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- September 24, 1990
- Vol. 34
- No. 12
Death of An Out-of-Towner
Brian Watkins Loved New York; One Night in the Subway, Defending His Mother, He Paid for That Love with His Life
But Roseland, just north of New York City's seedy Times Square district, isn't cheap. It cost $15 to get in; after 11:30 P.M., the price would jump to $25. Several of the 40 teenagers needed cash. Fast. It was already past 10 P.M. Getting off the subway at 53rd Street and Seventh Avenue, near the club, they knew what would happen next. "Let's get paid," said one gang member—meaning, in the inverted language of the street, let's rob someone. Ten teenagers charged back down to the train.
Downstairs on the downtown E train platform, another group of visitors was also heading out for a night on the town: the Watkins family, Sherwin, 46, and Karen, 45, of Provo, Utah, their sons, Todd, 26, and Brian, 22, and Todd's wife since December, Michele, 23. The Watkinses were in New York on their fifth annual vacation to attend the U.S. Open tennis tournament. The subway platform wasn't crowded. There were perhaps a dozen people there in addition to the Watkinses. The family's spirits were high; they had been having a wonderful weekend in a city they loved. On Friday, they had gone on a shopping trip to the discount outlets in New Jersey, then watched the New York Mets beat the San Francisco Giants, 4-3, in a ninth-inning, come-from-behind game at Shea Stadium. The next day they went to the Open and saw Brad Pearce, a friend from Provo, compete in a men's doubles match, then spent the evening at Cats, Brian's first Broadway play. On Sunday, they saw John McEnroe defeat Spain's Emilio Sanchez in a tense five-setter. Now, after changing in their rooms at the New York Hilton, they were heading to a Moroccan restaurant in Greenwich Village for a late-night supper. They were laughing and joking. It had been. Brian's mother would say later, "such a fun day."
FTS spotted them at once. They were, said a gang member called Trauma, "dressed nice and looked like they were going somewhere." In an instant gang members swarmed around them. "Give us your money! Give it up!" Apparently, Sherwin Watkins didn't react quickly enough. One of the kids slashed open his back pocket with a box-cutter. Karen Watkins, screaming, went to the aid of her husband before being shoved to the ground and kicked in the face. Her son Brian, a former Boy Scout, jumped to her aid. Sensing that things were not going smoothly, Rocstar had pulled out his double-edged "butterfly" knife, which flicks open like a butterfly's wings, with its four-inch blade. Moments later the knife was plunged into Brian Watkins's chest.
One of the gang members then grabbed Sherwin Watkins's wallet, containing $203, and the attackers ran off. Brian ran after them, up two flights of stairs, collapsing near the token booth. His sister-in-law ran to him, cradling his head in her arms; his brother applied pressure to the¾-inch wound to his chest in a futile attempt to stanch the blood pouring from his severed pulmonary artery; his parents raced to summon help.
Twenty minutes later paramedics rushed Brian Watkins to the trauma center at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village. He was pronounced dead at 10:46 P.M. His family wept, then prayed over the boy's lifeless body.
When he reached the street, Rocstar wiped the blood off the knife with a paper bag he found. Then he shoved the weapon into his shoe. By the time Brian Watkins died, Rocstar had joined the FTS crew inside Roseland. The contents of Sherwin Watkins's billfold had bought admission for him and seven of his friends.
They danced until closing time.
The city and the nation were not so indifferent. Although the murder of Brian Watkins conjured up every tourist's most nightmarish vision of New York, it seemed also to evoke a deeper response. Back in Utah, an editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune said the attack confirmed "people's worst fears about the breakdown of society in America's largest cities." In New York—which last year counted 1,905 homicides—the murder summoned forth horror and soul-searching in a city that has already known too much of both. But the eight teenagers charged with the murder were apparently made of sterner stuff. "There was no remorse," says one New York City detective who reviewed the videotaped statements of the crime that were provided by seven of the eight. "They said they needed money to go dancing, they were gonna rob somebody to go dancing, and then they did go dancing. If you were a kid and you had done something like that, wouldn't you at least run? They're so confident, they just stroll a block and a half away."
