By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
Madison Avenue between 124th and 126th streets is part of "the new, new Harlem Renaissance." The avenue cuts a wide swath across 125th Street, where Elvy Simon's Flavored With One Love, a West Indian restaurant, and A Taste of Seafood, a mom-and-pop fish-and-chips joint run by Rickey Thomas's family, symbolize the culturaland economic rebirth of the fabled community.
But some things haven't changed, including the events that led to the alleged police murder of Kenneth Banks.
For years these two blocks also have been home to the ubiquitous hard knocksdown-on-their-luck black men who earn a living dealing marijuana and crack. Some say that the 36-year-old Banks, a reputed drug dealer who was convicted of criminal trespass in 1997 and petty larceny in 1984, was a hard knock who "did what he had to do" to survive.
As Rickey Thomas intimated to an assistant district attorney, for all he knew, Banks, who was "sometimes homeless," sold bootleg videotapes. He had no proof that one of the desperate moves of his childhood friend involved dealing in drugs.
"Kenny wasn't doing too good," recalls the 38-year-old Thomas, a devout Christian who attended Julia Richmond High School with Banks and his brother Benny in the early '70s. "I sensed when Kenny was slipping," he adds. "Was it drugs? Being that I used to live that life before, I can tell who was using and who was not. But like I told [the prosecutor], I don't know that he was using or selling drugs."
Police say that on October 29 cops observed Banks in a drug transaction and when officers tried to arrest him he fled. Witnesses say that Officer Craig Yokemick came within a few feet of Banks as he tried to get away on a bicycle and threw his two-pound walkie-talkie at the suspect. Banks fell from the bike. He died at Metropolitan Hospital Center on November 10. Twelve days later, the medical examiner ruled that the thrown radio had killed Banks.
With a toxicology report pending, Yokemick's attorney, Bruce Smirti, alleged that Banks swallowed vials of crack to destroy evidence as he was fleeing. "I still believe that a contributing factor to his deathor the most important factorwas the voluntary ingestion of cocaine," Smirti said.
Rickey Thomas has not wavered in his belief that Officer Craig Yokemick alone is responsible for killing Kenneth Banks. Unlike Yokemick's attorney, Thomas says he saw what happened on that sunny day as he sat in his Ford Explorer, double-parked outside of his family's restaurant, impatiently looking for a parking spot.
Thomas says that around 3:30 p.m. (others put the time at 2:30), he heard sirens, then saw a police van, lights flashing, speeding up Madison.
It seemed like routine police business; cops are always "jackin'" suspects on the avenue. "Around here a lot of guys sell reefer," says Thomas. "I don't know if they sell anything hard, but you have a lot of Jamaican brothers who are into the weed. Ain't nobody stoopid. The police are doing they job. You out there standing too long, they're gonna make you move, search you."
About 15 minutes later, Thomas "sees Kenny shooting around the corner and this cop on his tail." Banks was pushing hard on a tiny dirt bike and Officer Yokemick, who Thomas describes as about six foot three and heavyset, seemed breathless.
"As Kenny gets to the corner, he starts pulling away from the cop," Thomas recalls. "The cop sees he is not gonna catch him."
Thomas says that without missing a step, Yokemick allegedly grasped his two-way radio like a football and threw it at Banks as he rode into the crosswalk. The radio struck Banks in the back of the head; the blunt force of the impact sent him sprawling. "I saw in Kenny's eyes that he was knocked out. Once he was out he proceeded to fall."
Banks fell off the bike in front of the restaurant. "The first thing he hit was his head," says Thomas, reiterating that he believes his friend was out cold from Yokemick's brutal pass. "If you're falling and you're conscious you gonna put your hands out," he reasons. "He was unconscious and when he fell he hit his head."
Yokemick picked up his radio, straddled the suspect, and radioed for backup. According to Thomas, the officer searched Banks's pockets, then turned him over and handcuffed him behind his back. "The cops didn't remove nothin' from Kenny's pocket," he insists. "They didn't find no drugs on him. If they had found it they woulda held it up to the people and yelled, 'Look what we found!'"
An angry crowd of about 70 people gathered around Yokemick and his partner, who had responded to his call for assistance.
"You muthafuckaz!" Thomas heard an eyewitness shout.
"Fuck you! You fuckin' whiteys!" declared another. "That's why y'all be gittin' kilt now 'cause y'all always be doin' stuff like that."
Thomas remembers the beleaguered cops responding, "Get back! Get back!" Banks, he insists, was unconscious. "Kenny was laying flat on his face," he says. "I saw blood coming out of his mouth, and where he had scraped his nose, his head, and his eyes from falling flat on his face."