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Madness in the Heart of the City

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They look like children. When they appeared in Manhattan Supreme Court last Wednesday (May 10) to enter their pleas on charges that they gang-raped and attempted to murder a jogger in Central Park, Raymond Santana, 14, Kevin Richardson, 14, Steve Lopez, 15, Antron McCray, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, and Kharey Wise, 16, did not look savage, or cruel, or capable of committing what prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer has called “one of the most vicious and brutal crimes in the history of New York.” If they had gone “wilding”—a new street term for running amok—they now looked terribly tame.

As 15 armed court officers surrounded them in Acting State Supreme Court Justice Carol Berkman’s courtroom, the boys stood perfectly still, hands folded, as though afraid to make a sound Lederer, a tiny woman, wisp thin from her own running regimen, seemed the perfect advocate for the violated victim as she detailed in a voice taut with anger the horrific acts of which each defendant stood accused When the bailiff asked “How do you plead?” Antron McCray, skinny, about 5’4″, his hair close-cropped and his ears sticking out replied quietly, “Not guilty.” His lawyer pleaded stirringly that McCray should be released to await trial. Only if he could post $25,000 cash bail, ordered the judge. With each defendant the scenario was repeated By morning’s end all had pleaded not guilty—and been returned to jail.

The violence and horror of the April 19 rape thus passed into the mechanical routine of the judicial system. The attack had become a case on the docket Papers were stamped and tossed into a wire basket The next case was called This case, however, could hardly be contained in the courthouse. Seldom had a crime provoked such fear, hatred and revulsion, turning up the heat in a city already simmering with racial tension.

Meanwhile, in an intensive-care unit on the ninth floor of Manhattan’s Metropolitan Hospital the battered young woman lay, her facial bones smashed her skull fractured her brain gravely injured Traditionally, journalists do not publish the names of rape victims without their consent, but every paper in the city had chronicled the slow, uncertain recovery of the young woman who has come to be known as the Central Park Jogger. She had emerged from a coma after 13 days, murmuring the word “hello” to her brother, and was now struggling to sit. Friends and family maintained a bedside vigil, talking to her, holding her hand, praying over her, struggling to retrieve her from the hazy hell of delirium. Despite her progress, she was still in serious condition, and it remained highly doubtful that she would ever recover her full mental and physical capacity. Said her father: “We’re taking it one miracle at a time.”

Wednesday, April 19, had begun uneventfully for the 28-year-old investment banker. By 7:30 A.M. she settled in at her desk in the corporate finance department of Salomon Brothers, the Wall Street investment banking house where she helped put together multimillion-dollar deals in the oil and gas industry. After a typical 12-hour workday, she headed home to her small, fifth-floor apartment on East 83rd Street. Then, as she did every night, she changed out of her business suit into black spandex tights and a white sweatshirt, laced up her blue and white Saucony running shoes and pushed off for her one-hour run in Central Park.

The park comprises 1.3 square miles of wooded hills, rocky outcroppings, ponds and broad meadows in the heart of Manhattan. Some areas seem as unspoiled as the Forest of Arden, offering peace, seclusion and, at least at night, danger. She ran alongside the cars on the Park’s East Drive, turning left at 102nd Street to head down a road where cars are not allowed. Street lamps illuminated the roadway, but on her right an embankment fell sharply away into darkness. Through the budding trees on her left she could see the illuminated blue spire of the Empire State Building, the red neon RCA logo atop Rockefeller Center, the glittering silver Art Deco crown of the Chrysler Building. The only sound was the gentle whoosh of the city’s traffic, like surf on a far-off shore.

Then, at about 10 P.M., police say, as many as a dozen youths fell upon her. According to the official account, which is largely based on the often conflicting statements of the defendants, she screamed and struggled as they dragged her 200 feet down the ravine, throwing her to the ground at the edge of a pond. They tore her clothes off and bound her hands and gagged her with her sweatshirt. While some held her, others—perhaps four of them—raped her. The attack may have lasted 30 minutes. They pummeled her with fists, smashed her face and head with stones and a metal pipe, then left her for dead.

