Dead man's check leads to wild scene

January 9, 2008 4:12:23 PM PST
Detective Travis Rapp knew something was clearly wrong when he looked out the window of the restaurant where he was having lunch.

Two men were wheeling their friend down a Manhattan street in a red office chair, and a crowd of suspicious onlookers began to congregate around the lifeless figure.

Initially, Rapp assumed "it was a mannequin or a dummy," he said. "I thought it was a joke, honestly."

But upon closer examination, it dawned on him that the body - rigid, white and with glazed-over eyes - was real. As a 15-year veteran with the New York Police Department, he had seen a few dead folks in his time. "But never anything like this," he recalled.

As it turns out, his instincts were right. The man was dead, and two of his friends had hauled his corpse to a store to cash his $355 Social Security check, police said. They were arrested before they could get the money.

The bedraggled suspects, David J. Dalaia and James O'Hare, were scheduled to appear in court Wednesday night. Police said the men, both 65, were petty criminals with long histories of heroin addiction and arrests dating back to the 1960s.

The scene could have been straight out of the movie "Weekend at Bernie's."

The trouble began Tuesday when Dalaia and O'Hare tried to cash Virgilio Cintron's check at a store in Hell's Kitchen on their own, police said. The man at the counter told them that Cintron had to be present to cash the check, so they went back to his apartment, which one of the suspects shared with the dead man.

Cintron was apparently undressed when he died, sometime within the previous 24 hours. Police said Dalaia and O'Hare proceeded to dress him in a faded T-shirt, pants they could only get up part way, and a pair of Velcro sneakers. They threw a coat over his waist to conceal what the pants couldn't cover, police said.

They then put him on the office chair and wheeled the corpse over to the check-cashing store.

The men left Cintron's body outside, went inside and tried to cash his check, authorities said. The store's clerk, who knew Cintron, asked the men where he was, and O'Hare told the clerk they would go and get him.

At about the same time, Rapp spotted them and jumped up, confronting the men as they were attempting to haul the body into the store. He said even after he identified himself as a police officer, O'Hare told him, "I have to get my friend in here. I have to cash his check."

He ordered the men to back away from the victim. They feigned surprise when paramedics declared him dead, Rapp said.

"When they said, 'Your friend is dead,' they said, 'Oh my god, he's gone?"'

The scene played out on a busy Manhattan street as several onlookers watched.

"I saw this guy sitting in this chair with his head back. He looked very dead," said Victor Rodriguez, 38, who was working at a nearby restaurant when he saw the commotion outside. "He looked very sick. His eyes were closed. He wasn't moving."

Little is known about Cintron, 66, who apparently died of natural causes. An autopsy proved inconclusive, the medical examiner's office said, and his body hadn't been positively identified as of Wednesday afternoon.

Relatives told police that he had recently been hospitalized for Parkinson's disease. Police said his rap sheet was long, with arrests for burglary, assault and drugs. Locals said that Cintron and O'Hare often frequented a food pantry down the street.

A telephone number listed for Cintron at the apartment he shared with O'Hare went unanswered. Police said they didn't have an address for Dalaia or attorney information for him or O'Hare.

Regardless of what happens to the defendants, they can take solace in the fact that they fooled one onlooker with the dead man disguise.

"He went in regular clothes. I didn't even know he was dead. I thought he was alive," said Gerit Ahemed, a clerk at a nearby deli.


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