Life and Death in Lefrak City

In a bleak apartment complex beside the Long Island Expressway, three families struggle to protect their children from a cycle of violence that proves inescapable.

Life and Death in Lefrak City

When Debra Greene’s son Theodore was in middle school and he and his younger brother Pernel misbehaved, she would pack the boys into her car and drive from Corona, Queens, across the Triboro Bridge to a rough neighborhood in Harlem, threatening to leave them there if they didn’t shape up. When a homeless man knocked on the car window, the boys cried, but Greene was grateful that the man was reinforcing her mission. She was determined to do whatever she could to keep her boys out of trouble.

“I drove them to a school with bars on the windows and said, ‘This is where you will go to school,’” recalls Greene, fifty-two. Though she is tired from working a long shift in the ICU and from the challenges this past year has presented her with, she erupts into laughter as she retells stories of her kids growing up. “During the day it doesn’t look so bad, but at night?”

But crime wasn’t confined to neighborhoods away from home. The family lived in Lefrak City, a housing development built for middle-class families in the 1960s that was supposed to be not only affordable, but safe. Lefrak City hasn’t really delivered on that score.

The massive twenty-building residential development is arranged into X-shaped pods with darkened windows, making it look like public housing, although it’s not. With 12,330 residents, these brick buildings lining the Long Island Expressway are home to more than one-fifth of Corona’s entire population, according to the 2010 Census.

A view of Lefrak City from Debra Greene's terrace
A view of Lefrak City from Debra Greene’s terrace

The complex was a cornerstone of developer Samuel J. Lefrak’s massive network of privately owned real estate. The Lefrak Organization is now made up of over four hundred buildings in places as varied as Battery Park City and Newport, Jersey City, most of them functional and efficient but devoid of architectural innovation. The vision for this forty-acre lot in central Queens was to create a modern mini-city that residents would barely have to leave. It would have a movie theater, offices, retail space, tennis courts, basketball courts, swimming pools and parking all contained within the confines of the development.

As with many New York City neighborhoods, crime and vandalism became commonplace throughout the 1970s and ‘80s in Lefrak City. A 1981 New York Times article reported that residents were worried that their housing complex was destined to become a slum. But it never came to that. The crime rate in the 110th precinct, which includes Lefrak City, Corona and Elmhurst, has gone down steadily in the last two decades, according to the New York City Police Department. Only eight people were murdered in 2012, as opposed to thirty-six in 1990. Still, a steady stream of incidents has kept residents of Lefrak City feeling uneasy in their aging high-rises. In 2011, forty-six people were arrested for operating a drug ring out of a pre-school in one of the buildings, and in 2012 there was at least one murder and one rape on or very near the property.

Debra Greene in Lefrak City
Debra Greene in Lefrak City

Greene, who grew up in Queens, is only just over five feet tall, but her commanding voice and bright smile give her a presence. She moved to Lefrak City in 1984, not intending to stay long. She had Theodore in 1985 and Pernel in 1988. At that time, two-bedroom apartments rented for around $450 a month, and it was tough to find a better deal, so she stayed. When her boys were young in the early nineties, Greene, a single mom, heard reports of violence that confirmed her suspicions about the neighborhood. One man was shot near Lefrak City’s tennis courts. Another was shot in the basement of her building.

Hoping a parochial school would hold her sons to higher standards than a neighborhood school, Greene enrolled them in St. Gabriel’s School in East Elmhurst and then Monsignor Scanlan High School in the East Bronx. Her goal was to ensure they graduated and went to college. She told Theodore that someday she wanted him to earn enough money to own property in a safe neighborhood, not wanting him to have to rent in a place like Lefrak City.

Greene worked Friday and Saturday night shifts as a nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital, leaving her sons to their own devices. This worried her, especially when they were in high school and became popular in their circle of friends, although they never got into any serious trouble. She and Theodore had a pact that he would get above a 75 in each class or he wouldn’t be able to stay in private school. This feat was sometimes hard in Spanish, his mother recalls, but easy in the sciences, where he excelled.

