Jonathan Lester, who spent fifteen years in prison as the accused ringleader of an infamous racial attack in Howard Beach, Queens in December 1986, has died. He was 48.
According to his family, his death on Aug. 14 was a suicide. His sister Jayne Lester-Cohen posted on Facebook on September 12 that she, her mother and other family were returning his ashes to the United States from Manchester, United Kingdom, where he’d lived since being deported to his country of birth after his May 2001 release from prison.
“Today we are bringing Jonathan L. Lester home,” she wrote. “At last he will be at rest in the 🇺🇸 USA. Where his heart was and always wanted to be.”
He was a short, baby-faced 17-year-old the night of December 19, 1986, when a confrontation led to the death of Michael Griffith, 23, a black man who was hit by a car on the Belt Parkway while fleeing white teenagers hurling racial epithets and swinging bats, a tire iron and tree limbs.
Griffith’s mother’s fiance, Cedric Sandiford, 36, was badly beaten. A third man, Timothy Grimes, 22, was able to escape. The three had been walking north on Cross Bay Boulevard after the car they’d been riding in broke down.
Lester, who had earlier exchanged words with the men while driving past them, saw them later eating in a pizza parlor, and upon returning to a party, famously said, as described in courtroom testimony, “There’s some N-word in the pizza parlor. Let’s go kill them.”
The attack, which Sandiford described like a “lynch mob,” inflamed racial tensions in the city.
Lester later said he meant he wanted to fight them, not kill them, and denied he was a racist. In a prison interview when he was 25, he said, “I can’t stand racists . . . They’re small and frightened and ignorant,” and added, “This is what education does. It opens the world.”
But at his trial, he was accused of pursuing Sandiford even after seeing Griffith hit by a car and of showing no remorse, which he later denied.
He, Scott Kern, also 17, and Jason Ladone, 16, were convicted of manslaughter and assault in December 1987 after a three month trial, but Lester was handed a harsher 10-to-30 year sentence, because, said State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Demakos, he had “exhibited the most hate and thirst for violence’’ and had “no redeeming qualities.”
During his years in upstate prisons, Lester earned his high school equivalency and an associate degree. He learned guitar and wrote songs, including one dedicated to Griffith’s mother Jean Griffith Sandiford, to whom he would also write a letter of apology.
He remained bitter, according to accounts over the years, that he was portrayed as a coldhearted murderer. While he said he accepted responsibility for Griffith’s death, he said it was an accident and he denied seeing it occur.
Former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who as special prosecutor won the convictions of Lester and his co-defendants, was dismissive, however.
“Jon Lester can try and rewrite history all he wants. Some would say 15 years is significant punishment, but he is alive, and Michael Griffith is dead,” Hynes said after Lester’s release.
Lester, who was born on July 6, 1969 in Wales, came to this country when he was 14 with his mother, now Jean Pollard Lester Holmes, his stepfather, and sisters Julia and Jayne, all of Florida, who survive him. He rejoined his father John Lester in England, became an electrical engineer with an electrical services business. He had three young children.
But, in an interview Monday with The New York Times, his sister Jayne said he’d suffered from depression and remained tormented. “He was never the same person,” she said.