NEW YORK — The message was five words long, as chilling as it was concise: "It's either lie or die."
The sender was known on Brooklyn's streets as Turf, an alleged member of the notoriously violent Bloods street gang. The recipient was named Naia, 18, whose childhood even in this hard neighborhood had not prepared her for such terror.
The same message was delivered to her two closest friends. The three had become inseparable while growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Now they had something to share besides birthdays and parties and chitchat: A death threat.
The gangster's message came last June, but it referred to an incident nine months earlier. As usual, the three girls had been together that night, and they watched helplessly as a friend was slain in a park in a case of mistaken identity.
The girls all identified the shooter to police. But now, the messenger -- allegedly, the shooter's half-brother -- ordered them to implicate another man.
They didn't want to lie. But they didn't want to die, either.
By the time trial opened this summer, all three had recanted their identification of defendant Wesley Sykes, leaving the prosecution with a single witness, Bobby Gibson.
And then there were none.
Two days into the trial, Gibson was gunned down on the steps outside his home -- a gang hit, said stunned veteran law enforcers, who could not recall the execution of a witness.
The girls knew the truth -- and they were now the prosecutors' best potential witnesses. They faced a terrifying decision.
It was 8 p.m. on Sept. 4, 2001. Naia and her friends, Shaquanna and Leticia, sat on benches at the Willoughby Playground, a tiny park wedged between a grammar school and a Roman Catholic church. (The Associated Press agreed not to use the girls' last names to help protect their safety.)
On this night, Naia's boyfriend joined her in the park, along with friend Bobby Gibson and two brothers, Corey and Dennis "Dough Boy" Brown.
Then Wesley Sykes entered the playground on his bicycle.
A week earlier, there had been a dispute near the same spot. Corey Brown had slapped two women. And Sykes, a reputed member of the Bloods, was here to make him atone for that disrespect.
A feeling of unease passed among the teens. One tried to defuse the tension, calling out, "Yo, what's up? Show some love."
But there was no love on this night. According to witnesses, Sykes, 22, stepped off his bike and walked toward the group, brandishing a black semiautomatic pistol.
"You disrespected my family," Sykes announced -- and then, the witnesses said, he shot "Dough Boy" Brown, mistaking him for Corey. The girls ran for their lives as Sykes squeezed off another shot at them.
Twenty-three days later, Dough Boy died.
The case against Sykes came together quickly. Witnesses, including Naia, Shaquanna and Leticia, picked him out of a lineup. Bobby Gibson went further, giving police a statement that implicated a shooter with a "messed-up eye."
Sykes had a glass left eye and a droopy eyelid.
It seemed like a slam-dunk for prosecutors. Sykes was arrested and a trial date was set for June 2002.
Early that month, Naia and her friends were approached by a middleman claiming to represent Sykes' half-brother, DuPree "Turf" Harris. Later, in court, Naia explained what she knew about Harris:
"He is known for hurting people, for killing people.... He kill all his witnesses and all of that."
After Harris' henchman allegedly brought the frightening "lie or die" message, Naia went into hiding for 10 days. Harris handled the follow-up personally, approaching all three girls, bringing each one to Sykes' attorney, sitting at their side while they lied to the lawyer.
"I had to go with a lie because I was thinking, was I going to make it back safely?" Naia said later.
As they left the law office, Naia remembered, Harris wrapped his arm around her shoulder and announced, "You did good." To seal their silence, Harris paid the three a total of $2,000, the girls said.
The girls hoped that the case would go away, that Sykes might just plead guilty and their testimony would be unnecessary. There was still the testimony of Bobby Gibson.
At 5 a.m. on Saturday, June 29, prosecutor Stephen Murphy heard his beeper go off. Word of a witness' slaying was spreading fast. No one in the D.A.'s office, going back a quarter of a century, could recall such a thing.
Murphy had completed jury selection in the Sykes case 36 hours earlier, when he had also turned over the prosecution's witness list to the defense.
And now, a still drowsy Murphy was hearing that Bobby Gibson was dead.
By 10 a.m., the phone was ringing in his office. The three girls had heard about Gibson's death; the shooting had occurred close enough for them to hear the gunshots. Could the group come in?
Murphy didn't know what to expect.
But once in his office, Naia and her friends said they'd made a tough decision: They'd tell what they knew, face Sykes in the courtroom and risk their lives.