Happy Land fire
|This article needs additional citations for verification. (December 2009)|
|Happy Land fire|
|Location||New York City (West Farms, Bronx), New York|
|Date||March 25, 1990 |
|Target||Happy Land social club|
|Arson, mass murder|
|Motive||Argument with girlfriend|
The Happy Land fire was an arson fire that killed 87 people trapped in an unlicensed social club named "Happy Land", at 1959 Southern Boulevard in the West Farms section of the Bronx in New York City on March 25, 1990. Most of the victims were young Hondurans celebrating Carnival. Unemployed Cuban refugee Julio Gonzlez, whose former girlfriend was employed at the club, was arrested soon afterward and ultimately convicted of arson and murder.
Before the blaze, Happy Land was ordered closed for building code violations during November 1988. Violations included lack of fire exits, alarms or sprinkler system. No follow-up by the fire department was documented.
The evening of the fire, Gonzlez had argued with his former girlfriend, Lydia Feliciano, a coat check girl at the club, urging her to quit. She claimed that she had had enough of him and did not want anything to do with him anymore. Gonzlez tried to fight back into the club but was ejected by the bouncer. He was heard to scream drunken threats in the process. Gonzlez had recently lost his job at a lamp factory, was impoverished, and had virtually no companions. Unable to acquire a gun, Gonzlez returned to the establishment with a plastic container of gasoline. He spread the fuel on a staircase, the only access into the club, and then ignited the gasoline.
The fire exits had been blocked to prevent people from entering without paying the cover charge. In the panic that ensued, a few people escaped by breaking a metal gate over one door.
Gonzlez then returned home, removed his gasoline-soaked clothes and fell asleep. He was arrested the following afternoon after police investigators interviewed Feliciano and learned of the previous night's argument. Once advised of his rights, he admitted to starting the blaze. A psychological examination found him to be not responsible for the crime due to mental illness or defect; but the jury, after deliberation, found him to be criminally responsible.
Gonzlez was charged with 174 counts of murder, two for each victim, and was found guilty on 87 counts of arson and 87 counts of murder on August 19, 1991. For each count he received the sentence maximum of 25 years to life (a total of 4,350 years). It was the most substantial prison term ever imposed in the state of New York. He will be eligible for parole during March 2015 as New York law states that the sentences for multiple murders occurring during one act will be served concurrently, rather than consecutively. Julio Gonzalez was denied parole in March 2015. He will be eligible again in November 2016.
The club and premises
The building that housed Happy Land club was managed partly by Jay Weiss, at the time the husband of actress Kathleen Turner. The New Yorker quoted Turner saying that "the fire was unfortunate but could have happened at a McDonald's". The building's owner, Alex DiLorenzo III, and leaseholders Weiss and Morris Jaffe, were found not responsible criminally, since they had tried to close the club and evict the tenant. During 1987, Weiss and Jaffe's company, Little Peach Realty Inc., had leased the building space for seven years to the club owner, Elias Colon, who died in the fire. An eviction trial against Mr. Colon had been scheduled to start on March 28.
While they were found not responsible criminally, the city filed misdemeanor charges during February 1991 against DiLorenzo, the building owner, and Weiss, the landlord. These charges claimed that the owner and landlord were responsible for the building code violations caused by their tenant. They both pleaded guilty during May 1992, agreeing to perform community service and paying $150,000 towards a community center for Hondurans in the Bronx.
There was also a $5 billion lawsuit filed by the victims and their families against the owner, landlord, city, and some building material manufacturers. That suit was settled during July 1995 for $15.8 million or $163,000 per victim. The lesser amount was due mostly to unrelated financial difficulties of the landlord.
The street outside the former Happy Land social club has been renamed "The Plaza of the Eighty-Seven" as a way of memorializing the victims. Five of the victims were students at nearby Theodore Roosevelt High School, which had a memorial service for the victims during April 1990. A memorial was erected directly across the street from the former establishment with the names of all 87 victims inscribed on it.
In popular culture
The arson was the subject of the Duran Duran song, "Sin of the City" (lyrics of which state that 89 people died, when in fact it was 87), a Joe Jackson song, "Happyland", and Tom Russell's song "A Dollar's Worth of Gasoline" from his Hurricane Season CD.
It was also mentioned in the Jay-Z song, "You, Me, Him, and Her."
A fictionalized version of the arson, changed to an arson intended to intimidate the Latino community, was featured on Law & Order season 2 episode "Heaven". The case was also the basis for an adapted episode of Law & Order: UK Series 1 entitled "Paradise".
On the nineteenth episode of the fourth season of Criminal Minds, Tommy Wheeler seems to be based on Gonzalez, though his body count was 34 rather than 87, and he was a serial arsonist instead of setting only one fire.
- Blumenthal, Ralph (March 26, 1990). "Fire in The Bronx; 87 Die in Blaze at Illegal Club; Police Arrest Ejected Patron; Worst New York Fire Since 1911". New York Times.
- McKinley, James C. Jr. (March 26, 1990). "Fire in the Bronx; Happy Land Reopened and Flourished After Being Shut as a Hazard". New York Times.
- Julio Gonzlez, DIN# 91-A-7544 via New York State Inmate Population Information Search
- Barbanel, Josh (March 27, 1990). "Fire in The Bronx; Tracing the Club's Owners". New York Times.
- Logan, Andy (April 23, 1990). "Happy Land". The New Yorker.
- McFadden, Robert D. (November 16, 1990). "Prosecutor Clears Landlords In Fatal Social Club Arson". New York Times.
- Bennet, James (April 21, 1992). "Judge to Start Weighing Charges That Owners Were at Fault in Happy Land Fire". New York Times. Retrieved July 21, 2012.
In 1987, Mr. Weiss subleased the site for seven years to Elias Colon, who ran the Happy Land Social Club and who died in the fire.
- "Misdemeanors Charged in Happy Land Fire". New York Times. February 2, 1991. Retrieved July 20, 2012.
- Hevesi, Dennis (May 9, 1992). "Guilty Plea By Landlord In Fire Case". New York Times. Retrieved July 21, 2012.
- Gonzalez, Juan (March 24, 1995). "Little Aid Seen In Club Arson". New York Daily News. Retrieved July 21, 2012.
- Lueck, Thomas J. (July 8, 1995). "Slide From Riches for Landlord in Happy Land Case". New York Times. Retrieved July 21, 2012.
- Russo, Gina. "A History of Deadly Fires and their Memorials". The Station Fire Memorial Foundation. Retrieved February 18, 2015.
- "Crotona Parkway Malls". Happy Land Memorial. Retrieved February 18, 2015.
- Associated Press article in The New York Times
- Crime Library article
- Pictures of the memorial
- New York, NY Happy Land Social Club Fire, Mar 1990 at GenDisasters.com