Heartache But No Answers for Family a Year After Guardsman Killed by Cop
QUEENS — A triangular American flag rests in a glass case perched high on a wall inside Cecilia Reyes' tidy Rego Park apartment.
A military dog tag dangles from a peg above the flag, and below it are several medals, marking Army Achievement and National Defense Service.
The makeshift shrine commemorates National Guardsman Noel Polanco, Reyes' son, who was killed not in Iraq or Afghanistan, but here in New York, just a few miles from his home.
The 22-year-old Army reservist was shot dead by an NYPD detective who thought he was reaching for a gun after he pulled over Polanco’s swerving black Honda Fit along the Grand Central Parkway on Oct. 4 last year.
“I know that if something would’ve happened to him overseas, it would’ve hurt me, but at least he was doing something good for the country,” Reyes, 47, said shortly before the anniversary of her son's death.
“Instead, he died because of a trigger-happy cop.”
It has been a turbulent year filled with vigils, legal counseling and personal reflection for Reyes and her daughter, Amanda, 16.
In the days and weeks following the shooting, they met with Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, the Rev. Al Sharpton and civil rights lawyer Sanford Rubenstein. Several other parents whose unarmed children were fatally shot by police offered their condolences as well.
Cecilia and Amanda vowed from the beginning that they would get justice.
“I don’t want any cover-ups,” Cecilia Reyes said a year ago. “I want this to be done legally and give me peace knowing they did this correctly.”
But earlier this year, a Queens grand jury failed to indict Detective Hassan Hamdy, the cop who pulled the trigger. The fact that Hamdy only fired one shot worked in his favor, sources said.
“I’m not into making noise and screaming and rioting — for what?” Reyes asked. “But my son had no weapon. What was this cop afraid of?”
Reyes, a clerical worker at Elmhurst Hospital, said she is filing a federal lawsuit against the city, but is not very optimistic given the grand jury’s decision.
Meanwhile, the tears still flow inside the noisy fourth-floor apartment overlooking the Long Island Expressway, and not just for Noel. In April 2012, Reyes lost her 69-year-old father, Luis Pinero, to a heart attack. In July of last year, her 39-year-old husband, Anthony Reyes, committed suicide.
“Sometimes, I just feel like I want to break,” she said. “I guess that’s something life throws at us. We have to learn how to live with what comes ahead.”
It is Polanco’s death, though, that is constantly on her mind.
She pulls up dozens of pictures on her phone showing her son with an ear-to-ear smile holding a birthday cake when he was a toddler, in his Little League uniform when he was a few years older, sitting on the subway with friends a couple years after that and in his military garb at boot camp graduation in 2008.
She still takes pride in his strong work ethic, taking on two jobs — one at a Honda dealership, another at a hookah lounge in Astoria — to help support his mother. She talks of his plans to go active in the Army and of the praise his fellow guardsmen had for him at his military-style funeral.
She also touched on his desire to serve abroad and return to the city to become, ironically, an NYPD officer.
“When he put his mind to something, he would not give up,” she said. “For him to die at the hands of someone he dreamed he wanted to be, I just can't believe it."
Polanco’s death was particularly difficult for Amanda, who idolized her older brother and often thinks back on a trip they took to Seaside Heights a couple of months before he was killed.
“He was basically the last man standing who I had,” Amanda Reyes said. “I feel at times that he is here with us because there are times that we break, but we end up moving on from the heartache that we have.
"I wish it didn’t have to happen the way it did.”
Cecilia and Amanda have left flowers at the overpass near Exit 7 on the Grand Central Parkway several times over the past 12 months. They also visit Polanco's grave regularly at Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens.
Through the anguish and agony, the two have become inseparable.
They finish each other’s sentences, have seen psychiatrists together and regularly reflect on Polanco at night in the living room.
“Now we’re a family of two here for one another,” Cecilia Reyes said.
“I know she’s the only one I have, and I’m the only one she has,” added Amanda.
So today, on the one-year anniversary of Polanco's death, they will head to Maple Grove side by side, as they always do, and lay flowers down and talk to Noel.
It has been 12 months of devastation, despair and anger.
But the two insist they will persevere, regardless of whether a legal victory is even attainable at this point.
“We’re not going to be alone. We’re going to be with each other,” Amanda Reyes said. “And Noel’s going to be guiding us through it all.”