NEW YORK (PIX11) — Julio Ramirez, a Brooklyn social worker who did mental health counseling for the poor, was enjoying a night out in Hell’s Kitchen in the early hours of April 21 when he took a smiling selfie. “It is the last picture Julio took the night he died—2:26 a.m.,” close friend Karinina Quimpo said.

He was making a “peace” sign with fingernails painted stylishly black. In less than an hour after the photo, surveillance video would show Ramirez, 25, getting into a taxi with three men at 3:17 a.m. outside the Ritz Bar and Lounge, a popular gay club in the heart of Restaurant Row on West 46th Street.

About 90 minutes later, a cab driver flagged down police on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Ramirez was alone and unresponsive in the back seat. His cellphone and wallet were gone. By the time Ramirez’s family was called, “he was dead and already with the medical examiner’s office,” Quimpo said.

Julio Ramirez was born and raised on Long Island and later attended college in Buffalo. The mystery of what happened to the accomplished son of El Salvadoran immigrants—who received a dual master’s degree in public health and social work from the University of Buffalo—torments his friends and family.

Police at the scene initially called the death a possible drug overdose, but those closest to Ramirez think he was targeted, drugged, and ultimately robbed. The circumstances of Ramirez’s death are “suspicious to me,” Quimpo said. “Julio didn’t do drugs. He would drink alcohol. He would go out and be safe.”

Julie Bolcer, a spokesperson for the city Office of Chief Medical Examiner, told NEWS10’s sister station in New York City that the cause and manner of Ramirez’s death remained under investigation. She said that his family would first be informed about the cause before the information would be made public.

Manhattan detectives have spoken with the family about the surveillance footage. Ramirez’s older brother, Carlos, found the social worker’s laptop and the last photo he took before he died. Carlos also accessed his brother’s banking records, according to Quimpo.” He noticed that thousands of dollars were being spent in that month after Julio’s death,” she said. “We also saw something transferred to another account, through Zelle.”

Carlos Ramirez wrote of his anguish on Instagram on April 25, saying, “I am destroyed and my life will never be the same. My sweet little brother is an angel now.” A funeral Mass was held for Ramirez on April 30.

Quimpo said she was the resident aide at the University of Buffalo dorm when she met Ramirez in his freshman year there in 2014. “He was proud of his culture,” Quimpo said, recalling that Ramirez would take vacations with his family in El Salvador. In 2021, Ramirez moved to the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and was providing mental health counseling for underserved communities, helping people of all ages.

Quimpo said Ramirez was initially planning to be a nurse, like her, but changed his majors to public health and social work. She remembered her friend as someone who was filled with joy. “It was something he was very passionate about,” she said. “He would always tell me how motivated he was to help his community.”