By Shayna Jacobs, Suzanne Ma and Michael P. Ventura
LOWER EAST SIDE — Nelson Pena, 18, and Victor Fong, 17, grew up two blocks from each other on the Lower East Side.
Fong was an honors student who tutored fifth graders and volunteered at a local police precinct, while Pena was looking to buy a car and drive to Pennsylvania to start a new life. Both teens came from loving families and were considered good kids.
That's why their relatives and friends find it incomprehensible that on a late afternoon in November an encounter between the two in front of Sun Yat Sen Intermediate School, at 100 Hester St., ended with Pena dead from a stab wound and Fong in jail, charged with his murder.
"Victor is a very, very good son," said a woman who described herself as a close relative. "No one who knew him could ever imagine that he could kill someone."
The woman said Fong was on his way home on the night of Nov. 18, following after-school tutoring at P.S. 2.
"He was the kind of son who came home for dinner every night," she said. "He's a very respectful boy, a very talented boy."
Even Pena's relatives have described Fong, a skinny kid with black-rimmed glasses, an unlikely killer.
“I was expecting someone more vicious and harmful looking," said Rosinbel Pena, the victims aunt. She was one of dozens of friends and families of the young men to turn out for Fong's arraignment on Dec. 2 on second degree murder charges.
Robert Parker, Fong's attorney, said he would argue the incident was self-defense, but declined to elaborate. Details about the encounter are expected to be revealed when Fong is arraigned on Dec. 30.
Pena was one of seven children who grew up in a large Dominican-Puerto Rican family on the Lower East Side. He earned the nickname "Punchy" because, as a toddler, he constantly clenched his fists, Lauriano said.
"I always told him to just walk away," said Lena Lauriano, Pena's 30-year-old sister. But Pena was not one to back away from a confrontation, she said.
Her brother was involved in a church youth program and basketball leagues as a child, and he had plans to finish high school and take a fast food job in Lancaster, PA., a quiet city in the heart of Amish country where some family members lived.
The day he was killed he'd finished up a shift at a Foot Locker.
"We put him on the right track again and he was ready for it," Lauriano said.