NEW YORK — Jon Lester’s family announced his death on Facebook two months ago. Only now is the New York media learning that the convicted ringleader in the 1986 Howard Beach racial attack took his own life in England at the age of 48.
Lester’s sister, Jayne, told the New York Times that her brother was haunted by “guilt dreams” but was not a cold-blooded killer. She said he was depressed that he could not return to the United States, where all of his family is located, because he was deported to Great Britain after serving 15 years in prison. Lester was born in Wales and his family moved to Howard Beach, Queens, when he was 14.
In 1994, Lester gave his first television interview to PIX11 News and this reporter, who covered the Howard Beach trial in 1987. Four teens were on trial for murder and assault in the gang attack that left 23-year-old Michael Griffith dead, after he was chased onto the Belt Parkway and hit by a car.
36-year-old Cedric Sandiford, his mother’s partner, was severely beaten with a baseball bat and tree limb but survived. Another teen, Timothy Grimes, escaped. Three of the four white teens from Howard Beach, including Lester, were convicted of manslaughter and assault.
“I was never brought up to have any kind of hatred toward anyone,” Lester told PIX11 in 1994. “I was immature, small-minded. I could have been a knee-jerk racist,” Lester said, acknowledging he had been drinking that night at a Howard Beach party.
The prosecutor noted Lester had shouted racial slurs to party-goers and instigated a confrontation with the black men outside New Park Pizza on Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach.
Lester had come to America with his mother and stepfather. At the time, Lester said it was not easy to be accepted with a British accent, so he tried to be a tough guy. And he said of the attack on December 19, 1986: “It would be more accurate to say it was a turf war, more of a gang mentality.”
In 1994, Lester showed PIX11 the straight A’s he got in his prison college courses, and his sister, Jayne, told the Times that he set up his own electrical-services company in England. He had three children after returning to England. But he always felt bad about not seeing his mother and sisters in the United States.
On Tuesday, Michael Griffith’s brother, Chris, said of Lester to PIX11: “He was responsible, even though my mother forgave him. He was responsible for what happened. He served time. He was able to live his life afterwards. He had children. My brother never had children. My brother never had a legacy.”
The back story on the event that came to be known as simply "Howard Beach" would exacerbate racial tensions in the city, at a time when Ed Koch was mayor.
Rev. Al Sharpton led 1,200 marchers on Cross Bay Boulevard in late December 1986, demanding a special prosecutor take over the case from Queens District Attorney John Santucci.
The case started with a car breaking down on Friday night, Dec. 19, 1986.
Griffith, Cedric Sandiford, Timothy Grimes, and Curtis Sylvester were riding in the car in Broad Channel, Queens, about three miles south of Howard Beach.
Griffith, Sandiford, and Grimes walked north on Cross Bay Boulevard, while Sylvester stayed with the car.
When the group reached Howard Beach, a mostly white neighborhood, the men argued with some teens who were on their way to a party.
The three men then stopped at New Park Pizza on Cross Bay Boulevard and had something to eat.
When they left, at about 12:40 a.m., the teens they’d argued with returned with a larger group.
At least one person in the group was carrying a baseball bat.
The teens started chasing the three men — and Griffith ended up dead on the Belt Parkway.
Sandiford was then brutally beaten on the service road of the Belt.
Grimes, who was 20, escaped unscathed.
Eight years later, after Lester was sent to prison for 10 to 30 years, PIX11 News' Mary Murphy interviewed him behind bars.
Lester, who was born in Wales, acknowledged it was tough being accepted there in Howard Beach.
“I can honestly say, when I grew up, I wanted to be a gangster,” Lester told me in 1994.
“A tough guy," he said.
When PIX11's Murphy asked if he had been the ringleader, shouting racial slurs to rally the teens into confronting the black men on Cross Bay Boulevard, he said, “I probably said words to that effect. Maybe not those exact words.”
Lester expressed remorse for what happened and said he wished he could apologize to Griffith’s mother, Jean, some day. She married Sandiford after the attacks, and told PIX11 she forgave Lester for what he’d done.
In 2001, Lester was paroled from prison and deported to England.
The trial was covered by a pack of local and national media in late 1987, with 12 days of jury deliberations before the manslaughter/assault guilty verdicts were delivered on Dec. 21, 1987.
Charles Hynes was the special prosecutor assigned by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo to handle the case.
Hynes was later elected district attorney of Brooklyn, where Griffith’s family lived.
Sandiford died from AIDS-related complications in 1991.
His wife has fought to keep his and Michael’s memory alive all these years, along with Michael’s brother, Christopher, and Sandiford’s daughter, Brenda.
On the 30th anniversary of the Howard Beach attack last December — when racial and religious strife were making local, as well as international, headlines— the Griffith and Sandiford family gathered at a Catholic church in Brooklyn to remember the lives lost, and changed, on Dec. 20, 1986.
Now, the young man who set the wheels in motion that December night is gone as well. Jayne Lester said she returned to the United States with her brother’s ashes.