Even though it’s been 10 years since her son was killed, Jacqueline Hall continues to visit his grave every week. Joan Truman-Smith can still barely talk about the crime without crying for her daughter, and Benjamin Nazario remains bitter over his brother’s death.
Hall, Truman-Smith and Nazario were among five families whose loved ones were gunned down execution-style on May 24, 2000 in what is known as the Wendy’s Massacre. They say their lives will never be the same and time has not dulled the pain.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who visited the bloody crime scene at the fast-food restaurant at 40-12 Main St. in Flushing, said it was the most gruesome he had ever seen. Seven Wendy’s employees, who were bound and had their heads covered with plastic bags, were shot in a basement freezer of the restaurant and left for dead in a robbery that netted the two killers $2,400.
“It was brutal and it was callous. It was cruel and it was inhuman. It was depraved,” Brown said, reflecting on the case last week.
He noted that two of the employees, incredibly, survived. “They testified at the trial,” the DA said. “Their testimony was poignant and powerful.”
The crime was cooked up by John Taylor, 36, who had previously worked at that Wendy’s and knew some of the employees. His accomplice was Craig Godineaux, 30, a tall, menacing-looking man who is slightly mentally challenged. Godineaux was brought along as the muscle man who would follow Taylor’s directions.
It was a Wednesday night, near closing around 11 p.m., when the two men entered Wendy’s separately, and ordered food. Taylor joked with Jean Auguste, the manager, who was his former boss, and employee Anita Smith, whom Taylor had hired.
Auguste, 27, was a native of Haiti and a rising star at Wendy’s. He lived in Brooklyn and was about to be married. Smith, 22, of Jamaica, worked part-time with her mother at Quality Services for the Autism Community in Queens and planned to attend York College in the fall. Her dream was to become a teacher and work with autistic children.
A bus driver, on break at Wendy’s, later testified that Taylor kept giving him dirty looks because he was dawdling over his meal. Once he left, Taylor asked to talk to Auguste privately.
He then pulled out a gun and demanded that Auguste order the other employees to the basement for a meeting. They complied and were bound with duct tape and marched into the freezer. One of the survivors who witnessed most of the shootings testified at the trial that Taylor shot Auguste, probably shot Smith and then turned the gun over to his accomplice, telling Godineaux to finish the job.
The others killed were:
• Jeremy Mele, 18, who had recently moved to Flushing from Neptune, NJ to be near his girlfriend. He planned a career in the military.
• Ali Ibadat, 51, a native of Pakistan, living in Ridgewood. He sent money home to support his family.
• Ramon Nazario, 44, of Flushing, who had a wife and two children.
Also left for dead were Patrick Castro, 22, a native of Ecuador, and Jaquoine Johnson 18, of Jamaica. One bullet hit Castro in the face. When he recovered consciousness, it took him 90 minutes to free himself and call 911. He then carried Johnson upstairs. The younger man, although severely injured, never lost consciousness until he got to the hospital.
Johnson underwent brain surgery and months of recuperation but was able to give forceful testimony at the trial. He said that the bag over his head moved so he was able to see all that transpired, but admitted he closed his eyes when Anita Smith screamed and was then shot.
After the shootings, the two killers fled and took public transportation to get home. Most of the loot was in coins.
It took police only two days to track down Taylor. He had a record of holding up fast food restaurants and was considered a disgruntled former Wendy’s employee.
The killer was found at his sister’s home on Long Island 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.
Both men gave oral, written and videotaped confessions. But in court, Godineaux was found to be mentally incompetent and could not be tried for the death penalty. He pleaded guilty and is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Taylor’s trial began in October 2002 and ended shortly before Thanksgiving. The jury took 11 hours to reach its verdict after listening to a two-hour closing statement by Assistant District Attorney Daniel Saunders, who pointed to the plastic garbage bags as evidence of Taylor’s intent to murder the employees.
Saunders told the jury the bags were used to protect the shooter from being covered in blood since Taylor had to take the bus home. “He knew where the bags were and his fingerprint was found on the box.”
Interviewed in his Kew Gardens office on Friday, Saunders said the case was solved by extraordinary police work. “The crime scene investigator noticed that the box of garbage bags was out of place. It had been moved,” he said. “It was sent to the lab and Taylor’s thumbprint came up. That was a piece of gold.”
