Escape from New York When a police bullet took one of Roma Cedeno's twin boys, she became a reluctant symbol. Then, a little too late, she became an expatriate.

November 11, 1997|By JOE MATHEWS | JOE MATHEWS,SPECIALT TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- When the news broke this summer that a Haitian immigrant had been sodomized with a toilet plunger by New York City police officers in Brooklyn, several Big Apple reporters picked up the phone to call Roma Cedeno for a comment.

It was a natural thought. In April, Roma's 16-year-old son, Kevin Cedeno, was fatally shot -- in the back -- by a New York City officer in northern Manhattan's Washington Heights section. Even in New York, the case stood out. It was a five-alarm fire, a bright white blaze that attracted all the Big Apple moths familiar to readers of "Bonfire of the Vanities": the revenge-seeking ministers, the incendiary politicians, the tabloid arsonists.

In the aftermath of her son's death, Roma walked among these figures, an unforgettable symbol of motherly pain repeated for -- months on the evening newscasts as the inevitable investigations moved forward, dousing the fire but adding to the smoke. But in August, the Haitian immigrant's abuse grabbed headlines and reporters dialed up Roma Cedeno -- and discovered her number was disconnected.

She had disappeared from New York. Disappeared all the way to Maryland.

This is the untold postscript of a tragic story. Roma Cedeno, 45, is living in a three-bedroom house in Essex. She has a solid job, making checkbooks on the night shift at the John H. Harland Co. She is taking care of the three youngest of her six children. She is alive, she says, but not well.

No one here ever knew her son Kevin. Chances are, they've never seen his picture, or the photographs of his grieving mother on TV. In Essex, which despite its crime seems like a country village compared to New York, this ignorance is sometimes hard to accept. But at least it is unintentional, and there are no hard questions from the neighbors. Here, the Cedenos are new faces, not news.

In New York, the ignorance was willful. Kevin Cedeno was the hottest story in town for weeks. And no one -- not the politicians, not the headline writers, not even the supportive ministers -- ever really knew who he was.

Roma says they never bothered to find out. The 16-year-old had become a symbol, and ceased to belong to his family.

"I had to move. I didn't want to be a symbol anymore," Roma says now. "Everyone in town talked about him as if they really knew him, and they never gave me the chance to really mourn. I could spend the rest of my life correcting all the mistakes about Kevin, or I could get away, and give myself a chance to mourn him."

Roma blames New York. It would have taken her other son, Kevin's twin Kern, if she hadn't moved. How could people there be so unfeeling? The mayor condemned her child as a thug while his body was still warm. The newspapers wrote him off as just another kid who had been in trouble and probably would grow up to be a full-fledged criminal. Even the preachers and politicians who tried to turn him into a saint missed the point.

The truth about Kevin is that his life might have turned out any number of ways. The honest answer is that he was a troubled kid, growing up without a father in one of the most violent, drug-infested neighborhoods in the biggest city in the United States of America.

Yet, Roma Cedeno had enough faith in Kevin, and enough wherewithal, to put together a plan to give her boy a new life outside New York.

If only Roma had moved sooner, her son would be with her in this house now.

The safety of Essex was only a day away.

"I should have come sooner," she says, looking at pictures of the son she has lost. "With a little more time, Baltimore and me might have saved Kevin."

The twins

Here is the story that New York never bothered to know.

Roma Cedeno gave birth to twins, Kevin and Kern, on Dec. 29, 1980, in Sipria, Trinidad. By the time the boys were toddlers, their father left. Roma's mother and three sisters lived in the United States, and they prevailed upon her to join them.

Roma moved first with the boys to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. In 1988, she found a bigger apartment, a fifth-floor walk-up at 500 W. 159th St. in Washington Heights, where the landlord accepted her Section 8 certificate.

Of the twins, Kevin was quieter, more sensitive. When his brother hurt himself and had to go to the hospital, Kevin, just out of diapers, put on his clothes and began to walk out the door.

"I'm going to the hospital to make sure Kern is okay," he told the family.

It was outgoing Kern who organized the football and basketball games in the neighborhood, and Kevin, the cooler twin who friends nicknamed "Ice," who followed along. Both boys liked to turn the hip-hop volume on high, but Kevin did something while he listened to the music that Kern recalls as unusual: He read the Bible.

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