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The Fatal Vortex: Collision of 3 Lives in East New York



Published: March 01, 1992


They did familiar teen-age things. Ian Moore liked to coat the neighborhood with his graffiti tag: "E-LO." The "E" stood for Ian and the "LO" for Polo, the brand of shirt he favored. Tyrone Sinkler, called "Dizzy" for his loopy behavior, relished video games. Like other skinny youths, Khalil Sumpter found himself intimidated and worried that he was being branded a punk.


But the familiar often leads to the exceptional in the ruthless surroundings in which they lived in Brooklyn's East New York section, a neighborhood recognizable by the crunching of crack vials beneath one's feet, the plentiful guns packed under youthful jackets, the crumbling housing that stifles hopes of opportunity.


The menace that stalks the neighborhood was underscored last Wednesday when, the police say, Khalil Sumpter, 15 years old, walked up to Tyrone Sinkler, 16, and Ian Moore, 17, and shot them dead in the second-floor hallway of Thomas Jefferson High School.


In the days following, some have portrayed the killings as cold-blooded assassinations akin to the showdown at the O.K. Corral. Others have painted it as a pre-emptive act of self-defense by a terror-stricken youth. What transpired in that pink school corridor may never become fully clear, but there seems little doubt that it was the outgrowth of youthful impulses shaped by a cruel and unforgiving neighborhood. 'A Losing Battle'


To be sure, many East New York residents are hard-working, lead decent lives and hope circumstances somehow will improve. But most lament the chronic slippage. "There are a lot of good people who really care about the neighborhood, but I sense it's a losing battle," said Justine Cullinan, who has lived there since 1974. "It has its beauties, but it's a sad neighborhood."


With the spread of drugs and guns, East New York has deteriorated into one of the most perilous in the city, regularly chalking up one of worst homicide rates. On an average day, the 75th Police Precinct confiscates four weapons, most of them guns. "Growing up in this neighborhood becomes a survival thing," said Jak Menley, 19. "A man has to do what he has to do to survive."


Three weeks ago, residents said, a youth was slain because the assailant didn't like the way the victim was looking at him. A number of teen-agers said they walked the streets shunning eye contact.


So it was not a good sign that Tyrone Sinkler, Ian Moore and Khalil Sumpter disliked one another. For months, friends feared the three were hurtling toward an uncancelable date with violence. Another classmate, Dupre Bolling, a friend of Khalil also seems to have played at least a bit part in what became an escalating feud. In recent days, neighbors said, he has vanished, perhaps out of fear.


Judging from a wide array of interviews, none of the youths qualified as a full-fledged hoodlum, especially in the context of East New York, where teen-agers acquire "rap sheets" about as easily as sore throats and where they quip that guns can be bought as easily as candy bars. Though all three of the principals had arrest records, no offense appeared particularly serious.


"They weren't altar boys," Lieut. Kevin Perham, the head of detectives for the 75th Precinct, said. "And they weren't the worst in the school, either. They were just run-of-the-mill kids."


Yet even the run-of-the-mill live a fragile existence in East New York. So many youths cope with the grim reality of regularly seeing friends killed. Guns Are 'Cronz' And 'Juice' Is Power


Two teen-age girls congregating in a project the other day spoke of how acquaintances refer to their guns as "cronz" or "biscuits" or "burners." One girl giggled as she offered how someone might say, "You got your cronz? I got my cronz."


Teen-agers talk about "juice," meaning power. They rely on friends who will stick up for them in disputes. Friends who back them up are "props."


James and Ethel Sinkler, Tyrone's parents, came to East New York in 1964 from South Carolina, settling into Linden Houses, a collection of brick projects in bad repair. Mr. Sinkler, who had been working outdoors for the state Highway Department, was hunting for indoor factory work. He held several sheet-metal jobs until his employer shut down in November. Mrs. Sinkler supervises food service workers at a home for retarded children.


From early on, Tyrone gravitated to basketball and football. He also loved video games. His father hoped he would become a professional athlete. If not, he urged him to join the Army to escape the violent neighborhood.


