“My 16-Year-Old Brother Was Shot to Death and No One Was Arrested” — Nathalie Arzu’s Story 

It was one of those gloomy days in upstate New York and Nathalie Arzu, 19, was feeling down, but couldn’t put her finger on why. Arzu was one month into her sophomore year at Herkimer Community College, about a one-hour drive west from Albany and over three hours away from her home in the south Bronx.

Jose Webster (photo: Daily News)

Jose Webster (photo: Daily News)

Back in the Bronx, her 16-year-old brother, Jose, asked his mom if he could walk his girlfriend home. It was something he liked to do, but it was 6 p.m. on a fall evening and his mom didn’t like him out in the dark. Jose’s girlfriend only lived seven blocks away, but in the south Bronx, seven blocks can lead to an entirely different neighborhood. His mom had just made dinner—chicken cutlets, yellow rice, and plantains—and told her son to hurry back. She placed the food on the stove while Jose grabbed his bike and walked out.

Around 9 p.m., Nathalie was in a cab on her way back from dinner with friends when she got a call from her 10-year-old brother, Julian.

“Nathalie, don’t get mad,” he said. His tone was casual and given his young age, Nathalie expected to hear a story about how he broke something of hers. “What am I going to get mad about?” she replied.

“Don’t be mad, but Jose has been shot.” Julian was with their sister and mom on the way to the hospital. “A sharpness hit my heart,” she says, “and I dropped my phone on the cab floor.”

Depending on where you lived in the Bronx at that time, shootings were a daily occurrence. “Shooting continues even when the ambulance arrives, so the paramedics have to stay inside [their vehicle] until it stops,” Nathalie says. From an early age, she learned how to hide behind walls at the sound of gunfire and knew what times to avoid certain areas, like the basketball courts near her apartment complex. “You’d hear gunshots around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, especially when it started getting warm out, and again at night around 11 p.m., 1 a.m., and 3 a.m.” But despite the clockwork nature of her neighborhood’s gun violence, Nathalie never thought anyone in her family would be affected by it. There was always a sense that if you were smart—staying away from gangs, drugs, and certain areas—you’d be ok.

“I immediately started crying,” Nathalie recalls. As soon as she got to her dorm room, she grabbed a garbage bag and started packing. “I don’t know where I was going,” she says. “But I just started walking.” She had been walking for a good half hour when her sister called. “She told me what I already knew. Jose had died.”

Jose was a smart kid; he got good grades with little effort, but his biggest weakness was perhaps his pride. “If I got into an argument with somebody, or whatever the case may be,” says Nathalie, “especially if it was with a guy, before he even asked what happened, he’d be the first one throwing a punch.” She would often tease him about the time he peed on a boy’s head in Honduras when he was 11 because the boy said something he didn’t like. “For some people, they’re just gonna keep walking if someone says something. For him, it was more like, ‘Don’t talk to me like that. Don’t disrespect me and expect me to just keep walking.’”

Nathalie and Jose spent almost every summer together in Honduras with their maternal grandparents. Their grandparents were very strict about traditional gender roles. Nathalie would spend time in the kitchen with her grandmother, while Jose played dominoes with his grandfather. He could stay out past sundown; she could not. Their dad was never really in the picture and when they were 12, he committed suicide. Jose’s grandfather was the closest thing he had to a dad. Back in New York, being the eldest boy, Jose was the man of the family. He helped with “typical guy chores” like taking out the trash. Nathalie describes him as protective over everyone.

Once it was confirmed that her brother had died, Nathalie walked to the registrar’s office and withdrew from school. Knowing that she had no way to get home because funds in her family were tight, her friends pooled their money together to buy her a train ticket. “I was in a state of shock,” she says. “When people talked to me, I would listen, but I just couldn’t get my body to respond.”

Nathalie stayed home and lived in a state of numbness for five months. During this time she would have vivid dreams where she’d interrogate Jose, demanding to know why he walked his girlfriend home that night. Sometimes she’d wake up unsure if she had really spoken to him or if it was just a dream. “I used to walk [outside] and see him across the street. It wasn’t him.” At some point she tried to re-enroll in a new school, but failed out after one semester. “I couldn’t find something to live for,” she says.

Nathalie doesn’t understand why or how, but by the fall semester of 2012, almost a year after her brother’s death, she was ready to return to school and start living again. “Some people say I just got out of my daze,” she recalls. But it could’ve had something to do with her memory of how Jose used to taunt her. “Before I could even get a job, he used to say to me, ‘Nathalie, go get a job.’ We were all living off my mother, which meant less money for everyone and I was the oldest.” The reality of that responsibility started to creep back as she struggled to stop mourning.

At the time of his death, Jose had been exploring which colleges he wanted to apply to. The time they spent in Honduras—where they witnessed extreme poverty—inspired him to consider going into the health field. “He knew he wanted to go to college and take classes to figure out the right path for his interests,” Nathalie says. Now when she sees people the same age as her brother would’ve been who aren’t in school, it’s hard not to feel resentful. Her thought: “Don’t waste your life because there are other people who would gladly take your place.” Instead of stewing in bitterness, she tries to focus on her brother Julian, now 15, and making sure he achieves his goals. “I didn’t worry about Jose back then,” she explains. “Now, with Julian, I always want to know where he’s at.” Before Jose was killed, “I was one of those people who accepted gun violence as the norm because it didn’t affect me and I didn’t think it was going to affect me,” she says.

The details of Jose’s murder—what words were exchanged before the shooting, who did the shooting—are hazy, and Nathalie has struggled to make peace with the lack of resolution. “My brother is considered black and so his murder was perceived as a black-on-black crime, black homicide. I already knew the cops weren’t going to make it a priority to find the people who did it. I asked a few times, but you always hear the same thing: ‘We’re still working on it. It’s still open.’” Her family stopped talking to Jose’s girlfriend shortly after the incident. There are still heavy, unresolved feelings about just how much she knows.

Here’s what everyone does know, thanks to some local reporting after the shooting:

  • Just 10 days after his 16th birthday, around 8:50pm, Jose was walking on Teller Avenue near East 168th Street, with his girlfriend, also 16.
  • They were approached by two men who picked a fight with them.
  • Jose was shot 15 times and taken to Lincoln Hospital where he died.
  • Bullets from two different guns were pulled from his back and legs during an autopsy.
  • His death was one of 148 murders in the Bronx that year and 515 citywide.
  • No one has been charged with his murder.

Nowadays Nathalie doesn’t think of her brother Jose at random—she no longer sees him on the street or has lifelike dream encounters. But when she sees someone get shot on a TV show or watches news about shootings, she’s instantly triggered. “I know what that pain is,” she says. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.” Though she originally thought she’d like to be a nurse, Nathalie has discovered a new purpose for her future: tackle the underlying issues of gun violence head-on. She sees herself in the public health sector, working within communities to address the causes of violence and helping create policies to support victims. “I can get people to understand that [gun violence] is not a norm and it shouldn’t be accepted as one,” she says. “If people just accept it as a norm, it’s just gonna continue to happen and no one’s going to take responsibility.”

NYAGV thanks Dara Pettinelli for writing this article.