Two men, joined by murder and redemption, who are now working to keep other young men from making the same mistakes.
On June 13, 1992, 17-year-old Wilfredo Colón was gunned down by a rival drug gang outside of his family’s apartment in the East River Projects in Manhattan. Michael Rowe was one of at least 3 men who shot the “chesty, aggressive drug dealer,” 13 times. Rowe told the New York Times the murder was over some type of dispute, but to this day he’s not sure what started the conflict. He said, “I’ll be honest with you: at the time it started, I was in Baltimore.I’m not sure what it was about — guys from one crew wanted one side of the street, and it wound up escalating.” 8 months after the shooting Rowe was arrested and plead guilty to the murder of Wilfredo Colón. He also pled guilty so manslaughter in another, unrelated case, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He said, “I didn’t really care whether I lived or died. Nobody cared about me. Or I thought nobody cared. If you don’t care about yourself, you don’t care about another life.”
For Anthony Colón, who was 15 at the time of the murder, losing his brother was devastating. He said it filled him with hate, and made him a “monster.” His older brother had kept him off the streets, had always pushed him to be more, and had always had his back. When Wilfredo died, “he raged at his parents for not having taken better care of their children: he hated God, himself, the people who had killed his brother.” But two years later, a friend convinced him to go to church with him. And it was there that Colón said he had an “awakening.” He was finally able to begin to let go of all the hatred that had filled him since the day his brother had been gunned down. He said, “I forgave my mother, my father, the men who killed my brother.” Colón began to wait for his chance to meet Rowe face-to-face.
It would be years before Colón got what he wanted, but in September, 2006, he finally met the man who had changed his life so drastically. It was in the prison visiting room, while Colón was visiting an old friend who was serving time, that he first saw Rowe. Colón said, “I had been waiting years for that moment.” According to the two men, who told their story to the Times 2 days after Rowe was released after serving his 20-year sentence,
“Actually,” Mr. Rowe, 41, said, “I saw him first. I tried to put my head down, hoping he didn’t recognize me.”
“Oh, I recognized him,” Mr. Colón, 36, said.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know if we were going to be fighting on a visit,” Mr. Rowe said. “Or he was just going to give me a look, you know, ‘I’m with my wife and kid right now, but I’m going to kill you when I see you.’ ”
What actually happened was more than Rowe could believe at first. He said he noticed a smile spread across Colón’s face, a “genuine smile.” And then Colón got up and approached him, “still smiling, his hand out.” Row said, “When I stood up, I’m still in a defensive stand … Because in my mind, I was, ‘Yo, this can’t be for real.'” but it was for real. Colón told him “Brother, I’ve been praying for you. I forgave you. I’ve been praying I would see you again.” Rowe said,
It was more painful for me to be forgiven than to know that he was an enemy and wanted to hurt me. That felt better. I could hate him back. I knew why he hated me, and it made sense. For most of us, this — the forgiveness — doesn’t make sense.
Rowe and Colón kept in touch after that visit, and last year when Rowe earned his master’s degree while still incarcerated Colón was there to put the robe on him. Both men have been involved with the Exodus Transitional Community, which was founded by Julio Medina and helps former inmates transition back into society after their release. Both men now work with Exodus to help at-risk youth in their community. Rowe said he hopes he can keep other young people from going down the path he chose as a young man. He said, “I don’t think I could ever forgive myself for the things I’ve done,” but he plans on earning “inch by inch, something like forgiveness.”
Read more about Exodus Transitional Community, and Julio Medina.