HARLEM — Julia Hernandez loved Salsa dancing, so it was only fitting that Latin music played at the funeral for the East Harlem great-grandmother who was brutally murdered last week.
Some mourners broke out into dance Tuesday night as hundreds of others, spanning the length of a city block, lined up outside First Avenue Funeral Service on East 115th Street to say farewell to the 73-year-old.
"This is overwhelming," Hernandez's nephew George Serrano said of the turnout. "It shows how well-loved she was."
Police said Hernandez was found beaten, choked and suffocated to death on October 25, by her daughter. She'd used a spare key left with a neighbor to enter her mother's apartment in Wagner Houses where she had lived for almost 50 years.
Prosecutors have charged Gregory Velez, 35, the father of Hernandez' 10-year-old great-granddaughter, with her death in what the District Attorney's office described as a brutal beating following an argument.
Velez, a convicted drug and robbery felon who was recently released from prison, allegedly beat Hernandez after she tried to call for help.
Prosecutors say he then stole the 50-inch flat screen television from Hernandez's ransacked apartment to make it look like a robbery. He was also seen on video leaving the ninth floor apartment with the television, prosecutors said during his arraignment last week.
A bag was over Hernandez's head and her feet were bound. Prosecutors said she suffered 12 fractured ribs, consistent with someone kneeling on her chest, a head contusion, bruised left eye and facial scratches. Velez was ordered held without bail and is due back in court Wednesday.
Family members say Hernandez often gave Velez food and money and was a vocal proponent of making sure he had access to his daughter, even as the child's mother wanted to cut all ties with him.
At Hernandez's funeral, pictures of her in a red dress and a leopard print outfit showed her dancing, while others showed her with her two daughters, granddaughter and great-granddaughter.
Hernandez came to New York from Puerto Rico as a teenager and spent most of her life as a mother, wife and homemaker. After a divorce, she worked for a while as security guard at the American Museum of Natural History.
Friends and family remembered Hernandez for her love of dancing and outgoing personality.
"She was very lively and happy-go-lucky," said Frances Lopez, 45, a teacher who has known the family for more than 25 years. "She loved life. If you had a problem, she would tell you not to let it worry you or get you down."
Lopez's husband, Edwin, 54, a maintenance worker, said he was still struggling with who had been charged in the death.
"In my mind, I don't understand how this could be family," he said. "She didn't deserve this."
Serrano said the family was also struggling with the same question. They were grateful to police for quickly making an arrest but they still have open wounds.
"It definitely eases the pain of this family to see him taken into custody," Serrano said of Velez. "But everybody still wants to know why he would be arguing with this woman who so many people loved."