The killer's callousness is a maddening mystery to Hector Morales. Rocstar's father. A Guatemalan immigrant, his eyes fill with tears when he talks about his only son. "I have always taught him to work to earn money," says the elder Morales. "I went back on Monday night and looked through his drawers, and I did not find anything that can prove to me that Gary is a criminal or a gang leader. All I found was $120 he had saved, wrapped up in a rubber band. All I can say is he did not have to rob and kill for money." In an account Rocstar reportedly gave to the police, he said, "There was fighting. I took out my knife to protect myself, and the guy turned, and it went into him."
Provo, the home of Brigham Young University in Utah's "Happy Valley," is a world removed from Times Square. Nestled at the western slope of the Wasatch Range, it is a city in which murder is an anomaly—something that happens to other people, in other places. There has been but one killing in Provo this year—a mental-hospital worker was stabbed by a patient. The Watkinses, like most of the city's 84,000 residents, are Mormons. They live in a neat, four-bedroom split-level house on a quiet street surrounded by peach trees. Brian's father, Sherwin, is a marketing specialist at General Refractories, a brick manufacturer; his mother, Karen, is studying to become an X-ray technician. Since January, Brian had worked with Todd conducting motivational programs for American Business Seminars of Provo. Sitting on a gold brocade sofa in the small, cozy living room of his own home in Provo, Todd flips through pictures of his brother and struggles to keep his voice steady. "Here he is on a trip to Disneyland, posing with Mom and Emily [Brian's 9-year-old sister]." There is a picture of Brian riding his mountain bike. Clowning around in an empty bathtub. Eating lunch at Trump Tower on his last visit to New York. Brian loved the city, its glamour and its hectic pace. His dream was to become a lawyer and move to New York. Had he done so, he might have made the city a kinder place by his presence. On his last trip east, in February, Brian spotted a weary homeless man on a subway platform late at night. The man was shuffling from garbage can to garbage can, searching for scraps. Brian himself hadn't eaten since lunch, so he had picked up a bag of glazed doughnuts.
"Brian was hungry, but without saying a word to anyone he took that bag of doughnuts and gave them to that poor man in the subway," says Steve Nickle, 30, chief executive of American Business Seminars, who was there. "That's the kind of man Brian Watkins was. He wanted to help."
Brian was a gentle, thoughtful boy with a warm smile who was not terribly social. "Neither of us had any serious girlfriends," says his best friend, Rett Johnson, a factory worker. "Once in a while we'd double-date. But we'd never go out unless the other guy could bring someone too." Brian's idea of a good time was to join his sister, Emily, in a "cold cereal feast" before bedtime.
Tennis was a big part of his life. Brian led the Provo High School Bulldogs to the state championship in 1986 and won a four-year tennis scholarship to Idaho State University. Leaving after three years to work with Todd, he was also a part-time tennis instructor at the Ridge Athletic Club in Provo and often played mixed doubles with his mother. At 5'11", 140 lbs., he wasn't a big kid, but he was, everyone agreed, determined. He once played a Little League game with a broken finger. He didn't tell his parents, who assumed it was merely swollen, and he never complained of the pain. In 1984, after suffering a serious knee injury that eventually required three operations, he overcame his coach's doubts that he could recover in time to play; he led his team to that year's championship.
"He was determined to do everything the best," says Todd. "Brian and I were close," his brother adds quietly. "When I need someone to talk to, that's when I'm going to feel the loss the most."
Rocstar had no interest in tennis, even though the U.S. Open was played at Flushing Meadow, just a few miles from his home. All he knew about the Open was that this year when it was played, the planes landing at LaGuardia Airport were diverted from their noisy flight path directly above his neighborhood so that the players and spectators would not be disturbed. Yet Rocstar is not a member of the city's large, disaffected underclass, and his home is not in a slum. He and his family live in a four-story redbrick apartment house on Parsons Boulevard in the working-class neighborhood of Flushing. In the living room is a large wooden crucifix and a strand of rosary beads. Proudly displayed is a set of the World Book encyclopedia that Hector Morales, a $13.50-an-hour factory worker, bought for his son several years ago. And Gary was not without hopes of his own. He said he wanted to become a paramedic. Since graduating from John Bowne High School last May, he had been working as an air-conditioning mechanic's assistant. He was never late to work, and at home he was close to his family. He protectively walked his sister, Danica, 11, to and from her friends' apartments. As much as Morales is concerned about his son, he's also concerned about his wife, Celina, who's back in Guatemala recovering from a cancer operation. "Gary is everything to her," he says. "How can I tell her that her son is in jail?...I have a terrible feeling she will die if she hears."
