Wendy’s murder victims remembered at ceremony

By Chris Fuchs

In a room inside the Flushing Library last week, a Catholic priest was delivering a Josephite’s prayer typically invoked at funerals. Shakeem Smith, 7, was sitting in the audience next to his brother and mother, trying his best to listen.

But a red folder that lay open on his lap kept drawing his attention. In it was a piece of white paper. On it was a photocopied black-and-white picture of his sister, 22-year-old Anita Smith, who was one of five workers murdered at the Wendy’s in Flushing one year ago.

The families of the victims, representatives from the mayor’s and borough president’s office, and members of law enforcement attended a memorial service last Thursday at the Flushing Library, a block away from the former restaurant, during which the new owner of the property donated $18,000 for an after-school program in honor of the victims.

“The after-school program appeals to us because it gives us the opportunity to help kids,” said Glenn Lau-Kee, the attorney for the new owner, 40-12 Main St. Realty, which is the address of the former fast-food restaurant.

Seth Bornstein, a representative from the Queens borough president’s office, said the new owner approached his office earlier this year and asked for suggestions on how to create a memorial for the victims.

Borough President Claire Shulman recommended that he contribute to the Latchkey Enrichment Program, an after-school workshop offered at 35 branches of the Queens Borough Public Library for children 5 through 12, he said. The $18,000 check will fund the program for one year.

For nearly nine months after the massacre, in which five workers were murdered and two were wounded during a robbery, the restaurant sat boarded up and unused in downtown Flushing. During that time, it became a billboard of sorts for various advertisements, both in Chinese and English. It also became a tablet on which family, friends and strangers penned elegiac messages.

Now a year later it is being developed into a mini-mall, which is expected to open some time next month.

The service last Thursday was one of at least a half-dozen occasions when the families of most of the victims have gathered. Usually they have met inside a vast courtroom in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens, where one of the gunmen, Craig Godineaux, was sentenced to life in prison in February. The other suspect, John Taylor, who faces the death penalty if convicted, is still awaiting trial.

Just before closing time on May 24, 2000, the men entered the Wendy’s on Main Street and announced a robbery. The seven workers were led into the basement, bound and gagged and shot execution-style. Five of them died: Anita Smith, of South Jamaica; Ramon Nazario, of Flushing; Ali Ibadat, of Ridgewood; Jeremy Mele, of Neptune, N.J.; and Jean Auguste, of Brooklyn. JaQuione Johnson, of Flushing, and Patricio Castro, whose address was not known, survived.

Throughout the hourlong memorial service, varying degrees of emotion were evident in the expressions and poses of the family members. Benjamin Nazario, whose brother, Ramon, was one of the five murdered, sat ramrod straight at the edge of his seat, tapping his feet every so often and taking deep breaths. Joan Truman-Smith, the mother of Anita, dabbed her cheeks with a turquoise washcloth, which absorbed her tears.

But Anita’s brother, Shakeem, did not cry. He sat there stolidly, his head pointed down at a piece of paper with Anita’s picture on it, as the Rev. Kevin Sweeney, the associate pastor of St. Nicholas of Tolentine in Jamaica, read a Josephite prayer for the Poor Souls in Purgatory. When the priest finished, Shakeem handed the folder back to his mother.

“I wish she’d come back,” he said after the service. “I feel mad at the people who killed my sister.” Before Anita was murdered, Shakeem said, she had bought him a new bicycle and taught him how to ride it. He learned without the training wheels.

Nazario, who lives just blocks away from the former Wendy’s, said he was relieved to learn that another fast-food restaurant would not open up on the site, a venture that one of the investors in 40-12 Main St., Ben Wong, had said he originally considered.

Still, Nazario gets a stinging feeling every time he passes by the building, regardless of how it is being developed.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “I used to see my brother doing things like changing a sign. I’d go in there and talk to him.”

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said in remarks that he had witnessed many tragedies during his years spent in law enforcement, but not one that has resonated so strongly as this one. “Each day is a day on which I feel your pain,” he said.

Reach reporter Chris Fuchs by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.