Across 110th Street


It was barely dawn, Friday, April 21, 1989, not 12 hours after her 15-year-old son Yusef had been picked up by police at her door while she was at work, when Sharonne Salaam turned on the TV and heard the latest about a woman who had been brutally raped and nearly murdered in Central Park two nights before. “What a disgrace,” she recalls thinking. But she couldn’t dwell on it, because her adolescent son—who had never dealt with the law—was being held for jumping joggers and bicyclists in the park. She was anxious to “make things right for Yusef.” The only thing that was clear to her was that her son had said he was innocent and she believed him.

Salaam and two friends, one a Brooklyn assistant district attorney, had spent all night wrangling with officials for a chance to see him. She was allowed only a few minutes to impart as much motherly advice as possible before she was forced out. She then dashed home to talk with a lawyer. She had no clue Yusef was being held in connection with the barbaric rape.

Soon after she got home, her attorney called and said to meet him at the police station pronto. That morning, as he prepared to check on what he thought were assault charges against Yusef, he saw on the TV that a group of teens from Schomburg Plaza—Salaam’s building—were being held for the rape.

By that time, just two days after the attack, it was already too late for Yusef and four other boys who were eventually convicted of the crime and sentenced to spend five to 10 years in prison. Three of the five accused, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, and Kevin Richardson, had confessed in writing after what they later said was intense interrogation that intimidated them into spinning stories about each other in hopes of being sent home.

Given warnings from his mother to let the cops “crush his hands” before they made him sign anything, Yusef had not agreed to a signed confession, but he allegedly said enough for Detective Thomas McKenna to take notes that would later be used against him in court. Then Kharey Wise gave two confessions following nine hours of questioning.

With no DNA evidence linking any of the boys to the crime and the jogger having lost her memory from the beating, all five were convicted on those statements and the videotaped confessions that followed. The NYPD sex crimes unit maintains that the accused willingly gave the confessions.

“They were coming to us telling us they knew Kevin was a good boy and if he told us about the others, he would have a better chance,” says Crystal Cuffee, Richardson’s sister. “I am sure they were telling them [the teens] the same thing.”

That morning in 1989 wouldn’t be the only time the parents of the Central Park Five would learn the apparent fate of their sons from the media. Thirteen years after the teens were arrested and a few years since they completed their prison terms, it was by television that Grace Cuffee, the mother of Kevin Richardson, learned that imprisoned rapist Matias Reyes had confessed to the crime. “No one got a call from the D.A.’s office,” says Crystal Cuffee with a wry laugh.

Even now, while the D.A.’s office is reinvestigating the case, in what many say is an attempt to somehow link the five to the crime that Reyes insists he committed alone, there have been no calls or further interviews by prosecutors, no updates. There have been leaks to papers, some saying this crime could not have been committed by one person.

Being shafted by the D.A.’s office does not exactly shock Salaam, the Cuffees, or Delores Wise, the mother of Kharey Wise. From the minute their boys were arrested in 1989, the families say, they were kept out of the loop by officials, stormed by the press, ignored by advocacy groups and local churches, and even shunned by many of their neighbors.

“Nobody believes us. They didn’t then and they don’t now,” says Wise in a brief interview in which she is so agitated she can barely sit still. Her voice is hoarse after hours of mulling over the facts of her son’s situation for the umpteenth time. “We can’t go through this again,” she said. “It’s like it’s all coming back.”

While the teens were shuffled between dozens of lineups and a handful of precincts during the two days of intense interrogations, the D.A.’s office, it seems, never stopped to take a snapshot of the families’ lives before they were sent into the whirlwind. Salaam and Crystal Cuffee say there were no questions asked about the young men’s lives. There was no talk of how Richardson was one boy among four sisters and was considered “the man of the family.” No one asked Sharonne Salaam about her background or their home life. The media painted a picture of thugs from a rough side of town—though Schomburg Plaza is more middle-class hamlet than hardcore project.

The sure look of Zen in Sharonne’s eyes is profoundly stirring, considering her experience. “My child was raised behind barbed wire,” she said. “And when one person is imprisoned, his whole family is in prison.” Crystal Cuffee remembers all the holidays she spent at prison and life lived in spurts between trial and appeals. Salaam says it was like a pit that gets deeper each time you think it could get better.

Yet it could have been worse. Sharonne was teaching a class at Parsons School of Design the night of April 20 when police came to her home for Yusef, who wasn’t there. Her 16-year-old daughter and her younger son, 13, went to the door. One of the officers asked the younger brother his name and then checked for it on a “master list” of suspects, says Sharonne. “They were ready to take him.”

Just then Yusef walked up, and the cops “invited” him to the station; he wasn’t old enough for forced questioning without a parent. Kharey Wise happened to be with Yusef. Though Wise was not on the list, they also “invited” him to the precinct, she says. Most of their neighbors agree that it didn’t take much more than being an African American or Latino teen to get picked up during the “sweep” in the Schomburg area that resulted in more than 30 arrests in two days.

Not in the sweep, Richardson and Santana had been stopped walking by the park at 10:15 p.m. the night of the attack, several hours before police knew of the rape. They were taken in for suspicion of assaulting other joggers. It wasn’t until about 4 a.m. that prosecutors linked them to the rape, and even later before Richardson’s family knew of the charge, says Crystal Cuffee.

A core group of people in the Harlem community came out in support of the youth, but many either denounced the boys or simply stayed away. Salaam and Cuffee remember the few churches that helped, and that Reverend Al Sharpton came out on McCray’s behalf. Salaam says that parents from her building would cross the street when they saw her coming. She suspects that many knew it could have been their own boys, but felt a need to “show white people” that the black community would not put up with rapists. Others who believed the boys were innocent and may even have had information simply didn’t come forward out of fear, she says.

For Salaam, it was getting to work helping other kids like Yusef that pulled her from the “bottomless pit.” Not long after Yusef’s conviction, Sharonne and some of her core supporters founded People United for Children, which works to improve conditions for incarcerated children and minors who are stuck in other parts of the system.

“I remember this woman came to me and gave me a $5 bill and said, ‘I am going to give you money from my check each week.’ ” Salaam says it was a sign that she should go ahead.

But they do all have physical signs of the stress. On a recent evening when all of the mothers were to meet for an interview, Grace Cuffee was in an emergency room with complications from high blood pressure and diabetes. Wise almost didn’t come, but later turned up, saying she had been “pinned to the couch for a week” since the D.A.’s office had been given an extension for the reinvestigation. Salaam’s whole family suffers migraines.

Salaam and Cuffee both say they are hoping that ultimately the convictions will be overturned and that the young men’s criminal records will be expunged. Salaam says it is crucial that all fingerprints, photos, and DNA be removed from police and FBI files and that Yusef’s name be removed from the New York sexual predator database. Try getting and keeping a job when you are labeled a sexual predator, she says. Beyond that, Salaam feels she is still helping her son readjust from what she calls the “different” mentality of prison.

Related Story:

Marked as the Enemy: Central Park Five Members Speak” by Dasun Allah