Before Ferguson, before Baltimore, there was Howard Beach. On the 30th anniversary of the racial incident that tore apart the fabric of New York City, New York Times bestselling author Jerry Oppenheimer revisits the incident at Howard Beach. Oppenheimer’s newest book, The Kardashians: The True, Untold Story, will be published in 2017.
Late on the evening of December 20, 1986, 24-year-old Dominick Blum and his artist girlfriend, Marteen Channon, who was sleeping, were driving on the Belt Parkway in the New York City borough of Queens after seeing a play with friends.
Suddenly, Blum’s sedan hit something, cracking the windshield and denting the hood. The son of a New York cop, Blum stopped, got out, looked around, saw no debris and drove on, dropping off his date at her home in Brooklyn before going to his own family home nearby.
Little did Blum know at the time, he had killed a 23-year-old black man named Michael Griffith and became ensnarled in what would become a racial storm that tore apart New York City and generate anti-American headlines around the world about racism in the United States.
Three decades before the advent of Black Lives Matter, before the controversial tragic deaths of African Americans in police confrontations, and before the slaughter of nine black church-goers in Charlotte by just-convicted young racist Dylann Roof, there was the Howard Beach incident.
In an attack by a mob of young whites whose British teenage leader was yelling, ‘Kill the n****rs!’ – a horrific hate-filled event likened by then-Mayor Ed Koch to a ‘southern-style lynching’ – one black man, Michael Griffith was killed; another, Cedric Sandiford was seriously beaten with baseball bats and tree branches; and third, Timothy Grimes, escaped with only minor injuries.
The incident led to manslaughter convictions for three young white men who went on to serve years-long prison sentences. Blum was not part of the angry mob but became entangled in the case when he hit Griffith – who was fleeing from his attackers – with his car. He was cleared by a grand jury in May 1987.
The night of the event, Griffith, Sandiford, Grimes and a fourth man, Curtis Sylvester, entered the provincial, predominately white, mostly Italian-American blue-collar community of Howard Beach near John F Kennedy Airport – home then to the infamous mob boss John Gotti – and stopped for pizza after their car had broken down.
December 20th will mark the 30th anniversary of what had been the worst, most violent racial confrontation in America’s biggest, most diverse city in decades.
The incident was followed by angry mass demonstrations led by militant black leaders such as Rev Al Sharpton, chanting ‘Howard Beach, Have Your Heard, This Is Not Johannesburg’ and hateful responses by white Howard Beach residents, some throwing watermelons at black protesters.
Three decades later, with all of the accusations of racism flying as the turbulent presidential election year of 2016 comes to an end, with the racial divide between blacks and whites seemingly growing wider, with President-elect Donald J Trump and his white supporters being labeled haters and ‘deplorables’ by Hillary Clinton, DailyMail.com takes a look back at the shocking incident in Howard Beach and whether anything has changed, for better or for worse.
‘I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ declares Dominick Blum, now in his mid-50s, of what happened on the Belt Parkway that late night 30 years ago.
As it turned out, what his car hit wasn’t an old tire or some other highway debris as he had surmised at the time, but rather a frightened black man fleeing for his life from a white mob.
Griffith, a construction worker, who was born in Trinidad-Tobago, but lived in Brooklyn, had climbed through a hole in the fence on the edge of the busy highway and, in a panic, ran right into Blum’s speeding car. It all happened so fast.
While Blum still feels terrible about the tragedy, he also says. speaking to DailyMail.com in an exclusive interview: ‘That incident ruined my life for many years after that. It was not very nice to be a part of something that you weren’t.
‘It took many years to get past what happened. I wasn’t with the people who did the crime and I wasn’t the victim of the crime, although you could say I was a victim in an indirect way.’
Blum was never charged with the hit-and-run death of Griffith, and was exonerated by a grand jury.
But until he was absolved of any wrongdoing, he was accused by one of the militant black lawyers in the case, Alton H. Maddox Jr, of being part of the white gang and a knowing participant in Griffith’s death.
Blum had testified that he heard a ‘big bang’ but left the scene because he didn’t know what he had hit.
He returned a couple of hours later with his policeman father and learned that Griffith had been struck and killed.
When contacted for an interview about the Howard Beach case, Blum assumed he was going to be asked about his years working with Judy Sheindlin, better known today as TV’s popular Judge Judy.
