NEW YORK — A one-time runner-up in the Mr. Universe competition — who currently moonlights as a bodyguard for Jennifer Lopez and other celebs — found trouble waiting just outside his Manhattan apartment.
Willie Gonzalez, 70, was pepper-sprayed in the face by a teen girl after confronting a group of trespassing youths smoking marijuana on the 12th floor of his Chelsea NYCHA building, police said Tuesday.
“I’m sort of the sheriff of this place,” explained Gonzalez, who celebrated his most recent birthday Saturday. “I can defend myself. When these kids come from school on their lunch time it’s like they don’t have anything else better to do than disrupt.”
The victim told the Daily News he heard the partying youths, grabbed a thick wooden stick and challenged the group before he was attacked.
“You would never expect a little girl spraying me in the eyes,” said Gonzalez. “They were testing me because they had that spray. I’m not putting the stick down, you know?”
Gonzalez said the confrontation escalated after he told the weed-smoking kids from a nearby high school to leave because they were trespassing about 12:20 p.m. Monday. All but three got the message and split, leaving Gonzalez to face off with the remaining trio.
“You don’t know what goes into your eyes when people start spraying you,” he said. The remaining teens then bolted, with Gonzalez returning to his apartment to take a shower and flush out his eyes. He declined medical treatment when an ambulance arrived.
Gonzalez, a lifelong resident of the W. 17th Street building in NYCHA’s Fulton Houses, said he had no intent to hurt any of the kids and simply wanted them to go away.
“I would never ever in my life hit a kid with a stick,” said the father of four. “But I’ve seen some really bad stuff where kids have guns and knives.”
In his younger and more colorful days, Gonzalez was the second-place finisher to Lou Ferrigno in the 1986 Mr. Universe competition. Now he works part time as a private investigator and has worked security for major celebrities like Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey and Lopez. He most recently accompanied J.Lo to last summer’s Tribeca Film Festival.
He also helped house families and first responders at the Embassy Suites hotel, where he worked as head of security, near ground zero after the 9/11 terrorist attack.
The victim said strangers in his building are a problem, recounting how neighbors have been followed inside by people looking for trouble.
“The elderly, they get scared,” he explained. “You have packages stolen, you have garbage on the floor, you have marijuana stubs on the floor, spit, feces … This is disgusting. It’s tiring.”
The NYPD released surveillance images of the female suspect Tuesday and asked the public’s help in tracking her down.
Anyone with information is asked to call Crime Stoppers at (800) 577-TIPS. All calls will be kept confidential.
“Kids need knowledge and therapy,” Gonzalez said of his attackers. “Understanding, respect for others. The law is the law. But (there) should be some sort of punishment.”