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#1125: Rebellious young Tommy Sylvian couldn't escape his heritag (fwd)
Published Sunday, November 28, 1999, in the Miami Herald
Rebellious young Tommy Sylvian couldn't escape his heritage; he
paid with his life__________ By YVES COLON
Although Tommy Sylvain was born in the United States, the shadow of his
Haitian heritage dogged him all his life -- and in the end killed
him. Tommy's short, tough life was an unsuccessful quest to fit in
somewhere. Anywhere. The facts didn't much matter. At a school for
troubled boys in Opa-locka, he insisted he wasn't a Haitian. He used his
Irish-American mother's name and refused to speak Creole.
But in the Miami-Dade County Jail, he tried to gain favor with a tough
gang of Haitian Americans. There, he called himself a Haitian. When he
found himself in the Krome detention center, threatened with
deportation, he finally told the truth: He was born in New York City,
although his father was Haitian. But immigration officials didn't
believe him -- and apparently didn't check it out carefully enough.
In his desperation, he may have tried to alter a copy of his birth
certificate to make himself seem younger. No one's sure. But however the
change to the certificate happened, it just made the situation worse.
The morning of his deportation, Tommy thrashed about, telling agents
that they were making a mistake. They shot him with a sedative and
dragged him onto a plane, he later told relatives. The tale of Tommy
Sylvain's life and death shows what can happen when a first-generation
American confused about his ethnic identity clashes with an immigration
service that deals daily with illegal immigrants willing to say
anything to stay in the U.S. Immigrant advocates say the Immigration
and Naturalization Service is predisposed to assume everyone is lying.
It wasn't until The Herald wrote several stories showing that Tommy was
indeed a U.S. citizen -- using the original documents provided by the
family -- that elected officials intervened on his behalf. An
embarrassed INS blinked and arranged to bring him back to Miami.
It was too late. He was dying of AIDS. He made it back to Miami, but
never recovered his health and died on July 14 at Jackson Memorial
Hospital. Tommy was buried on July 24 in Connecticut, next to his
mother. The INS isn't saying publicly what conclusions it draws from the
sad episode: the agency has refused to release its internal report to
the Sylvain family, its lawyers or The Herald. INS officials did not
return calls asking for clarification of their actions.
His father, Andre Sylvain, knows what he thinks:
''The INS killed my son,'' he says. ''He suffered a lot. He didn't know
anyone in Haiti, didn't know the place, didn't speak the language.
Imagine what he must have gone through.''
A FATHER'S ANGUISH
Andre Sylvain wonders how he could have saved his son Since Tommy's
death, Andre Sylvain has agonized about how he might have done
more to help his eldest son. During the day, he sits glassy-eyed in the
somber, small used furniture store he has run in Allapattah for the past
decade. On a shelf, Sylvain has constructed a cardboard memorial to
Tommy, his son's picture in the middle and, in red letters,
loving thoughts he wishes he had told him. He gets very protective of
his younger son, Andy. He won't let him drive at night and wants to know
where he is at all times. Sometimes Sylvain even sleeps in the same bed
with his son. He's shut off the top floor of the family's Miami Shores
home, where Tommy had a room. The roof leaks, the yard needs care, but
Sylvain barely notices. He takes part in demonstrations, lends support
when community activists ask him to be there. That's his way of keeping
Tommy's memory alive. His head is full of questions that won't go away.
A TROUBLED YOUTH
He started out well, but didn't grow up to be an angel Tommy's identity
shifts started early. He was born Oct. 30, 1978 to Andre Sylvain, an
immigrant Haitian father, and an Irish-American mother, Doreen O'Toole.
Doreen recorded his name with the Bureau of Vital Records, which issues
birth certificates in New York, as Tommy O'Toole. But his father changed
it to Sylvain two years later. He could be the child of a white,
Irish-American mother one day, or push that aside to become Haitian
American the next, all depending on the circumstances. His father made a
firmer choice about his own life: Andre Sylvain was born in Haiti, but
he closed that book long ago. He became a U.S. citizen, married a
white American woman, and rarely talked about his homeland with his
children. The last time he visited Haiti was 1966, when his father died.
It was during Francois ''Papa Doc'' Duvalier's dictatorship, and
authorities at the airport told Andre he looked like the relative of a
rebel. He was put back on the plane and returned to New York City.
