It’s a pale, cinder block room, one wall is in glass. Boxes of toilet paper are piled up at one end. The young man in the orange jumpsuit with a plump, almost babyish face edged by a thin beard sits at a conference table with a reporter, his voice cracking with emotion.
“I used to help the kids with their homework. We ate dinner together…put the kids asleep. We did everything as a family,” says Leonardo Valdez-Cruz, 24. “I still love her dearly. I’d give my life to get her back.”
If it’s a love story, it has a very bad ending. One that would see a woman dead and her ex-boyfriend awaiting trial for her murder.
According to her family, Jo’Anna Bird felt sure she was going to die by the hands of the father of one of her children. And she was convinced that police and prosecutors would do little to prevent it.
She was the third of nine children. She grew up in Hempstead, Roosevelt and Westbury, the daughter of a town maintenance worker. She took an after school job at age 14 and hoped for a career in law enforcement. But at 17, she became pregnant by a soldier who later was assigned to Iraq and apparently didn’t want the child.
Valdez-Cruz, who was already building a juvneile rap sheet and, by his own admission, “hanging around” with a gang first met her in Westbury. “I thought she was beautiful and I was attracted to her. I started talking to her,” he says.
According to Valdez-Cruz, he and Jo’Anna became close as the relationship with her then-boyfriend rapidly soured. He was there for the birth of Nana, Jo’Anna’s daughter with the soldier, and later moved in with her family. Leo, his child with Jo’Anna, was born in March 2005. He helped cut the umbilical cord.
Valdez-Cruz maintains he was getting along with Jo’Anna’s large family as well. But the family tells a darker story.
Shortly after Leo was born, they say, Valdez-Cruz grew possessive, following Jo’Anna to work, asking jealous questions, sometimes waiting in the parking lot until she got off. Before long, he was flying into rages and physically attacking her. Valdez-Cruz hasn’t admitted to that, but does acknowledge something changed after Leo’s birth. “I started hanging out with the wrong people then, then I started experimenting with drugs, and they took hold of me.”
Court records show Jo’Anna obtained an order of protection against Valdez-Cruz in April 2008, along with temporary custody of Nana and Leo. A few weeks later, Valdez-Cruz was arrested and charged with violating the order when he struck her. With that on his record, another violation would mean a high probability of jail time. Nevertheless, police reports show the following month, he climbed through the window of Bird’s second floor apartment while she was out, propped a chair against the front door and fell asleep. He woke up to the sounds of a Special OPS team breaking in. “I had nowhere else to go,” he told police.
Domestic violence experts say court orders of protection work in 80% of the cases, but the danger comes from the few violators who don’t worry about the ramifications of breaching an order. Professor Howard Kassinove, director of Hofstra’s Institute for Study and Treatment for Anger and Aggression, says serial abusers are “demanders” for whom punishment is an abstract concept. “These guys, you can have a restraining order against them, you can tell them they’re going to go to jail. But they don’t know what else to do.”
Whatever his state of mind, Valdez-Cruz was convicted and sentenced to 8 months in jail for the break in. While in prison, court documents indicate he placed at least four threatening phone calls to Jo’Anna. He was released on December 1.
Family members say when Valdez-Cruz got out of jail he began stalking Jo’Anna in earnest. He came through windows, hid behind furniture and followed her.
The family says they called police “numerous times,” but responders treated Jo’Anna’s tormentor more like a familiar nuisance than a criminal. They called Valdez-Cruz by his street name, “Pito, go take a walk,” they would say, according to Jo’Anna’s mother Sharon Dorsett. The police aren’t commenting on these allegations.
By now, word of Jo’Anna’s situation was out on the street. Her family says Pito was telling his friends that if she didn’t give him a “second chance,” he’d kill her. They say Jo’Anna knew she was in serious danger and told them, “I know I’m going to die. I know he’s going to catch me and kill me.”
It was January 2009, two months after Valdez-Cruz got out of jail. According to the family and police records, Valdez-Cruz jumped out from behind a couch when Jo’Anna arrived home one night. He forced her to drive to Westbury. There, he pulled out a gun. “We’re going to sit here, and you’re going to give me a chance, or you’re going to die right now,” the family claims he told Jo’Anna. When he tried to stuff her into the trunk, she broke away, but Valdez-Cruz caught up, threw her to the ground and started to choke her, “Do you think I’m playing with you? I’m going to kill you!” Begging for her life, Jo’Anna told Valdez-Cruz she loved him and wanted to stay with him. He relented, promising not to kill her if she kept her word.
