In a way, Lisa Espinosa is one of the lucky ones.
Just a few months ago, she was one of Philly’s countless bereaved mothers of sons lost to street violence who tearfully told her son’s story at anti-violence rallies, handed out flyers with his picture and pleaded for witnesses to come forward.
The city saw 280 homicides in 2015. Police only closed 52 percent of homicide investigations that year. The latest department stats show 237 homicides so far in 2016, a one percent uptick over this time last year.
One of those was Espinosa's son, Raymond "RJ" Pantoja, 26. Known to his friends as "Hommi," he was gunned down April 10 outside a Kensington club while in a fistfight with other men.
Unlike so many other mothers, in her case, her persistence worked.
Last week, she got the long awaited text message from the homicide detective who was reviewing her son’s case. “He is officially charged,” it said. Espinosa got the text at work and fell to her knees screaming, she said.
That night, she went into her son’s bedroom. She took the hundreds of flyers she still had printed up with RJ’s picture, tore them up into confetti and threw them around the room.
“That night, I felt like this waxy, rubber-insulated plug just popped out of my chest,” she said. “It was the first night since my son’s murder I had a good sleep.”
Police charged Giovanny Perales, 30, on Oct. 26 with shooting Pantoja to death after an altercation between their groups of friends in a club on Allegheny Avenue and B Street spilled out onto the street.
Part of Espinosa’s struggle with losing her son is over. The constant paranoia she experienced every time she saw someone whose build matched that of the killer is gone. But now she’s entering a new stage of grief.
“Now I can grieve my son. This was phase one. Phase two is becoming a rollercoaster for me,” she said. “I still cry every night before I go to bed. And I still cry first thing in the morning when I wake up.”
The new nightmare she lives through is what she saw on surveillance video: her son, who boxed as a youth, knocking people out as he defended his friends, before the suspect walks out of a crowd, presses a 9mm handgun to her son’s chest and fires.
“Once I saw his face, that’s the image that I have in my head constantly,” she said. “Even when I don’t want to think about it, that image is there.”
Pantoja’s murder went unsolved for months because none of the dozens of witnesses at the club that night would testify. Even the two friends who originally sparked the altercation wouldn’t talk to cops. Instead they promised Espinosa “street justice”—which she didn’t want.
“My son died defending friends who weren’t even worth his loyalty,” she said.
Instead, Espinosa undertook her own investigation, passing out flyers on Allegheny Avenue, while attending anti-violence rallies and trying to drum up more media and police attention.
Police say her appearance on TV inspired a key witness to approach police.
“One of the main things that took place was Ms. Espinosa was on the news, crying out for some help from the public,” said Homicide Det. Greg Singleton. “An individual came forward and gave us some information.”
That information led Singleton to later charge Perales, who was arrested at his home with guns and drugs.
“Based on what we found, he’s obviously a drug dealer,” Singleton said. “The two only meet and come together because of a fight ... It could be anything from a push to a stare to a ‘you on my feet’ type of thing.”
Pantoja, an amateur rapper, was arrested two years ago for selling marijuana just before the holidays. Then he spent last year’s holidays in prison because he violated his probation by not taking the same court-ordered programs he already took while incarcerated, according to his mother. In the beginning of 2016, he was seeking a fresh start and construction work, she said.
“He came out in January. He was so passionate about doing the right thing,” she said. “That’s where we was at when he died.”
Now, Espinosa, who works as director of an HIV/AIDs program at Kensington Hospital, has her two other sons and Pantoja’s daughter to care for. She said she wants to honor the memory of her son by supporting other family members of murder victims, and by creating the Ray's Rhythm for Justice Foundation, to help provide troubled teens interested in music with studio time.
But the holidays are especially tough. Because Pantoja wasn’t there for holidays during the last two years, either.
“My RJ’s missing. He should be there, painting pumpkins with his daughter … he should be here for the holidays,” she said, weeping. “This suspect took a link of my family. And it’s so hard to get that back. There’s a void.”