Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

A River Of Tears: Happy Land

Ten Years Later

The Clinton Detention Center is located in the Town of Dannemora in upstate New York, approximately 300 miles from East Tremont and Southern Boulevard. Clinton is the largest prison facility in New York and today houses over 2,600 inmates including Julio Gonzales. In the 19th century, prisoners were put to work mining and processing iron ore in the nearby Adirondack Mountains. Executions were carried out in Clinton from 1895 until 1914 when downstate Sing Sing prison installed another electric chair. The infamous Dannemora State Hospital for Insane Convicts, which opened in 1900, was located at Clinton until it closed in 1972, a relic from another era.

Inside the high, gloomy walls of Clinton Prison, Julio Gonzalez sits in his cell for a period of 25 years to life, surely never to emerge again, his journey from the beaches at Mariel Bay over at last. He will be eligible for parole in about 15 years. But there is little sympathy for this man and he will most likely die in prison. There is a real sense of injustice felt by the victim's families, for one life seems a vastly inadequate price to pay for the deaths of 87 others. One thing is certain: nothing can bring back the victims.

The monument to the Happy Land victims
The monument to the Happy Land

Today, in front of 1959 Southern Boulevard, a monument stands in memory to the dead. It's an eight-foot-tall concrete obelisk, surrounded by a high metal fence. On the sides of the structure the names of the victims are engraved in the stone, a final reminder of 87 lost lives. Across the street, the club that was Happy Land remains vacant and probably will be for many years. No one dances there today. Many of the families have since moved away, some returned to Honduras, taking their grief with them. In 1995, a civil suit was settled for $15 million. Judge Burton Roberts presided over the civil trial as well. The funds were to be distributed to each of the victim's families. Life, as it is said, must go on.

But on quiet summer evenings, one can almost visualize nights passed when the hot, pounding rhythms of calypsos emanated from the Happy Land disco. The echoes of laughter and good times might be heard bouncing off the walls into the corridors and hallways, reverberating across Southern Boulevard, into the streets and around the corner to Tremont Avenue. You can close your eyes and imagine the young, writhing bodies moving to the pulsating sounds of Latino music as they dance the night away, the hard life in the South Bronx forgotten for a few hours, their memories, softened by drink, turning back to the fields and mountains of Honduras, to home, oblivious to the grinding poverty and hunger that brought them to America. But there's nothing left now of Happy Land, only a boarded store front and the faint, lingering ghosts of the dead, espiritu de los muertos, who like their dreams, disappear from memory and reality until one day, their names will become forgotten by most, a vanishing remnant of a tragedy whose cause and purpose seem more insane with each passing year.

Happy Land after the fire in March 1990
Happy Land after the fire in March

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