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Queens gun violence victims tell their stories

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Marie Epstein and Tracie Hernandez were as different as night and day until two separate violent crimes united them.

Epstein was living in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Douglaston with her two children when she got a call in the middle of the night that her husband, Ira, had been shot to death during a 1996 robbery at his East Elmhurst check-cashing store.

Violence was not shy when it touched Hernandez and her family in 1990 — it came right to her front door in the Astoria housing project when her brother was shot and killed at point-blank range outside their apartment. Hernandez, who was pregnant at the time, witnessed her brother’s murder in the home she shared with her parents and siblings.

But the women have something more than bloodshed and loss in common: each has since joined the Queens chapter of the Million Mom March Foundation, a group advocating the restriction of illegal guns.

Both Epstein and Hernandez took part in the original Million Mom March campaign last year, when hundreds of thousands of mothers and families gathered in Washington, D.C. to call for “common sense gun control.”

This year each woman is ready and waiting to help the Queens chapter of the Million Mom March with its latest Mother’s Day venture, a daylong picnic Sunday in Flushing Meadows Corona Park that will serve as a forum for survivors of gun violence. The event will run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and feature music, speakers, food and information about the Million Mom March.

Epstein, who said joining the Million Mom March helped her battle depression after her husband’s murder, praised the Flushing Meadows event.

“I think it’s going to get people together,” she said.

Hernandez said joining the group has strengthened her and her family.

“We’re functioning people now,” she said.

Both women said it took a long time to recover from the deaths of their loved ones, but years later each can remember the details like it was yesterday.

“I just knew something happened,” Epstein said of the Dec. 21, 1996 phone call informing her that not all was right at the East Elmhurst check-cashing store her 40-year-old husband owned.

“He was killed by someone who was a customer,” Epstein said. “He knew the family for years. He was definitely caught off-guard.”

In May 1999, George Bell was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting Epstein and off-duty Police Officer Charles Davis of Jamaica. Bell was eligible for the death penalty but was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

“It’s so instant,” Marie Epstein said of her husband’s murder. “You never really get a chance — it’s just being told that the man who kissed you goodbye is gone.”

As in the murder of Ira Epstein, Hernandez’s brother was also shot and killed by someone he knew. But Hernandez never got the chance to say goodbye, she said.

“In 1990 my brother was murdered in front of me,” she said. “That’s where it all began for me and my family.”

David Coleman, 21, was home resting after a party on Dec. 1, 1990 when a friend came to the door demanding to speak to him, said Hernandez, who opened the door for the gunman. The gunman accused her brother of being involved in the theft of a gold necklace, she said.

“My brother argued with Edward Cerutti for about 15 minutes,” Hernandez said. “He said my brother invited the guys to the party that stole the necklace and that my brother would pay. That was the first time he raised the shotgun.”

Coleman offered to help Cerutti find the alleged thieves, Hernandez said, but before Coleman could get a coat Cerutti pushed him.

The two struggled over the gun before Cerutti fired it once into Coleman’s chest, Hernandez said.

“My brother then slumped to the ground. He was laying flat out,” Hernandez said. “Cerutti straddled my brother and fired a second shot.”

Cerutti was later convicted of the crime and sentenced to a jail term of seven to 15 years.

“It haunted me for years,” Hernandez said of her brother’s death. “It’s never going to end. It really truly destroyed my entire family.”

“Every time I looked through that peephole I saw my brother’s murder,” she said.

Joining the Million Mom March helped her “learn to breathe again.”

Epstein said getting involved with the group “let me do something proactive.

“People who think this can’t happen to them are being very foolish,” she said. “It can happen anywhere, anytime. It saddens me to meet more victims.”

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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