Queens medical examiner issues death confirmation, but loved ones are still questioning
The office of the Queens medical examiner has ruled the death of Guillermo Sanchez, a 21-year-old Mexican immigrant, as a suicide. The morning of December 1, maintenance workers discovered Sanchez’s body hanging from a tree deep inside the expanse of Flushing Meadows Park at a spot within eyesight of the massive globe that commemorates the 1964 World’s Fair.
On December 4, Magdaleno Sanchez, Guillermo’s older brother, viewed the body at a morgue at Queens County Hospital in Jamaica. Paul Priore, Guillermo’s boyfriend, Martha Flores-Vasquez, and a reporter accompanied Sanchez on the cold clear morning.
Magdaleno described his brother as a reserved, almost distant sibling. Guillermo was not out to his family and Magdaleno acknowledged he was not an active part of his brother’s life, even after Guillermo moved to New York three years ago. Priore described Guillermo as a hard working employee at an Indian restaurant in Manhattan and someone enthralled with New York’s attractions who only days before had gone to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade for the first time.
At the morgue, an official, Laura Jackson, explained to Magdaleno that a medical examiner had determined that the death was suicide. Magdaleno does not speak English. Flores-Vasquez, a Democratic district leader, translated for him.
Jackson escorted the visiting party into a small side room and lifted a drawn shade. On the other side of a thick glass window lay Guillermo Sanchez, his entire body, including his neck, enshrouded in a white sheet except for his face and head.
Later, both Magdaleno and Priore, who had never met until after Guillermo’s death, set out with Flores-Vasquez and the reporter to visit the site of Guillermo’s death.
Parking in the lot outside Shea Stadium, Priore led the party on a long walk through the park to the place where, in the evening of November 30, he and Guillermo sat on some bleachers near a soccer field.
Priore explained that he and Guillermo had gotten into a heated conversation about whether or not Guillermo’s stepfather had abused him. As Priore recounted it, Guillermo became upset when pressed to discuss any abuse and said that he no longer wanted to date Priore.
Priore walked off to his car in a parking lot nearly half a mile away from the bleachers, through a copse of trees, from one of which park workers would find Guillermo’s body hanging in the morning.
Priore said he waited fifteen minutes for Guillermo to show up at the car and when he failed to appear, then went back across the park to find him. Priore acknowledged that the two had squabbled in the past and after a time, Guillermo always became calm. However, according to Priore’s account, within the space of time it took him to leave the bleachers, walk to the parking lot and return, Guillermo had disappeared.
Thursday, piles of freshly cut branches littered one area, about 50 yards away from the bleachers, in a grove of trees, all of which had been pruned. No tree bore any official police marking.
Later on, the party of four visitors questioned park workers back near Shea Stadium who said that they had seen the tree from which Guillermo hung and led the group back to the same grove previously investigated.
One of the workers pointed to a tree. The other man said that Guillermo had been hanging by a black rope and that he was sure foul play accounted for the death considering the height of the branch from which the body hung. “Soccer in the sleet, soccer in the rain. Soccer in the morning, soccer in the dark and now no soccer,” he said. When questioned as to what he meant, the man said that it was clear that the many young men who frequented the nearby soccer fields were avoiding the park because of Guillermo’s death and said he was sure “someone was sending a message.”
The encounter with the park workers as well as examining the tree led Magdaleno to say that he believed his brother had been murdered, a conclusion joined by Priore and Flores-Vasquez.
Magdaleno insisted on visiting the 110th Precinct to claim his brother’s clothes and ask detectives whether or not his brother’s death was a murder.
Inside the 110th Precinct station house, a detective who said he witnessed Guillermo’s autopsy insisted that the death was a suicide. The detective admitted not seeing the body in the park, but said that his job experience, as well as an extensive conversation with the medical examiner, had convinced him that Guillermo had hung himself. The detective showed three photos to Magdaleno in which Guillermo is clearly hanging from a tree branch by a scarf-like garment, not a rope. The young man’s feet were hanging approximately five feet from the ground, said the detective. He said that Guillermo had climbed the tree and indicated in the photos broken branches that may have afforded access to the branch from where Guillermo hung. Should information warrant it, said the detective, he would re-open the case.
Resigned now it was a suicide, Magdaleno and the others left the station house.
On December 10, a parks department spokesperson said in a telephone interview: “After police officials deemed the area no longer a crime scene, tree stubs were trimmed and broken branches and low-lying branches were cut to increase visibility and insure public safety. We would never do anything to endanger a crime scene.” The spokesperson was not able to provide the exact time, or by whom, the order was issued to do the cutting.
The administrator of the park, Assistant Commissioner Estelle Cooper, said that she was unaware that the cutting had taken place, and said that a specialized team, outside her jurisdiction, called the Forestry Unit, removes branches from park trees.
As for the charge that Latin American soccer players may have been scared from the park, Cooper said, “This is the biggest melting pot in the City of New York. We have food vendors and cultures from all over the world,” and she went on to list a variety of nationalities that frequent the park. Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the city’s medical examiners, said that a Queens team did a “scene examination” at the tree where Guillermo was found. She said that a typical autopsy kit, including blood and tissue samples, includes “everything we need to do an investigation if more information ever comes forth” indicating the casue of death to be murder. Meanwhile, Flores-Vasquez, a trained social worker, said that she had examined a notebook of Guillermo’s that his family had provided. No writing evidenced that Guillermo intended to kill himself, she said. Rather, there were many fine drawings and clear examples that Guillermo was mastering English.
Those wishing to assist the Sanchez family and the costs associated with Guillermo’s burial in Mexico may send contributions to:
The Latino Commission on AIDS
Guillermo Sanchez Fund
24 W. 25th St., 9th Floor,
New York, NY 10010