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At this point, you’re probably wondering how Cyndi Alvarado ended up with a life sentence if she didn’t commit or conspire/intend/attempt to commit a murder. To explain that, I need to introduce you to a person and to a legal statute. This post is dedicated to the person, Oscar Alvarado. The post that follows will attend to the statute.

Oscar Alvarado is Cyndi’s cousin who had been staying with her at her Northern Liberties apartment in October 2008. I’ll get into more detail about Oscar later (and, trust me, it’s worth the wait because Oscar’s story has all the trappings of a true crime bestseller and then some). For now, it’s important to know that by the time he was crashing at Cyndi’s place, he had been arrested a number of times for drugs, theft, and assault-related offenses. I’ve spent enough time studying crime and policing in Philly to know that in and of themselves arrests don’t reveal as much about the person as they do the neighborhood a person lives in. Philly has a long history of uneven policing and of racial profiling—both of individuals and of neighborhoods. Its not unusual for African American and Latino men living in high poverty neighborhoods to accumulate numerous arrests over the course of their early teens and twenties. In many instances, these arrests are a form of racial harassment—simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most are never prosecuted. In Oscar’s case, at least two of those arrests resulted in convictions on drug charges and stints in prison.

Oscar hails from a section of Philly known colloquially as the “Badlands.” What a name, right? I told you this could be a true crime story. The Badlands is a large swath of North Philadelphia encompassing a number of neighborhoods including Hunting Park, Fairhill, and Kensington. The area is notorious for its open-air drug markets and violence, particularly shootings. As an aside, I should emphasize that this is an overbroad characterization that eclipses all the positive aspects of the area. My students discovered these when they spent time in Fairhill interviewing local residents, community organizers, and business owners. 

Back to Oscar. By his mid twenties, Oscar was recognized as hard man on the streets of the Badlands. In Philly parlance, Oscar was a “canon,” meaning he had the willingness (“heart”) and means to engage in lethal violence. If his tats are any indication, he embraced the identity. One arm features an image of a coffin with the caption, “Neva fall in love wit life cuz you have a promise wit death.” On his right bicep is a tribute to the neighborhood: “215 Badlandz.” 

During the summer of 2008, Oscar was feuding with another North Philly guy named Edwin Schermety. Remember that name. And by “feuding” I mean exchanging gunfire.

Without a doubt, Oscar is a troubled and troubling character. Cyndi knew this when she let him crash at her place. Nonetheless, for all of Oscar’s negatives, he was also a source of comfort and protection. Cyndi’s childhood was characterized by poverty, violence, and homelessness. This did not change when she, beginning at 12 years of age, went looking to the streets for a way out. Given his own chaotic entanglements, Oscar was not always in Cyndi’s life. When he was, he sought to protect her from men looking to take advantage of her vulnerability and from the violence of the streets. To have a man she could trust who was, in her words, “looking out for her” was a rare and valuable thing. Remember the Mae West quote, “A hard man in good to find”? I don’t think West was using the phrase “hard man” in the same way I am but the quote works. It certainly works for a young woman navigating the streets of the Badlands circa 2008.