Lourdes: June 13–14, 1989
Lourdes Gonzalez couldn’t wait to tell Antonio the news: She was pregnant with their second child. It was a surprise only because they hadn’t been trying: Amanda, their first child together, was just 3 months old. A happy baby with wide eyes and full cheeks. One doted on by her parents and by her half-brothers, Tony, nearly 7, and Carlitos, six months younger.
A new pregnancy was cause for joy but also for alarm. Lourdes and Antonio had already talked about getting away from New York City and buying a house in Philadelphia. More space. A yard. Actual greenery. Central Park didn’t count — it was no place to spend time in by day, let alone by night. Muggings were common on their block and nearby. The murder rate was climbing all around the city. Drug use was soaring thanks to the arrival of crack cocaine. Less than two months earlier, five teenage boys had been arrested for the rape of a woman near the 102nd Street transverse in the Park.
The city she’d known her entire life was always tough, but never like this. The basement apartment on 97th Street, two buildings east of Madison, spooked Lourdes more and more. They lived there because Antonio Serrano, her partner, was the building superintendent. But it felt less safe, especially with two little boys and a baby to care for. Anyone could walk down the stairs outside to the apartment door and knock on it. Once Lourdes saw someone rapping on the window, though that person hadn’t made it inside. Antonio’s truck, filled with tools, had gone missing for a few hours one day. The truck reappeared. The tools did not.
So much had happened in the three years since they met on a Bronx-bound 1 train. Antonio shouldn’t have even been on that train. He’d stayed on it by mistake instead of switching to the East Side IRT, caught up in conversation with a friend of his. Lourdes, who worked at Red Apple Groceries on 96th and Broadway, was on her way home. Antonio noticed her blonde hair, wide smile, and kind eyes. She looked back and seemed interested, but nothing happened. Then, by chance, a few days later, Lourdes and Antonio ran into each other. This time, early sparks led to something deeper. Lourdes taught Antonio, who was originally from Puerto Rico, English, and he taught her, the native New Yorker, Spanish.
They moved in together the following month. She brought Carlitos. He brought Tony. They knew life as a blended family would be hard, but mostly it was good. Amanda arrived in March after a healthy pregnancy. This new baby, ojala, would be born sometime after New Year’s Day.
Antonio Serrano came home after a long day’s work on June 13, 1989. Lourdes told him the news, and they celebrated. Their joy lasted less than 24 hours.
Thirty years ago, the attempted murder, rape, and assault of the woman still more commonly known today by her tabloid name — the Central Park Jogger — than as Trisha Meili, brought together real and imagined fears of a collapsing New York City into an unholy cocktail of outrage, blame, and recrimination. Nineteen eighty-nine was near the apex of escalating crime rates (nearly 2,000 people murdered, a record eclipsed the following year), underfunded social services, brazen muggings on graffiti-emblazoned subways, skyrocketing drug use thanks to the infusion of crack cocaine, and a police force that seemed helpless to do much about any of it.
New York was nearly unbearable for its residents, especially those who were not white and not rich. The media coverage, particularly from the tabloid Post and Daily News as well as local television, amplified fear with lurid reports and headlines (one memorable, simple one: VIOLENCE.) Which is why, when Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, the five African-American and Latino teens known as the Central Park Five, were charged and later convicted for Meili’s rape and near murder on the night of April 19, 1989, the public bought it. The misheard term of “wilding” — basically running amok and thrill-killing — was emblazoned on tabloid front pages for what these young men had purportedly done.
That changed in December 2002, when the New York Supreme Court vacated the convictions of the Five, acting upon the recommendation of the District Attorney’s Office. Earlier that year, a murderer and serial rapist named Matias Reyes had admitted that he, alone, was the rapist in the park, and DNA results confirmed his confession. He had preyed upon women during a yearlong campaign of terror all along the Upper East Side — a case covered in fits and starts by the media, which was ready to move on to the next story even after his arrest as a serial rapist and murderer.
