A Racial Attack That, Years Later, Is Still Being Felt

Twenty-five years later, this is the legacy of a racial attack in Howard Beach, Queens:

One of the victims died in the attack and is memorialized in a Brooklyn street sign, another died five years later, and the third is in jail in Virginia for unrelated crimes. The three teenagers convicted of manslaughter were released from prison and are family men in their 40s. A leader of the attack, who became the key prosecution witness and dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps in law enforcement, never did become a police officer.

In a precedent-setting decision, the judge in the case ruled that defense lawyers could no longer arbitrarily reject black jurors in criminal trials. Two years after the case went to trial, a black man was elected mayor of New York. The Queens neighborhood where the attack occurred is still predominantly white. The local pizzeria where the assault began is as popular as ever but now charges $2.50 a slice.

The scars of the deadly racial assault that started on Dec. 19, 1986, and polarized New York City have faded, but have not fully healed.

Jean Griffith Sandiford, the mother of the 23-year-old Michael Griffith, who was chased to his death on the Belt Parkway, has forgiven her son’s killers. But the mother-in-law of one of his attackers suggests that the case was blown out of proportion. Others still argue that the assault was more about turf than race and that the three black men who ventured into the overwhelmingly white neighborhood that night were probably up to no good.

Howard Beach became a singular flash point, as outraged black New Yorkers demanded justice and as some whites in the neighborhood, including those who brandished watermelons to taunt protesters, angrily denied that they were racists or even that the attack was racially motivated.

“I could recall 25 years ago as a kid, I would not recommend anyone black stopping there,” said United States Representative Gregory W. Meeks, who is black and represents Old Howard Beach, east of Cross Bay Boulevard. “Today, it’s definitely a different place.”

While the proportion of non-Hispanic white residents in the area that includes Howard Beach and some adjacent neighborhoods has declined to 74 percent, from 94 percent in 1980, the share of blacks remains below 2 percent.

“The community is comprised today, as it was then, of thousands of law-abiding citizens who were in no way, shape or form involved in that incident,” said Elizabeth Braton, chairwoman of the local community board. “It was a horrendous crime committed by individuals.”

Gov. Mario M. Cuomo — responding to demands from Basil A. Paterson, a former deputy mayor; the Rev. Al Sharpton; and other black leaders — named Charles J. Hynes a special prosecutor to investigate the case. As the chief trial lawyer, Mr. Hynes won three convictions for manslaughter and prevailed on the judge, State Supreme Justice Thomas A. Demakos, to impose stiff consecutive, rather than concurrent, sentences.

Today, Mrs. Sandiford works for Mr. Hynes as a community liaison.

“Twenty-five years ago it was unthinkable that an African-American would be in the White House,” Mr. Hynes said. “Twenty-five years ago all the cops looked like me and came from the suburbs.”

Mr. Sharpton, who himself became a lightning rod in the aftermath of the attack, recalled: “Howard Beach brought to the attention of the country that this could happen in the North. It was as ugly as anything in Selma. The good news is that we don’t have a lot of Howard Beach situations.’’

The events in Howard Beach began when Mr. Griffith, a construction worker, and three black companions traveled from Brooklyn to Queens to pick up his paycheck. Their car broke down late on Dec. 19 on a desolate stretch of Cross Bay Boulevard, and three of the four began walking into Howard Beach. As they were crossing the street, they were nearly bumped by a car in which several white teenagers were riding. Racial slurs were exchanged. The teenagers, joined by other young whites, confronted the black men outside a pizza parlor, New Park Pizza, and chased them.

Timothy Grimes, who was 18, escaped unharmed. Mr. Griffith was killed by a car on the Belt Parkway. Cedric Sandiford, who was 36, was beaten with a bat and other weapons.

Mr. Sandiford married Jean Griffith, Mr. Griffith’s mother, in 1989 and died in 1991 while ill with AIDS. Mr. Grimes was convicted in 1989 of shooting his brother in Virginia, where he is still incarcerated after committing other crimes in prison. In 1999, six blocks of Pacific Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, were named for Mr. Griffith, who lived there as a child.

Jon Lester, Scott Kern and Jason Ladone were convicted of manslaughter and assault.

Mr. Ladone was released in 2000. Six years later, while working for the city’s Transportation Department, he was arrested for drug possession, but the case was dismissed.

Mr. Lester, who lived in South Ozone Park, Queens, underwent “aggression replacement training,” earned an associate college degree in prison, taught himself the guitar and composed a song dedicated to Jean Griffith Sandiford and the mothers of other principals in the case.

During a parole hearing, he said, “I’m not the same stupid kid that I was back then.” He insisted that the attack was about territory and blamed it on “everybody being so young, being drunk, peer pressure.”

“I was not a racist person that I went out and actively called out black people,” Mr. Lester said.

He was deported in 2001 to his native England.

Mr. Kern was released in 2002 and, like Mr. Ladone, is married and has a child. “They were young kids when this happened,” Mr. Ladone’s mother-in-law said recently. “That was a long time ago. It’s past history.’’

All three declined through their relatives or lawyers to be interviewed.

Defense lawyers maintained that the attack was not as clear-cut as it appeared to be. They recounted the fact that Mr. Sandiford was carrying a knife on the night of the attack.

“The kids felt that these were three bad guys,” Mr. Lester’s lawyer, Bryan Levinson, recalled.

A month after the attack, Robert D. Riley, who was also charged in the attack and was awaiting the results of his application to become a police officer, agreed to testify against his friends. The son of a correction officer, he later moved with his family to California and became a salesman.

Christopher Griffith, a photojournalist who is Michael’s brother, runs the Griffith-Sandiford Family Assistance Fund, which provides help to victims of hate crimes and those with AIDS. He said he would never return to the scene of the crime, not because he feared for his safety but because the memories remained too raw.

Mr. Sandiford never responded with a blanket condemnation of Howard Beach residents, nor does his widow.

“In whatever color there are good and bad,” Mrs. Sandiford said. “What happened is people make mistakes; they do wrong things. They took a part of my life away, but I don’t hate them. I forgive them for what they did. I don’t have to live with that — they had the hate, not me.’’

Still, she has never visited the scene of the crime, either.

“To be truthful,” she said, “since Michael got killed, I never eat pizza.”

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