In a Troubling Tale of Two Cities, a Policeman's Bullet Kills a Promising Prep School Honor Student

The forested granite slope of Morningside Park runs like a demilitarized zone between the two worlds of Upper Manhattan. Overlooking it from the west is predominantly white Morningside Heights, the citadel of Columbia University. At the foot of the park, to the east, lie the squalid tenements of Harlem. Residents of each world know that to venture into the other is to court danger.

On the evening of June 12 those worlds collided at the park’s western border. Something happened, and when it was over, a young black, Edmund Perry, 17, lay on the sidewalk, mortally wounded in the abdomen by a .38 cal. slug from the gun of plainclothes police officer Lee Van Houten. Four hours later Perry died. The authorities say that he and his brother, Jonah, 19, were mugging Van Houten when the policeman fired in self-defense.

Muggings are common in New York. And people—especially black teenagers—get shot all the time. Just an hour after Perry was shot, a Brooklyn grocer allegedly killed three black youths in a dispute over a 65-cent can of soda. But Jonah and Edmund Perry, in all of Harlem, seemed among the least likely young men to risk life and future by committing a crime. Just 10 days before he died Edmund had graduated with honors from Phillips Exeter Academy, the prestigious, 204-year-old New England prep school, which he attended on full scholarship. He’d spent his junior year abroad in Spain. He was going to Stanford University (having turned down Yale) in the fall. And he had a $175-a-week summer job as a clerk with Kidder, Peabody & Co., the Wall Street brokerage house.

Jonah, also a prep school graduate (Connecticut’s Westminster School, Class of ’84), was going into his sophomore year as an engineering student at Cornell University and was about to begin a $185-a-week job as a neighborhood-association camp counselor. Neither had ever run afoul of the law. They were the pride of their Harlem neighborhood, held up as models of what hard work could achieve. Both seemed destined for successful futures far from the mean streets where they were born. What happened?

According to the police, Van Houten, 24, dressed in a sweatshirt, dungarees and white sneakers, was walking the brightly lit but lightly traveled parkside block on the lookout for thieves breaking into cars. If he spotted any criminal activity, Van Houten was to radio his backup team—a sergeant and two officers trailing him in an unmarked station wagon.

Suddenly, the police say, when his backup had lost sight of him around a corner, Van Houten was jumped by two black youths. One, allegedly Edmund Perry, punched the side of his head while the other, allegedly Jonah, yoked him from behind and dragged him to the pavement.

According to his lawyer, Van Houten tried to shout “Police!” but the word was muffled by a blow to his head. Pinned down and being pummeled by one of his attackers, his lawyer says, Van Houten feared for his life, pulled a pistol from his ankle holster and fired three shots. One felled Edmund Perry, who, says the lawyer, was standing a few feet away. The other youth, reportedly wearing a dark blue sweatshirt or sweater, was not hit and fled.

Within 24 hours the police announced that a departmental investigation had found nothing to dispute in Van Houten’s account, and that “several” unnamed witnesses corroborated it. The department concluded that Van Houten had followed police guidelines permitting an officer to use deadly force—as a last resort—if he has good reason to believe that his life is in danger.

A grand jury investigating the incident reached the same conclusion early this month, clearing Van Houten and indicting Jonah Perry for assault and attempted robbery. If convicted, he faces up to seven years in prison on each charge.

Those who have known the Perry brothers reacted to the killing and the mugging charge with shock, disbelief and outrage. Alan Brooks, track coach at Westminster prep, where scholarship student Jonah was captain of the team, describes him as “a really swell kid. A nicer guy does not exist, as far as I’m concerned.” To mug someone “is just completely out of character. It just does not compute.”

Edmund’s friends were equally incredulous. Kevin Johnson, 18, was Edmund’s best friend on the block of public-housing tenements where the Perrys live. “We was like family,” Kevin says. “When he came home we’d go out and have a congratulations meal because he was doing so good.”

Kevin, who says he had been playing basketball with Edmund until shortly before his death, figures he went to the other side of the park to eat at the College Inn, a luncheonette near Columbia. “I honestly believe he didn’t jump on that cop. Ed was always against crime. He was out to make Harlem something better than what it was, but he just couldn’t do it by himself.”

“Eddie never steals from anyone. No way. No way,” maintains Edmund’s best friend at Exeter, Kennett Marshall, 18, the stepson of Dick Clark, a former U.S. Senator from Iowa. “He’s a very moral and religious guy. He doesn’t do things unless they’re right. I know he didn’t mug anyone. If they get away with this…” says Marshall, shaking his head, his sky-blue eyes filling with tears. “This was going to be our big summer.” Marshall donated a $1,000 graduation gift from his grandfather to Mrs. Perry for funeral expenses.

