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Murder charges dropped against  Harlem fishmonger who allegedly gutted a man in deadly brawl over stolen shrimp

Image source: YouTube video, WCBS-TV - Screenshot

A Harlem fishmonger took a pause from fileting fish Tuesday night to allegedly gut a man said to have attacked his coworker and stolen shrimp.

Junior Aquino Hernandez, 34, was initially arrested and charged with murder for reportedly rushing to the defense of his battered colleague, Francisco Morales; however, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office dropped the charge Thursday, suggesting a full investigation was first required.

The New York Post reported that Hernandez, a father of four with no criminal priors, was working at the Fish Express Fish Market on St. Nicholas Place near Edgecombe Avenue in Sugar Hill Tuesday night when an individual came in and attempted to steal some product.

Pedro Laza, a 60-year-old witness, told the Post that Robert Burrell, 29, "tried to stick a lobster down his pants."

A police source told the Post that the alleged thief punched an employee, then fled the store, only to return with his brother four minutes later.

When Robert Burrell and his 25-year-old brother Malik Burrell returned, they reportedly went straight to the employee-only area behind the counter, where a fight broke out between the brothers and the fishmongers.

During the melee, Morales, a worker at the market, had his teeth knocked out, reported the Daily Mail.

Hernandez's failed attempt to break up the fight was interrupted when Robert Burrell threw a chair at another cook, said the DA's office.

Prosecutors alleged that Hernandez grabbed a fish knife and rushed to defend his coworker, ultimately stabbing both brothers, first Malik and then Robert as he dragged his injured brother out the door.

"Nobody stopped him stabbing," said Laza. "He was like a machine."

Both brothers were rushed to Harlem Hospital, where Malik died of his wounds. Robert survived with a punctured lung and other injuries.

Zaimar Eusebio, the mother to Robert Burrell's daughter, remarked after seeing the body of the deceased, "His whole stomach was out."

The decedent's father told the Post, "My sons were good kids, they ain't get in no trouble, they not no hard criminals. ... I'm crushed, man, I'm hurt. I can't believe my boy was killed over some shrimps. They killed my baby on his birthday."

Hernandez was initially charged with murder, assault, and weapons possession.

He told reporters at the time of his arraignment, "I didn't mean to hurt them."

Hernandez's wife, Estephanie Reyes, told the Post, “I do believe he was defending himself. ... I believe he was in a situation where it was his life or the other person’s life, or he wouldn’t have done this."

"I think it’s wrong that he is in jail for defending himself. He is not a murderer. He wasn’t the one looking for trouble," she added. "It could’ve gone the other way. ... They could have killed him."

Manuel Perez, the manger of the establishment, said, "It is not fair that someone be charged with serious crimes for defending themselves and their workplace against robbery."

Perez indicated that the Burrell brothers "broke the door and started hitting one of the employees that took the shrimp from them. They broke his face, his mouth, he was in really bad shape."

Only when the "fight got really bad did Hernandez intervene with the knife, suggested Perez.

Robert Burrell, previously charged in 2019 with felony assault, was charged in turn with robbery, burglary, and assault, said the NYPD.

In an about-face, the DA dropped the murder charges against Hernandez Thursday evening and released him from custody, stating, "At the time we are not prepared to go forward with the charges related to the death of Malik pending a full investigation."

Assistant District Attorney Mireille Dee said, "We are continuing our investigation to determine whether the initial stabbing [of Malik] behind the counter was justified," but added, "We are, however, filing charges with regard to the incident at the door for the stabbing of Robert Burrell."

A high-ranking police source told WCBS-TV that the surveillance footage will have great bearing on how prosecutors proceed, noting that if Hernandez is seen "fighting them off with a knife, that's one thing. If he's charging at them with the knife, that's something else entirely."

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