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Friends Recall Rowdy Life and Suspicious Death of Williamsburg Messenger

By Gwynne Hogan | August 28, 2017 8:40am
 Curtis Valentine, 32, was found dead in by his roommate on Sunday.
Curtis Valentine, 32, was found dead in by his roommate on Sunday.
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BUSHWICK — Curtis Valentine, a fixture in the North Brooklyn gallery scene, had a reputation for his raucous antics.

In fact, the 32-year-old had been kicked out of so many bars, restaurants and events, he had a jersey printed out for himself with his last name on the back and the numbers "86" on the front — restaurant-speak for getting rid of an unruly patron, friends said.

The night before his mysterious death was no different.

Valentine, who worked as a gallery assistant and bike messenger, showed up at the Head Too Heavy Gallery at 383 Bushwick Ave. about 10 p.m. on August 19 for the opening of a show to honor two artists who had died from heroin overdoses.

His friend, Jason Allen, said he remembers seeing Valentine get there and immediately start goofing around with a young woman, taking her hand and falling to his knees in a mock marriage proposal.

"She was not feeling it," Allen said.

A few minutes later, he saw Valentine again, this time getting frog-marched out of the gallery by three men.

What happened next is unclear, but police believe he suffered a massive head injury outside the gallery that later lead to his death. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has yet to announce the results of his autopsy.

"He was for sure knocked out, on his back," said Allen, who had rushed outside to see what happened. "I'm like, 'What the f--k!' Why would anyone do this? Who would do this to him?"

A crowd of people had gathered around Valentine, Allen said, when the three men who'd taken him out of the gallery were already halfway down the block and still walking.

"Everyone was just so busy with their phones out, filming him being knocked out, throwing water on him, beer on him, slapping him to wake him up," he said.

A police car drove by and the people trying to revive Valentine pulled him closer to the gallery. Allen went back inside, and when he came out a few minutes later, Valentine had woken up.

"He was looking like delirious, looking around," Allen said. He tried to get back inside the gallery but people at the door wouldn't let him.

"Let's go for a walk," Allen told Valentine, who unlocked his bike and they started walking back toward Bushwick, where they both lived.

"You just got knocked out. You got in a fight. They knocked you out," Allen tried to explain. But Valentine was incredulous. "He was like, 'No, I didn't get knocked out.'"

Eventually as the two neared Curtis' apartment, they parted ways.

"I looked at him, his head is not swollen, he's not bleeding. I just looked at him. This is regular Curtis," he thought. "If I knew how he felt, I would have taken him to the hospital."

The next morning, Andy Svejda, 37, Valentine's roommate, left their apartment, with Valentine snoring and mumbling on the floor of the living room, he thought nothing of it, he said. Anyone who knew hm knew he was a deep sleeper, and could pass out anywhere, Svejda said.

But when Svejda, 37, returned home to their Troutman Street apartment hours later and Valentine was still on the ground, Svejda knew instantly, "something had gone horribly wrong," he said.

"I saw the vomit on his face. I felt him. He was cold as cucumber, stiff as a board. I called the police," Svejda said, face pallid, visibly shaken.

Valentine suffered a traumatic brain injury and a concussion, police later told Svejda, he said.

Detective John Bartek at the 83rd Precinct is hunting for, "any and all information on the incident that took place," at the Bushwick Avenue gallery he said, but so far, few eyewitnesses have stepped forward. 

"The community needs to come forward and help the police with this," he said.

The owner of the gallery didn't responded to multiple requests for comment.

Dozens of friends Valentine touched gathered at Superchief Gallery in Ridgewood on Sunday afternoon, collecting funds to paint a mural in his honor, watching goofy, drunken videos they'd shot of him, some getting stick-and-poke tattoos in his honor with his name or the words "Bong Bong," a catch phrase he often used.

Valentine, who was born in Virginia, spent his teenage years in Tampa, Florida where he found a second home at the local skate park.

He moved to New York City in 2008, according to his mother Charmaine Castillo. She'd brought him to vacation in New York as a kid and he fell in love, she said.

"He was just fascinated with that big city, the buildings. He was skateboarder, if there's anywhere to skate, it just drew his heart," she said.

In Brooklyn, he made friends instantly, meeting them at bars like country saloon Skinny Dennis, bonding with strangers over his love of fishing, at Halloween parties, and art galleries, soon amassing a crew of skateboarders, tattoo aficionados and graffiti artists.

The first night Jimmy Hickey, 29, met Valentine, in 2008 at a party at the Silent Barn, he said they'd gotten along so well, Valentine came home with him and crashed, then stayed a month while he figured out a place to live.

Many times since their first meeting, Valentine had repaid the favor, letting Hickey stay at his place when he broke up with his girlfriend and didn't have a place to stay, and later when he was suddenly evicted from his apartment, he said.

"If you were upset he wouldn't let you be upset. You could not be mad around him," Hickey said. "If you had a problem. He was solving it with you. And he was partying with you after you settled it."

Valentine fast became a staple of the arts scene, frequenting openings, and working as a bike messenger and as an assistant in a gallery.

(Tommy Sheridan, 44, got "Bong Bong" tattooed on his wrist, in memory of Valentine, who would say it all the time to mean, "let's go, lets do this.")

"He was a ray of sunshine," said Sol Kjok, in her 40s, owner of the gallery NOoSPHERE Arts where Valentine had worked since 2011 doing odd jobs. "He brightens everyone's day with his colorful fashion sense. ... He had pet names for everybody."

Valentine would call her Snuppen, a Norwegian term of endearment for pets and children, Kjok used when talking to her cats, and he'd picked up on. "He’s like a local original," she said.

Police have had difficulty convincing people to come forward. No description of the men who tossed him from the gallery has been released.

Valetine's mother said she's growing impatient with the investigation, now going into its second week.

She's been in touch with police who've told her over and over that the investigation is still pending. 

"That started to frustrate me," she said.

Now she says, she's getting by on the prayers of others.

"God has been carrying me. Y’all please keep on praying. This is some supernatural stuff," she said. Valentine's friends have been calling her to offer her condolences and she ends up cheering them up.

She does so by channeling her son's positive energy.

"He'd be like come on, you sitting around crying about me?'"

"He was such a light," she said. He'd say, "'Ain't nobody gonna harsh my mellow man.'"

She has faith that sooner or late someone will come forward with the truth about what happened to her son that night.

"In my heart I know it's gonna end the way that I want it to end, which is justice for Curtis," she said.