Tyrone had recently been dating Angela Burton. As a nightly ritual, he would escort her home. If he had been at her house, she would walk him halfway home. "We did it because it was dangerous," she said. "Someone's always shooting. I always tried to keep Tyrone inside to stay away from trouble. But he wasn't worried. He thought he was tough. He thought danger couldn't touch him."


Linda Moore, Ian's mother, was born in Barbados and came to Brooklyn in 1970, where she married. Eventually, she, too, moved into Linden Houses. She has separated from her husband and has been seeing Phanel Floizio, an Amtrak car inspector.


When he was younger, Ian bagged groceries and had a paper route. He became a punctilious dresser, favoring Polo and Fila shirts. One way he paid for them was by cutting friends' hair for $3. He liked to disassemble cars and imagined becoming an electrician.


He was not trouble-free. In February 1991 he was arrested for assault and in April 1991 for robbery. Apparently neither case was prosecuted.


Khalil Sumpter's family refused to comment on their lives. They reside a few blocks from Linden Houses on a tree-lined strip of neat row houses. Family members said they have received death threats and have been afforded police protection.


Friends said Khalil had got into several fights. Usually, he lost. A woman who lives on his block, who insisted on anonymity, said he "messed around" but was "soft." "The boys were picking at him and picking at him," she said. "They intimidated him."


Four girls, who refused to give their names, said Khalil was known as a "punk" who wanted to prove himself.


All three youths went to junior high together and were friends then. That friendship was fractured in April 1990 when Mr. Sinkler and Mr. Sumpter, along with a classmate named Anthony Barr, tried to rob a student of his lunch money. He had none, so the group took his baseball cap and beat him. The police called it a "kiddie robbery."


Neither Mr. Sumpter or Mr. Barr was prosecuted, but Mr. Sinkler was convicted of assault. He had a prior arrest in June 1989 for pickpocketing. For the new crime, he received probation. After he violated it, he had to serve six months at a juvenile center.


Because Mr. Sumpter went free, Mr. Sinkler apparently felt he had given evidence against him. The police said, however, that he did not incriminate Mr. Sinkler. A year later, Mr. Sumpter was arrested for a street robbery, to which he pleaded guilty and received two years' probation. How the Fates Drew Four Boys Together


Ian Moore and Tyrone Sinkler were inseparable best friends. Khalil Sumpter's best friend probably was Dupre Bolling, who lives near Linden Houses in a project called Fairfield Towers. Dupre, classmates said, was the tougher of the two. They were "props."


Being close friends with Tyrone, Ian harbored chilly feelings toward Khalil and Dupre. Fateful factors conspired to bring them closer together. Around September, Khalil transferred from a graphic arts school to violence-riddled Thomas Jefferson High School, where Dupre went. Ian was also at Jefferson.


Classmates say that shortly before Christmas Ian tried to steal a gold nugget bracelet from Dupre. He was foiled. The next day, Khalil wore the bracelet and flaunted it in front of Ian, as if to rub in his inability to get it.


Since his discharge from jail, Tyrone had attended George Westinghouse High School, a vocational school in downtown Brooklyn. His family said he was harassed there, and was bothered by the fact that a youth was killed on a stairway last November. He wanted to transfer, and his family said the only immediate possibility was Jefferson High. His mother warned him it was a "death trap," but he wanted out of Westinghouse.


In February he began attending classes at Jefferson, bringing him into frequent contact with his nemesis, Khalil Sumpter.


The bracelet skirmish intensified the icy relations. At school, there were sneers and minor scuffles. Friends said Khalil was afraid to confront the burly Tyrone, but he and Dupre were brazen with Ian, especially since he had lost weight from an operation last November to remove a kidney tumor.


In the days leading up to the killings, Khalil told the police, Tyrone threatened him several times. Once, he told them, Tyrone said he was going to slash and kill his mother. On Tuesday, Khalil told the police, Tyrone fired shots at him on Linden Boulevard. But there is no other evidence that either Tyrone or Ian carried guns.


