Days After Newtown, City Also Remembers Principal Killed 20 Years Ago

By Alan Neuhauser on December 17, 2012 7:01am 

RED HOOK — Just days after a young man gunned down 20 school children, four teachers, a principal and a psychologist in a Connecticut school, Brooklyn educators and parents will memorialize the murder of another school principal Monday — one that, 20 years ago, shook New York City to its core.

On Dec. 17, 1992, Patrick Daly, 48, the head of P.S. 15 in Red Hook, was cut down by a single stray bullet as he searched the neighborhood for a fourth-grader who had fled the school following a fight.

He was caught in the crossfire between three teenage drug dealers, then a common occurrence in Red Hook and, indeed, the rest of the city.

But the victim, and his death at the hands of what turned out to be former students, became an event that indelibly transformed Red Hook. It triggered an unprecedented coming-together of the neighborhood's embattled community. It sparked massive investment in a neighborhood that had been all but abandoned by City Hall, and the ensuing trial set a precedent for murder prosecutions nationwide.

"This put Red Hook on the map nationally and internationally as a crack-infested urban war zone," said Judge Alex Calabrese, who presides over the Red Hook Community Justice Center, a community court built in the wake of the shooting.

"You wouldn't have the justice center without the horrible things they went through."

Two decades later, residents, community activists and city leaders see Daly's death as the tragedy that saved Red Hook — an event that still brings tears to the eyes of people who survived the neighborhood at its worst.

DNAinfo.com New York looked back at Daly’s life, his work and the event that led to what Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes called "the Miracle of Red Hook."

A COMPANY MAN ON THE 'OK CORRAL'

Daly dedicated his 26-year career to P.S. 15, starting as an art teacher and working his way up to principal — all at a time when virtually every other teacher and resident was trying to get out of Red Hook, a neighborhood then at the center of the crack epidemic engulfing many parts of New York City.

“It was like the OK Corral,” said John McDonald, a retired detective who served at the 76th Precinct, which includes Red Hook, and who helped lead the Daly investigation. Others called it the Wild West.

“It was bad, really bad. There were homicides down there weekly.”

Life Magazine called Red Hook “the crack capital of America” in a 1988 cover story.

The neighborhood, home to about 11,000 people, more than 8,000 of which lived in 30 buildings that comprise the Red Hook Houses, was cut off from the rest of city by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, its elevated thoroughfare effectively keeping city services out and violence penned in.

Other than a pair of firehouses, P.S. 15, P.S. 27 and a crumbling community center, there were few public buildings. Residents and retired police officers said cops from the 76th Precinct station house on the opposite side of the highway simply sped through the neighborhood, eager to move on to the comparatively safer areas of Gowanus, Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill.

"I guess they figured, 'Hey, let them kill each other.' That's how it felt," recalled Wally Bazemore, 60, a community activist who has lived on and off in Red Hook since 1955.

In 1991 alone, the year before Daly was killed, 20 people were murdered within the 76th Precinct — most of them in Red Hook, McDonald and other retired detectives said. This year, by comparison, no homicides have been recorded in the area.

Drug wars raged as dealers fought for control of the crack trade, and cities hobbled by the effects of a nationwide recession cut funds for local services.

For the educators who worked at P.S. 15, the school became an embassy, a safe haven from the chaos consuming the streets outside.

“There were shootings across the street all the time, there were robberies,” said Denise Leonard, who worked with Daly at P.S. 15.  “You couldn't buy a newspaper, you could barely get a cup of coffee in the morning. There was no place to have lunch. You just came into the building, the building was your whole day, and then you left.”

As others fled to other schools — or new jobs altogether — at the earliest opportunity, Leonard, Daly and a handful of colleagues stayed behind.

“I think he felt he had a mission. This is where he was meant to be,” Leonard said. “He realized that by being here, he was going to affect so many other people. He had the opportunity to move on and up in the Board of Education, but he chose to stay here and build this community. He really had a vision of what can happen, what a neighborhood can be. Not just what it is.”

MANY FAMILIES, MULTIPLE HOMES

Friends, neighbors and colleagues reckon that Daly spent more time in Brooklyn than he did at home with his wife, Madeline, their oldest child, Patrick, and their twin daughters, Mary Elizabeth and Kathleen.

Commuting from Staten Island, he was often the first to arrive and the last to leave, regularly caring for pupils whose parents were running late, and assisting with after-school programs for students, GED classes for parents and any of the neighborhood-wide events that frequently took place at the school.

“He wasn’t ashamed of us,” said Malik Spencer, 31, then a sixth-grade student at P.S. 15. “He showed us how to be a caring man and understanding. He tried to change things by just being a good man. That goes a long way.”

Spencer was hypoglycemic, and he and his mother, Khadijah James, who lived together in the Red Hook Houses, piled juice boxes in Daly’s office for whenever Spencer needed a jolt of sugar. When a number of the juice boxes were stolen one afternoon, Daly simply went out and bought a bunch more to replace them — a memory that reduced James to tears as she recounted it in an interview.

“He was a really, really, really good person,” James said. “He looked out for me.”

