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Confession Revives Issues in Notorious 'Wilding' Case

Five convictions in the 1989 rape of a jogger in New York's Central Park are called into question after DNA tests and a prisoner's admission of guilt.

October 21, 2002|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It was a crime that sickened New York and stunned the nation: Five black youths savagely beat and raped a lone woman jogging through Central Park, leaving her for dead. They had gone on a rampage, attacking numerous people, and violated the 28-year-old white woman for blood sport.

Or did they?

Thirteen years after the racially incendiary case made world headlines and reinforced New York's image as a dangerous, lawless place, DNA testing has concluded that another man -- a rapist serving 33 years to life in prison -- may have been the sole attacker. The jogger, now recovered, remembers nothing of the crime.

"I was a monster," said Matias Reyes, 31, insisting that he alone stalked and brought down the Salomon Bros. investment banker on an April night in 1989 when mayhem filled the park. "And I just had to have her."

Reyes' confession has reopened a chilling case that most New Yorkers thought was settled long ago. And it has ignited furious demands by attorneys representing the five youths -- who have served their time and now are grown men -- that their rape convictions be set aside by Manhattan Dist. Atty. Robert Morgenthau.

Today, Morgenthau will brief New York Supreme Court Justice Eduardo Padro about his investigation of the newly reopened case. He is expected to ask for a one-month extension for his exhaustive review, which involves going over 15,000 pages of transcripts and re-interviewing dozens of witnesses.

He also is probing the credibility of Reyes, who said a religious awakening prompted him to come forward in January. Because the statute of limitations on rape has expired, he cannot be prosecuted for the crime.

The notion that the so-called Central Park Five might be innocent has triggered recriminations and disbelief, sparking racial frictions that were far more typical here in the late 1980s than in today's more peaceful climate. When it became public, the crime introduced America to the concept of "wilding," a frenzied crime spree carried out by juveniles roaming in packs.

Although the jogger case changed the city dramatically -- helping to spur a tough anti-crime crackdown several years later -- its troubling legacy has affected people in different ways.

"Race has always been the 800-pound gorilla in this case," said Eugene O'Donald, a political science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Law and a former assistant district attorney. "People view this differently from different sides of the racial divide. You want to believe police would act fairly, but you'd be kidding yourself not to see that there could have been a rush to judgment here."

Although many women were traumatized by the crime and the specter of youths "wilding" in the park, African American parents were equally paralyzed by fears that their sons could be picked up by the New York police at random and charged with crimes they didn't commit.

"They were innocent of all the charges," said Michael Warren, who represents three of the convicted men. "They served [time] in prison for something they never did. This terrible stigma has to be removed."

Once again, city officials are trying to piece together a horrific night of violence that former Mayor Edward I. Koch called "one of the most brutal, unforgettable atrocities in the modern history of this city."

It was an evening when an estimated 30 to 33 teenagers were roaming through the northern part of the park, throwing stones at cabdrivers, beating up bicyclists and harassing homeless people.

Around 9:30 p.m., the woman entered Central Park on the Upper East Side near the 102nd Street transverse, a popular jogging path. Sometime around 10:05 she was attacked and dragged into a ravine, where she was raped. Her skull was crushed and she lost most of the blood in her body. When passersby discovered her at 1 a.m., the nearly nude woman was barely alive, and investigators were prepared to classify the case as a homicide.

Yet the jogger miraculously recovered after months of intensive care and rehabilitative therapy. Today she is married, lives in Connecticut and is preparing to tell her story in a book to be published next year. Although she suffers from double vision and a greatly diminished sense of smell, she has gone on with her life. She "is as interested as anyone else to know what happened that night," said her agent, Joni Evans.

When police officers began responding to reports of the frenzied Central Park attacks, they took several teenagers into custody and, after a lengthy interrogation, came up with the names of five suspects who lived in nearby Harlem. Within a week, prosecutors believed they had cracked the case.

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