This time, Jo’Anna Bird did not call police.
Frightened victims often don’t call police, especially when having an abuser arrested hasn’t worked in the past, according to Patti Jo Newell, Director of Public Policy for the NY State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Because if calling the police has an aggravating effect, as it often does, on the abuser, but nothing actually happens, nothing really comes of it in a meaningful way regarding accountability, survivors are sometimes reluctant to make that call again.”
The following day, Jo’Anna’s mother noticed, “she just didn’t seem like herself.” When Jo’Anna told her mother what happened, Dorsett rushed her to the hospital. What took place next, the family claims, began a final, tragic chain of official missteps.
According to Dorsett, a nurse sent the two women to hospital security, where police were called. Two female officers arrived, and Dorsett says, one of them warned, “Either press charges [or] don’t waste my time.” Jo’Anna agreed. Dorsett says she was standing in the doorway while Jo’Anna was being examined, photographed and questioned by both doctors and police detectives when the unbelievable happened—Leonardo Valdez-Cruz entered the room.
According to Dorsett, one of the detectives asked, “Pito, why are you here? Are you sick?” And he said, “No, I came up here because my ex-girlfriend is here and I came to find out why she’s here.”
Cops tackled and frisked Valdez-Cruz on the spot, arresting him for attacking Bird the previous day. But for reasons police have not officially explained, they didn’t charge him with violating her order of protection by coming within 100 yards of her, which would have immediately led to additional jail time for Valdez-Cruz. Without this charge, the case against Valdez-Cruz now rested on the assault and kidnapping incident the prior day. Unfortunately, there was only one witness to that incident: Jo’Anna Bird herself.
And Jo’Anna was very, very scared. Pito was in jail, but for how long? State law provides that when someone is charged with a felony, he must be released after a week if insufficient evidence is presented. The D.A. had only that much time to either persuade the frightened victim to testify against her assailant, or come up with other evidence that would convince a judge to retain Pito until his trial.
Because of normal paperwork delays, prosecutors in the Special Victims’ bureau in Mineola say they didn’t even see the records until two days after the arrest. They wrote a letter to Bird and issued a subpoena. But on the morning of the hearing, Bird was a no-show at the courthouse. Prosecutors say they called her, and when they couldn’t reach her, sent a patrol car to her home. According to one assistant D.A., the officer reported back that someone at Bird’s house said she was not coming.
Bird’s family tells a completely different story: No one from the D.A.’s office contacted Jo’Anna after Valdez-Cruz’ arrest. She didn’t get a subpoena. And no one told her it would be necessary to testify at a court hearing to keep Valdez-Cruz in jail. Jo’Anna’s mother maintains that on the morning of the hearing, Jo’Anna was looking for a place to stay to get away from Pito. Yet, the D.A.’s office refuses to comment as to whether or not there is a record of the subpoena.
The hearing before County Court Judge Valerie Alexander lasted only a few minutes. “The people are unable to be ready for the felony exam at this time,” said the assistant district attorney. Alexander ordered Valdez-Cruz released.
Fred Brewington, the attorney representing Bird’s family, insists the office of Nassau County D.A. Kathleen Rice “blew it,” that prosecutors could have used police testimony and medical evidence from the assault to argue against letting Valdez-Cruz out of jail.
Former Nassau prosecutor Marc Gann is also critical. He says that when Bird failed to show in court, prosecutors could have used the incident at the hospital to re-arrest Valdez-Cruz after his release. “Knowing that they weren’t going to be able to go ahead with the felony hearing, they could have charged him at that point with contempt from the week before,” says Gann.
Facing a possible lawsuit from the Bird family, D.A. Rice has had little to say. In one of her only public statements on the case, she told a reporter, “There was no way to proceed without the cooperation of Miss Bird.”
No one disputes this: On February 2, one week after his latest arrest, Leonardo “Pito” Valdez-Cruz was released from the Nassau County Correctional Center—back on the street and determined to resume his relationship with Jo’Anna Bird.
