This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class.
“I’m going to be somebody big, and buy you a house,” young Jose Centeno Jr. told his mother more than two decades ago. That dream never became a reality, when Jose was murdered at 18 years old. His case still Unsolved.
On February 22, 2003, Jose was walking home from a local grocery store in Reading, Pennsylvania with his friend Damien McMullen, a man who later married Jose’s sister. It was supposed to be a random store trip, according to Jose’s sister, Madeline McMullen. On their way back, Jose and Damien were shot at by three hooded men. The young men headed for safety in a neighbor’s house. The burning in Damien’s leg was not a fatal injury, but the bullet on the left side of Jose’s chest was. The friends called Jose’s mother, Maria, and Madeline. Then, Madeline started running.
Madeline remembers she crossed a middle school parking lot, went around a block, though a local park, and ended at the end of North 10th Street. Her feet stopped at the end of the road with her eyes stuck to the scene of emergency vehicles and flashing lights. “Less than 30 seconds felt like a lifetime,” says Madeline while looking back on that day.
Jose, who also went by the nickname Pito, was the caring protector of Madeline and his younger brother, Joel. He was the friendly, big-hearted guy who would gladly go to his older sister’s prom when she didn’t have a date. “I remember him singing Summer Loving, the song from Grease, at the top of his lungs,” says Madeline.
Jose was one of those people you felt you knew your entire life when you first met him, according to Madeline. He had big eyes and a big smile. He was competitive. He loved baseball, dance, and food, and displayed his Puerto Rican pride. He created a presence in a room.
Maria says he loved to eat pasteles, a Puerto Rican dish made with plantains. The last time Jose ate with her, Maria had made some. He raved at how good they were. He also ate 15 olives, according to Maria.
“If I could see him again, I would tell him I love him so, so much,” says Maria as she hugged herself as if she were hugging his spirit.
A few years after Jose’s death, Madeline had children of her own, and one of them is a son who seems like a copy of Jose – the same competitive nature and caring heart made its way back to the family.
“God gave him back to us in some form,” Maria said, and Madeline agreed.
But new life doesn’t take away past suffering. Jose’s surviving family members reach out to police officers at least once a year for updates. They lean on each other for support through the heartache and continue to wait for answers.
“I’m not leaving this Earth until I know what happened!” Madeline said, with conviction.
If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Jose Centeno Jr., please call the Reading Police Department Criminal Investigations Division at (610) 655-6246.
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