.
The Queens district attorney charged Colbert with the crime in July after he was arrested on other charges in New Jersey.
Two days later the DA dropped charges against four other men from Queens who had originally been accused of Perez’s murder. Those four men had already been released from prison in November 1999 when witness testimony was found to be unreliable, a spokeswoman for the DA said.
Another man who had been indicted along with Colbert, Malik Hill, is in prison on other charges in New Jersey has yet to be arraigned in this case, Assistant District Attorney Richard Schaeffer said.
Greenberg told reporters his client was the “fifth wrong person” after he pointed out inconsistencies in witnesses’ testimony during the arraignment.
Schaeffer said four eyewitnesses had described the assault as a “a two-on-one beat down of a man who was brutally choked, punched and kicked to the point of death.”
But the testimony of one witness, read aloud in court by Greenberg, indicated that Perez shouted obscenities and threw the first punch after two men asked if they could lean against his car.
“There is a very serious issue here about who is the aggressor,” Greenberg said.
The witnesses also said they heard one of the attackers called by the name “Country,” which Greenberg claims has never been a nickname for Colbert.
Greenberg said Colbert believed he was being sought only as a witness to Perez’s beating death when a representative of the district attorney’s office interviewed him in New Jersey in July after his arrest.
“He makes a full statement that puts him right at the scene but says he didn’t do anything,” Greenberg said.
Perez, a member of Community Board 3 in Manhattan and a Democratic district leader, founded Charas/El Bohio Cultural and Community Center, a rehearsal and performance space for artists, at 605 East 9th St. At the time of his death, Perez had been fighting to keep the group’s space in the building, which the city sold in 1998.
The timing of Perez’s murder had fueled speculation at the time that his death might have been linked to his political activism, although police said then that they had found no evidence to confirm that theory.
After a lengthy battle to hang onto its space, Charas was evicted from its 9th Street home late in December.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.