The anniversary of Yusef Hawkins’ death will fall on Saturday, August 23, marking 25 years since the tragic incident nearly set the city on ablaze in racial tensions, and became enmeshed with Bensonhurst’s reputation to this day.
The Daily News ran a series of articles revisiting the incident this week, speaking to the reputed ringleader of the mob who killed the 16-year-old, the man convicted of firing the bullets that took his life, and Hawkins’ mother.
Circumstances around the incident remain muddled, but on August 23, 1986, four shots were fired from a crowd of teenagers who confronted Hawkins’ and two friends. Two bullets landed in Hawkins’ chest and he died.
The crowd had gathered at 9:00 p.m. on 20th Avenue at the behest of Keith Mondello, who earlier in the evening was threatened by a “local girl with a crack habit named Gina Feliciano,” according to the News. Feliciano told Mondello she would gather a group of black and Hispanic teens to settle a score with Mondello.
Hawkins and his friend had gotten off the N train and were headed to a Bensonhurst home to buy a used car when they passed the mob. They were followed by the bat-wielding mob, which reportedly shouted racial epithets at them. Someone opened fire.
Twenty-five years later, Mondello said he’s still haunted by that day.
“That kid was shot for no reason at all. It was completely senseless,” Mondello said. “Did I know that then? Yes. I know it even more now.”
“I would do anything to give Yusuf Hawkins his life back,” he added. “This is not something for you to report to make people think that, ‘Oh, I’m some kind of good person.’ I mean it honestly from my heart.”
He also had some words of wisdom for would-be tough guys.
“I wish somebody could have grabbed my shoulders and shook me and said, ‘Keith, what are you doing? What are you, crazy? This is not the right thing to do even if you’re just gonna get into a fight and you have golf clubs and bats and whatever.’
“’For what? Because you’re gonna protect your block, or protect your schoolyard? This macho bravado thing,’ ” he added. “That’s really what the night was about.”
Mondello was paroled from prison in 1998 after serving eight years. He lives in Staten Island.
The same can’t be said for Joey Fama, the reputed gunman who fired the shots that killed Hawkins. In a separate article, he told the News that he was there, but he didn’t fire the weapon – and that prosecutors railroaded him to ease racial tensions.
“The charge didn’t fit the crime,” said Fama, wearing a dark green polo shirt and glasses. “I was there but I didn’t shoot the guy.
“I lost 25 years of my life,” added Fama, who’s imprisoned at the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate Dannemora. “Mere presence is not guilt. There were 20 to 40 people there. Nobody else is doing 32 years to life.”
… Days after testifying that he saw Fama pull the trigger, the state’s key witness, Franklin Tighe, admitted he wasn’t even at the scene. The judge barred the new testimony. Still, the jury deliberated for 10 days before convicting Fama.
“They didn’t care who they convicted,” Fama said, referring to prosecutors. “They just wanted a conviction.”
Fama won’t be up for parole until 2020, and said he constantly thinks about the events of that night.
On that, he wouldn’t be alone. Two and a half decades later, Hawkins’ mother Diane still sheds tears on her son’s days of birth and death.
“I look at his picture every day,” said Hawkins, 60.
“Even though it has been 25 years, it feels like it just happened. It’s like it’s never gonna go away. It just can’t go away for me.”
“I feel like there’s an empty space in my heart,” she added.
… Told that the suspected shooter Joey Fama and the accused ringleader Keith Mondello have expressed remorse, Hawkins shook her head.
“I can’t forgive anybody,” she said. “I can’t do it.”
When Hawkins goes to sleep at night, she said, she still finds herself wrestling with a series of heart-wrenching questions.
“I ask myself, ‘Why? Why did this guy have to do this? For what?’ ” she said. “My son didn’t bother anyone.”
The incident, which for months spurred marches by Al Sharpton and others through the neighborhood and garnered national headlines, remains one of the most prominent episodes of racial violence in post-Civil Rights era America. It’s been invoked in the recent deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, as well as that of Treyvon Martin.
And while the neighborhood has long since changed, it remains one of the most enduring marks on Bensonhurst’s reputation, though it’s a neighborhood increasingly populated by various peoples of color. Gothamist, for example, brought it up as context in an article about anti-Muslim fliers appearing in Bath Beach, suggesting Bensonhurst residents still have a long way to go before it can put the incident behind it.