MIDTOWN MANHATTAN (PIX11) — We met Patricio Castro in his 14th floor jewelry shop in New York City’s Diamond District, where he recounted a night that forever changed him at a fast food restaurant 11 ½ miles away.
“I go by Flushing, but I try to avoid Main Street,” Castro said about the area near the former Wendy’s restaurant on 40th Road. “That one block, I try to avoid.”
Castro, now 44, survived one of the most savage crimes in Queens history on May 24, 2000.
“It’s been with me since 2000,” Castro said inside his midtown shop, CAVAS, where he creates handmade pieces, sets stones, and restores watches and other precious items. “That was a Wednesday night I will never forget.”
Castro was just 22. He was less than two weeks into his job at the Flushing Wendy’s in May 2000, working the grill with 18-year-old Jaquoine Johnson and getting ready for closing time with five other employees.
That’s when two men walked into the store around 11 pm.
“When I saw these two guys, they just came and asked for the manager,” Castro recalled.
What Castro didn’t know was that the shorter man was former manager, John Taylor, who had a record of fast-food robberies. Taylor’s accomplice, Craig Godineaux, stood 6 feet, 5 inches tall, but he was the follower, a man with an IQ that was barely 70.
“They said that we have to go to the basement,” Castro remembered.
Castro also recounted some new details we hadn’t heard before. He said the only female employee, cashier Anita Smith, was halfway out the door.
“The saddest part was with Anita,” Castro said. “She was opening the door to leave. The big guy [Godineaux,] he went outside and asked her to come back. She was like one foot outside on the street.”
Anita Smith was hoping to get a degree to teach children with autism.
Instead, she was one of the six employees summoned down to the basement by the manager, Jean Auguste.
Castro said he will always remember one employee, Jeremy Mele, 18, trying to come back up the stairs as Castro headed down.
“Once I saw his face, he was like ‘No, I want to call the guys! I want to call the guys!'” Castro recalled. “The man said, ‘No, you cannot go.'”
Pretty soon, the six employees and manager, Jean Auguste, were told to lay face down on the floor.
“I saw, like, the duct tape, and heard the sound, as they opened it,” Castro said.
His hands were taped behind his back, with tape also going around his mouth and eyes.
“Once I was covered with duct tape, they put a plastic bag over our heads,” Castro recalled.
The employees were taken into the basement refrigerator, and Castro said he remembered the sound of the first bullet fired as the seven workers started getting shot, execution-style.
“I think I passed out,” Castro told PIX11 News. “What I remember is I was walking and walking and I saw a bright light,” he added.
Castro believes he was having a vision.
“I was like, ‘Maybe I’m dead,” Castro said.
Castro said once he got close to the bright light, he got chilly, and he woke up.
“So I never crossed that light,” Castro said.
Castro said he took the bag off his head, saw the blood on his cheek, and felt the weight of a dead co-worker, Ali, on his legs.
“And I said ‘Is everybody okay?'” Castro recalled. “I said, ‘Is everybody okay?'”
He said nobody answered.
Suddenly, Castro said he felt a kick and he turned to see his fellow grill man, Jaquoine Johnson, sitting there.
“I just saw his face, he was like happy to see me,” Castro said. “Somebody else is injured but still alive.”
Johnson had been shot in the head and couldn’t move. Castro tried to crawl out of the basement refrigerator, but he heard a noise and crawled back in. He put the plastic bag back over his head, fearful the killers were still inside the restaurant.
A short time later, Castro managed to open the heavy, refrigerator door and crept upstairs. He remembered seeing people outside the window.
“They see me, I’m bleeding,” Castro recalled. “I told them to call the police, but they didn’t.”
Castro said the phone lines were cut on the main floor, so he went downstairs.
“I saw a fax machine, and that’s how I called 911,” Castro told PIX11. “I said there are five people dead.”
Castro said once he heard the sirens and saw lights flashing from above, he took action to move Jaquoine Johnson.
“I took him, I put him on my shoulders, and I just run,” Castro said. “I don’t know how, from the basement to the stairs, I just run to the dining area. I put him in a chair.”
Castro said the police were yelling at the window for him to open the door, but he didn’t have a key.
“They break the glass, they come in, I said, ‘There are five people downstairs,'” Castro said.
For the next days and weeks, Castro’s family tried to protect him from the flood of media interest, as he worried about his safety and mourned what happened to his co-workers and friends.
The robbers had killed five and left two wounded for $2,400 in coins.
“They said that in the safe they have $18,000, but they never took the money,” Castro said.
In the years that followed, Castro said he went back and forth to his native Ecuador, never settling on a particular career.
“I was working with psychologists for a long time,” Castro told PIX11 News, giving credit to his parents and siblings for emotional support.
Castro said his mother spoke to him when she thought he was starting to drink too much in his mid-20’s.
He was fearful of getting married and having children, he said. Castro didn’t want to suffer if something happened to them.
He had to face the killers in court at trial, and he said he was afraid.
“The police told me they could give me a new identity,” Castro remembered. “I said, ‘No, I still want to have my name.’ They told me they have witness protection. I said ‘I will always have my name.'”
Castro said he finally got married when he was 33.
“Right now, I have a family. I’m happily married, I love my wife. I have my kids, they are my life,” Castro told us.
Castro said he finally settled on the profession he learned in Ecuador when he was 10 years old, the family business of making and repairing jewelry.
“I have, like, a plan,” Castro said. “Here in the shop, we melt the gold. We do settings. We make pieces, handmade pieces.”
Castro said he’s a spiritual man who learned to forgive his killers, who were sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole. Taylor had been sentenced to the death penalty, until the law was overturned in New York State.
“I pray for them,” Castro said, “but I say, ‘Why did they do this to us?'”