Death of 17-year-old Harlem Boy Remains a Mystery

By Jeff Mays on May 2, 2011 2:03pm 

By Jeff Mays

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — Fliers looking for clues about what happened to Gregory Willis Jr. still dot the courtyard at Abraham Lincoln Houses in Harlem.

Willis was found face-down in the snow on Jan. 23 behind a building across the courtyard from where the 17-year-old lived with his mother and six-year-old brother. He had been missing for four days.

Initial tests from the Medical Examiner were inconclusive, but the office has now determined that the cause of death was blunt impact to the head and torso. However, the exact manner of death remains undetermined.

Police have told Willis' family that he likely fell off the roof of the 14-story building at 2140 Madison Ave., adding that they don't know how he fell. A NYCHA official confirmed there are no security cameras on the roof.

Willis' family has ruled out suicide, and said they are continuing to press the NYPD to investigate whether there was evidence of foul play.

"Absolutely not. That boy did not do this to himself," said cousin Kashinda Cabble. "We did the research. From the school, to students to neighbors who saw him in passing, no one has ever said that he looked upset, depressed or like he was having a problem."

Neighbors said NYPD detectives conducted extensive canvassing of the complex, knocking on doors and looking for clues.

"I heard them roaming up and down these steps," said one long-time resident of 2140 Madison Ave. who asked to remain anonymous. "They knocked on my door but I couldn't help them. I wish I could."

While it's not clear how Willis fell off the roof, he would not have faced any impediments to getting up there, officials acknowledged.

The New York City Housing Authority, which oversees the Lincoln Houses, said that doors to the rooftops on all of its buildings must remain unlocked at all times under the terms of the city's fire code. In addition, there are no cameras or other security measures to prevent unauthorized access to the roof.

"NYCHA prohibits unauthorized persons (and) residents from accessing development rooftops, however, once inside a building, there are no security measures to prevent someone from going onto the rooftop. This is the case at Lincoln Houses and all other NYCHA buildings," said Brent Grier, a spokesperson for the agency.

Some residents think the doors to the roof should be secured.

"You can just walk up there and go in and it's always been like that," said Millie Castillo, 23, a life-long resident of Lincoln Houses. "If they had some sort of security up there, maybe that would have prevented whatever happened to that boy."

Willis had a reputation as a homebody who kept to himself and spent most of his time with his mother, Sha-Sha Price, getting home at 4:30 p.m. most days, relatives said. Price, a secretary for the  Department of Education, had lived at the complex for seven years but mostly stayed to herself, relatives said.

"He wasn't known to go up to a roof at all or even to any of the other buildings either. They didn't socialize with people from the building. They just rested their heads there. They weren't physically involved in the environment," said Willis' cousin, Cabble.

Willis was a senior at Celia Cruz High School of Music in the Bronx. He loved playing the flute and clarinet.

He had struggled in some classes but was on track to graduate, school officials said. He planned to go to college and wanted to become a music teacher, they said.

William Rodriguez, the founding principal of Celia Cruz High School of Music, said a special remembrance will be held for Willis at this year's graduation ceremony. One of Willis' best friend is the valedictorian and an empty chair will be left in his honor. Rodriguez has invited Willis' family to the ceremony.

Rodriguez said he's warned his students not to speculate about what happened to Willis and just concentrate on honoring his memory.

"He was looking forward to this time. It would have been a check mark on his life's works and he would have been going on to college like the rest of his classmates," said Rodriguez. "It's still devastating and one of the things in life you don't wish on anybody."

The new fliers floating around the complex include an anonymous number that people can call with tips if they are too afraid to speak to the police. Price has returned to work but is "not doing well" and wants to move out of the housing complex as soon as possible, her cousin said.

Being there is simply too painful. Not knowing what happened to her son is worse.

"It's hard to think we may never know what happened," said Cabble. "That's why we are still searching for answers. Just being told 'We don't know' is not okay."

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