Police say they offered Jo’Anna a personal “panic button” alarm to summon help, but she refused. In any case—according to the Bird family—Valdez-Cruz immediately resumed stalking Jo’Anna. Just days before her murder, her family says Valdez-Cruz broke into the house three times. Police were called, but again, family members say they failed to make an arrest. “They caught him trying to jump through the window—he couldn’t get it unlocked—and they still told him to take a walk,” Dorsett says. “Every time they came, they used to say, ‘Oh, it’s Pito.’ Like it’s no big deal because it’s him.”
On the morning of March 19, the day before friends and family claim Jo’Anna was planning to move to North Carolina, Jo’Anna called Dorsett, “Mommy, please get over here quick, I’m locked in the house, I can’t get out. Pito’s acting crazy and he won’t let me go.”
Dorsett and her daughter Melissa raced to Jo’Anna’s house. Melissa called 9-1-1 while Sharon talked to the frantic Jo’Anna. “I was trying to keep her on the line as I was driving…and she was still on the phone screaming at me. And then she stopped.”
The two women arrived at Jo’Anna’s home and banged on the door. There was no answer. Melissa called 9-1-1 again. When police came, Sharon told them what was happening and begged them to bust down the door. But they refused, citing protocol.
Police officials later explained that officers didn’t rush into the house immediately because they were concerned about a possible hostage situation. But to the family, the officers on Jo’Anna’s lawn seemed anything but concerned, casually “talking and laughing,” a sergeant remarking, “Oh, it’s the Pito thing.”
A small army of police gathered, including hostage negotiators and the Emergency Services Unit, as well as Leonardo’s sister, Aurea. Dorsett claims Valdez-Cruz’s confession came across Aurea’s cell phone speaker when he said, “I told you what I was going to do…I was going to kill Jo’Anna and that’s what I did. Jo’Anna’s dead and the body is in the house.”
Officers overheard the conversation and burst into action, breaking down the door. They found Jo’Anna on the steps, “with a severe injury to the trachea and the major artery in the neck,” according to Nassau Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey. Mulvey says ESU officers determined she was dead.
Both the family and Mulvey have confirmed that police removed Bird and laid her in front of the house, though the question remains as to when it was determined she was dead. Leonardo Valdez-Cruz was arrested in the Bronx a few days later.
Could Jo’Anna Bird have been saved if police acted more quickly? Brewington says what police did “borders on criminal…Jo’Anna Bird was injured at a time when police could have saved her, bleeding at a time when police and EMTs could have saved her, and died at a time when they were sitting outside cracking jokes and making snide remarks to the family.”
Mulvey argues police on the scene had no reason to believe they were looking at anything but a “domestic situation.” Police acted properly because “there was no information conveyed to responding officers that Jo’Anna was bleeding to death behind that locked door at the time.”
It’s an issue that is likely to be hashed out in a hefty lawsuit the Bird family is filing against the county. But it’s not the only question about what happened on March 19. The Medical Examiner’s report includes a statement that paramedics removed Bird “to a stretcher in the ambulance, and she went on to expire” with no mention about her being laid in the front yard. Does that mean Bird might have still been alive when cops first discovered her in the house? “Why would they say that if it weren’t true?” asks Brewington. “And if it were true, how come they didn’t treat her from the very beginning?” Family members insist they saw cops turn away an EMS crew who arrived on the scene shortly after police brought Jo’Anna out.
And then there is the question of how and when Jo’Anna’s killer escaped despite the heavy police presence at the home.
With a trial and civil litigation imminent, police have refused to elaborate further on how they handled events on the day of Jo’Anna’s death. But Commissioner Mulvey has admitted that officers disregarded procedures and barely took any notes when called to the Bird family home in the days prior to the killing. “I wish we had provided better service to the family on the 15th and 17th. In that sense we failed,” Mulvey said. Eight officers and one sergeant face departmental charges and possible disciplinary proceedings, though police brass has refused to identify the officers or discuss details of their cases. Nassau Police Commissioner Mulvey also ordered a department wide tightening of procedures for handling domestic violence calls. Police are now required to file a written form on every domestic violence call, regardless of the outcome.
In the attorney/inmate visiting room at the Nassau Jail, Leonardo Valdez-Cruz’ attorney won’t let him answer specific questions about the case, but he maintains his innocence.
“I have to go to sleep and wake up every day knowing I’m never going to see her face again,” he says. “I wasn’t allowed to go to the wake. I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. I’m being accused of murdering the love of my life.”
Just before a guard leads him away, Valdez-Cruz begs a reporter not to make him look like a “monster.” “I’m not an animal,” he says.