Editor’s Note: The above video was filed on the 10th anniversary of the killing of Michael Griffith. PIX11’s Mary Murphy explains why the case was so significant in NYC.
BROOKLYN — Jean Griffith Sandiford didn’t feel joy when she heard the convicted ringleader in the 1986 Howard Beach attack had taken his own life.
Instead, she wanted to extend condolences to the family of 48 year old Jon Lester — nearly 30 years after a jury convicted Lester for using racial slurs to incite a drunken crowd of teens to chase her son, 23-year-old Michael Griffith, to his death.
Lester was convicted of manslaughter and assault. The New York Times revealed Tuesday it learned Lester killed himself in August in England, where he was deported in 2001, after doing 15 years in prison.
“I give my sympathy to his family,” Griffith Sandiford told PIX11 by phone Tuesday evening. “I know what he did was wrong, but I have no hate in my heart for none of them, even though they took a piece of my life away.”
Jon Lester, who came to Queens from Great Britain, was 17 years old when he was arrested with several, other Howard Beach teenagers for Griffith’s killing, and the brutal assault of Cedric Sandiford, who was Jean Griffith’s partner at the time.
Sandiford and Jean Griffith later married.
Mrs. Griffith Sandiford was thrust into the headlines on December 19, 1986.
That’s when her son, Michael, was chased onto the Belt Parkway and killed by a car, after a gang of white teens ran after him and two other black men who had stopped to eat at New Park Pizza in Howard Beach, Queens.
Cedric Sandiford, was beaten severely with a baseball bat and a tree limb.
A third man, Timothy Grimes, managed to escape.
Another man had stayed with the group’s car in Broad Channel, several miles south on Cross Bay Boulevard, after the vehicle broke down.
Two other teens were convicted with Lester of manslaughter and assault in the Howard Beach case.
The defense argued the teens got involved in a ‘turf war,’ even though the racial slurs had been used.
The jury deliberated for 12 days in 1987, before delivering a verdict.
Mrs. Griffith Sandiford quoted Jesus Tuesday night, when she relayed her feelings about what transpired all those years ago: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
In his early 20s, Jon Lester granted his first television interview to PIX11 News from behind bars. He had just graduated from college in a prison program.
“I was never brought up to have any kind of hatred toward anyone,” Lester told PIX11 at the time. “I was immature, small-minded. I could have been a knee-jerk racist.”
Michael Griffith was the second of Jean Griffith Sandiford’s five children.
Her older son, Christopher, was not so sympathetic to Lester’s overtures to seek forgiveness.
“He was responsible, even though my mother forgave him,” Chris Griffith told PIX11 Tuesday. “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.”
Jean Griffith Sandiford revealed to PIX11 that Jon Lester wrote to her many years ago from prison. And she said Lester also reached out in 1991, when her husband, Cedric Sandiford, died from AIDS.
“When Cedric died, he sent me a sympathy card,” Griffith Sandiford told PIX11.
Lester’s sister, Jayne, told the New York Times her brother suffered from depression, because he wasn’t allowed into the United States to live near his mother and siblings.
He had three children after he was deported. He also started an electrical services business. Lester’s sister told the Times he had “guilt dreams” about the Howard Beach attacks, even though he said he wasn’t among the crowd that chased Michael Griffith onto the parkway.