- 26 Nov 2012
- The Philadelphia Inquirer
- By Claudia Vargas INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
The Littlest Hero
Camden family: Slain boy was a fighter.
Even in his most hyper moments, 6-year-old Dominick Andujar, who preferred break dancing and wrestling to homework, would stop whatever he was doing if he knew his mother was sick or needed help.
“He was my little man … my son, my everything,” Debbie Burgos, 34, of Camden, said.
Dominick promised Burgos in August he would protect her if anyone ever tried to hurt her. She never expected that a few days after Dominick made that vow, he would act the hero and die for it.
Just after midnight Sept. 2, a man broke into the Burgos family’s Ware Street house while her four children were home alone and attacked her 12- year- old daughter, Amber, who was sleeping on the living-room couch.
Dominick, awakened by his sister’s screams, tried to stop him. “My son was a fighter,” Burgos said during an interview last week, the family’s first since the attacks. “From what I saw on him, his marks, he had to be fighting.” Dominick died in the house after the intruder cut his throat and hands. He gave the man enough of a struggle that Amber was able to escape and ask neighbors for help.
Dominick’s death, along with the shocking beheading of a 2-year-old in August, helped bring national attention to what has become a record-setting year of homicides in Camden. Letters for the Andujars poured in from all over the country, expressing support and prayers. Family members have a hard time describing the chaos and trauma of that night, but they agree on one thing: Dominick gave his life for his three sisters.
“Who would’ve guessed that in a world where so often men act like little boys, here’s a little boy acting like a man,” said Msgr. Michael Mannion, who has known the Burgos family for many years. Those who knew Dominick and his family weren’t surprised the boy defended his sister against a knife-wielding man. “His family is what you wanted to see: a family who comes out in support of the children,” said Bryan Morton, founder of the North Camden Little League, where Dominick played for the Phillies T- ball team. “When you get that from your family, that’s what you give back in return.”
Dominick came into this world on March 18, 2006, at CooperUniversityHospital, holding his twin brother’s hand. Dave died at birth, though, and Dominick became the only brother of Tiarra, now 14; Amber, 12; and Amy, 9.
After Dominick’s parents split up when he was 2, he acquired a mature confidence, his mother said. By age 3, Dominick was picking out his own outfits, most often his favorite red shirt under a blue shirt and gray pants, his sisters said. And either his black Nike or gray Adidas sneakers, both of which were in need of a good scrubbing. Yet he wouldn’t allow his mother to clean them. “He wanted the most dirtiest sneakers,” his mother said. “Shoestrings off, beat-up.”
When he got home from ECOCharterSchool, Dominick often would decline homework help from his sisters and go to play with his best friend, Zaymier, who lived a few houses down. The boys would wrestle and play Xbox or Wii games. Growing up in a house full of women, Dominick, despite seeing himself as “the man of the house,” was bound to get suckered into girl play. His youngest sister, Amy, loved to dance the cha-cha, and Dominick would wear his mother’s high heels so he could be taller.
Last summer was Dominick’s first time in the T-ball league. Dominick and Amy, who was on one of the Little League teams, practiced twice a week (on different days), and play games on the weekends. “They were there endlessly as a family,” Morton said. “They pulled up in the minivan, and everyone jumped out.” The family did everything together, including staying up until midnight on each of their birthdays.
On Saturday, Sept. 1, Debbie Burgos and her four children stayed up late to sing “Happy Birthday” to Amber, who was turning 12 that Sunday. The children were excited to be going to ClementonPark later to celebrate. But Burgos, who has had kidney problems, felt sharp pain and decided to go to VirtuaHospital in Camden to get checked out. As she had done before, she left 14-year-old Tiarra in charge and told all four to go to bed. Amber, who said she regretted not telling her mother she wanted to accompany her, went downstairs to sleep on the couch to wait for her mother and chained the front door. Moments later, a man police identified as Osvaldo Rivera was inside the house assaulting Amber with a knife. “When I was getting attacked, I heard [Dominick] screaming and I looked and somehow I got away,” Amber said, holding back tears before sobbing on her mother’s shoulder. Amber escaped and ran to a neighbor’s house, where she was given a blanket to help stop the bleeding from her neck wound. The noise awoke Tiarra, who came downstairs and found Dominick on the floor, already dead. She ran out screaming and found Amber waiting for an ambulance. “I was telling her to stay strong, that she would get through it,” Tiarra said. As Debbie Burgos was leaving VirtuaHospital, she received a mysterious phone call with someone saying, “Your son’s neck just got sliced,” she said. In shock, she drove straight to CooperHospital, where she learned first of her son’s death and then of Amber’s critical condition.
Back on Ware Street, a manhunt had begun. “It was a tough night,” Camden Police Chief Scott Thompson said. “I knew there was a monster in my city.” About 15 hours after the attacks, Rivera, 31, was arrested and charged with murder, attempted murder, and sexual assault. Rivera told investigators that he had smoked “wet,” a combination of marijuana and PCP that has been known to lead to vivid hallucinations and bursts of violence.
Amber underwent two operations to repair her esophagus and trachea, which had been cut. She is now able to speak and eat. “She’s a soldier just like her brother,” her uncle Peter Burgos said. “Her brother fought for her, and she fought to make sure her brother didn’t die for nothing.” Amber is undergoing physical and psychological therapy and is being home-schooled. Her two sisters are back at school and are also meeting with counselors.
The Andujar and Burgos family is doing what it has always done: sticking together and supporting one another. Family members know it’s going to be a long road to recovery. “Behind my smile, behind my kindness, I’m like torn apart,” Debbie Burgos said. “I got to be strong for my daughters because they need me.”