FLUSHING, Queens — Twenty years after a brutal shooting at a Wendy’s in Queens, Benjamin Nazario can’t shake the horror of what happened to his brother, Ramon, and six co-workers in the basement freezer of the fast food franchise.
“I was sleeping, and my sister called me yelling that something happened at Wendy’s,” Nazario recently told PIX11.
Now, he avoids the site of the former Wendy’s at 40-12 Main St. in Flushing.
“When I go there, I go to the other side of the street,” he said.
The night that changed everything
Jaquione Johnson was only 18 when he showed up for his evening shift at Wendy’s on May 24, 2000.
He was working with five other men that Wednesday night.
Anita Smith, a 22-year-old Jamaica resident, was the only woman on duty, and she was posted at the cash register. She was planning to start college in the fall, so she could teach children with autism.
“She was supposed to have left at 11 p.m., which was closing time,” Johnson, now 38, recalled. “But she stayed a little later.”
That decision would prove fatal for Smith, who smiled at one of two men who strolled into Wendy’s five minutes before it closed.
That man was John Taylor, 36, a former assistant manager at the fast food restaurant. He had hired Smith about a year-and-a-half earlier.
The manager on duty that night was Jean Auguste, who’d had some issues with Taylor when they worked together. Yet the two men chatted rather amiably that night.
“He ordered his food, I said ‘That’s his boy, I’m gonna hook him up, boom, boom, boom,’” Johnson said, remembering how he made a nice meal for Taylor with extra fixings.
The man who walked in with Taylor was Craig Godineaux, 30, who worked as a security guard with Taylor at a Jamaica clothing store.
Godineaux was an imposing 6 feet, 5 inches tall with a slim build.
Taylor stood about 5 feet, 5 inches tall and was husky.
Both had been arrested for robbery before.
The men sat at separate tables to eat. Then, they made another move.
“They both went in the bathrooms. There was a women’s bathroom and a men’s bathroom,” Johnson said. “John, he came out and started talking to Jean. They went downstairs … I thought they were friends.”
But this wasn’t a friendly visit.
Godineaux came out of the bathroom, Johnson remembered, “and he heard me freestyling. He asked me if I knew any rappers.”
Godineaux and the fast food worker then did some name-dropping of rap stars they liked.
Then, Johnson heard his manager’s voice.
“I get a call on the intercom, which was Jean telling us to come downstairs, we’re having a meeting,” Johnson remembered.
The employees were dutiful and started going downstairs to the basement.
Ramon Nazario, 44, the oldest employee on duty, was locking up Wendy’s front door, according to his brother, who worked at a hotel around the corner.Benjamin Nazario often stopped at Wendy’s on his way home.
“My brother opened the door and I asked him, ‘You going home?’ He said, ‘Not yet. They’re having some kind of meeting. I will catch up,’” Nazario recalled. “He would have survived, because he had the keys to the door … And he closed it. And I watched him go down. So I walked away. I asked him if he had change for the bus, he said ‘Yes.’”
Once all the employees got downstairs, it quickly became apparent there was no meeting.
“John was like, ‘Everybody back up and get down on the floor!” Johnson said. “John had the gun on everybody and Craig duct-taped everybody up.”
“The manager popped the tape off his hand and pulled it off his face, and started breathing funny, yo ‘my asthma, my asthma!’” Johnson said. “Then they beat him up, put more duct tape on him, picked everybody up and walked us in the freezer.”
“That’s when they came in with plastic bags,” Johnson remembered.
Godineaux put bags over all seven employees’ heads, but the bag on Johnson failed to cover his right eye.
“’Everybody get down on your knees.’ That’s what he said, ‘Everybody get down on your knees.’ Basically, it was an execution,” Johnson said.