Theodore’s best friend was Tyshawn Bierria, another kid from Lefrak City who also went to St. Gabriel’s. For both boys, everything was about basketball. They played together at school, and both joined the TK All-Stars, a basketball team made up mostly of kids from Lefrak City.

“Theo was a laid-back, kind of quiet, unassuming kind of person. He liked to stay under the radar,” remembers Antonio Cannon, coach of the TK All-Stars and father of another close friend, Antonio Cannon Jr. “He’d rather pass the ball than shoot the ball.”

The team soon became known throughout Queens for its success on the court. Theodore went on to play for his high school team, and Tyshawn played for his, Newtown High School in Corona, Queens.

Greene was pleased when Theodore formed a close group of about ten friends, including Tyshawn and other members of the TK All-Stars. The boys looked out for each other, Greene recalls. When they were in high school, they started calling themselves the D.i.P. Fam for “dipped in purple family” because purple, they told her, represents royalty in the Bible. Some of the boys grew up going to church, and as another member Phil Murphy explains it, by referencing something holy they were separating themselves from the gang culture with which they did not want to be associated.

The D.i.P. Fam (Photo courtesy Tationa Mundy)
The D.i.P. Fam (Photo courtesy Tationa Mundy)

Despite Lefrak City’s troubles with drugs and shootings, Greene tried to believe hers was a different world. She did not consider herself part of the Lefrak City community. She was a nurse at a hospital in Manhattan, and her kids went to private school in the Bronx. She even did her grocery shopping outside the neighborhood. But as Theodore got older and Greene became a regular at her son’s Lefrak City basketball games, she started to recognize the names of teenagers involved in the local violence, which seemed to be closing in.

Theodore never gave her much reason to worry. He was quiet and polite with adults, holding doors and helpful with chores. But with his friends, he would laugh uncontrollably at jokes only they understood. Though his demeanor was cool and his tattoos made him look tough, Greene’s friend Shawn Williams said he had a “warm, inviting, welcoming” smile.

Tyshawn led the group by example. When he started working out and bulking up, the others did too. His mother, Sharon Bierria, a vivacious and enthusiastic minister, insisted that he go to Sunday school and Bible study classes. Instead of acting embarrassed about it, his mother recalls, he convinced his friends to come with him. As a young kid, he always objected when his mother stepped in to break up fights, but as he got older, he began to take on that role.

As the D.i.P. boys grew up, they learned how to balance their cool personas with the high expectations of their parents. They liked to party, work out and write rap songs, but they also had to go to college.

For members of the D.i.P. Fam, getting out of the neighborhood and going to college was considered a mark of success, and most of these boys achieved that. Theodore graduated from Bethune Cookman University in Daytona Beach in 2009 with a degree in biology. Tyshawn, a year younger, went to SUNY Delhi where he was on the basketball team. Theodore’s brother, Pernel, went to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

Theodore Greene and friends (Photos courtesy of Tationa Mundy)
Theodore Greene and friends (Photos courtesy of Tationa Mundy)

When Theodore and his friends were home for breaks, they would hang out and plot their post-college futures, including their dream to open a sports rehabilitation clinic and community center for a neighborhood that desperately needed one. Theodore’s plan was to get his license in massage therapy so he could treat athletes. Each of the boys had a passion or a skill that was given space in this dream, whether it was a studio for their friend who could dance or a basketball court for those who could play. All of them put pressure on each other to get their degrees.

Ever since those boys were in elementary school, they had found strength in numbers together. But that didn’t turn out to be enough.

In 2008, Tyshawn got involved in a fight on SUNY Delhi’s campus, where he was due to graduate in two weeks, said a spokesperson from the university. During the fight he was stabbed and died of his injuries five days later. Tyshawn’s friends told his mother that Tyshawn, always the peacemaker, had stepped in to try to break up the fight. His murder didn’t occur in Lefrak City, but it still shook the community.

Three months later, the TK All-Stars’ former coach, Antonio Cannon, helped organize a basketball tournament, which members of the D.i.P. attended, including Cannon’s son, also named Antonio.

“It’s my way of keeping Tyshawn’s memory alive,” the older Cannon told the Queens Chronicle.

