In early January 1996, Queens was hit with a major snowstorm that left between 20 and 24 inches throughout the borough. It was the third largest snowfall in the city’s history, closing public schools for two days for the first time in 18 years. The borough’s two airports were closed for nearly three days.
In February, the first Chinese New Year’s festival was celebrated in Flushing. The colorful, happy occasion was marked by a parade, music and many cultural attractions. The annual event now encompasses all of the borough’s Asian groups.
Queens saw two major structures demolished this year: the Aquacade in Flushing Meadows Park and the Elmhurst gas tanks along the Long Island Expressway. Built as an attraction for the 1939 World’s Fair, the Aquacade was operated by the famous entertainer, Billy Rose. Local historic preservationists bemoaned its destruction, but the city said it was dangerous.
The Elmhurst gas tanks had been emptied by the Brooklyn Union Gas Company in 1993. They had become obsolete with the advent of more efficient pipelines. The first tank was built in 1910. When their massive framework was dismantled in 1996, motorists on the LIE lost a familiar Queens landmark.
In August, residents near the borough’s airports got a scare when broken plane parts fell from the sky. A piece from a wing flap bombarded a street in Howard Beach, fortunately injuring no one. A bit of broken propeller fell off a plane flying over Flushing. These incidents were all the more frightening because they came just three weeks after a bomb scare at the Howard Beach-JFK train station and only a month after Flight 800 was blown from the skies over Long Island, killing all 230 people aboard.
A major story in Northern Queens this year was the ongoing saga of the landmarked RKO Keith’s Theatre in Flushing and owner Thomas Huang’s attempts to circumvent preservation and restoration of the structure. In March, Huang was charged by the state attorney general with environmental crimes and then, a few days later found to be delinquent in payment of property taxes and water and sewer bills.
Huang had purchased the historic theatre in 1987 and closed it down. Over the years he ignored or bypassed city regulations, destroying landmarked sections of the 1928 building and not maintaining it properly. Huang eventually sold the property to a reputable developer.
In February, the Long Island Rail Road closed its Richmond Hill station. In other transportation news, private “dollar van” operators sued the city for the right to do business in Queens and the old two-fare zone system for the borough’s commuters finally came to an end. The Interboro Parkway, which had tied up traffic in Central Queens for three years due to reconstruction, was renamed for baseball legend Jackie Robinson.
Congressman Floyd Flake of Jamaica announced his retirement from politics in 1997, during his sixth term, in order to devote himself full time to his pastorate of what is now called the Greater Allen Cathedral of New York. Under Flake’s leadership, the church has grown to 13,000 members and operates a school, a senior center and hundreds of low-cost housing units.
In September, the ribbon was cut on the new USTA Arthur Ashe Tennis Stadium in Flushing Meadows Park. Instead of attending the ceremony, Mayor Rudy Giuliani went to a rally protesting the rerouting of planes away from the stadium during the weeks of the US Open tennis matches.
The year opened with Police Officer Hiram Monserrate, of the 111th Precinct in Bayside, filing a lawsuit against the city and the Police Department alleging he was punished for speaking out about racism, discrimination and police misconduct. A second vice president of the Latino Officers Association, the 10-year veteran of the force claimed he was transferred to undesirable assignments after complaining to department brass about several incidents.
In 1999, Monserrate won a judgment of more than $100,000. He has since left the Police Department and is now representing Jackson Heights and Corona as a city councilman.
Carol Gresser, who had represented Queens on the Board of Education for eight years and served as its president for four, lost her seat when Borough President Claire Shulman declined to reappoint her since Gresser had locked horns with Mayor Rudy Giuliani on more than one occasion. She was replaced by Terri Thomson, who served until the Board of Ed was reorganized in 2002.
Queens’ airports were once again in the news. The Federal Aviation Administration gave the nod to increased flights at LaGuardia and approved the AirTrain link between Kennedy Airport’s terminals and the Howard Beach A Train station. In October, residents were appalled when a plane dumped 3,000 tons of jet fuel over the South Queens neighborhood of Howard Beach. The FAA was a no-show at a meeting seeking resolution of the problem.
The summer of 1998 ended with the small community of Broad Channel making citywide news. A float in the town’s annual Labor Day parade depicted white men in blackface enacting an insensitive parody of a recent racial incident.
The battle between Queens residents and sex clubs, strip joints and X-rated video stores was fought in the courtroom in 1999. Goldfingers was forced to shut down for a while, but by the end of the year, Wiggles was back in action on Queens Boulevard.
Residents of southern and eastern Queens protested the City Council’s decision to approve plans for what is now known as the AirTrain. The multi-billion-dollar project, then named the Train to the Plane, was overseen by the Port Authority. It was to connect travellers to and from Kennedy Airport with the Long Island Rail Road in Jamaica and the A Train in Howard Beach.
Those who lived in Southeast Queens may well have wondered about the wisdom of spending so much money on a Train to the Plane while they suffered the consequences of an antiquated sanitary and storm sewer system. In January, torrential rains flooded the streets of Springfield Gardens, causing damage to dozens of homes.
Residents in Maspeth, Fresh Meadows and Flushing also suffered flooding from the storm, but areas of Southeast Queens were by far hardest hit. A $70-million construction project got under way in 1999 to address the problem.
Bugs and beetles also made headlines in Northern Queens this year. Beginning in February, the dreaded Asian long-horned beetle was discovered in Bayside. Nearly 200 trees were found to be infested and had to be destroyed.
In August, the discovery of dead birds in many of the borough’s northern neighborhoods led to a link with encephalitis-carrying mosquitoes. In Queens, three people died from what was later identified as the West Nile virus, a strain of encephalitis.