At the time Blum became embroiled in the Howard Beach case, he was identified in press accounts only as a New York City court officer.
But in the DailyMail.com interview, he revealed for the first time that the court he worked in for eleven years was the Manhattan Family Court of Judge Sheindlin.
Her tough stance on the bench, and her book, Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining, brought her to national attention, and in September 1996 her syndicated court show debuted.
Keeping order in the court and swearing in witnesses in Sheindlin’s real-life court was Blum’s day job.
Handsome and talented, he actually wanted to be an actor, and had appeared in some way-off Broadway productions, according to Cathy Channon, mother of Marteen Channon, who was Blum’s girlfriend and with him when his car struck and killed Michael Griffith.
So when Judge Judy got the court TV job, budding actor Blum hoped that she would bring him along with her and help make him a star – but it didn’t happen.
‘I was her real court officer for all those years until she became famous and went to Hollywood,’ he says. ‘I was actually offered the job to be her TV court officer, but it didn’t work out. They did a survey of her target audience, and they decided they needed a minority person on the show.’
Looking back, Blum believes that some form of racism – his false involvement as one of the bad guys in the Howard Beach case, and later his failure to get the TV role he badly wanted – ‘got me screwed twice. They were both racial situations, but nobody ever talks about the reverse racism.’
As for Howard Beach, he says he’s put it all behind him.
‘I put that aside a long time ago,’ he says. ‘It’s past me. Nobody even brings it up to me anymore, and no one associates my name with that anymore. I had enough problems in my life from that. It took many years, and now I don’t want to think about it.’
Former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J ‘Joe’ Hynes, appointed as a special prosecutor by then-New York Gov Mario Cuomo to oversee the controversial Howard Beach case, told DailyMail.com: ‘There’s no question about it that he [Blum] took a lot of heat.
‘There was no evidence at all that he intentionally killed Griffith. Blum was part of a tragic accident.
‘There was no credible case against him. [Militant black lawyers] believed he was part of the gang and he certainly wasn’t.’
He noted that one of the lawyers ‘had this mindset that he basically mistrusted all white people’.
Hynes, who later wrote the book, Incident at Howard Beach, said: ‘What happened in Howard Beach is important because there was a collective feeling in the African-American community, at least in New York City, that justice was not for black people.’
Hynes, now 81, believed that Howard Beach becoming a rallying cry for racism was unfair ‘because the people in Howard Beach were not guilty of a [racist] stereotype.
‘Howard Beach and the people of Howard Beach were not on trial. The defendants were on trial. That was my feeling.’
Four of the white gang, which numbered up to a dozen, were indicted, and tried, three were convicted, and one was not, in the three-month trial.
Jason Ladone, who was a 17-year-old high school dropout, got the lightest sentence – five to 15 years for first-degree assault and second-degree manslaughter, to run consecutively.
The judge, Justice Thomas A. Demakos, told the court, ‘That night Jason Ladone was a violent person [who] participated in the reckless death of [Michael] Griffith and the vicious assault’ on Cedric Sandiford, who was 36 at the time of the assault.
‘This,’ the judge stated, ‘cannot go unpunished.’
At Ladone’s sentencing in a packed Queens courtroom, he expressed sorrow for his part in the attack, addressing his remarks at Griffiths mother, a nurse’s aide.
Ladone’s divorced mother an office worker, told reporters, ‘I hope he said it from his heart and not from his lips’.
His father, a Sanitation Department worker, said nothing.
As Ladone was being led from the court, dozens of relatives, friends and supporters applauded him.
Scott Kern, who had just turned 21, was sentenced a few days earlier to six to 18 years in prison. Unlike Ladone, he did not address the court.
On the day Kern surrendered to be taken off to prison, his father, who worked for a utility company, declared that his son and the others were innocent, that the case was ‘political’, that evidence had falsely made it seem that what happened was a racial assault, and that prosecutors had made it ‘a bias case. It didn’t happen the way they say’.
He blamed an ‘intimidated jury’, militant black lawyers, and liberal news organizations, claiming they all participated in a ‘cover-up’.
And he further charged that Griffith, who was killed, Sandiford, who was beaten, and Timothy Grimes, who escaped injury, were ‘convicted felons’ and ‘drug users’.
Prosecutors charged that the leader of the attack was a baby-faced British teenager by the name of Jon Lester, who then lived in Howard Beach.