Theodore took his friend’s death hard. He was living in Florida at the time, but when he visited Lefrak City, he would often visit Tyshawn’s mother to talk about losing his friend. Theodore had lots of questions about life and death. She remembered him describing dreams in which he saw Tyshawn at a big gathering, always wearing a white t-shirt and a cap and always smiling. Theodore wanted to know what the dreams meant.

Other times during those visits, he’d go into Tyshawn’s room and quietly look at his things, Bierria said. Theodore knew that Tyshawn was very particular about his clothes, so he instructed Bierria never to give any of them away.

Theodore and his D.i.P. friends did not stop fantasizing about their rehabilitation center. In fact, their plans became more elaborate. They wanted their center to have a room where Bierria could give Bible study classes, and they wanted an afterschool program for kids to play sports.

Nine months after Tyshawn’s death, another D.i.P. Fam member, Antonio Cannon, Jr., was stabbed to death by a woman in Jamaica, Queens, according to the Queens District Attorney’s office. The woman was arrested for manslaughter. Local papers reported that she was the mother of his child and had stabbed him in the leg during a fight.

In Theodore's room: an article about Tyshawn Bierra's death and a flyer from Antonio Cannon, Jr.'s funeral
In Theodore’s room: an article about Tyshawn Bierra’s death and a flyer from Antonio Cannon, Jr.’s funeral

“We didn’t live that life of wanting to be thugs,” said Rainer Rickards,
another D.i.P. Fam member. “We just wanted to have fun with each other, hang around, look for girls.”

Bierria responded to her son’s death with action. Every year since 2009, she has held a $75-a-plate formal dinner in Tyshawn’s memory. With the money raised, Bierria’s daughter, LaRen, has taken about twenty-five kids from Lefrak City on field trips each summer to the Museum of Modern Art, SONY Wonderlabs, the Hall of Science and picnics at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The idea, Bierria said, is to expose the next generation of Lefrak City kids to life beyond the complex in the hope that they will grow up and get out.

The annual event is not only held to raise money for those kids. It’s also meant to give something to the attendees, most of whom were friends of her son. Each year, Bierria invites speakers to give the audience an opportunity to talk about violence. In the past, she’s hosted a family court judge and the father of a woman shot in Harlem. From the get-go, she decided to make it a formal affair, hoping the dressy clothes would make the young adults feel important and inspired for a successful life; for some of them, it was the first time they’d ever dressed up.

In 2010, Theodore moved back in with his mother. He and his friends participated regularly in Bierria and her daughter’s events and imagined that one day these efforts would morph into their rehabilitation center. They chaperoned LaRen’s field trips and helped the mother-daughter team wrap Christmas gifts that they donated to a shelter every year in Tyshawn’s honor.

Wrapping presents to be donated in Tyshawn's honor (Photo courtesy of Tationa Mundy)
Wrapping presents to be donated in Tyshawn’s honor (Photo courtesy of Tationa Mundy)

For this year’s dinner, slated for May, Bierria wanted Theodore to take the lead in the planning. He spoke often about wanting to improve the community. Bierria felt this event would help him see what it took to create something that needed to be organized and funded.

Theodore nagged his friends until they contributed to a down payment for an event at the Charisma Ballroom, a party venue in Kew Gardens, Queens. He signed the contract for the venue, helped choose the color scheme for the decorations and sold some of the tickets.

“He was like, ‘I got this,’” Bierria remembered.

Early in the morning on April 20 of last year, less than forty-eight hours after meeting with Bierria to count tickets and tally how much money had been raised, Theodore was killed a block from his home.

“It’s happening right now while we sitting here,” said Sharon Wright, another Lefrak City mother whose son, Percel, was shot to death in Lefrak City in 2010. His case remains unsolved. “Somebody murdering somebody’s child.”

At twenty-six, Theodore was gunned down at 99th Street and Horace Harding Expressway, police said. According to Shawn Williams, a friend of Greene’s, Theodore had been at a nightclub in Manhattan. At five a.m. he was walking toward the entrance to his building when someone in a car shot him twenty-two times, and then drove away.

Theodore and his brother's basketball trophies
Theodore and his brother’s basketball trophies

Theodore was the third of the original ten members to be killed in four years. His killer has yet to be found.