James became one of the adults that Daly convinced to enroll in the GED program that was held at P.S. 15. When she passed a few months later, “Mr. Daly was so proud of me,” James recalled, wiping away tears and managing a small smile.

Daly, soft-spoken with a salt-and-pepper beard, became a recognizable figure in the community — not only through his work with thousands of children and parents, but because of a particular policy he implemented at P.S. 15. No student could leave the building without an escort, and any student who left the school by themselves, without permission, had to be tracked down.

On any given day, residents might catch a glimpse a slender man striding past, clad in a suit and tie — “you never caught Mr. Daly in jeans,” one resident said. He was the only white face walking through the neighborhood without a gun and badge.

“He would walk through here at night. He was like an untouchable,” Bazemore, the longtime Red Hook Houses resident and activist, said.

"We trusted him. That's rare, for a community of color to trust a white man."

As James described, “Even the guys who had their hats to the back or had the clothes kind of hanging off a little bit would see him, and they would straighten up. ‘How you doing Mr. Daly?’ That’s the kind of love and respect that people had.”

On Thursday, Dec. 17, staff at P.S. 15 barely raised an eyebrow as Daly set out from the building just before noon. A pair of fourth-graders had just gotten into a fight during lunch, and one of the 9-year-olds had run crying from the cafeteria and out onto the streets. 

“I had come in for a meeting, and I saw Mr. Daly leave the building,” Leonard, a member of the P.S. 15 Leadership Team, recalled. “It was a rainy day in December, and he said he was going to find a kid. And I guess about an hour later, somebody called the main office and said that Mr. Daly had been shot.”

DEC. 17, 1992

The rain that afternoon is one detail that every source said he or she remembers — misty and drizzling, frigid in the December air, forming droplets and puddles that refracted the blue and red lights strobing from atop dozens of police cars that descended on the Red Hook Houses.

A squad car on patrol from the 76th Precinct was the first to respond, racing to the houses after a 911 caller reported that a person had been shot. Minutes later, detectives were notified, followed by department chiefs and school district leaders, up the chain to NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez and Mayor David Dinkins.

“We were up in the squad room,” recounted Detective McDonald, who was among the team from the 76th Precinct assigned to the case, “and one of the civilians came upstairs and said, ‘You better get down to the Hook, some principal was shot on Center Mall.’

"We said, ‘What do you mean, a principal?’ And he said, ‘The principal of the school.’

“There was chaos by the time we got there — there was radio cars all over the street.”

The news flashed through the Red Hook Houses, residents said. Dozens gathered at the scene, massing around Daly's body and standing behind the police cordon. Hundreds of others started heading toward P.S. 15, where they stood outside, shocked and speechless, crying in the rain.

Inside the school, most teachers did not yet know what had transpired. Many were at lunch, and in the days before cell phones and the Internet, word had not yet spread. The wrenching task of telling the school’s staff fell on Mary Manti, then the assistant principal, teachers said.

“It was beyond words. Beyond belief,” Leonard said. “She just came into the teachers’ cafeteria and said she had some terrible, terrible news.”

Manti then opened the school’s doors to the residents and parents outside, offering the building’s auditorium as a shelter from the rain and for grief to set in. Teachers, however, could not yet join them — the afternoon’s classes remained.

“It was extremely difficult,” Leonard said. “The world had just turned upside down.”

Blocks away, cops started canvassing. A command post was set up in the 76th Precinct, where more than 50 NYPD and housing detectives ultimately worked the case. Narcotics units, parole officers and warrant police flooded the area, questioning, cajoling or threatening anyone they could think of for information. But as the cops went door to door, they discovered that something in the neighborhood had changed — witnesses wanted to talk.

THE INVESTIGATION

Gunfire punctuated most days in Red Hook. But finding shooters in most cases was like hunting for ghosts. Residents feared reprisals from local gangs and drug dealers, and they had little connection with the police officers that were barely present in the neighborhood, residents and investigators said.

Finding witnesses on a normal case “was like pulling teeth,” said Kings County Assistant District Attorney John O’Mara, one of those who prosecuted the case.

Daly’s death, however, brought about a shift.

"People had had enough," said John Accetturi, one of the 76th Precinct detectives who helped lead the investigation. "You know, 'If this can happen to someone like Daly, this can happen to anyone.'"

O'Mara agreed. “They were saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” he recounted. "That made the difference in the case, and I think it made the difference in Red Hook.”

Within hours, police learned that the gunfire had erupted in a fight over turf. A drug dealer nicknamed "Peanut" had just been released from prison, O’Mara recounted, and he dispatched his 17-year-old nephew, Shamel Burrough, to reclaim territory along Center Mall, a wide median of concrete and grass that runs through the middle of the Red Hook Houses.

At about noon, Burrough walked onto the mall and took aim at Khary Bekka, 18, and Jermaine Russell, 19, members of the Slidetown Gang, whose name stemmed from a playground with slides at the center of their territory, O’Mara said.

What followed was a running gun battle. Police later recovered 13 shell casings. Daly, caught in the middle, was its only victim, shot once in the chest.

Cops arrested Burrough the next day at a friend’s apartment in the Red Hook Houses. Bekka and Russell, once Daly's students at P.S. 15, were taken into custody soon after.