“So, that’s when they shot Jean,” Johnson recalled. “Then Anita started screaming. They shot her. I’m right next to Jeremy. He [Taylor] passed the gun to Craig. ‘Craig, take the gun.’ I figured he was going to shoot me. Instead of shooting me, he goes to the corner, he shoots Ramon, Patrick, Ali and then me. I was the last one to get shot.”
Johnson said when he got shot in the head, it “felt like I was hit with a sledgehammer.”
When he came to, he recalled co-worker Patrick Castro asking him if he was OK.
The body of one co-worker, Ali Ibadat, had fallen on Castro’s knees.
Castro only had his cheek grazed.
When Castro thought the killers were still inside Wendy’s, he lay back down and played dead, placing his co-worker’s body back over his knees.
As it turned out, the shooters were gone, and Castro was able to call 911 using a fax machine.
“I was blacking out, going in and out,” Johnson told PIX11. “I think he put me in a chair for a second. And then he was like, ‘Yo, you think you can make it up the stairs?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ I blacked out, I woke back up, and that’s when the cops and everyone were coming in.”
Castro had carried his critically wounded co-worker, Johnson, up the staircase.
“If it wasn’t for God saving Patrick, Patrick wouldn’t have saved me,” Johnson said.
In the freezer, five of Johnson’s co-workers were dead: Auguste, who at age 27 was engaged to be married; Nazario, a father of two; Ibadat, a 42-year-old native of Pakistan; Jeremy Mele, an 18-year-old from the Jersey Shore who wanted to join the military; and Smith, the oldest of four children.
The aftermath of a massacre
“She was so kind … She didn’t say ‘no’ to anything,” Smith’s mother, Joan, told PIX11. “You know, every time I see young people walking, and I see someone who looks just like my daughter, I hug them.”
“A lot of times, I cry through my heart, when I’m by myself,” Smith’s father, Michael, said.
He recalled Smith as a newborn and all the love he had for his first child.
“I’m the one who took her out of the hospital! I’m the one who brought her little clothes in. And every day, I put a bottle in my pocket and put her on my chest,” he remembered. “And I raise her and I cook her a little porridge, and she always stick to me … I teach her to walk. Every little thing that a father would do.”
After the shooting, Johnson had to learn to walk all over again.
The bullet entered his head between the two lobes of his brain and travelled down his nasal cavity, before exiting in his mouth.
“I was like half-paralyzed on my right side,” Johnson said. “Couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, couldn’t eat.”
But Johnson made a rather miraculous recovery.
“I got shot May 24, 2000. By July 16, I was out of the hospital, walking and talking,” he said.
Yet the last 20 years have been tough for him.
He suffered from seizures, and emotionally he’s been stuck, his mother said.
When asked about his biggest struggles, Johnson said, “Smoking weed, drinking.”
“It keeps me relaxed,” he added.
Within 48 hours of the shooting, the NYPD had the two suspects in custody thanks to a fingerprint of Taylor’s found on a box holding the plastic bags.
When Taylor was arrested, he was still carrying the .380 semi-automatic used in the shooting, along with the surveillance tape he took from the video machine at Wendy’s — and most of the $2,400 he made away with.
The former Wendy’s is now a mini-shopping mall, currently shuttered to shoppers because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“It’s 20 years now, and I actually can talk about it,” said Smith’s sister, Michelle.
Michelle said she spent most of the last two decades denying her pain.
“When you’re born nine months apart, it’s like a twin,” Michelle Smith told PIX11. “We grew up together. I was called little Anita. We were hand in hand. We were best friends.”
“It’s taken time and it does affect me in a lot of ways,” Michelle Smith said. “But I try not to let it overpower me.”
Ramon Nazario’s son — who was a 2-year-old waiting at the window for his dad the night of the shooting — is now a United States Marine stationed in California.
The pandemic prevented Ramon Nazario III from coming to New York City this May to visit his family.
Johnson is grateful for his survival, but the trauma of what happened never leaves him.
“I still think of my friends all the time,” Johnson said. “I got to live with that the rest of my life.”