Abel Cedeno, the bullied Bronx gay teen charged with manslaughter in the death of classmate Matthew McCree, had his bail cut in half by Judge William Mogulescu on November 29 and that bail was made by an odd combination of gay men who stepped up along with State Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., a frequent antagonist of LGBTQ rights.
In an exclusive interview following his release from jail, his second with Gay City News, Cedeno said he was “really scared and nervous to go back into society” given that the boys he said he defended himself against “hung out with this crowd that claimed to be in gangs and made gang signs. When the incident happened, I feared for my life. For all I know, [McCree] could have had a gun and shot me right there or he could have had a knife or a stun gun.”
On September 27 at his Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, Cedeno, 18, was carrying a recently purchased knife for self-protection after being bullied since the sixth grade. After having things tossed at his head in his history class, Cedeno demanded to know who was doing this to him and, he said, McCree stepped forward. Cedeno pulled out the knife, but McCree resisted an attempt by a classmate to stop him from fighting with Cedeno. As McCree started punching him, Cedeno said that he used the knife to defend himself. McCree’s friend Ariane Laboy joined in the fight.
“They kept punching me even when I was defending myself,” Cedeno said. “They were still punching once school security separated us five minutes later.”
The two teachers in the classroom did not try to intervene, Cedeno said. McCree’s wound was fatal, Laboy was injured, and Cedeno was badly bruised on his face.
Cedeno said he was particularly afraid because McCree “had messed with” his friend Brandon earlier in the day.
“They say I didn’t know them personally, but I knew of them,” he said.
“To me,” Cedeno said, “it is all a blur. I never meant for it to happen. I thought he was going to be scared and walk away and he didn’t. I am never going to take this lightly. Life is precious. His death will weigh on my heart forever.”
McCree’s mother, Louna Dennis, lashed out after Cedeno’s release.
“I’m pissed the hell off,” she said outside the court. “He gets to go home with his family for Christmas. My son is in a fricking cemetery… I feel like the system is failing me.”
McCree’s family is represented by Sanford Rubenstein and is suing the city for $25 million for not having metal detectors in the school and not implementing the state anti-bullying law.
Cedeno’s mother, Luz Hernandez, had complained repeatedly to school authorities about the bullying her son was subjected to and has said not much more was done by them other than telling her son to suck it up. The city Department of Education has since announced a stepped-up anti-bullying program but has been resistant to the kind of systemic changes necessary to make schools safe environments for all.
Cedeno’s attorney, Christopher R. Lynn, a longtime gay activist, and his co-counsel, Robert Feldman, also gay, contend that Cedeno acted in self-defense and are citing the recent acquittal in Brooklyn of NYPD Officer Wayne Isaacs who testified that he shot Delrawn Small after a traffic dispute after Small threatened to kill him and punched him. That case was brought by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman under a new law giving him responsibility for prosecuting police officers in deadly encounters with civilians who are unarmed.
Lynn said that he has turned over to federal authorities evidence of intimidation of witnesses to the Urban Assembly incident by the 800 YGZ (young gunnerz) gang. Cedeno believed McCree and Laboy to be a part of the gang. Threats against Cedeno’s family and friends have been posted online by individuals identifying themselves as gang members.
Lynn also said that the knife Cedeno was carrying was “legal” according to his private investigator, not a “switchblade” as most press reports have it. No weapon, however, is allowed on school premises — though many students carry them for protection.
Michael Esquenazi of Empire Bail Bonds, the largest bail company in the state, assured the $250,000 bond on the basis of $15,000 raised.
“We do our best to stand behind the LGBTQ community,” Esquenazi said. “I have a lesbian sister and understand what it is like to be bullied. We sympathize with what Abel is going through and are working hard to provide him with his freedom and to provide New York State with the security to know that he will return.”
Cedeno, in a written statement, said that the support he got from people in the LGBTQ community “made me proud to be gay.” He also said, “This nightmare which occurred on 09-27-17 has torn apart three families. Finally, thank you to my two gay attorneys for your hard work, trust, and faith.”
He also thanked transgender activist Sophie Cadle, who has been coordinating community support for him, LaLa Zannell of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, and this newspaper for its coverage.
Lynn said that gay individuals contributed to Cedeno’s bail, as did Diaz and his Rock of Salvation Church. Diaz told the New York Post that Cedeno’s mother came to him for aid and “that’s what I do. I help the community. Black, white, gay, straight — I help everybody,” though he has led political opposition to LGBTQ rights measures for decades.
Lynn said that most LGBTQ groups he approached would not get involved and one gay leader rebuffed him because the other student in the incident died. Lynn said, “I told him, ‘Would it have been better if Abel had died so that you could have had a memorial march for him?’”
Feldman said, “It is a great victory for gay people because an elected justice of the Supreme Court has recognized that anti-gay bullying caused this tragedy,” reduced the bail, and is considering youthful offender status for Cedeno, who has no prior criminal record. Feldman is also encouraged by Cedeno’s release.
“Study after study shows that when a criminally accused person is released on bail the likelihood of acquittal or a favorable plea bargain increases,” he said.
A hearing on Cedeno’s suspension from school is being held by the Department of Education on December 7. Lynn said that the DOE may call Laboy as well as Nicholas Kennedy and Paul Jacobi, the two teachers in the classroom at the time, to testify — or could instead simply move to keep the suspension in place based on police reports. Lynn said that he will be summoning witnesses as well in the hopes that the suspension will be lifted and Cedeno can resume his studies in a safe environment.
Cedeno’s next court date is February 1.