A week after the verdict was read, the jury sentenced Taylor to death and he remained on death row in Dannemora State Prison until 2007, when the state Court of Appeals overturned the sentence in a close 4-3 vote. His reprieve was based on a technicality on how a judge instructs the jury.
Although the judge in Taylor’s trial, Steven Fisher, was extremely careful not to prejudice the jury, the appeals court overturned the ruling, giving the killer a life sentence without parole.
“The judge was fabulous in instructing the jury,” Saunders said. “But New York State doesn’t want the death penalty and there no longer is a death row. I don’t think we will ever see another death penalty case here.”
For the Wendy’s victims’ families there will never be closure. Truman-Smith, who now lives in Rosedale, said she refuses to forgive the man who killed her daughter.
“I miss her so much,” said the still grieving mother, who finds every May very difficult to get through. “I don’t understand why New York State doesn’t want the death penalty, because it’s needed.”
Particularly upsetting to Truman-Smith is the fact that Taylor knew her daughter. He wasn’t an unknown killer. “He’s a monster, not a human being,” she said. “I hope he dies in jail soon.”
Benjamin Nazario says he was very close to his brother Ramon and was a vocal proponent of the death penalty for Taylor. “I wanted to see him die,” Nazario said. “I did all I could about it, but he’ll get what he deserves, sooner or later. I have patience.”
He added that his mother died three years ago. “Taylor took another victim, my mother, because she got sick from the heart after Ramon’s death and never was the same.”
Nazario will remember his brother at a special Mass at St. Michael’s Church in Flushing celebrated every year near the anniversary of the crime. “I miss him a lot and I’m bitter,” he said. “I can’t get over it.”
Mele’s mother, Jacqueline Hall, described her son as outgoing, friendly and helpful. He called her every day from Flushing. “I am bitter because my grandchildren will never know their uncle. He can’t participate in any of my other children’s weddings or be here for holidays,” she said.
She is angry that Taylor is no longer on death row and “I’m sure he doesn’t think a minute about the killings.”
Because Jeremy was active with his high school’s JROTC program, Hall started a scholarship in his honor at Neptune High School. She was at this year’s ceremony last week.
“There is no closure for me because I’ve lost a child,” Hall said. “Jeremy wasn’t just a victim, he was a person.”
Saunders, who afterward was promoted to deputy executive assistant district attorney for major crimes in Queens, said the killings were truly a massacre. He believes Taylor committed the crime for the money, for revenge and “to make a splash.”
Taylor disliked Auguste, because he had been his supervisor at Wendy’s and had called him to task because of his appearance and lateness. Saunders said during the trial that Taylor kept the surveillance video to represent his power. “In his mind, he taught Wendy’s a lesson. This was his prize, his trophy.”
Last week, Saunders added that Taylor led an anonymous life and made a mess of it. “He was determined to make a splash,” the prosecutor said. “He was proud of the crime.”
During the trial, the prosecutor read a poem Taylor had written before he was captured. Part of it read: “Now I’m the king with the crown,” having made it to the TV show “The Most Wanted.”
Saunders keeps a copy of the poem on his desk, but he is unlikely to forget the case. “These people did nothing to deserve death,” he said of the victims. “That’s why it’s so frightening and why it continues to hurt so much.”
The restaurant never reopened and became a mini-mall, but no food is sold there. The new owner donated $18,000 to the Flushing Library for an after-school program in honor of the victims.
Fisher is now an appeals judge with the state Supreme Court.
The two survivors fared very differently. Castro returned to Ecuador and then came back to the United States to earn a college degree. Johnson, according to Saunders, has been in and out of trouble with the law.
The Wendy’s corporation planted a tree in memory of the victims at the Queens Botanical Garden, and company founder Dave Thomas attended the ceremony.
QSAC, where Smith had worked, named a scholarship after her for college students who are pursuing careers in the field of developmental disabilities.
Brown, who met with the families regularly both before, during and after the trial, told them he had never seen a tragedy resonate so strongly in the community. “I had promised the families that we would give them our best,” he said last week. “And we did.”