He didn't get to attend the funeral.''After that I said 'Never again,'
'' Sylvain recalled. So Tommy grew up not knowing much about Haiti.
His only visit to the country occurred when an aunt took him along when
he was 3 years old. He didn't grow up to be an angel. His odyssey began
long before he was taken to the Miami-Dade County Jail in February on
charges of cocaine possession, a felony. Two years before that, he was
booked as a juvenile on a similar charge, in addition to resisting
arrest with violence and battery on a police officer. Although Tommy
had always had problems, the potential for violence had not
been apparent to teachers at Horace Mann Middle School near his home,
or at the Jan Mann Opportunity School in Opa-locka, a school for
troubled kids Tommy attended for three years. He started out being a
good boy, his teachers at Horace Mann recall. At the time, the school's
students were mostly African American and Cuban. Lately, 60
percent of the students have been Haitian. At the opportunity school,
teachers remember a kid with a beautiful smile who ran away from home
and whose troubles went beyond what anyone at the school could help. He
wouldn't answer to Sylvain. He went by O'Toole, his mother's last
name. He would tell other students that he was not Haitian, recalled
Geraldine Paschal, who taught exceptional education for the learning
disabled. He didn't have any friends. ''All the kids used to pick on
him,'' recalled Harold Jackson, the resource officer who has been at the
school for nearly 30 years. He was a loner, Jackson said. ''Not one kid
would hang out with him,'' he said. ''He would leave the campus alone
and we would have to go run after him.'' It could be that no one wanted
to be near Tommy. Principal Willie Shatteen remembered that Tommy would
come to school smelling ''like he got under the dirt and slept.'' Other
kids would call him Dirt Diver or Dirty Sally, a nickname he got fond
of, Jackson said. Once, Jackson and Shatteen made him take off his
clothes, and they threw them in the washing machine. Tommy would lead
officials to believe he was getting abused at home, cutting his
arm one day and telling them that his father had done it.
''The father had to come here a lot of times,'' Shatteen said. ''I
remember a time he said he wouldn't come here any more.'' Paschal
remembers Andre Sylvain as a ''caring and concerned father who often
would check on whether Tommy made it to school that day.'' Andre
Sylvain was raising Tommy and Andy alone. Doreen Margaret O'Toole was
in and out of mental institutions and died of AIDS when the kids were
THE WRONG CROWD
As a young drug dealer, he flashed stacks of cash Tommy left Jan Mann
in the eighth grade, but was reading at the fourth grade level, Paschal
said. His life quickly changed. Tommy's new stomping grounds became the
neighborhood around 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. His best friend
was Ali Die, a drug dealer who was shot in front of his room at the
Shalimar Hotel along the boulevard two years ago. ''He took Tommy under
his wings and showed him how to sell drugs,'' Andy Sylvain said.
Die would bail Tommy out of jail. Tommy would stay at Die's house.
Tommy would disappear from home for months, Andy said. He would run to
Atlanta for a month, then come back to Miami for a few days, then get
arrested. On several occasions, he tried to quit dealing drugs. He would
fill out applications at Burger King, McDonald's and the school board,
but he wouldn't get called back. ''He would tell me, 'They think I'm
stupid because I didn't graduate and I have a record,' '' Andy said.
So he would go back to what he knew. Soon, he was flashing stacks of
cash, making between $3,000 and $4,000 a week. He would stash it under
his bed in the house. He kept an apartment in New York and had a girl
live there. He would spend hundreds of dollars on outfits. ''He liked
looking good for the girls,'' Andy said. ''He spent a lot of money
renting cars, buying clothes. He cared more about the girls than he did
about himself.''He bought a red Ford Explorer. A young woman he met at a
drive-through window at Burger King drove it most of the time, the
brother said. She disappeared after he went to jail the last time.
Tommmy would meet other women at clubs. ''It was like everyday, every
hour, a new girl,'' said Andy. ''He was like a male prostitute.''
One of those women had a baby while Tommy was in jail. She would not
confirm that the child was his, but he wanted to believe he was the
father. On his last visit to the Dade County Jail, he took the baby's
picture with him. He would never see her again, nor could The Herald
find the child or her mother. Depression set in quickly in jail. He was
placed on suicide watch three or five times, each time for a day,
according to documents gathered by the Florida Justice Institute.