“He seemed like a really decent kid,” said a detective who is familiar with the case. “From what we gathered, they were involved in positive aspects of the community,” referring to Theodore and his friends.

As is typical of crime in and around Lefrak City, Theodore’s death did not attract much attention from the press. A five-sentence write-up in the New York Post reported that Theodore had a criminal record “that included an arrest for criminal possession of stolen property.” His arrest record, from 2008, also includes trespassing and driving with a suspended license.

The write-up upset people who had been close to Theodore because they felt it suggested he was just another criminal getting what he deserved. Below the online article, Theodore’s friends wrote comments emphasizing that he was educated and well loved.

Theodore’s wake attracted nearly one thousand people over the course of two days. People Theodore had known from all his different phases of life came from as far away as Texas and Florida. Many of Greene’s colleagues attended and she had family come up from St. Croix.

A flyer from Theodore's funeral
A flyer from Theodore’s funeral

“It was wall-to-wall people,” Greene recalled. “Outside and in the street. Just people.”

After Theodore’s killing, elected officials started to notice the neighborhood’s troubles. Six months after his death, they committed to finding Theodore’s killer and making the area safer.

One day after Mayor Bloomberg announced the creation of his Super PAC in October to fund candidates who support gun control laws, he raised Theodore’s Crime Stoppers reward—money that will go to anyone who provides information that leads to an indictment—from $2,000 to $12,000.

“For $2,000, you might not say much, but for $10,000 you’ll sing like a bird,” Greene said hopefully.

Other politicians and businesses are taking part as well. Sen. Jose Peralta’s office secured $500 for the reward money from a local business, a representative from his office said. The Queens Center Mall independently contributed $500. Councilman Daniel Dromm has also joined in, saying the unsolved murders of Theodore Greene and Percel Wright moved him to action. He’s promised to add $1,000 to Theodore’s reward money and has allocated $150,000 of capital funds to install security cameras in his district. He has urged the police department to put the cameras along the sidewalks of Horace Harding Expressway and 57th Avenue, two streets that border Lefrak City.

“I don’t know if it’s a deterrent, but I do know it would help to identify who the killers are” in future murders, Councilman Dromm said on the phone recently. “They would be brought to justice.”

Greene said security cameras are great, but what Lefrak City really needs is more lights. On a recent evening just after seven p.m., lights that have long since stopped sensing motion hung unlit around a Lefrak City parking lot, unresponsive when Greene walked under them to get to her car.

Tyshawn’s memorial fundraiser was held on May 11, 2012, a week later than planned, to give people time to grieve Theodore’s death. Once expenses were paid for the memorial, $3,500 went toward weekly field trips that involved about twenty-five kids, according to LaRen.

Greene’s younger son, Pernel, works at Macy’s and is still rapping, occasionally getting some shows. Rickards works as a manager at the nonprofit Harlem Children’s Zone, and Murphy is working towards a master’s degree in psychology at Texas Tech University.

Right after Theodore’s death, Greene was in contact with the police every few weeks about their investigation. They visited her house, and showed her pictures of him leaving a Manhattan nightclub the night he was killed.

It’s been months since she’s heard any news. She doesn’t think knowing who shot Theodore would ease the pain, but she still wants to know why her boy was killed.

Debra Greene shows the reward poster for information leading to the indictment of her son's killer; Mayor Bloomberg raised the reward to $12,000
Debra Greene shows the reward poster for information leading to the indictment of her son’s killer; Mayor Bloomberg raised the reward to $12,000

“What was so disturbing to you that you could destroy a community?” she wondered aloud, as if asking her son’s killer.

Two weeks after his death, the police gave Greene her son’s wallet, which they’d found on his body.

Inside it, next to his driver’s license, was his Bank of America debit card. She remembered Theodore telling her that he had been saving money to start that rehabilitation clinic, but she had made a point of not asking how much he had.

When she went to the bank, she discovered $6,000 in his account, money he’d been saving to fulfill his dreams. Instead, the money went to pay for his funeral and buy the closest thing he would get to property: a gravestone.