Photograph by Jared Castaldi
Maria Quiñones-Sánchez woke to the smell of her house burning down. It was around 5:30 a.m. on March 28, 2014, and the Democratic City Councilwoman was in the middle of the bravest and possibly most boneheaded political campaign of her life. She had persuaded her Harvard-educated husband Tomas and three of her bright young Council aides to run against a group of entrenched Democratic incumbents in the General Assembly, even though they had little money, no profile and no meaningful allies.
Democratic Party boss Bob Brady and his ward leaders — especially those from Sánchez’s district — were aggravated. Sánchez had defied the party for years, but this? This was rebellion.
Smoke curled around Norris Square, a Puerto Rican community in North Philly. Sánchez and her husband were staying a few blocks away from their house at the time, at her brother-in-law’s apartment. They’d relocated, in part, because Tomas was challenging State Senator Tina Tartaglione, and Sánchez’s house was just outside Tartaglione’s district, while the brother-in-law’s was not. That maneuver infuriated the ward leaders all the more.
A man knocked on the door. As soon as Sánchez opened it, she knew what had happened. “Please don’t tell me that’s what I’m smelling,” she said aloud, and yelled for her husband. “He just started to cry,” she says. “He didn’t even go down there for hours. He just couldn’t.”
Sánchez, though, bolted down the road in her pajamas. She arrived, panting, and stared at the three-story rowhouse that had been her home for 17 years. It was engulfed in flames. This was where she’d married Tomas, raised her two sons, and built herself into one of the city’s most powerful political figures. Now, the windows were blown out. Her beloved Latino art collection was stained by smoke. Her family photos were melted. “I had been saying, in particular to my son Tomasito, ‘Let’s take a moment and scan all these pictures.’” They never got the chance.
Later that day, police showed her video footage of a possible arsonist. She couldn’t believe who was on the screen. “I was like, ‘This looks like Edwin. But it can’t be Edwin,’” she remembers.
Edwin Diana was a close friend of her oldest son, Edgar. Sánchez had known him since he was a little boy. She had just seen him, actually. “He was on the scene of the fire with us,” she says. “He brought us coffee. He was like, ‘Is there anything you need, Maria?’”
But as Sánchez saw it, there was something even more chilling about Edwin’s face on that grainy video: At the time, Edwin was living with the great-nephew of State Senator Tartaglione, Tomas’s opponent in the upcoming primary election. Sánchez feared that the Tartagliones — a powerful political family — might have been involved. She still has no evidence of that; Diana was convicted of burglary but acquitted of arson. (His lawyer argued that the fire was caused accidentally when Diana lit a candle in the home.) As for the Tartagliones, they adamantly deny any connection to the fire. That didn’t matter to Sánchez. “My son had seen a bunch of stuff in our political lives, but for the first time, I really felt he was scared,” she says.
“I told Tomas, ‘We need to get out of this business. This is not worth it.’” Read more »