The rape culminated a crime spree of escalating ferocity that had begun when a pack of some 33 youths entered the park at 9 P.M., attacking everything that moved. They split into groups and assaulted an elderly homeless man, threw rocks at cars and bicyclists, robbed a 52-year-old Hispanic man and assaulted at least four other joggers before police captured the first five of the boys at about 11 P.M. But the cops didn’t know about the rape, and the woman had lain broken and bleeding for more than three hours before passersby discovered her and summoned help. She had by then lost two-thirds of her blood, and her body temperature had fallen to 80 degrees.

The Central Park crimes marked the collision of two worlds that exist in tense proximity. Of the six boys indicted for the rape, four live in Schomburg Plaza, which provides subsidized housing for 600 families, mostly working class, black and Hispanic, for a top rent of about $900 a month. Schomburg’s twin 35-story towers stand at the northeast corner of Central Park, in East Harlem, which extends south to the northern edge of the affluent Upper East Side. There, young professionals rent small one-bedroom flats for more than $1500 a month, and condominium apartments often sell for $1 million. To the Upper East Siders, Harlem looms as an unknown, fearsome continent. To many residents of Harlem, the Upper East Side is a forbidden city, where they are welcome to clean the homes and raise the children and nurse the sick—but not to live.

If they thought they were venting their rage against a symbol of heedless wealth, the youths were in fact attacking a woman who by all accounts had lived her life with singular grace and compassion. With her blond hair, large eyes and elfin figure—she carried a mere 100 lbs. or so on her 5’5″ frame—the jogger had a Peter Panlike appearance, but she had always been very serious and mature. She was born to privilege: Her father is a recently retired Westinghouse executive, and both of her parents served on the school board in her home town of Upper St. Clair, Pa., an affluent suburb of Pittsburgh. She attended the best schools and excelled, graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley and later earning a joint master’s degree in business and international relations from Yale.

She was aware of the blessings she enjoyed. Says David Lindauer, who taught her at Wellesley: “She felt very fortunate for the opportunities life had given her and she felt a responsibility to do something with the gifts that she had been given.” At college she worked on a nutrition program for Rosie’s Place, a shelter for homeless women in Boston, and tutored inmates in a women’s prison. While embarking on her career as an investment banker, recalls a friend, she continued to wrestle with “ethics in corporate America and where she fit in.”

She is described as a spirited and spiritual girl. Indeed, some who know her think the reason she ignored repeated warnings not to run at night was that she had too much faith in humanity. “I don’t think she could imagine anyone being that vicious or coldhearted,” says Lia Pappas, a high school friend. Others, like one Wellesley classmate, say, “She thought she was invincible.”

A rigorously trained ballet dancer, she was also obsessed with maintaining her fitness. She was a serious runner, having turned in a 6:48 mile and run the Boston Marathon route. Colleagues from a Boston consulting firm, where she worked after graduating college, recall that she once ran to a dinner party across the city line in Brookline, then insisted on jogging home the five-plus miles to her Beacon Hill apartment. That sort of behavior caused her friends concern. “We used to talk about how very thin she was,” says Nan Garland. “We worried that she was running too much and not eating enough.”

For whatever reason, run she did, even when her hours at Salomon Brothers left her no time to do it but at night. Reportedly a friend who saw her at a 1987 Wellesley class reunion recalled her saying, “I think the horror stories that you hear are a lot worse than reality. It’s just not that scary out there running.”

Almost as shocking as the brutal rape itself was the youthfulness of the accused. Of the six indicted for the rape, none had a police record, and none were known to be involved with drugs. Some residents of a nearby housing complex say they recognized Lopez and Richardson from news photos as being among a gang of toughs who broke windows and threatened people on the street. Salaam had been suspended from high school for possessing weapons—a knife and a ninja star. The prosecutor says Kharey Wise had once been placed in foster care after his mother slapped him in front of a youth services worker who was trying to deal with his repeated absence from school—and his brother has a felony narcotics conviction. But nothing known about the youths could begin to explain the enormity of a sadistic and cowardly gang rape.

Raymond Santana was “one of our nicest kids,” the director of his school told a reporter. The police say Santana admits grabbing the woman’s breasts.

Steve Lopez’s father, a mailman, reportedly enforced curfews for him and his two younger brothers. Relying on the statements of co-defendants, the prosecution alleges that Lopez said, “Let’s rape her,” and hit the woman twice with a brick to silence her screams.

