HARLEM — Charles Romo was days away from leaving Manhattan, returning to his native Houston to help underprivileged children for a New York-based nonprofit.
Instead of embarking on a new phase of life, Romo was shipped home in a coffin after two drug-abusing career criminal brothers beat him to death in his Manhattan apartment during a robbery, police said.
The 52-year-old's slaying received scant attention — Romo was a gay man killed in Hamilton Heights by two drug addicts, although Romo's sexuality had nothing to do with his murder.
In Houston, however, more than 200 friends and relatives turned out to remember the transplanted New Yorker as a vibrant and caring person who lit up a room and never hesitated to give someone the shirt off his back.
“In fact, he would not just give you his shirt, he would give you his closet,” said Ooana Trien, a documentarian and former CNN project manager who was one of Romo's closest friends. “He was the kind of person who helped wounded birds.
“When you were with him, you did not want to hang with anyone else. He made you feel like you were the only person in the world.”
Romo was also that type of person who spent a lifetime in classrooms. He graduated from Milby High School, where he was a popular cheerleader, and then the University of St. Thomas in Texas in 1982.
He moved to San Francisco and earned a finance degree in 1999 from Golden Gate University, where he met Elena Pezzini, a devoted friend who eulogized Romo as “an avid learner” who “loves life and has a zest that is contagious."
“Charles has been helping everyone in need and has always been ready to lend a hand,” she wrote.
Romo kept up his studies in New York, earning an MBA from Pace University, a general studies degree from Columbia University and a digital media degree from New York University.
What motivated Romo to live in New York?
“When he was living in Texas, one day he announced, ‘You know, I want to live in California and he just upped and did it,” Trien explained. “And then another day came, he announced, “You know, I want to live in New York.”
Romo lived to Brooklyn where he shared his apartment and his life with a roommate who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and perished on 9/11.
By all accounts, Romo was crushed by the loss and decided on getting a “therapy dog” to help him. He chose a cheerful miniature greyhound, which he called Ramses II and took with him everywhere.
Since 2006, he volunteered as a stage manager and house manager with the All Stars Project, a nonprofit that helps inner city kids by introducing them to the performance arts, theater and other expansive programs at their Times Square complex.
“We were devastated to hear the news of his death,” Diane Stiles, the Project’s vice president, said. “It is horrible to think what happened to him.”
Romo moved to Hamilton Heights last March to be closer to the project, but had decided only recently that it was time to move back to Texas to be closer to family. And with the All-Star’s Project considering opening a branch in Dallas, he hoped to continue his work.
Romo had purchased a JetBlue ticket to fly home on Feb. 2. But four days earlier, he was sitting in his apartment with Keith Stokes, 52, a Harlem ex-con with a long history of robbery and violence.
In the weeks before his death, police sources said Romo had been using drugs and met Stokes and his brother, Ralph, 51, also a denizen of the Harlem drug world, through other acquaintances.
On Jan. 27, the day before he died, Romo spent the afternoon at home with a friend. They ordered pizza that was delivered. He went out that evening for dinner and took in a show near Union Square.
The following day, the two Stokes brothers showed up. He let them in, and they allegedly pounced. According to court records, Keith Stokes admitted that he setup Romo for a robbery and that he and his brother beat him so badly they tore off an ear.
Romo's family arrived in New York two days after his body was found to identify their lost loved one. They picked up Ramses from the ASPCA and took him back to Houston.
Relatives and friends eulogized Romo at a packed Crespo Funeral Home. An aunt could be heard sobbing, “he was coming home . . . he was coming home,” Trien said.
“You can shed tears that he is gone, or you can smile because he lived," a prayer card read. “Or you can do what he’d want; smile, open your eyes, love and go on.”