A True Story from My 1979 Year in Puerto Rico
On a whim Benny Bosco decided to visit his friends in Puerto Rico. The flight from New York is cheap, so without mentioning it to anyone he bought a ticket and flew to San Juan to surprise them. Unfortunately, Paco and Silvia had left the island to vacation in Miami for a week.
Their home, like all the properties in their neighborhood, was surrounded by high walls with broken glass on top. Benny assumed they had gone to town and would be back soon, so he scaled the wall to wait inside. Bad move.
A neighbor saw Benny drop into the yard and called the police. To his surprise the officers would not accept his explanation. They had no way to contact Paco or Silvia so he was taken into custody. He was then presented to a magistrate and sentenced to one month at Bayamon Prison.
The 33-year-old Benny, with auburn hair and white, pasty skin, had never committed a crime in his life, not even shoplifting, so it was quite the shock to be locked up in Q Ward with murderers, rapists, armed robbers and car thieves. Q Ward is where all newly sentenced criminals are detained till assigned a more permanent place in the prison.
Upon release prisoners must go to a half-way house detention center for six months, and Benny chose a Salvation Army facility in Calle 13. The warders at the S.A. as it was called varied, from detained prisoners on recent release to men who had nowhere else to go. They accepted this life of restricted freedoms in order to have a bed, three meals a day and a roof over their heads. This particular facility was run by Captain Eli, who had taken charge the previous year.
Benny had a good heart. Seeing that there was plenty of work to be done, he was always first to pitch in. In a matter of weeks Benny was second in command. Very few of the lifers were interested in the work and the rest were counting the days till their release.
During Benny’s third month at the facility the first of two major events occurred. Captain Eli had taken an interest in a woman whom he now planned to marry, a wedding slated for less than four weeks out. The mood should have become celebratory, but instead Captain Eli’s stern side amped up. He wanted the place to shine, and everyone would have to go the second mile to ensure that his new bride was comfortable there. There were special religious services held to cast out any evil spirits that may have seeped in with the former prison inmates. Lots of praying and seriousness ensued.
The wedding was to be held in a chapel at a casino along the Condado. None of the residents at the S.A. were invited except Benny. It was a small service attended by a friend of Captain Eli and family members of the bride.
Captain Eli planned a four day honeymoon afterwards on the Eastern tip of the island, in Fajardo, at a resort that promises, “If you do not see the sun, you do not have to pay.” Except during the last hurricane, there has never been a day the resort had to cover expenses.
Benny had been given command for the four days Captain was out. It didn’t require much of a change in his routine. He kept records of who came and went and who was absent at curfew, which on this four day watch was only Fletch. Benny overlooked the offense lest it add another three months to his stay.
When the couple returned to the S.A., Benny sensed that the new bride seemed much more reserved than on those few occasions they’d met beforehand. Late one evening at the end of the first week a fracas broke out in the bedroom chamber of Captain Eli and his bride. Benny heard the captain’s sharp, somewhat vicious shouting and what sounded like gasps and muffled screams from his bride. Benny had heard similar noises during church services in which a pastor would be shouting, “In the name of Jesus, get thee out of here Satan.” Or, “Get thee behind me,” quoting the Scriptures. Benny had seen Captain Eli perform similar rituals when dealing with a derelict at the S.A.
Several of the men had come into the hallway where Benny stood in the shadows, fearful and uncertain.
“You need to go in there and stop this,” Miguel urged.
The Captain’s fierce commands broke off so that only a whimpering sob could be heard from the woman he had taken as a wife, and then silence.
His head pounding with an unusual intensity Benny took a deep breath, turned and suggested the men not be found idling in the hallway if the captain should come out. Benny himself went downstairs to the basement and made his way to the billiard room, the furthest away one could get from the captain’s residence.
The next day Captain Eli left early and Benny took care of the paperwork, cleaning and his usual responsibilities. By mid-morning he began to be concerned that Lily had not made an appearance at breakfast. He knocked on the apartment door and listened.
“Just a minute.” The young woman’s voice trembled like a captured pigeon.
“Can I bring you something to eat?”
She said yes, some Tamarindo juice would be nice.
He returned with a tray of juice, crackers and fruit. When the door opened Benny could see that she was wearing a silk scarf and had heavy mascara on her face. The curtains were drawn and the lights off. Though a sliver of sunlight pierced the room, it left it mostly clothed in shadows.
That evening Captain Eli returned while Benny was cleaning up after supper. The captain rummaged in the fridge, filling his plate with scraps of leftovers. Benny caught the vapor trail of hard liquor as the captain turned and left the kitchen without saying a word.
“Have a good night, sir,” Benny said.
Two days passed before the next incident, this one louder and more violent than the first. Benny stood outside the door, fearful of what he might find. Two residents, Jackson and Murphy, pushed him aside and burst into the room. Captain Eli’s hands were throttling his wife’s neck as he banged her head against a wall. Murphy struck him on the side of his head with a fist, then yanked him backward toward the bed. The captain maintained his hold on his wife’s throat and all three fell to the ground. At this point Jackson intervened, wedging the two apart and carrying Lily out of the room. Benny could see she was bleeding from the corner of her mouth as she passed by.
Murphy had now twisted the captain over so he was face down on the floor, Murphy’s knees nailed between the shoulder blades. Someone must have called the police because two officers were now present, one of them placing cuffs on the the captain. Benny thanked the officers for their quick response as he signed some papers and answered questions.
I first met Benny during his brief stay at Bayamon Prison. In fact, he was the first person I met there during my year of prison ministry. I’ve spent a lifetime wondering how to best tell the stories of my experiences there, essentially leading a weekly Bible study and befriending a lot of interesting men. Each one I found fascinating. Each one had a story, and this was Benny’s, which isn’t over yet.
As it turns out, Captain Eli and Lily were never officially married, the reason being that he never officially filed the marriage paperwork. Captain Eli was a criminal on the lam from New York. I never found out whether it was a murder rap or grand larceny. Whatever it was he was running from was big enough to flee the country and to assume a new identity. At the beginning of my year of prison work, Benny was in prison. Captain Eli ran the Salvation Army facility in Calle 13. At the end of my year, Captain Eli was in prison and Benny Bosco was now Lieutenant Bosco, a compassionate man with a good heart, in charge of the S.A. in Calle 13.
EdNote: The names have been changed, but the story is as true as I know how to tell. Thanks for reading… and for sharing.