Antron McCray was a star Little League pitcher. His mother works in a day-care center and his father in a garage. “If his father catches him out late,” says a guard at his apartment complex, “he puts something to his behind.” Yet the prosecution says he admitted, “I grabbed her arm. Then we took turns getting on top of her.” Says his attorney, Michael Joseph, “His parents can’t believe it or accept it, and they know it can’t be true.”

Kharey Wise’s mother is an aide at a facility for the mentally ill, his father a truck driver. According to Kharey’s lawyer he’s a born-again Christian who encouraged his mother to convert. She says she returned from church at 10:30 p.m. on the night of the crime and found him at home. But according to Assistant District Attorney Lederer, Wise, in his statement to police “went into great detail about how, as this woman screamed for her life, they silenced her with rocks and with punches so they could continue to sexually abuse her.” Wise’s attorney, Colin Moore, says his client was slapped around during 48 hours of questioning until he was willing to say anything police wanted.

Kevin Richardson is the youngest of five children of a postal worker who is a Marine veteran. He helped care for his ailing mother, who suffered a stroke six years ago. He played the baritone sax and danced with a group called the Show Stoppers. “He’s 14, a childish 14,” says his lawyer, Howard Diller. “It’s easy to get him to cry.” The police say Richardson, alone among the accused, admitted raping the woman. His lawyer says the statement was made under coercive circumstances and should not be believed.

According to a young woman who says she knows him, Yusef Salaam “has sense. He has respect. Like if he calls my house, it’s not ‘Is Shawn there?’ It’s ‘May I please speak to Shawn.’ ” For the past four years Salaam has met regularly with an assistant U.S. attorney in the Big Brother program. Prosecutors say Salaam admitted he hit the woman with a pipe and grabbed her breast. They say he claimed in a written statement to police, “It was fun.”

Commentators have vied to explain the inexplicable crime. Conservative New York Post columnist Ray Kerrison blamed pornography, sex education, legal abortion and legitimized homosexuality, all hallmarks of our “licentious age.” Anthropologist Philippe Bourgois, who grew up on the Upper East Side and now lives in, and studies, East Harlem, points to “the pain of being poor in the richest city in the world.” Add to that the pervasive violence of the drug trade, he says, and “the environment is overwhelming. Atrocity flowers here.”

But few in the increasingly polarized city were interested in explanations. The ever more appalling lawyer Alton Maddox, fresh from his leading role in the Tawana Brawley fiasco, rushed to pour gasoline on the flames by suggesting on the radio that the rape was a hoax. Bilious billionaire developer Donald Trump spent $89,000 to run full page ads in four New York dailies declaring, “I want to hate these muggers and murderers…BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY.”

The rage was palpable on the May 3 Donahue show, where lawyers for two of the defendants confronted an audience of women that quickly turned from coffee klatch to mob. “Castrate them!” cried one gray-haired matron, to raucous applause. “And if this woman dies, then they should be put to death too.” Incensed that, as juvenile offenders, the 14-and 15-year-olds faced maximum sentences of five-to-10 years, the Post called for the execution of “vermin,” and conservative firebrand Patrick Buchanan suggested it would be helpful to public order if the oldest rape defendant, who is 16, were “tried, convicted and hanged in Central Park by June 1.”

Marilyn Davis, 43, a registered nurse and union official who lives at Schomburg, helped organize a prayer vigil for the rape victim. “The crime was horrendous and the perpetrators should be punished,” she says, “but everyone is innocent until proven guilty. The media have lynched these boys. And we have gotten death threats, people calling saying they’re coming to shoot Schomburg Plaza up. We’re terrified to let our children play on the sidewalk.”

She is fully aware that there was no great outcry over the sexual attacks on three teenagers in her neighborhood in April. She recalls no ads or editorials screaming for the death penalty when a gang of white youths killed a black man in Howard Beach, Queens, in 1986, nor does she remember the press calling them “animals.”

But aren’t those guilty of a bestial crime animals? she is asked. “No,” she says, “I don’t think that judging another person as less than human is a privilege that any man walking the earth should have. Some of these boys committed a horrible crime, but they’re not animals. They are human beings.” That is the mystery of it all, and the horror.

—With Victoria Balfour in New York. Additional reporting by Jane Beckwith in Upper St. Clair and S. Avery Brown in Boston