The teenagers’ mother, Veronica Perry, 37, an assistant Head Start teacher who is an elected member of Community School Board No. 3, which includes a large tract of middle-class Manhattan, was on her way home from a school board meeting when, at about 11 p.m., a neighbor told her that Edmund had been shot. “I thought, ‘This is utterly ludicrous,’ ” she recalls. “My son carried no gun or knife because he walked with God. He always said, ‘Jesus fights my battles.’

“My older son [Jonah] has a real temper. You get him mad and he’ll hit you. But Ed didn’t like to fight—he was a negotiator. That’s why it’s unbelievable,” she adds. “If the man had said, ‘I’m a police officer,’ Ed would have raised his hands and said, ‘Take me,’ because my sons know cops shoot little black boys. He premeditated and took a gun and killed my baby.”

Many Harlem residents believe that the shooting was racially motivated. The week after the incident, some 1,000 marched to Van Houten’s station house, chanting “Stop killing us!” Says the Rev. Preston Washington of Memorial Baptist Church, who had led a special service to honor Edmund Perry’s academic achievements the Sunday before he was killed, “The police kill and ask questions later. It’s a new form of lynching. The police don’t value black life at all.”

The Reverend Washington says that Edmund was a deeply religious young man. “He was a member of the Memorial Youth Fellowship; he took part in our retreats; he was an usher. The only thing he wouldn’t do is sing. But even if Edmund were the biggest criminal on earth, does that justify killing over a mugging?” asks Washington. “We’re talking about the preciousness of black life.”

The only ones who know for sure what happened on the night of June 12 are Lee Van Houten and the young black man who fled. According to a Puerto Rican fellow police officer who spoke to the New York Times, Van Houten had “never showed signs of racism.” In his two years on the force he had won a reputation as a levelheaded officer, as well as a commendation for apprehending a man with a gun. He had never before fired his own gun except in practice.

Van Houten, treated at nearby St. Luke’s Hospital Center, reportedly for a bloody nose, cut lip, scraped arm and sprained neck, remained on sick leave at home in suburban Rockland County a month after the incident and refused to talk to the press. “Lee really doesn’t want to get into this,” his lawyer explained.

The police claim to have an increasing mass of evidence that the man who fled was Jonah. They say that neighborhood witnesses have told them that Jonah played basketball with Edmund and bet a trip to the movies on the game’s outcome. Jonah lost, but neither had any money and Jonah suggested that he and Ed “rip off” someone, the police say. (Sources in the Manhattan district attorney’s office say no money was found on Edmund.) Jonah showed up at the hospital shortly after the shooting. And the blue sweater Jonah was wearing when he arrived at the hospital was “not inconsistent” with the clothing worn by the second youth—whose face Van Houten never saw. The police claim other witnesses, none of whom have spoken out or been identified publicly, saw Jonah run back from the park at about 9:30, saying, “We got a DT,” street slang for “detective.”

Jonah, who declined to testify before the grand jury, denies that he was with Edmund. “Anyone who says I was there, they’re not just making a mistake, they’re lying,” he says. He suggests that he and everyone else with anything to say about the case should take lie-detector tests.

Jonah says that after the basketball game, he walked east to his grandmother’s house, and Ed walked west, in the direction of the park. Later, Jonah says, he walked west to look for Ed. He reached the foot of the park when he heard shots. “A dude ran up and said your brother’s been shot,” Jonah recalls. Although this individual knew who Jonah was, Jonah claims not to know who he was. “He was just someone from the street.”

So far no one has come forward to support Jonah’s account of his actions, but at his trial there may be testimony that casts some doubt on the police description of the incident. Dr. Sidney B. Weinberg, a nationally known forensic pathologist from Long Island, attended Edmund’s autopsy at the request of the Perry family. He says, “The wound was downward and backward, not upward. I don’t think [the officer] fired from the ground. I don’t see how that could be possible.” Weinberg also says that there were no marks on Edmund’s hands or body to indicate that he had been in a fight.

Meanwhile, the surviving Perry brother, freed in his own custody, holds to his story, and the police, apparently buttressed by considerable evidence, hold to theirs. Edmund Perry, whose short life bridged two wholly different worlds, lies buried in a loamy area of New Jersey’s Fair Lawn Memorial Cemetery. His mother says, “I don’t feel any hate or malice. I’m overjoyed my son is with the King.” As for the questions surrounding what happened that June night, Veronica Perry has an answer: “God knows the truth.”

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