Watkins was on a subway platform with his parents, brother and sister-inlaw when they were attacked by a group of six or eight teenagers on Sept. 2, 1990. During a scuffle in which his father was slashed with a box cutter and his mother was kicked in the face, Watkins attempted to intervene and was fatally stabbed in the chest.
It was the murder that prompted the infamous front-page headline aimed at former mayor David Dinkins, "Dave, Do Something!" Beneath that screaming, full-page plea were headlines for three different columns: "It's Time to Take Off the White Gloves" by former mayor Ed Koch, "We Are Captives in Our Own Homes" by columnist Ray Kerrison and "New York's Streets Are Awash in Blood," by Jerry Nachman.
The political pressure to round up and convict what was known at the time as the "wolf pack" responsible for the killing was enormous. A small army of detectives was dispatched, several of whom had worked the Central Park jogger case 17 months earlier.
Within 24 hours, charges were lodged against eight suspects. All but one gave videotaped confessions. The one who did not was let off. The rest got 25 to life. In the aftermath, Dinkins set about hiring what would amount to 6,000 new police officers triggering a downward trend in crime that subsequent mayor Rudy Giuliani continues to take credit for. Of the seven convicted men, one maintains to this day that he is innocent. He contends that he was beaten, lied to and coerced by detectives into admitting a minor role in the robbery with the promise that he would be let out of jail and driven home the next day if he cooperated.
Twenty years later, Johnny Hincapie, now 38, says he alone is unjustly paying the price for the murder that made New York safe. Having spent more than half his life in prison, Hincapie knows full well that when he comes up for parole in a few years, the last thing a parole board will want to hear is a claim of innocence. "I understand that, but I've made up my mind," Hincapie said during a recent interview in Sing Sing prison. "I lied when I gave that confession, and look where it got me. I'm not lying again. I'm going to keep on fighting to clear my name. There is no way I'm ever going to admit that I did something I didn't do again."
The Bloodiest Year in New York's History
The year 1990 began in a manner that grimly foreshadowed what was to follow. In an eight-hour period between 7:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve and 3:30 a.m. the following day, 13 people were violently killed. Ten victims were shot to death, two were killed in vehicular homicides, and one man was beaten to death.
As January wore on, the bodies began piling up. In Brooklyn a 15-year-old boy was shot to death for refusing to return a high-five greeting from another teenager. On the Upper East Side, a woman was crushed to death by a van whose driver had pulled up next to her to snatch her purse from his moving vehicle.
The month ended on a particularly grisly note. The body of a 12-year-old boy was found wrapped in several garbage bags in the woods near the Hutchinson River Parkway on Jan. 29. The boy had been kidnapped the previous month on his way to school. The kidnappers had sent the boy's mother a package containing a 2-inch section of her son's index finger and a cassette tape of the boy pleading for his life and begging his family to pay the ransom.
February followed with one pointless homicide after another: drive-by shootings, the bias killing of a gay man in Staten Island and the fatal stabbing of a man in a Queens subway over a leather jacket.
March drove the statistics dramatically higher after a jilted boyfriend doused the only stairway leading into and out of the Happy Land Social Club with a dollar's worth of gasoline and lit a fire that killed 87 people. Ironically, his exgirlfriend, who worked as a coat check clerk, was one of six people who escaped the Bronx fire.
In late March the NYPD released statistics citing the previous year as setting the all-time record for homicides, 1,905. The nationwide rash of people killed over a pair of sneakers led Time magazine to run a cover story titled "Your Sneakers or Your Life."
As spring turned to summer, several bloody patterns emerged. Cabdrivers were targeted by murderous thieves, who would go on to kill 35 drivers by year's end. Throughout the summer, nearly a dozen children were killed by stray bullets. A total of 75 children under the age of 16 were killed in 1990, 39 of them by gunshots. Throughout the year, police shot 106 people, 41 of them fatally. By the time September arrived, New Yorkers were fatigued and fed up.
A Collision of lives
The members of the Watkins family were all avid tennis fans and came out east to see the U.S. Open, which, coincidentally, was a favorite pastime of Mayor Dinkins. After spending all day on Sunday, Sept. 2, watching tennis, members of the family returned to their hotel room at the Hilton on West 53rd Street. Brian's brother had a craving for Moroccan food that night, so the family asked a hotel employee to recommend a place for them to go. He told them about a spot in Greenwich Village and pointed them toward the subway station at 53rd Street and Seventh Avenue.
Meanwhile, a train was making its way from Queens loaded with 40 or 50 teenagers heading toward the nightclub Roseland, located on West 52nd, for a night of dancing featuring a Latin DJ. Johnny Hincapie, an 18-year-old from Bayside who was about to enter his final year of high school, was with several friends. His mother testified that he was flush with cash, since she paid him $150 per week to help her with an accessory business she ran.
But part of the group did not have the $15 cover charge to get into the club and hatched a plan to "grab a wallet" from someone, as one of the co-defendants put it. After the train arrived at Seventh Avenue, the whole group of approximately 50 people left the station and headed toward the club, while the smaller group lacking cash lagged behind and went back into the station. One jumped the turnstile and opened the exit gate, and the group ran down to the subway platform.