THE AFTERMATH, THE RECOVERY

Six months after Daly’s death, Burrough, Bekka and Russell were convicted of murder. The prosecution took an innovative approach: investigators were unable to determine which gunman had fired the fatal bullet, but assistant district attorneys O’Mara, Steven Schwartz and James Lamb convinced jurors that all three teens were equally responsible for Daly’s homicide.

“It established what I refer to as the Killing Fields,” O’Mara explained, “where you set up a killing field and start shooting guns all over the place, with lots of people in the middle. You know you’re going to kill somebody, and you have to be held responsible just as if you shot him intending to shoot him.”

The conviction established a precedent that is now referred to in courts nationwide.

As the trial unfolded, work was getting underway to open a community court in Red Hook — the first of its kind in Brooklyn, and the second in New York City after Midtown Community Court, which opened in October 1993. The court would have a single judge, hear any crime up to simple assault, and draw cases from the 76th, 72nd, and 78th precincts.

“It focuses on values, it works with the community, it focuses on issues, it brings in resources, it holds people accountable for doing what they need to do,” Calabrese, the court's judge, said.

It also beefed-up police presence in the neighborhood, if only within a small radius in the courthouse. And it brought with it an economic boost for Red Hook — namely, all the state workers, lawyers, witnesses and defendants buying coffee and lunch Monday through Friday

The court opened in 2000, in a former school around the corner from the Red Hook Houses. Madeline toured the court in 2002 and later praised Calabrese in a thank-you card following the visit.

"Your work keeps Pat's legacy alive," she wrote.

In 2005, the NYPD opened a station inside one of three high-rises at the Red Hook Houses, a satellite office of Police Service Area 1, which was based two hours away on Coney Island. The satellite remains the only police station in Red Hook.

As the city ramped up investment in the neighborhood through the 1990s and 2000s, Ikea opened a store on the Red Hook waterfront in 2008, and a Fairway Market soon followed. Real estate values boomed — multi-million dollar townhouses sit across the street from the Red Hook Houses high-rises — and business thrived in much of the neighborhood.

“The businesses and so forth that have moved down there, and now there's some residential development, too, would not have come there if they had had the kind of environment that existed in 1992,” O'Mara said. “But it’s not just socioeconomic change. It’s the change in the attitude of the people.”

Those who knew Daly, however, say he would not have been surprised,  “I think he would be very proud,” James said. “I think he would say, ‘I told you so.’”

TWENTY YEARS LATER

Burrough, Bekka and Russell are still serving time in prison on a 25-to-life sentence — Russell at Fishkill Correctional Facility, Bekka at Sing Sing and Burrough at Clinton Correctional Facility near the Canadian border.

None of the men could be reached in time for comment, but Bekka sent a letter to the Red Hook Star-Revue dated April 30, in which he issued “an open apology to the Daly family and the Red Hook Community for my role in the loss of Mr. Daly’s life.”

“I often found myself fighting inner and outer battles in search of some sort of understanding to the unfortunate event that took place,” he wrote. “I need to believe that everything in life happens for a reason, no matter how unfortunate the circumstances of the event may be. And I believe that the Daly family and the Red Hook community lost a beloved servant under a divine script.”

The Daly family declined to comment for this story. Patrick Jr. obtained a position with the Manhattan DA’s office and now works as a lawyer for the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Mary Elizabeth works for E-Trade, neighbors said, and Kathleen for Millward Brown, a marketing consulting firm. Their mother and Daly’s widow, Madeline, still lives in the house her family shared in Staten Island.

Police and prosecutors don't need notes to remember the details of the case. It is one that still holds immense power, even for those who made it their business to work in the city’s shadows.

“It meant a lot of different things to different people,” O’Mara said. Tall and broad, with a shaved head and mustache, he rubbed his scalp as he spoke, tears welling in his eyes.

“You can’t really put it into words,” he said. He paused to take a deep breath, a sip from a can of soda. The tears continued. “I guess you can say it felt like you were doing the right thing.”

It is one of the only cases, he said, that he can recall from memory alone.

James, who still lives in the Red Hook Houses, said she sometimes hears Daly's voice, urging her to stay calm in the face of challenge. She wishes he could see Red Hook today, especially how the community came together following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy Oct. 29.

"He would have been out here in the trenches with us," she said.

Walking past P.S. 15, renamed for his honor in May 1993, is still difficult.

“I miss him every day I go past the school. Sometimes I’m good and I don’t think about it. And sometimes I just sit down and cry,” James said. “Twenty years later, my heart is still heavy."

P.S. 15 plans to hold a small memorial ceremony for Daly at the start of school Monday morning, teachers said. The school's chorus will sing "Let There Be Peace on Earth" over the building's loudspeaker, a song teachers and neighbors said was one of Daly's favorite. It will be followed by a moment of silence.

James' rememberance will be more private. Come Monday, she’ll do what she has done every Dec. 17 since 1992.

“I’m going to sit down and reflect,” she said, folding her hands and resting her chin atop them. “I’m going to sit down and have a moment with my mentor.”

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