Abel Cedeno, 18, the bullied gay teen charged with killing one classmate, Matthew McCree, 15, and wounding another, Ariane Laboy, 16, with a knife spoke to Gay City News from Rikers Island on Sunday, recounting the incident, the anti-gay bullying that preceded it for years, and the way it intensified on September 27 inside his history class at the Bronx’s Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in front of two teachers and a class full of students.
While most press reports say that Cedeno was just being pelted with pencils before the stabbing, Abel said he was defending himself from repeated punches from McCree, who saw that Cedeno had a knife.
“I was trying to get him off me,” Cedeno said, explaining he knew his tormentors to have gang connections and that many of the students at the school carry weapons — “knives and, in some cases, guns,” he said. “I was afraid for my life.”
In using his recently purchased knife — which he got on Amazon but is forbidden in city schools — for protection, “No way did I think someone could die,” Cedeno said, adding he was convinced he would die if he did not defend himself from McCree’s attack.
“[McCree] knew me as the gay kid with the long hair,” Cedeno said. “He hated that ‘entity.’ He didn’t know me.”
He said that McCree continued to pummel him even after Cedeno used the knife to ward him off.
Cedeno said he “snapped” when he was being beaten in the face.
“I don’t remember that much,” he said.
When school security took him away after the stabbing, Cedeno said, he was still “afraid for my life” and feared for the lives of his family members because of what he believed to be McCree’s gang membership. This led him to have a “panic attack” while in the school office.
[Editor’s note: Read about the grand jury's action in this case here.]
Much has been made in press accounts of the fact that Cedeno had not interacted with McCree or Laboy prior to September 27. Cedeno said, “I knew from other students they had gotten into fights. Matt had hit my friend in the neck and ran away.” He said he also knew that “there are groups of boys in gangs and [McCree and Laboy] hung around with those kids who carry knives and guns. Even the teachers are afraid of these students.”
Social media users who say they are part of the 800YM gang have claimed McCree as a member in online postings and have threatened Cedeno’s family and friends.
While there were many witnesses to what happened, there is concern that they will be afraid to testify in Cedeno’s defense for fear of retaliation.
As Cedeno prepares to testify before the grand jury at Bronx Criminal Court on Tuesday — unusual for someone accused of a serious crime, who is not legally bound to do so — he has the support of his family, two veteran gay attorneys who have signed on to defend him, and his local state senator, Ruben Diaz., Sr., who, despite a long record of opposing LGBTQ rights, believes Cedeno is not getting a fair shake.
Cedeno’s supporters will rally at 10 a.m. outside the court urging that he not be charged. There will also be a rally of McCree’s friends and relatives.
Cedeno is represented by Christopher R. Lynn, once the counsel for the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights that passed the city’s gay rights law in 1986 and taxi commissioner and later transportation commissioner for Mayor Rudy Giuliani. His co-counsel is Robert J. Feldman.
Lynn said, “Abel did not attack anyone. It was he who was attacked.”
The McCree family is represented by Sanford Rubenstein, who has taken on many high profile cases of people of color who have been victims of hate crimes or abused by the police.
The senior assistant district attorney in the case is Nancy Borko, assistant chief of the Bronx Homicide Bureau.
This case does not fall into any easy category. A Latino gay youth says he was being bullied and attacked by an African-American youth and was acting in self-defense. Cedeno, according to his sister, lived in a two-bedroom apartment with his mom and shared a room with two siblings. McCree, according to the New York Times, lived in a two-bedroom with his mother and two siblings, sharing a room with his brother.
The case has highlighted the failure of the New York City schools to combat bullying despite putting a variety of policies into place over the years as well the enactment of a state law meant to curb bullying and create a climate of respect among students.
The city Department of Education will likely be sued for millions by Rubenstein for failing to have metal detectors at this high school and, perhaps in addition, for doing little to contain bullying and other violence there.
In a 2016 survey, 55 percent of students reported feeling safe at Wildlife and 19 percent of teachers said they would “recommend” the school to parents — down from 94 percent in 2013. The deterioration of the climate has been attributed to a massive turnover in leadership and teaching staff over the last few years.
Cedeno said from jail that he was grateful for “the support for me and my family.” He told Gay City News he identifies as gay — though many stories identified him as “bisexual.” He said he was unaware of the resources that are out there for LGBTQ youth, such as the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI) and the Harvey Milk High School that the Department of Education runs as a haven for students harassed for their sexual orientation or gender identity — though being LGBTQ is not a requirement — with HMI running its after-school programs.
McCree’s story and family life have been recounted in numerous stories, including a profile in the New York Times that gave a very incomplete version of the fateful confrontation. Cedeno and his family are only now speaking publicly with their side of what happened on September 27 and prior to that.
Cedeno recounted the incident in detail to Gay City News, having already talked to the police about it. That day in class, he said, “They started throwing stuff [at me] — broken pencils, pens, caps of pens.” He said they were hitting his neck where he had just had his mother’s name tattooed and the area was tender.