Yull Gary Morales was his immigrant parents' pride, joy and hope for the future. "I always give my family everything they need," says the elder Morales. As a boy, he says, Gary was "treated like a little prince."
Still, he succumbed to the streets. Graffiti was his passion. You could see his "Rocstar" street name sprayed on the roof of J.H.S. 189, two blocks from his apartment. He had even organized a street gang, FTS, five years ago, which kids in the neighborhood describe as a writing crew—a gang that leaves its spray-painted signature on surfaces all over New York. "[FTS] was like a fraternity," says Hector Morales, as if trying to believe that himself. Now his little dinette table is covered with hate mail. One letter says, "Shame on you, and your family. It's people like you who ruin our country." There arc death threats as well. "This is a nightmare to me," Morales says. "I know my son does not have the heart to kill anyone."
Yet on the street. Gary was known to carry a knife. He was still carrying it when the police arrested him in his apartment shortly after 2 P.M. on the day following the stabbing. "He liked knives," one 16-year-old gang member says, "He was always showing us tricks to do with them."
But Morales was hardly the fearless leader. During one gang confrontation two years ago, when an FTS member named Soul was getting "rushed"—beaten up—by another gang. Rocstar ran away. It took a long time for him to live that down.
Rocstar was better at dancing than fighting. He led his crew to the hot dance clubs like Mars in Greenwich Village and the Sound Factory in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. These are clubs where teenage drug dealers wear beepers and where kids are offered cocaine at $25 a quarter gram, mescaline at $20 a hit. The sound is house music, the driving, inner-city rhythm, part rap, part disco, that has everyone on their feet. The lyrics celebrate sex, drugs, money and violence. The song of the moment, played over and over on a recent disco night at Roseland, is "Dirty Cash" by the Adventures of Stevie V. Strobes flash hypnotically while, on the floor, some 2,000 dancers gyrate to the booming beat. "Dirty cash, I want you, Dirty cash. I need you...Sell yourself or you'll be sold for a nickel not a bag of gold...I want to get rich quick."
The sentiment is widespread in gang subculture and succinctly expressed by Skam, 19, a founder of the Corona Boys gang, who was at Roseland the night Brian Watkins was killed. "I don't care about nobody but myself," he says. "Everybody else feels the same way."
Brian Watkins's funeral was held in the Provo North Stake Center Saturday, Sept. 8, one week after his death. Bouquets of yellow roses and brown and orange mums rested on his bronze coffin. There was a floral wreath shaped like two tennis rackets, and there were 500 mourners. The family, sustained by their faith, was determined to find some good in what appeared to nearly everyone else an utterly pointless and irredeemable tragedy. "Mom and Dad, you always wanted Brian to go on a [religious] mission," said his brother, Todd, breaking into tears at the lectern. "I'm telling you. he's on some mission now. He's touched more lives than anyone could." Later Bishop David Hansen told the mourners that Brian's death had moved many people to rally against street violence. "One little light from a subway platform has grown to a flame of glory," he said. Brian's parents held hands through the ceremony and wiped the tears from daughter Emily's eyes.
Afterward the coffin was taken to the Provo City Cemetery. At graveside, Karen Watkins removed four roses from her son's casket and handed three to Todd, Emily and Michele.
"We are not bitter toward New York," she says later, while sitting in her living room. "We are so grateful to the New York City police for moving so quickly...for the hundreds of phone calls, strangers from all over, calling to offer their condolence." In the near future, the Watkinses will be returning to New York. Not as tourists this time, but as witnesses against Rocstar and his seven FTS friends already in custody. (The police are still seeking two accomplices.)
"I think there is some value system that is not being taught." Karen Watkins goes on. "Take what you want, no matter who is in your way. Our family's values are that you work for what you have, that you respect people and they respect you in return. I think more people need to get involved, to make sure kids don't run around and mug other people. If people don't get involved," she concluded, with the certain knowledge of one who had met the bitter truth face to face, "the fear is just going to grow."
Joyce Wadler, Khoi Nguyen and Maria Eftimiades in New York, Cathy Free in Provo
- Khoi Nguyen,
- Maria Eftimiades,
- Cathy Free.
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