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Bodega robberies fills neighborhood with fear

Fear has gripped storeowners and customers in southeast Queens, where a string of bodega robberies has left one father of seven daughters dead. Few, however, believe much can be done to improve the situation.
At 133-45 135th Street in South Ozone Park, the storefront of the Kennedy Mini Market is closed, the windows covered. Flowers and candles line the sidewalk, and signs from children expressing love for their father adorn the walls. Driver after driver slows to a stop and asks through an open window when Bolivar Cruz’s funeral will take place.
“They don’t know yet,” replies Jose Balentine, a personal friend of Cruz, 56, who was fatally shot trying to protect two of his seven daughters when his bodega was robbed Monday, June 11. “The family will put a sign up when they decide.”
Cruz’s family elected to pull the plug on their dying father the morning of Wednesday, June 13. Later that night, another bodega robbery occurred, this one at South Ozone Food Center, located at 111-60 Van Wyck Expressway. Police do not believe the suspects in that incident are connected to Cruz’s death.
Though no one was hurt in the most recent bodega hit, the tragedy at Kennedy Mini Market has increased sensitivity to armed robbery throughout the community.
“It worries me,” said Tony Duran, owner of South Ozone Food Center, “but what can we do? We gotta work.”
Duran was in the store when it was raided by two men, one of whom was armed. The mini-mart’s only security camera was broken, Duran said.
“We were robbed once before, a couple years ago,” he explained. “We don’t really plan on doing anything [to increase security]. Maybe close a little earlier, but that’s it.”
Some storeowners said they would like more security, but lack the means to get it.
“This is a little store,” said Anthony Vasquez, an employee of Hawk Deli and Grocery, at 115-05 Sutphin Boulevard. “We don’t have the money to pay for more security.”
Jose Chiquito, who owns Sweet Thing Grocery at 113-04 Sutphin Boulevard, said he doesn’t have a gun only because “I don’t have a license.”
Recently, Jose Fernandez, President of the Bodega Association of the United States, and Assemblymember Jose Peralta secured $250,000 toward Operation Safe Store, a project designed to fund increased security for 190 citywide bodegas and delis. But, until the program goes into effect, storeowners with little in the way of security must rely on police to keep the neighborhood safe. Some aren’t sure they can.
“The cops come in a lot,” said Fernando Rodriguez, 38, who owns Linden Food Market at 149-06 Linden Boulevard. “They tell you to be careful, or if you see anything, to report it. But they haven’t caught the suspects, and that’s number one.”
“Police are always in the store,” said Vasquez, “but they don’t catch the robbers. That’s what police are supposed to do.”
Some residents echoed their dissatisfaction, most notably Karina Cruz, daughter of Bolivar, who lashed out at cops for allowing the suspects, who have been robbing bodegas since March, to remain on the street for so long.
Rick James, 30, of South Ozone Park, said police do a good job of responding to a crime, but rarely catch the perpetrators.
“Police don’t have the same amount of control as they did ten years ago,” said James.
Residents and storeowners agreed that the neighborhood has changed the last few years, but opinion varied on the nature of the changes.
“I’m about to have a little girl, and I don’t want to raise her here,” said James. “When I was young, I used to fend for myself, but now I’m an adult and I don’t even want to be out at night.”
At Linden Food Market, however, Rodriguez said the amount of people causing trouble on the streets at night has gone down considerably. Even Balentine, in the wake of Cruz’s death, said there “isn’t as much crime or violence” as there was a decade ago. According to police statistics, crime in South Ozone Park is down nearly 77 percent since 1993.
But Cruz’s fate will not soon be forgotten. The crime affected not only Cruz’s family, but an entire community, said Balentine.
“You see all the display in front of the store,” he said. “That’s mostly from neighbors.”
“I used to call him Amigo,” said P. Crosby, who had been a customer of Cruz’s since he emigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1999. “His sandwiches were $2.50, but they should have been $6.50. That’s how he was. He gave people more for their money.”
The fate of Kennedy Mini Market is still unknown, but Crosby believes there are “too many sad memories” to suggest it will ever reopen.
“I don’t think so,” said Crosby. “They’ve killed a nice little town bodega here.”

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