“I said, ‘Please stop,’ but they kept on,’” Cedeno recalled. “I got permission to use the bathroom from the teacher, went, came back, and it started to pick up again. I just got my book bag, started to leave, and as I left they kept throwing stuff at me. I screamed loud, ‘WHO IS THROWING ALL THAT STUFF AT ME?’ It got quiet. Matt got up and said, ‘Hey, it was me. What’s good?’ which is slang for, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ I had to stand my ground. I was tired of not doing anything about it. One teacher, Mr. Kennedy, right next to Matt, didn’t do anything.”
Then, Cedeno said, “Matthew walked aggressively toward me from the back of the room. He walked past the second teacher, Mr. Jacobi, who didn’t do anything. As he got closer, I felt frozen in place. I couldn’t move my feet. [I knew] lots of boys and girls carry knives and even guns. I thought that I was going to die. I took out my knife and showed everyone. Frankie [another student] was pulling [Matt’s] arm, saying, ‘Slow down. He has that,’ but [Matt] shook him off. He came at me. He hit my face twice. The second time I snapped. All the years of bullying, and I couldn’t control my body and started to defend myself. The other boy, Laboy, hit me as well in the face.”
At this point, Cedeno said, “I don’t even remember that much. I was trying to get them off me. Laboy was going up on me. Both punching me,” despite the two youths apparently having been cut by Cedeno’s knife.
School security finally arrived and took Cedeno away. He had a panic attack because “I was afraid for my life.” It did not subside until after the police came. “No way did I think someone could die.”
According to Cedeno’s sister, their mother had often complained to school authorities about the bullying to which Abel was subjected and the toll it was taking on his studies and mental health. Cedeno had missed so much school that he was repeating the 12th grade.
When his mom complained about her son being called “a faggot,” a teacher at the school “told him to ignore it and ‘be the better person,’” Cedeno’s sister said. “They were telling him to ‘suck it up’ — and he fell into a depression. He would come home from school and go straight to bed.”
Cedeno’s sister described a loving family that nurtured him and included openly bisexual women, including herself. But despite letting him know that they would be accepting no matter what his sexuality was, he kept to himself about it until now — even though the bullying to which he was subjected was often based on his fellow students’ perception that he was gay.
“I would tell him, ‘We’re here for you,’” Cedeno’s sister said. “He would just say, ‘I’m good.’”
She said her brother had some challenges growing up — overcoming stuttering and being diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder at age seven and going on medication for it.
“It helped him focus, but it numbed him to some point,” Cedeno’s sister said. “He was very bright. All the teachers loved him. He was very good in math and sciences. He wanted to be a model, an actor, or a marine biologist.”
“Ninety percent of his friends were girls,” she added. “They all loved him. In the fifth grade, he said, ‘I want to grow my hair long so I can donate it to cancer patients,’ and he did just that even though he got picked on a lot in the sixth grade for it.”
As time went on, Cedeno’s depression increased, he had mood swings, and he was always “fighting about not wanting to go to school,” his sister said. Teachers would “write out plans for him” in response, she added, but not deal with the underlying problem of the bullying. He didn’t want to change schools because his girlfriends were there, but when most of them graduated in June and he had to repeat his final high school year, he became more isolated.
“One friend said to him, ‘You need to have some protection without us there. You know everyone has a knife,’” Cedeno’s sister recalled.
She also emphasized, “We want people to know how this is affecting our family and how out of character this was for Abel. We’re sorry for everything. No one deserves to lose their child. I see this as a wake-up call that bullying is serious and the schools need to see its effects and take it seriously.”
The District Attorney’s Office initially charged Abel with second-degree murder. Depending on their reading of the evidence, the grand jury could return a charge of manslaughter instead. Cedeno’s attorneys, who cannot make a presentation to a grand jury, do not think he should be indicted for anything. If he is indicted, their affirmative defense will be “extreme emotional disturbance” and “justification” — the legal term for self-defense.
[Editor’s update: On October 17, the grand jury reduced the charges against Cedeno from murder to manslaughter. Read about that here.]
“It’s clear as day that he snapped,” Feldman said.
A Wildlife school employee posted online that Cedeno “deserves to be free. These kids were bullying him for a while.”
And for a while, Cedeno’s friends were speaking up for him in the press, but many fear retaliation now. There has been no public comment from the teachers who were in the room that day and are alleged to have done nothing.
Sophie Cadle, 23, a trans woman and LGBTQ community advocate, is helping organize a rally for Cedeno that was initiated by Lazara Castillo, a mom whose gay son had also been bullied, outside Bronx Criminal Court at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. Before coming out as transgender, Cadle said, “I was a gay kid in the New York City public schools. I dealt with bullying. I dealt with family neglect. I was in Rikers for nine months and have a suit against the city for discrimination, assault, and bullying by corrections officers.”
Cadle said she has turned over to the police multiple screen captures of online posts purportedly showing Bronx gang members threatening to avenge Matthews death — including by going after Cedeno in jail, though he is in protective custody at Rikers.
The plight of Abel Cedeno has moved her and thousands of others. No one is happy that another student is dead.
“We have to stop this from happening,” Cadle said.
Attorney Lynn hopes that community members will write to his client in jail. Letters must be addressed: Abel Cedeno, #2411705842, George Motchan Detention Center (GMDC), 15-15 Hazen Street, East Elmhurst, NY 11370. The envelope must have that and a return address on it but nothing additional.