NEW YORK, NY — On April 19, 1989, Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker, went for a jog in Central Park and fell prey to a grotesque rape, beating, and overall assault that would make history — for a stunning array of reasons.
On that same night in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant — which was then a combat zone of constant street violence and drug wars — another rapist savaged another woman, and then threw the victim off the roof of an apartment building.
The Central Park jogger case got all the attention but, even so, such brutal transgressions were typical New York news items in 1989. It was a time when citizens called police to report nine rapes, five murders, 255 robberies, and 194 physical assaults — on average, every day.
Following the financial ruin of the 1970s and the plague of crack cocaine over the previous few years, crime in New York City at the dawn of the 1990s took on such bizarre dimensions that high-profile perpetrators acquired nicknames more suggestive of comic-book villains than flesh-and-blood felons.
Unfortunately, these bad guys — and their litany of consequences, intended and otherwise — were all too real.
1. “WOLF PACKS” GONE WILDING (1989)
Even by the standards of a city besieged for decades by violence, much of it sexual, the rape, sodomizing, and pummeling of Central Park jogger Trisha Meili made New Yorkers recoil and demand action.
Police rounded up a quintet of teenagers who admitted they were in the park that night and had been assaulting and robbing people. Four of the suspects were African-American; one was Hispanic. Two were 16, two were 15, and one was 14.Under interrogation, each suspect confessed to have participated in assaulting Meili, but none said they actually raped her. They all maintained that “a Puerto Rican kid” had actually penetrated the victim. The city, meanwhile, howled in outrage.
New York Post columnist Pete Hamill, a long-established liberal journalist celebrated for his work at the Village Voice, penned a screed that at first echoed the frustration of many, but that, to many others, eventually grew infamous.
Hamill claimed the accused rapists embodied the phenomenon of “Wolf Packs”: “bloodthirsty teens from the tenements, bursting with boredom and rage, roam the streets getting kicks from an evening of ultra-violence.”
He also wrote that they referred to their crime runs as “wilding — the newest term for terror in a city that lives in fear” and continued:
“They were coming downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference, and ignorance. They were coming from a land with no fathers. They were coming from the anarchic province of the poor. And driven by a collective fury, brimming with the rippling energies of youth, their minds teeming with the violent images of the streets and the movies, they had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape.”
Amid much outrage, the so-called “Wolf Pack” went to jail while Trisha Meili struggled to recover. Alas, the story hardly ended there.
In 2001, convicted serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes, who was serving life upstate for an array of crimes, announced that he — and he alone — raped the Central Park jogger. Reyes provided convincing details.
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau ordered a DNA test and, indeed, Reyes proved to be the “Puerto Rican kid” to whom the so-called Wolf Pack teens had referred. Reyes had been 17 at the time.
As a result of the “extraordinary circumstances” of the Reyes confession, DA Morgenthau recommended that the original suspects — now popularly known as “The Central Park Five” — have all their convictions vacated. His recommendation met fierce resistance from a number of legal sources, but ultimately, that’s what the court ordered.
In December 2002, all five convicts were freed, legally exonerated, and removed from the sex-offender registry. In September 2014, New York State settled a lawsuit filed by the Central Park Five with a $41 million payout.
Two months later, the five pursued an additional $52 million in damages. That case has not yet been settled. [Poynter]
Racial tensions in New York drove much of the hostility that exploded into crime during the city’s bad old days. Sides often broke down into young people of color who were too often profiled as automatically dangerous versus white citizens who were perceived to possess money and privilege.
After a long, deadly summer in the wake of the Central Park jogger case, a group of Black teenagers, most of them girls, took to poking random white females with hatpins on the city’s Upper West Side.
In addition to crime fears, AIDS paranoia ran hysterically high back then, too. In fact, some muggers actually did brandish syringes and hypodermic needles as tools of the trade rather than a gun or a knife, threatening to jab victims with who-knows-what was on the sharp end of the instrument.
The hatpin attacks lasted for about a week before police identified the teens responsible and deemed the practice a sort of unofficial, initiation-style ritual. Snopes.com rather lightheartedly describes the outcome thusly:
“The hooligans responsible admitted it was just a fun game to them, run up to a white woman, stick her with a pin, see her reaction, then run off.”
In 1989 New York, that’s what passed as mere youthful high jinks. [Snopes]
3. “ZODIAC KILLER”: NEW YORK EDITION (1990-’93)
Beginning on March 8, 1990, Brooklyn resident Heriberto “Eddie” Seda transformed his sick admiration for California’s Zodiac Killer into a three-year shooting spree that killed three victims and wounded five others, four of them critically.
