NEW YORK — The events were ordinary and by all odds they should have been separate. But that Friday night, a week before Christmas, they converged with the force of a bomb, scattering racial shrapnel throughout New York City.
An 18th-birthday party in a private home where beer and Southern Comfort flowed freely, a wrong turn on a parkway and the failure of an $80 water pump in a 1976 Buick, a double-date for a play at Brooklyn College followed by a meal and light-hearted conversation at a diner--these are the events that led to the tragedy of Howard Beach.
When it was over, Michael Griffith, 23, lay dead under a blood-stained white sheet on the Belt Parkway in Queens. Three white youths were charged with being part of the teen-age crowd that savagely attacked Griffith and two other black men with a baseball bat, a tree limb and fists. A police officer's son found himself a central figure in the investigation. And Mayor Edward I. Koch told the world that the attackers were no better than the "lynching parties that existed in the Deep South."
Now, weeks later, thousands of letters--some critical of the mayor, most praising his remarks--still pour into City Hall, as a special prosecutor attempts to piece together precisely what happened on that night. Not only in New York, but also across the nation, the case has galvanized civil rights activists and sparked a painstaking examination of race relations. The case is rife with complications and contradictions, and many questions remain.
Just what did happen in Howard Beach, an insulated, predominantly white working-class community near Kennedy Airport in Queens that many residents compare to a small town? While a grand jury ponders evidence for possible indictments, investigators, with great difficulty, have pieced together chronologies.
On the evening of Dec. 19, Michael Griffith, a sometime construction worker; his stepfather, Cedric Sandiford, 36, a mechanic's assistant, and Timothy Grimes, 18 and unemployed, met in the home of Sandiford's niece, Vanessa Sandiford, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Curtis Sylvester, a 20-year-old student from Florida, had come to town, and they decided to show him parts of Brooklyn and Queens while using Sylvester's car to visit a friend of Grimes.
After seeing the friend, they started driving back to Bedford-Stuyvesant on the Belt Parkway sometime between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. To those unfamiliar with the area, the green and white signs along the parkway can be confusing. The four men turned off at an exit labeled The Rockaways instead of Rockaway Parkway, the exit they were looking for.
They traveled--heading in the wrong direction--toward the Atlantic Ocean on Cross Bay Boulevard and drove through a deserted area opposite the Jamaica Bay bird sanctuary, the largest wildlife refuge within any U.S. city, a place where glossy ibis, snowy egrets and more than 300 other species of birds settle into marshes through which the distant towers of the Empire State Building and World Trade Center in Manhattan can be seen.
Car Breaks Down
It was here that their 1976 Buick, which had begun to overheat, broke down at about 10:30 p.m. At first, when they peered under the hood, they thought the problem was as simple as a leaky hose or radiator. One of the men walked a mile and a half to a toll booth on a nearby bridge and asked for water, filling an empty antifreeze container. But when he returned, the car was still disabled.
By now, it was just before 11 and getting chilly. Temperatures were dropping into the 30s, and three of the men decided to seek help and take the subway home. Sylvester, the visitor, didn't want to leave his auto vulnerable to thieves. He later told investigators: "I never leave my car."
So Grimes, Sandiford and Griffith walked back along Cross Bay Boulevard in the direction of Howard Beach, about 2 1/2 miles away. After walking about half a mile, they had their first encounter with whites. They saw two young women in a red Datsun 300 ZX outside the Surfside Motel and asked them for a ride. When the women refused, there was a brief argument.
Unfazed, they continued their journey. "These were streetwise kids," said a police investigator. "They were not scared, wandering through the neighborhood."
While the three men were walking, 30 to 50 teen-agers in Howard Beach were attending an 18th-birthday party. Eventually, a few of the revelers decided that the party needed more liquor. According to police, Jon Lester, 17, his girlfriend, and three other friends piled into a car. At the corner of Cross Bay Boulevard and 157th Avenue, they encountered the black men at a stoplight. Whether the men stepped in front of the car or the auto swerved near to them is still under investigation. But the close call prompted angry words, including racial epithets, from both sides.
Presence Causes Alarm