How a Valley Stream neighborhood reckons with gun violence


Editor's note: Since press time, the alleged identity and motive of one of the gunman has been confirmed. For the full story on this update, click here.  

Elizabeth Rios told her two kids to stay quiet and hunker down as she heard the sound of gunfire outside her Ocean Avenue home on Aug. 21. A few paces away, a hail of bullets ripped through a crowd of young people, several of them teenagers, who Rios said were out partying at 8:30 p.m. on the packed street.

As eight bullets whizzed past, the crowd scattered in a cloud of panic from the event space at 85 Ocean Ave. known as Dopie’s World. Young people rushed out, spilling into the parking lot, and climbing over fences to find cover. Police arrived to find the rental hall nearly deserted, according to the report.

Three of the five people struck by bullets were teenagers, and one, who was struck in the shoulder, was 12. The only person killed in the shooting was a 20-year-old Brooklyn man who died of his injuries in a nearby hospital shortly after the shooting.

After more than two weeks of investigation, basic questions as to the identity and motive of the gunmen are coming to light.  Kyle Matthews, 21, of Far Rockaway, an alleged member of the Bloods street gang, faces charges of murder and criminal possession of a weapon, police officials announced on Thursday. Newly surfaced evidence suggests the shooting was gang-related. One other shooter is still at large, say police officials. 

As the community reels from the tragedy, the resulting violence came as no surprise to Rios, who said something disastrous like this seemed bound to happen.

“I’ve lived here since 2017, and it wasn’t always like this. Ever since these parties started up, it’s not peaceful anymore,” said Rios, who’s reluctantly grown accustomed to what she described as the rowdy nightlife outside her home. She added the combination of  the event space across the street and  the neighboring smoke shop is a magnet for young people.

“There’s been hundreds of young people, teenagers, taking over the street like they own the place and raising hell,” said Rios. “It’s also not the first time I’ve seen them drinking alcohol.”

The morning following the shooting, investigators said alcohol and liquid marijuana were illegally sold to underage partygoers at the venue, which was advertised on social media. A fact completely unknown to the party space’s owner, Deborah Young, who said the event, was originally planned as a respectable end-of-summer-celebration, according to a report from Newsday. Young could not be reached after multiple requests for comment. 

Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said the rental hall has hosted sanctioned parties, and albeit drawing the ire of some of its neighbors, but the activities have not, up until now, caught the police’s attention.

But residents can’t deny that their neighborhood has changed for the worse.

For the better of thirty years, this had been a “tranquil” neighborhood, said Arquimides Lopez, the owner of the AL Mini Mart, one of the businesses along the strip. The last time he felt that tranquility brutally shaken was one December night in 2017, when his own brother and co-owner, Edwin Lopez, was gunned down at the corner side bodega. While the bloodshed of last month’s shooting seared into the public’s mind, the strip had faced another close episode of gun violence eight days prior.

Two alleged gunmen opened fire on a home on Garfield Avenue, the adjacent residential road running behind the strip in broad daylight, according to police reports. “You could hear the bullets from outside,” said Lopez. “The streets are becoming more dangerous.”

Hector Lopez, who has lived on Garfield Avenue for nearly two decades, was more explicit.

“The neighborhood is like hell,” he said. “It wasn’t like this before.”

He said the weekly parties don’t pose much of a problem and are usually kept at acceptable volumes. He has, however, noted the presence of “violent kids, 12, 13 years old, who are drinking alcohol,” said Lopez. “I’m sometimes picking up beer bottles left on the street.”

Within a week of the shooting, community leaders and residents assembled to demand greater self-policing of out-of-control parties, whether at event spaces or at homes, especially where unsupervised teens and alcohol mix.   

The shooting seems to have stilled life on Ocean Avenue. Though everything seems far quieter now, a feeling of dread and anxiety hangs in the air, especially for Rios. From her doorstep, she has a clear view of the strip. A memorial of candles and a bouquet of white and red roses sit in front of the boarded-up rented party space. The window of the business next door remains punctured with three bullet holes.

On a recent sunny Wednesday afternoon, she let her children go outside to get some fresh air under her careful watch, with toys arrayed on the front lawn. She was careful to keep her one rambunctious toddler from leaving her side.

“As much as they cry about it, I don’t take my kids to the nearby park because of the insecurity I feel,” said Rios. “If I can avoid it, I don’t leave my home at night. And I definitely don’t take my kids out at night.”