The Murder of Victor Roman

There’s been a lot of local coverage lately about the 25th anniversary of the Gardner Museum theft. For me, though, the much more important event of that week was the murder of Victor Roman.

Twenty five years ago, I was working at Photo:Hour, a chain of one hour photo labs, as a district manager. I was switching between stores, sometimes working in Harvard Square, sometimes in our original store in downtown Boston, sometimes checking in on the other stores in our chain. The manager of the Winter Street store had hired a young kid off the Street, Victor Roman, to help out at the counter. It eventually became clear that the manager there was in over his head, and I spent more and more time there, and got to know Victor pretty well.

Victor was about 18 at that point, and, from what we could see, was just a great kid. Limited in certain ways – he never did master the printer, and he was definitely having trouble in school – but always very willing to pitch in and help out. He was good at the counter, and had very definite ideas about right and wrong. He was into comic books, and some of his own drawings were amazing. Tom Giampapa, the owner, was interviewed for an article in the Boston Globe later, and said, “He was really a likeable kid. He just had the values that you look for in people…We used to discuss Victor in staff meetings because we loved the guy.”

I remember the night we took up the original tile floor at Winter Street – it had been poorly installed, and we decided to replace it with rubber flooring. Victor stayed late that night helping to rip up the old tile and cart it away. I drove him home that night, and was shocked at the neighborhood he was living in.

Victor was very much still a kid, especially when I first met him. He laughed and joked a lot, but he was also offended by injustice. Many of us can see something wrong, look at it, and sigh to ourselves, and say “that’s just how things are.” Not Victor. He was impulsive. I remember him buying a car, and losing it a couple of months later. Ironically, it was an impulsive act – fathering a child with his girlfriend – that helped steady him the most. He loved his little daughter, and wanted to be a good father.

At the beginning of 1990, we had Victor working for us full time. He’d dropped out of school and was covering shifts in both Harvard Square and downtown Boston. Harvard Square was a bit of a stretch for him, but he was always willing to help out.

My cousin Bill died that March, at the age of 30 of some sort of heart condition, leaving two young sons behind.* It was a shock because he was so young and seemingly so healthy.  I remember working in Harvard Square with Victor that Friday before heading down to Newport that Sunday for the wake, with the funeral on Monday. I stayed overnight with my grandmother, so that I could take her down for the funeral on Monday.

There had been a lot of gang violence in Boston around that time. It wasn’t rare to hear on the radio in the morning that another young man had been killed, and after a while, one tended to tune out the reports. I was only half listening as I was getting Grandma into the car, when I heard the name of the latest victim, then rushed to get a newspaper – sure enough, it was Victor Roman, of Mattapan.

I’m still not sure of the circumstances. What I heard was that he had been stabbed by a 14 year old gang wannabe, because he had interfered with a mugging on the Orange Line. I remember him saying that he had to be careful because there were people out to get him, but he said it with such cheerful bravado, that I didn’t really take it seriously.

I don’t feel responsible for his death. I didn’t wield the knife. But I do feel responsible for failing to stop it, for failing to get him to safety.

The Globe ran an article about his murder a few weeks later:

Victor Roman loved comic-book superheroes and even modeled himself after Spiderman. On the streets of Boston, Roman, on more than one occasion, found himself acting out the exploits of the fictional characters he idolized.

In January, he interceded when a youth was going to get stabbed for his coat. And that same month, relatives said, he thwarted the plans of youths to mug an elderly woman.

“He had a lot of principles and a lot of values,” said Thomas Giampapa, who was Roman’s boss at Photo:Hour in Cambridge, a photo processing store where Roman worked as a lab technician. “He was making his choice and his choice was to do the right thing.”

But doing the right thing in helping the woman apparently led to Roman’s death in March.

A 19-year-old Dorchester man and a father for two months, Roman died last month every bit the hero he dreamed of being, relatives said.

Relatives said that while riding on the Orange Line of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Roman overheard several youths planning to mug a woman passenger and he intervened.

The athletically built Roman apparently confronted the group, took a knife from a smaller, 14-year-old youth, slapped the youth several times and told him that causing trouble was no way to live, a police source said.

At the time, the youth, who later was charged with Roman’s killing, said he would seek revenge, said Roman’s uncle, Victor Mejias.

But Mejias and others said although Roman believed some gang members wanted to teach him a lesson for interfering, he never showed fear.

“Everybody warned him to be careful, but he said they weren’t going to do anything because they were just kids,” Mejias said.

I’m not sure now what the full story is. A few months later, one of his friends brought in some pictures of Victor; among them was a picture of Victor holding a gun in front of stacks of money. Whether he was friends with someone in the drug trade and was merely clowning around, or whether he was actively engaged in it, I don’t know. If I had to guess, I’d guess that he’d been involved with a gang, decided to get out, and was killed for it. But if so, we never saw that side of him.

For me though, it doesn’t really matter. I know what I did see. I did see a kid who worked hard. I did see someone who was trying to better himself. I did see a young man who was always willing to help. I did see a young father who wanted the best for his daughter. It’s because of Victor that when I hear about people like Trayvon Martin, that I can’t just dismiss them out of hand.

*It doesn’t feel right somehow to mention Bill’s death merely in passing. We were very close growing up. But while shocking, and a huge blow to the family, his death was an act of nature, like a lighting bolt out of the blue.