The police said Khalil told them that after that escapade he borrowed a .38-caliber gun. The police said the gun had originally been stolen in 1989 from an off-duty campus police officer at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Plainfield, N.J.


Last Tuesday, according to friends of Tyrone and Ian, Khalil warned Ian he was "going to get him" the next day.


Khalil's lawyer, John Russell, gave his client's account of the day of the killings:


Not long after 8 A.M., Khalil and Dupre arrived at school and, fearful, ducked in a different entrance than usual. There, Khalil saw a classmate who told him that he had seen Tyrone, Ian and several others near the main entrance that Khalil usually took. The classmate said, "Oh, you're the kid who's going to get jumped."


The three went to the second floor, where they began striding down the hallway. As they came to a bend where the hallway joined with another, they encountered Tyrone, Ian and six or seven others. According to this account, Tyrone reached into his jacket pocket, Ian put his hand under his coat toward his waist and a third classmate reached behind his back. Without a word, the police said, Khalil pulled out his gun and shot and killed Tyrone and Ian.


As he fled the building, he was apprehended by school security guards.


Friends of the victims said they thought Khalil deliberately set out to gun them down. But the police said they didn't think that the murders were planned. They have tried to talk to Dupre Bolling, without success.


In the aftermath of the killings, the Linden Houses have received a dose of neglected housekeeping. The residents believe the influx of journalists has spurred maintenance workers to scrub off graffiti and fix windows. "For years the elevator here has smelled of urine," J. J. Sinkler, Mr. Sinkler's 20-year-old brother, said. "I rode it this morning and it smelled like roses."


Anger and futility remain in the streets of East New York. Residents wonder whether the latest killings will ultimately make any difference.


Ian Moore is to be buried on Tuesday in Brooklyn. That same day, Tyrone Sinkler's body is to be flown to Manning, S.C., to be buried among relatives in the state that his parents said they wish they had never left.

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New York was a very different place in the 1980s. Throughout America, and the world, it had a reputation for being a crime-riddled, dirty metropolis – one much changed from its bustling, mid-twentieth century prime. And nowhere was this more evident than on the city’s subway trains and platforms. Once the pride of Manhattan and the boroughs, the network had become a virtual no-go area both at night and during the day. Indeed, even a cursory glance at crime statistics shows us that in 1985 there were approximately 14,000 underground felonies – a far cry from today’s approximate 2,000.

But to a then 22-year-old Florida photographer named Christopher Morris, who was interning at New York photo agency Black Star, and who was eager to make his mark like photographers he admired working in Beirut and El Salvador, this graffiti battleground proved an opportunity to work on something of a domestic front line.

Today a TIME contract photographer and an award winning photojournalist, Morris recently re-discovered these previously unpublished shots when he read an interview with famous graffiti artist Tracy 168, who he had photographed in the 1980s. Now, looking back through his archive, Morris remembers that time as being pretty unique: “I was actually out looking for criminal elements,” he says on the phone, “trying to prove myself as a photojournalist, and prove myself to myself.”

Over a six-month period in 1981, Morris embedded himself in the world below, sometimes riding the trains alone, other times riding with the Guardian Angels volunteer anti-crime group. He’d hang out with groups of teens riding trains at night, and show up in the early morning to catch work-bound commuters.

Using ektachrome film and a magenta filter to offset the florescent lights, Morris found interesting subjects in the relatively safe commuting space of midtown Manhattan, further north in the Bronx, and the eastern wilds of Brooklyn. He also happened to be working at approximately the same time as Bruce Davidson, a photographer who memorably chronicled 1980s subway life, and whom he admired greatly.

The images that emerged from his months-long project show subway cars being tagged, and stations covered in dirt and grime, but we also see commuters going about their business — reading newspapers, listening to music — beneath advertisements for vacation deals and aspirin.

Morris’ work provides a window on a long-gone New York, a metropolis that once pulsed with a very different energy – a frenetic, dangerous tone – than one feels in most of the city’s neighborhoods today. But even back then, as Morris’ pictures attest, Gotham remained an always fascinating and, at times, disarmingly beautiful place.





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