Seda initially targeted homeless men and sent taunting letters to the police claiming he was striking victims based on their Zodiac signs. He reportedly approached a target, asked when they were born, and then decided whether or not to blast them with a homemade firearm.
In addition, Seda said he’d only attack during certain periods of the astrological calendar. Working with a professional astronomer, the NYPD had some success predicting when the next Zodiac hit would happen.
Aside from the astrology, Seda imbued his letters with encrypted messages based on international maritime signal flags that a New York Post reporter decoded.
Investigators briefly wondered if this new Zodiac Killer was the same one who’d shot up California between 1968 and ’72 and was never apprehended. Ultimately, though, Seda would prove to be just a fanboy of that psycho.
Seda carried on with impunity until a 1994 concealed weapon bust put him on police radar. Two years later, Seda threatened his teenage sister and her boyfriend with a gun, leading to an hours-long standoff with the cops. Upon arresting Seda for that domestic incident, detectives pieced together that they’d finally caught the New York Zodiac.
In 1998, following a trial full of outbursts, Seda was sentenced to 252 years in jail. [Murderpedia]
4. “DART MAN” BLOWS (1990)
In early summer 1990, some nut with a blowgun took to blasting homemade needle-darts into the posteriors of unsuspecting women in skirts or dresses all over midtown Manhattan.
Between June 28 and July 7 — just nine days — the so-called “Dart Man” struck an astonishing 53 times. His modus operandi was to select targets from behind on a crowded sidewalk and fire from about 10 feet away, blowing needles wrapped in paper through a straw-like pipe-device.
A highly publicized police sketch led to the July 13 arrest of Jerome Wright, 33, a professional messenger who was on probation for selling drugs and had a history of mental illness.
Assistant D.A. Thomas Shields said that Wright never confessed to being Dart Man, but that had said he’d “had a great deal of problems with women in the past.”
Wright also reportedly suggested Dart Man was “doing it as a joke” and that perhaps the perpetrator was “someone from the islands where women who wear ‘provocative and inappropriate’ clothing are shot with darts and thrown into volcanoes.”
In time, charges against Wright were dismissed for lack of evidence, but the Dart Man attacks somehow stopped as soon as he had gotten busted.
Weirdly, the 1990 assailant was not the first NYC-area Dart Man. Between February 1975 and May 1976, somebody up in Westchester county similarly blew havoc at women. Some analysts believe the Westchester Dart Man may have actually been David Berkowitz, aka the “Son of Sam.” [UPI]
5. “WHIRLPOOL” SEX ASSAULTS IN PUBLIC SWIMMING FACILITIES (1993)
New York City’s public pools are a point of pride for the metropolis. Alas, in summer 1993, such waters grew troubled as a series of sexual assaults occurred with shocking regularity at a number of such outlets. As The New York Times reported:
“A spate of sexual assaults [happened] at city pools in which young men, often chanting rap lyrics, wrapped arms and churned through the water, [were] ripping the bathing suits off young girls and fondling them in a phenomenon known as ‘the whirlpool.’ The police said five such attacks, all at different pools, were reported in less than a week.”
According to numerous witnesses, the specific “rap lyrics” favored by the whirlpool gangs tended to be those of the hit, “Whoomp! There It Is” by the group, Tag Team.
Mayor David Dinkins, who had been elected in 1989 and saw the city’s crime statistics skyrocket every year, opted to address this menace by seeming to imitate President Gerald Ford’s ill-fated “Whip Inflation Now” (“W.I.N.”) button campaign.
The Dinkins administration printed up and distributed thousands of buttons bearing the slogans, “DON’T DIS YOUR SIS!” and “WHIRLPOOL AIN’T COOL!” In addressing the strategy, Dinkins told the press:
“Part of what we want to try to do is to educate our young people. We want to try to convey to them that it is not appropriate behavior, that it is in no way macho to put upon young girls. It just isn’t.”
In that November’s mayoral election, Rudolph Giuliani handily defeated David Dinkins and took a decidedly different — and also highly controversial — approach to crime in the city. [New York Times]
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Main photo: Police lead Bible-clutching Heriberto Seda, 26, the suspected Zodiac killer, from the 75th precinct in Brooklyn’s East New York section Wednesday evening, June 19, 1996, in New York. The Zodiac killer shot three men in 1990 along the Queens-Brooklyn border – one fatally – and wounded a man in Central Park. [AP Photo/Chris Kasson]