Leading off the new year, and the new millennium, was Queens’ first New Year’s Eve bash held at Flushing Meadows Park. Families from all over the borough came out for a night of fun at the museums there and enjoyed midnight fireworks over the Unisphere.
With the new millennium came new major development projects for Queens. The Long Island Rail Road began a multi-million-dollar renovation of its stations in the borough. Long Island City saw groundbreaking for the second building in the long-awaited Queens Development Project there. Plans to site up to six new energy-generating plants along the East River, however, met with strong resistance from civic groups and local elected officials.
The year was also touched by its share of scandals. This was the year the city responded to community outrage over adult entertainment clubs and X-rated video stores by enforcing a new zoning plan. But a loophole in the law allowed many of the clubs to remain in place.
Late in the year, parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Forest Hills were shocked to learn that their pastor, Monsignor Thomas Gradilone, was being questioned regarding $2 million in missing church funds. He was removed by the diocese as the investigation continued.
School District 29 in Eastern Queens was rocked by the indictment of former superintendent Celestine Miller. Along with her husband and several business associates, Miller was charged in a widespread kickback scandal where she allegedly rigged computer contract bids. She had been fired earlier in the year for not reporting a gun-toting student.
The execution-style killing of five employees of a Wendy’s restaurant in Flushing and the ensuing arrest of the two alleged perpetrators dominated the news in the last half of the year.
Gruesome Wendy’s Massacre Is Crime Of Century In Queens
by Liz Rhoades
Five lives were lost in Flushing on May 24, 2000 and two other people were injured for a measly $2,400 in coins—a robbery-homicide known as the Wendy’s massacre that in Queens, became the crime of the century.
The victims, all hard-working individuals, ranging in age from 18-44, included young people, immigrants, people of vastly different nationalities and one woman, who all died in terror as two gunmen shot them execution style in the walk-in freezer of the fast food restaurant located at 40-12 Main Street.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown called it the most gruesome crime scene he had ever witnessed and eventually sought, and got, a death sentence for John Taylor, called the mastermind of the ill-fated robbery. At one time,Taylor had worked as assistant manager at the Wendy’s and knew some of the employees who were shot.
His partner, Craig Godineaux, was eventually found to be slightly retarded and could not be tried for the death penalty. He pleaded guilty and is now serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The two survivors, Patrick Castro and Jaquione Johnson, lived to testify in court that John Taylor shot Wendy’s manager Jean Auguste, then turned the gun on screaming Anita Smith before handing the weapon to Godineaux and telling him to finish the job. He then shot Ramon Nazario, Ali Ibadad, Jeremy Mele and the two who survived.
Taylor and Godineaux then fled the store and took public transportation to get home. It didn’t take police long to track down Taylor, who had a history of holding up fast food restaurants.
He was arrested on Long Island at the home of a relative and was found with the murder weapon, money from the robbery and the surveillance videotape taken from Wendy’s. Godineaux was arrested later in Jamaica, where he worked as a security guard in a men’s clothing store.
The two had entered Wendy’s before closing time, joked with the staff, and then Taylor asked to see the manager in his basement office, where the safe was located. He ordered Auguste at gunpoint to call his employees downstairs. They were all bound and marched into the freezer, where large plastic bags were put over their heads and then shot.
At the dramatic trial that began in October 2002 and ended shortly before Thanksgiving, relatives of the victims sat as chilling details of the crime were revealed to the jury, sometimes running out in tears as information about their loved ones was brought up.
Assistant District Attorney Daniel Saunders, in a two-hour closing statement, pointed to the plastic garbage bags as evidence of Taylor’s intent to murder the seven Wendy’s employees. Holding up the box that held the bags, Saunders told the jury that their purpose was to prevent blood from splattering on Taylor since he had to take public transportation home. “He knew where the bags were and his fingerprint was found on the box. This was never just a robbery because there would have been seven witnesses and three knew him.”
The Queens Chronicle noted in its story that the prosecution counted heavily on the testimony of Johnson, now 20, who was able to recount in chilling detail much of the massacre since the garbage bag only went partially over his head and he saw most of the shootings.
Although the defense tried to put holes in Johnson’s story, saying his memory was affected by the shooting (he required brain surgery and months of rehabilitation), he stuck to his story and the jury believed him.
The assistant district attorney also offered another motive for the crime: revenge. Taylor disliked Auguste, because he was his supervisor at Wendy’s and had called him to task.
Saunders described Auguste as a star on the rise. He was promoted to take Taylor’s place after he was fired by management. “That was more than Taylor could tolerate and he became obsessed. He wanted to show (Wendy’s officials) what could happen with Auguste in charge.”
It took the sequestered jury only 11 hours to find Taylor guilty. A week later, following the penalty portion of the trial, he was sentenced by the same jury to the death penalty. Taylor remained stonefaced as he had throughout, when the jury found that the mitigating circumstances were not enough to sentence Taylor to life in prison.
The families of the victims were satisfied with the penalty, saying justice had been served. Joan Truman-Smith, mother of the only female victim, told the Queens Chronicle: “Let him think about what he did to my daughter. I never thought this could happen in this country,” said the Jamaican native. “Taylor killed her like an animal. He doesn’t deserve to live.”
The restaurant never reopened and is now a mini-mall. Wendy’s founder, Dave Thomas, came to Queens a few months after the massacre and with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, planted a tree of remembrance for the victims at the Queens Botanical Garden.
Taylor was taken to Dannemora State Prison. Appeals of the verdict, mandated by state law, could take 10 to 20 years.