A River Of Tears: Happy Land
Capture and Arrest
After setting the blaze, Gonzalez stood in front of the club and watched it burn. Then he calmly walked across the street and waited for a few minutes as the fire began to take hold. Within seconds, fire apparatus arrived and the firemen began to go to work. EMS arrived soon after, parking the ambulance just feet from where Gonzalez stood. He sipped his beer as the first body was carried out the front door of Happy Land. Then he walked the few yards over to East Tremont Avenue and boarded the #40 bus westbound. On the bus ride home, Gonzalez began to cry, thinking about what he had done. He went directly to 31 Buchanan Place, off Jerome Avenue, to his apartment, which consisted of one cramped room. Yvonne Torres, another tenant, later told police she saw him arrive at about 4:15 AM. Gonzalez entered the lobby and soon knocked on a neighbor's door, Pedro Rivera. Carmen Melendez, Rivera's girlfriend, opened the door. Gonzalez told Carmen that he had trouble at Happy Land and started crying. He said that he killed Lydia and that he burned the club down. Carmen didn't believe him and seeing that Gonzalez had been drinking, told him to go home and go to sleep. He went to his apartment, removed his gasoline soaked clothes and promptly fell asleep.
At about the same time Gonzalez collapsed upon his bed, a few miles away at the four-eight precinct, Det. Kevin Moroney, a senior investigator with over 20 years with the New York City Police Department, was told about a fire at a nearby social club. "I was doing a turnaround that night," he recently said, waiting for his next on-duty tour to begin. "One of the other detectives came running into my office and yelled that 80 people were killed in a fire. My first reaction was what the hell is he talking about? I never heard of such a thing, I didn't believe it at first," he said. Within minutes it seemed, an onslaught of people descended upon the four-eight. Uniformed officers brought in potential witnesses and survivors, the press began to assemble, local district attorneys and assistants appeared, fire department personnel, police department brass, politicians and a platoon of detectives all came to the front desk of the four-eight until the lobby was jammed with a mixture of frantic people all clamoring for immediate and urgent attention. It was pandemonium. Det. Moroney never reached the front door of the precinct house. "I never made it to the street. Witnesses had to be interviewed, statements had to be taken. We did not know what happened, all we knew was that lots of people were dead," the detective recalled.
Moroney and his partner, Det. Andy Lugo began to piece together a first draft of what happened at Happy Land. Slowly, the story began to emerge. "We finally spoke to Lydia Feliciano later that day. She left the scene and never told anyone where she was. In fact, at the time, no one even knew that she was vital to the case. As soon as she said that she had a fight with her ex-boyfriend and that he left the club angry just before the fire, we had strong suspicions" Det. Moroney said.
At about 4 PM that same day, Detectives Maroney and Lugo went over to 31 Buchanan Place and knocked on the door of Julio Gonzalez' third floor apartment.
"Quien es?" a voice behind the door asked.
"Policia! Deceamos hablar contigo," replied Det. Lugo.
"Si," the voice replied.
When Gonzalez opened it, the detectives were immediately overwhelmed by the odor of gasoline. They asked him to come over to the police station to talk about the fire. Gonzalez didn't seem too upset at the time. Moroney said that he wasn't surprised to find Julio sleeping. Cops are familiar with the curious sleep habits of criminals. They know that even after the most horrendous crimes imaginable, suspects will fall asleep; in the rear of a police car, at the station, during booking, in cuffs, anywhere at all. It doesn't matter how violent the crime, how shocking or brutal, a criminal will fall asleep as if he didn't have a care in the world. Gonzalez put on his gasoline soaked shoes and went with the detectives.
Gonzalez was taken over to the four-eight where he was read Miranda Warnings in Spanish and agreed to talk about the incident. Det. Moroney said that he turned to get a cup a coffee and before he could give it to Gonzalez, Julio immediately began to confess. "We practically didn't even have to ask him anything," he said. He told police that he set the fire for revenge against Lydia Feliciano. He said that he was angry that she broke up with him and wouldn't take him back. "I don't know, it looks like something bad got into me, it looks like the devil got into me!" Gonzalez said in his confession. He was later arraigned in Bronx Criminal Court at 2 AM on 87 counts of murder, the worst mass murder in American history up to that time. In a highly unusual move, Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson handled the court appearance himself in front of Judge Alexander Hunter. Gonzalez was held without bail and taken to a local psychiatric ward where he was held as a suicide risk.