He was depressed, he told counselors. ''I think I'm going to kill
myself today,'' he told them, according to JoNel Newman, an attorney
with the institute. The institute is trying to determine if the family
has grounds to sue the INS. Newman has obtained two of Sylvain's arrest
reports. Both list his citizenship as ''U.S.A.'' The first, from
February, 1997, lists his place of birth as ''Mia'' for Miami;
the second, from February, 1998, lists it as ''New York.'' That didn't
stop the INS from putting a detainer on his file, meaning that he was
identified as a non-citizen inmate who should be released to INS
custody once he completes his sentence. They were following guidelines
from a tough 1996 law that instructs INS officials to deport
non-citizens convicted of a felony. Newman asks how someone listed on
jail records as a U.S. citizen gets referred to the INS. ''Makes we
wonder,'' she said. ''Tommy Sylvain didn't sound anything but
One possible explanation: Around that time, Sylvain decided he was
Haitian after all. He later told a fellow Krome detainee that while he
was in jail he noticed a large clique of inmates calling themselves Zo
Pound. They were Haitian Americans who terrorized Little Haiti and were
responsible for several murders until they were broken up a few years
ago. They were powerful in the jail. Tommy proclaimed himself Haitian so
he could hang with them. His father and brother would visit him from
time to time, but that stopped when he was released into INS custody on
Nov. 3, 1998. Tommy was going to the Krome detention center, a facility
in West Dade for immigrants in this country illegally. ''He was
scared,'' recalled his brother. ''He knew he was going to be deported.
He called everybody.'' Ralph Richardson, a Haitian also in Krome under
the 1996 law, said he and Tommy immediately became friends. Neither
spoke Creole well. Tommy told Richardson about Zo Pound. ''He felt he
could hang out with them and mingle with them,'' Richardson said.
Tommy didn't like to say his mother was white, Richardson said.
Tommy got Andy to bring a copy of his birth certificate to him, along
with a copy of his expired passport. ''I remember that day when he got
them,'' Richardson said. ''He was happy. He came to me and told me, 'I'm
an American, man.' '' Everyone got to see it. Someone helped him write a
letter that began, ''I am a U.S. citizen being held from my own free
will.'' He signed it Thomas Sylvain, 75-865-060, American.
But something odd happened to the copy of the certificate. His 1978
date of birth was altered to 1980 in two places. There is no such change
on the original. Tommy denied making the change. But his lawyers suspect
he may have altered it himself, in a misguided attempt to get out by
making himself seem younger. If that happened, former teachers say,
somebody must have put him up to it. ''Fits his profile, that he would
do something like that to get out of jail,'' said Harold Jackson, the
opportunity school's head security officer. ''He didn't have the
capacity to think like that for himself. Someone in jail must have told
him, '' 'You can get out that way, man.' That's how he probably did
it.'' Ironically, it may have been the worst possible move. Throughout
the case, INS officials pointed to the altered date as evidence that the
birth certificate was a forgery. As INS does with inmates whenever space
becomes scarce, Tommy was shipped to a county jail in northern Florida.
When he returned, Richardson said he looked pale and skinny. He wouldn't
eat. ''I asked him why, but he wouldn't answer me,'' Richardson said.
''No one thought twice about it.'' Following a medical screening, Tommy
got a job in the detention center's kitchen. It didn't take long for him
to start needling his deportation officer about his citizenship.
Deportation officer Daniel Bell finally relented. On Dec. 17, he sent a
fax to the New York Bureau of Vital Records to confirm the validity of
Tommy's birth certificate. The next document in the file compiled by
Newman is a handwritten note, saying ''Telephonic confirmation by Ms
Ritter, Department of Vital Records.'' It's unclear whether Bell
received confirmation of Sylvain's American citizenship, or merely of
the letter's arrival at the New York office. It's also unclear whether
Bell passed along that confirmation to his supervisors. Neither Bell
nor other INS officials could be reached for clarification. INS
spokeswoman Kelley Spellman defended Bell's actions in a Herald
interview in May: ''He went above and beyond the call of duty . . . He
never got the cooperation he needed. He was encouraging Sylvain to
provide additional documentation, but he never got it.'' Tommy told
Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center attorney Cheryl Little in January
that Bell now believed him and that he was trying to help him.
