A TREASURED MURAL PAINTED OVERPainted-over cop tribute opens wounds
IT CAME across police radio as a "vandalism in progress."
Someone had called 911a man was painting over the mural in North Philadelphia that honored Police Officer Jose Ortiz, who had died in the line of duty in 2000.
Cops who heard the call the Saturday before last couldn't believe it. How was this possible? But when they arrived at Cambria and Darien, they could only join the neighbors in looking on in anger and sadness.
The man with the paint roller owned the property, a vacant rowhouse. He had papers to prove it.
He was covering the whole side of the rowhouse with midnight green, and there was no questionhe was within his rights.
That didn't make it any easier to watch.
One of the cops who showed up was Eddie Ortiz, a first cousin, who had always called Jose by his childhood nickname, Papito.
"I realized there was nothing I could do, nothing anyone could have done," said Ortiz. "I stood across the street, and I said a little prayer and thought of Papito. And then I just got in my patrol car and drove off."
This is a neighborhood filled with giant murals of slain drug dealers. Their spray-painted portraits gaze down on corner after corner.
"No one dares touch those," noted Eddie Ortiz.
To have a mural dedicated to a copparticularly a cop who grew up in the neighborhoodit was something that meant a lot. To the largely Latino community east of Broad Street, to the cops who patrol it.
Why would anyone want to take that away?
"Everyone was devastated," said Peaches Ramos, a neighborhood activist who lives nearby, and who was close to Ortiz.
The mural, painted by a nephew of the officer, depicted a large Puerto Rican flag, with a cross over it. Above were the words, "IN MEMORY OF OFFICER ORTIZ."
It was at Cambria and Darien that Ortiz was struck by a police cruiser as he was running after suspect on Sept. 18, 2000. He died three days later.
To fellow 25th District cops, the mural was a way of remembering their friend they called "Joey."
And while they knew the property owner had a right to paint his wall, they say they wished he could have found some way to keep the mural.
"I think it's a disgrace," said Officer Linda Longo, who witnessed the mural being painted over. "I take it personally. I drive down there and that's a remembrance to us. He was part of our family."
"I'm sad there's not a fitting memorial for Joey," said Sgt. Frank Palumbo. "A lot of the murals on the walls down here are dedicated to drug dealers. This is one of the few murals I've seen that was dedicated to a person who had a positive influence on the community. These kids have nobody to look up toand here's somebody who didn't end up as a drug dealer or in jail."
Said another friend, Officer Will Gress: "To me, it was a sign the community wanted to be reminded of him. When you cover that up, it's like saying, there's nothing to remember."
Ortiz grew up in the 25th District, and as a cop, came to know people throughout the entire community. He knew many of the neighbors right in the area where he was killed.
Peaches Ramos, the community activist, said Ortiz often came around, even off-duty, to talk to neighbors, and play with the kidssometimes taking them to the store for ice cream.
"He helped us fight the drugs," said Ramos. "He was making sure the guys were off the corner so the kids could play."
Maria Ortiz (no relation), whose house is across the street from the painted-over mural, said she and other neighbors would clean the sidewalk that ran by it. Sometimes they'd put a balloon or a candle in front of the mural, to honor Ortiz.
They had all known the officer.
"The mural was a reminder to us of how he helped the area," she said. "Why did they paint over the mural, because he's a cop? That's not fair. Every place I go, there's a mural of a drug dealer. He did more for us than any drug dealer who's had us all living in fear."
Some neighbors and cops speculated that the property owner must have had a grudge against police.
But Jimmie Morgan Jr., who owns the rowhouse, insists that's not true at all.
"I'm being misinterpreted," he said in an interview last week.
Morgan said he's fixing up the house to rent it, and the painting was just part of that.
"I don't think anyone would move in with that mural up there," he said.
Morgan said the rowhouse has been vacant since he went to prison for drugs more than four years ago. He got out in January. He said that if he can't rent the building, he plans to use it as an office for a community organization to help young people stay off drugs and lead more productive lives.
He and several friends founded the group.
"I believe I have the ability to help what I did for many years to destroy," said Morgan. He said he wants young people to know that "there's nothing out here but death and prison."
Morgan said that painting over the mural "wasn't personal."
"It's not an insult to police," he said, adding that he has friends and family members who are cops.
"I would never dis the officer," he said.
Morgan said that no one asked him whether a mural could be painted on the side of his house.
"People in the neighborhood know where my family members live," he said. "They should have got permission."
And, he said, they could have even asked him.
"It's not hard to find a man in prison," he said. "Everybody knew where I was at."
Family members of Jose Ortiz say the mural was painted by a nephew of the officer, who believed the property was abandoned. The nephew couldn't be reached.
This is a story, though, with a happy ending. There will be a new, even better mural honoring Jose Ortiz.
Peaches Ramos has arranged with the city's Mural Arts Program to have a mural painted on the side of a building at 9th and Clearfield streets, a couple of blocks up from Cambria. The property owner there has given her permission, Ramos said.
Jane Golden, director of the mural program, said the new mural will be painted in the fall, at a cost of about $10,000 in city and private money. It'll be painted by a professional portait muralist, who will work with the officer's family to find the right photos to use as a guide.
"I think the mural will capture his spirit, and his legacy will live on in that neighborhood," Golden said.
Read the next story, WHEN DUTY AND LOYALTY COLLIDE.