By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The family of a Harlem teenager found dead in January after he fell from the roof of a building at the Abraham Lincoln Houses pleaded with neighbors Monday to come forward with clues about what might have happened.
At a vigil in front of the building at 2140 Madison Ave. where Gregory Willis Jr. was found face down in the snow on Jan. 23, dozens of people stood outside, handing out fliers with a phone number for an anonymous tip line, and using a bullhorn to implore anyone in the complex who knows anything about the teen's death to come forward.
"They say it takes a village to raise a child," said Abdul Kareem Muhammad, of the Circle of Brothers, which is helping to field calls from tipsters on behalf of the family.
"Well, now we are looking for the village to help us so we can understand what happened to Gregory."
Willis, a 17-year-old senior at Celia Cruz High School for the performing arts in the Bronx, was last seen leaving his home at about 4 p.m. on Jan. 19.
Four days later, his body was found behind 2140 Madison Ave., a building just across the courtyard from where Willis lived with his mother Sha-Sha Price and six-year-old brother.
Police have told the family that Willis, who planned to go to college and become a music teacher, fell from the roof, but they aren't sure how.
After initial autopsy results proved inconclusive, the Medical Examiner's Office determined that Willis died from blunt impact to the head and torso, but the exact manner of death and whether it was an accident or a homicide remains undetermined.
The doors to the roofs of all New York City Housing Authority buildings are left open due to city fire codes and there are no cameras. Police say they have exhausted all of their investigative options at this point.
Willis' cousin Kashinda Cabble, the family spokesperson, said relatives have ruled out suicide after speaking to the teen's friends and people he came into contact with during the last days of his life.
To them, that means someone may have information about why Willis, who was known as a homebody, was even on the roof, and how he may have tumbled off the 14-story building.
"This could have been one of your family members," Cabble said during the vigil. "We don't understand why he was behind the building for so long without anyone seeing or hearing anything.
"Make the phone call. Say something. Help provide closure to the mother."
Price, a secretary for the Department of Education, stood silently through most of the vigil, tears welling in her eyes. M. Ndigo Washington of the Healing Drum Collective performed an African rite and poured a "healing libation" in front of the building.
"The way we were liberated and came out of hundreds of years of slavery was because we stood together and every child belonged to all of us," said the Rev. Georgette Morgan-Thomas.
Willis' grandmothers also stood front and center, nodding as speaker after speaker made the case about why it was time for someone to speak up.
"We see you looking out that window. We know you saw something," said Jackie Rowe-Adams, one of the founders of Harlem Mothers SAVE. "You see something, say something. Come down here now," she commanded.
Patricia Herman, president of the Lincoln Houses Residents Association, said, "This door opens and closes 24 hours a day.
"You have people who stay in their windows all the time, people who can tell me when I come and when I leave. Say something to give Sha-Sha and their family peace of mind."
David Hughes, 18, Willis' friend from middle school, said, "I'm pretty sure someone knows something. It's just that kids are scared to say something because they don't want to be seen as someone who tells."
Muhammad said they were speaking with police about offering a reward for information. In the meantime, they plan to keep pressing for answers.
Anyone with information about Willis can call 1-800-577-TIPS or the Circle of Brothers at (212) 560-2267. Tips can be texted to 274637. Enter the phrase TIP577. All information will be kept confidential.