INS officials blamed Tommy for his misfortune. As the case continued,
they said Tommy repeatedly claimed he was a Haitian citizen, that he
told an investigator at the Miami-Dade County Jail that Haiti was the
country of his birth. They pointed to the changes on the birth
certificate copy. ''People in similar situations will try anything
possible because they have families separated and they would like to be
together,'' Jimmy Prestridge, a special assistant to the INS director in
Miami said at the time. Little spoke to INS and Krome officials about
his case. She says the INS wouldn't cooperate. Said Little: ''It was
easy to check if he was a citizen. Obviously they didn't check.''
On the official document the INS presented to Haitian authorities in
Miami before the deportation, the agency listed his mother as Marie
Sylvain and claimed she was a Haitian national who died in Haiti. It
listed his father as unknown. The agency also said that Sylvain came
through New York as a stowaway in 1995. None of it was true. The INS
won't discuss that document or anything else in the case.
An outcast in a strange land, he fell critically ill The deportation
took place on Jan. 28. In Haiti, Sylvain was dumped at the airport. He
didn't know anyone there. He called an aunt in New York, who asked her
niece Micheline Sylvain to pick him up. She took him home, and a few
weeks later, Tommy went from healthy to sick like a rock dropped from
10-story window. He would not eat Haitian food. Micheline Sylvain took
him to a clinic where they prescribed an IV. He ripped it out.
An activist who helps deportees from the United States adapt to Haiti
found Tommy sleeping on a concrete slab in a storage room. She took him
out of Micheline Sylvain's house to a hospice, then contacted an
ambulance to take him to the Hopital Canape Vert in a suburb of
Port-au-Prince. Before the activist, Michelle Karshan, could get there,
the ambulance driver dropped him on the ground and left. Leonie
Hermantin and Marleine Bastien, two Miami activists, found him in the
ward for indigents. Later on, Karshan raised enough money to move him
to a semi-private room. ''He was sort of haggard, disoriented,''
Hermantin said. ''He kept asking for water. That room was hot! He was
hot. The nurse told him he had enough to drink, but he kept saying he
wanted more water.'' The doctors in Haiti said he was dying of AIDS.
''To be there, without the care, the support, the medication, that was
like a life sentence,'' Hermantin said. ''For such a young man to die
like this was not necessary. They executed him.'' Micheline Sylvain
would not talk about what happened to Tommy. She lives in Orlando part
of the year and said she is afraid of the INS. In the courtyard where he
lived, they remember Tommy. Marielle Joseph, who owns a little store
selling sodas, candy and other goods, said Tommy would buy 7-Up on
credit. It seemed he lived on that and canned food, she said. He wanted
to sleep in the storage room, she said, because it was too hot in his
bedroom. When he was healthy, she said, he would tell stories about
home in Miami. ''He had a little dog and he loved that dog,'' she said.
''He loved to hold that dog on his shoulder. He would run around the
yard with the children and the dog.'' Her son, Jose, was Tommy's friend.
Jose gave him the first clothes Tommy wore in Haiti after his
deportation. The two, about the same age, would go out together,
to visit a woman Tommy said he met on the plane. They would bring women
friends to the house. ''I told him to be careful, but he said he was
OK,'' Joseph said. ''He told me, 'They think I have money because I'm
American.' He kept laughing at that.'' Tommy once gave Marielle a
picture of himself. When she learned he had died, she tore it up and
threw the pieces away. ''It wasn't good to look at him anymore,'' she
said, closing her eyes and shaking her face from side to side. ''I
didn't want to see his face again. It makes me too sad.'' After The
Herald began writing stories about the case in March, U.S. Reps. Carrie
Meek, D-Miami, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, as well as Haitian
American activists and even the U.S. embassy in Haiti started pressing
INS for answers. Tommy's health continued to decline. On May 7, the INS
brought Tommy home in an air ambulance. It acknowledged that he was a
U.S. citizen, but blamed his own statements for the mistake.
Tommy was taken immediately to Jackson's critical care ward, which he
never left. His father visited every day, and agonized about whether to
take his son off life support. Tommy died at 20 -- six months after his
deportation, 10 weeks after his return. The INS has conducted an
internal investigation of the case, but has refused repeated requests to
release its report. ''They'll never tell me what really happened,''
Andre Sylvain says, gazing at the traffic speeding along Northwest 36th
Street, where his store is located. He looks at Tommy's picture on the
shelf and points to his beautiful smile.