‘What he did was appalling,’ declares Hynes. ‘I thought he was just a bad guy. He was in the automobile that had the confrontation with Cedric, Timothy and Michael. It was not clear what precipitated the exchange of racial epithets, but it happened.
‘Jon Lester directed the driver of the car to go back to a house party and he went running through the house screaming at the top of his lungs using the N-word, that these [black] people were on the boulevard. “Hey, there’s some n****rs. Let’s go get them!” No one challenged him. No one questioned him.’
About a dozen teenagers then jumped into three cars and they raced to Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach and spotted the three black men in a popular pizza restaurant, New Park Pizzeria, that is still in business today, operated by the same family for half-a-century.
Lester, 17, and his cohorts, according to Hynes, ‘waited in the parking lot of a supermarket until they [the black men] came out and that’s when it all started’.
Lester, the ringleader of the Howard Beach attack, known as Johnny English, was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison, and served nearly 15 when he was released in the summer of 2001, at the age of 32. He was then deported to England.
Landon was released in April 2000, when he was 29, after serving ten years in prison. Kern was the last to be released – he left prison in 2002.
Hynes was furious when he heard about Lester’s freedom.
‘Some would say 15 years is significant punishment, but he is alive and Michael Griffith is dead,’ he said.
After Lester’s release, a British tabloid, the Sunday Mirror, tracked him down in Lancashire where he was then living.
He told the paper, ‘I know this race thing is following me wherever I go. But I have never been a racist. What I did was terrible, but I have served my time. I was very young when it all happened. I didn’t know what I was doing.’
None of the three convicted in the case could be reached for comment.
After the trials, the two survivors of the attack in Howard Beach had difficult and tragic lives.
Timothy Grimes, 21, was convicted of shooting his brother, Tommy, 29, in the face, in 1989, in Virginia, and was sentenced to serve 15 years on a charge of malicious wounding and an additional two years for use of a firearm.
Previously he had served 18-months for a robbery of a couple in Brooklyn, and reportedly suffered from psychotic episodes as a result of what happened in Howard Beach. He is now out of prison, but could not be reached for comment.
Cedric Sandiford, a construction worker, born in Guyana, died at the Veterans Hospital in Brooklyn in November 1991.
He was 41 years old and had suffered from AIDS, undergoing treatment in Nairobi, Kenya. He long had drug and alcohol addictions. At the trial of the attackers, he was a major prosecution witness.
His daughter, Brenda, told DailyMail.com: ‘Racism still exists. But I don’t believe all white people are racist.’
A memorial service for the 30th anniversary of the incident in Howard Beach is scheduled for Tuesday, December 20, at a Catholic church in Brooklyn.
Joe Hynes, the special prosecutor in the case, is scheduled to be one of the speakers.
Among his heroes in the case that he will mention is Michael Griffith’s mother, Jean.
‘She’s just a remarkable woman. She would come to court everyday with her bible and pray for justice. She said something so interesting at the end of the case when there was a conviction.
She said, ‘I feel terrible for the mothers of the guilty. But they get a chance to visit their sons in prison. But I have no where to go to see Michael except the cemetery in the dirt.’
hBefore Ferguson, before Baltimore, there was Howard Beach. On the 30th anniversary of the racial incident that tore apart the fabric of New York City, New York Times bestselling author Jerry Oppenheimer revisits the incident at Howard Beach. Oppenheimer’s newest book, The Kardashians: The True, Untold Story, will be published in 2017.Late on the evening of December 20, 1986, 24-year-old Dominick Blum and his artist girlfriend, Marteen Channon, who was sleeping, were driving on the Belt Parkway in the New York City borough of Queens after seeing a play with friends.Suddenly, Blum’s sedan hit something, cracking the windshield and denting the hood. The son of a New York cop, Blum stopped, got out, looked around, saw no debris and drove on, dropping off his date at her home in Brooklyn before going to his own family home nearby.Little did Blum know at the time, he had killed a 23-year-old black man named Michael Griffith and became ensnarled in what would become a racial storm that tore apart New York City and generate anti-American headlines around the world about racism in the United States. Three decades before the advent of Black Lives Matter, before the controversial tragic deaths of African Americans in police confrontations, and before the slaughter of nine black church-goers in Charlotte by just-convicted young racist Dylann Roof, there was the Howard Beach incident.
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