Stray bullet in N.Y. gang fight kills Maryland woman

July 06, 1991|By Jacques Steinberg | Jacques Steinberg,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- It was a reunion that drew Maryland resident Rhona Lantin to the New York area, a chance to mix with old high school friends from the Philippines, trade memories, catch up on too many years apart.

It was also a chance to see the town, take in the theater, watch the fireworks explode over New York Harbor on a warm, beautiful night -- the best kinds of things the area has to offer.

But a bullet ended that. At 11:30 p.m. Thursday, as Ms. Lantin and friends were driving north on a Chinatown street, headed for a late-night snack after the fireworks display, members of a notorious Chinatown gang began to fight, police say.

By the time the car reached the crowded intersection, the dispute had become a gunbattle. Gunfire erupted and a bullet hit Ms. Lantin, sitting in the passenger seat, in the head. She died yesterday morning at St. Vincent's Hospital.

Friends of Ms. Lantin's were left to contemplate the fate that linked their 26-year-old friend, a government economist known for her gentleness, devotion to her family and fondness for Filipino handicrafts, to the legacy of the gang, the Ghost Shadows.

"When tragedy strikes, you always hear people say, 'It couldn't have happened to a nicer, gentler person,' " said Hallis Seitz, a neighbor of Ms. Lantin's in Silver Spring, Md. "Well, in this case it really does apply."

The shooting was not only random but unusual, even for a violent gang such as the Ghost Shadows, who the police say terrorize shop owners and people in the neighborhood through extortion, robberies and a constant threat of violence.

The gang's victims are usually carefully chosen, police say. They are stalked on foot on narrow, winding streets that are almost always congested. The killers are usually precise, walking up to the targets and striking them at close range.

But the police were at a loss to explain what led to the chance killing of Ms. Lantin at the intersection of Mulberry and Bayard streets, in the part of Chinatown that the Ghost Shadows call their turf.

There were no suspects last night. Chief Joseph G. DeMartino said he did not know what the dispute was about.

This was a particularly happy time for Ms. Lantin, who as an economist studied environmental and natural resources for the Department of Agriculture in Washington.

She had traveled to a friend's home in Jersey City for a reunion of a dozen alumni of the Rural High School at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos. Tomorrow, friends say, she was to return home to Maryland and then fly out to join her fiance, who had already started on a cross-country pleasure trip.

Mr. Seitz said Ms. Lantin met her fiance, 29-year-old Patrick Canning, two years ago at the University of Maryland, where they were doing graduate work. Mr. Canning recently moved to Maryland from a rough neighborhood on 14th Street in Washington because Ms. Lantin was afraid of being shot there, Mr. Seitzsaid.

Ms. Lantin lived with her twin cousins, two women in their early 20s, on the third floor of a condominium complex, the Americana Finnmark in Silver Spring.

"She was absolutely nice," Mr. Seitz said. "She was a really intelligent girl, really smart. She was a devout Catholic. Her family was a really close family. They did a lot of stuff together, like have barbecues and gatherings.

"It's just tragic. It doesn't make any sense. She was just at the wrong place at the time, I guess."

A family friend, Tom Schruben, said that although she was born in the United States, Ms. Lantin had lived much of her life in the Philippines and had only returned to this country in 1987.

In choosing the field of agricultural economics, she was following the footsteps of her parents, both agricultural researchers in the Philippines, where they still live.

Mr. Schruben described Ms. Lantin as a woman who "always wore a smile."

"She was always making traditional Filipino handicrafts," he said. "She made dolls and baskets and was always knitting."

Thursday night, she joined five of her classmates at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, where they watched a fireworks display, Chief DeMartino said. All six then piled into a friend's 1991 Ford Explorer and headed for Chinatown, the chief said.

At 11:30 p.m., as the car passed through the intersection, the police believe one member of the Ghost Shadows fired at least two shots at several other gang members.

Though the shots missed their targets, one bullet pierced the front passenger window on the right side of the car and struck Ms. Lantin, Chief DeMartino said. No one else in the car was injured, he said.

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