August 25, 2019

Bronx man sentenced in rat poison death of 5-year-old son

NEW YORK (AP) – A New York City man will spend 20 years to life in prison for killing his 5-year-old son and sickening his 7-year-old daughter with poison-laced pizza.

After learning that his ex-wife was seeing another man, Leonardo Espinal took it out on their children in November 2012 by tainting their pizza with rat poison, Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson said Thursday after the sentencing.

The little girl, Mia, threw up after eating the pizza. When her brother, Steward, soiled himself, their father took him into the bathroom.

Espinal’s stepmother called 911. Police broke down the bathroom door. Steward was in the bathtub, dead from a combination of the poison and being submerged in water.

“My beloved angel,” the children’s mother, Rosaura Abreu, said in a victim impact statement that was written in Spanish, translated into English and read by a prosecutor in court.

“I will never forget the last time I saw my little son. … He was radiant, happy, content and followed me all around the house.”

“When it was time for me to leave, he followed me to the door and I knelt down to talk with him. It’s as if my heart knew that it would be the last time I would see him alive.”

Steward told his mother that he loved her. They hugged and she said “that I loved him from the bottom of my heart, more than own life.”

After the crime, Mia suffered anxiety attacks at the mere mention of returning to the apartment. “She never wanted to sleep in the same bed where she slept with her Steward, protecting him from monsters,” their mother said.

Therapy has helped them, but is by no means a cure-all.

“Mia suffers a great deal when she goes to parties, when she goes to bed, when she plays with other children, when she sees photos of him, when she sees another boy the same age as him, when she sees me sad because she knows I am thinking of him,” Abreu said.

Espinal pleaded guilty last month to murder and attempted murder.

“All we can do,” said Abreu, “is take it day by day.”

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Bronx man sentenced in rat poison death of 5-year-old son

'A poison ivy crisis,' and he's the crisis manager

Plants are waking up and seedlings emerging. Runners are creeping across yards and woodlands, over fences and walls. Ropelike aerial roots are shooting up the sides of trees like archers to a target.

Got itch yet?

Poison ivy got its name in the 1600s from Capt. John Smith, the explorer, who noted its resemblance to English ivy. Connecticut is the nation’s poison ivy epicenter, Mycka says, “but the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware region is not far off.”

It’s spread by birds, which eat the seeds. Development and habitat destruction, and our own gardening habits, are factors, too, Mycka says. We build homes and attract birds that like to eat from feeders, explore our gardens, and perch on our decks, buildings, and fences.

Duke University researchers have also determined that rising carbon dioxide levels are causing poison ivy to grow faster and produce more potent urushiol, the pale, resin-like substance that causes the plant’s signature rash, swelling, and blistering.

“We have a poison ivy crisis now,” Mycka says. “People can’t identify it and remove it. They’re so disconnected from nature.”

That was not the case with Gusoff, a retired public schoolteacher who loves to garden and tried for two years, unsuccessfully, to get rid of her poison ivy.

Gusoff, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and other ailments and walks with a cane, became so overwhelmed by “the monster” quietly infiltrating her yard that she avoided the family’s aboveground pool for two summers.

And got zapped anyway.

In August, she broke out in a bodysuit-like rash after snuggling with Delilah Mercedes, her senior-citizen golden retriever now nicknamed “the culprit.”

“She enjoys exploring the backyard. It’s a jungle out there,” says Gusoff, who finally called Mycka.

One day in late April, he arrives with a crew of three. They’re wearing long sleeves, long pants, double gloves, and wrist-to-elbow Tyvek protectors, knee pads, and boots.

(We resist the temptation to chant: Leaves of three, let it be! Hairy rope, don’t be a dope!)

Using Japanese gardening knives and serrated grass sickles with hardened steel blades, the men follow the vines 15 feet down the trunk to the base of a 30-year-old white spruce, and out into the yard.

“It doesn’t matter if you start above or on the ground, as long as you get it all,” says Mycka, who estimates that Gusoff’s vine is nine years old, 19 feet long, and 25 pounds.

A mere mini.

In 2013, Mycka used crowbars to pry a 50-foot poison ivy vine off a hackberry tree along Kelly Drive in Fairmount Park. Counting rings, he determined that the female vine – yes, there are male and female plants – was 38 years old. Cut into five pieces, it tipped the scales at 506 pounds.

“This is an interesting job,” says Mycka, who collects poison ivy books and art in his Overbrook home.

He grew up in the city’s Somerton section, always wanted to be a gardener, and became fascinated by toxic plants when he was a Boy Scout.

He signed on at the zoo in 1974 and, after seven years of evening classes, earned a two-year associate’s degree in horticulture from Temple University Ambler.

You’d think “the poison ivy horticulturist” would be happy that it’s such a problem. Actually, says Mycka, who hosted a poison ivy conference in Philadelphia in 2012 and 2013, “I want to educate people. There’s so much suffering. I really don’t want to have 20 crews out pulling poison ivy.”

Poisonous in every season, poison ivy doesn’t die in winter. Bird-dropped seeds can germinate and wind up climbing a tree 15 feet away. In three years, that vine can be 25 feet up the trunk. In 40 years, just imagine.

If you’re lucky, you’re among the 15 percent of the population whose immune systems don’t register poison ivy as a threat. Mycka’s crew is among them, but he is not.

Yes, the boss occasionally gets the rash. But, as you might imagine, he is very, very careful.

So careful that when a now poison-ivy-free Gusoff approaches to shake his hand, Mycka backs off. “We’ll do a virtual handshake,” he says.

“God bless you,” his grateful client responds from two feet away.






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'A poison ivy crisis,' and he's the crisis manager

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