Because the “wilding” narrative took hold so quickly, when it fell apart, the public reckoning never seemed to stick. Not after a civil suit lodged by the Five against the city, settled in 2014 for $41 million. Not after Sarah Burns’s 2011 book and 2012 documentary film on the case outlined the socioeconomic context for the teens’ wrongful convictions. When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series premiering on May 31, will inflame arguments anew, despite physical evidence pointing squarely to Reyes.
The public reckoning almost always centered on the injustice to the five men themselves, who were innocent boys whose lives were destroyed by shoddy police work and systemic racism. Less examined are the other lives destroyed by the case: Reyes’s many victims, who waited so long for justice, some who might not have been victims at all but for law enforcement’s staunch belief it had the right assailants.
That story can now be reconstructed from 200,000 pages of documents, affidavits, and legal briefs released by the city beginning in July 2018; countless newspaper articles; and interviews with more than two dozen sources, some on the record, or interviewed outright, for the very first time.
This wasn’t about one young, white affluent woman raped while jogging in Central Park, but about nine young women, some affluent, some less so, assaulted, raped, or murdered all around the Upper East Side. The story crafted within hours of that April 19 night was the splintered mirror image of the real narrative: that the man who attacked the Central Park Jogger was a serial rapist and murderer who struck before and after.
For three decades, the story of women harmed, one fatally, by a man whose escalating, raging violence wasn’t fully understood until it was too late, was hidden in plain view. The women were always at the center of what had happened. But they were written out of their own story.
Tony Serrano heard a knock at the door. He and Carlitos were watching TV in the living room, the boxes of Lego they’d played with earlier in the day strewn nearby. Lourdes, the woman he regarded as his mom, was in the kitchen with his baby sister. Lourdes told Tony to see who it was.
Tony opened the door. There was a man with light skin, hair short, wearing dark blue pants, a white-and-blue short-sleeve shirt, and white sneakers. He wanted to know if the superintendent was around.
Tony told the man that the super, his father, wasn’t here. The man barged in, past Tony, who said the man was “too big for me to stop him,” and asked for some change. There was none.
Lourdes had come out of the kitchen. She picked up the baby and handed her to the boys, telling them to go to their shared bedroom and lock that door.
Tony’s mom was tiny, five-foot-one and about a hundred pounds. Lourdes put up a struggle, but the man was too much. The next five minutes passed in agony. “I didn’t hear nothing,” said Tony. “My mother closed the door.” Tony did, however, hear the man’s main threat to Lourdes: “I’ll take your eyes or your kids.”
Tony, Carlitos, and Amanda didn’t hear Lourdes being stabbed nine times in the chest and abdomen and once in the face with one of the kitchen knives. They didn’t hear her fight for her life and for theirs. They didn’t hear him rape her. They heard her scream, “My head, my head! I’m bleeding!” and “Please stop!” and, later, “Please don’t hurt my kids. You can take anything you want,” but not that she called him a motherfucker, ordering him to get out. He did, but only after the attack ceased.
When the man fled, the boys left the bedroom. They discovered Lourdes still alive, frantic, already on the telephone. “Get help, get help!” she screamed. To the 911 operator, Lourdes said: “Give me the police please, it’s an emergency. I’m bleeding to death.”
“Are you inside?”
“Yes, I’m cut.”
“What apartment are you in?”
“In the basement.”
“Stay on the line, let me connect you to the ambulance.” When Lourdes was connected, she implored them to hurry. “I’m fading.”
“Ma’am, are you pregnant —”
“I’m fainting. Basement, hurry, hurry.”
Tony hid the baby in the closet next to the hamper, swaddling her in a blanket, hoping that she would be safe there. The boys ran to the elevator, but they didn’t have the special key to get access. By the time they reached the first floor, a neighbor, Harriett Zeichner, had dialed 911. “The two boys were standing outside the elevator panicking because there was no way to get back downstairs,” Zeichner told the Daily News. “They said their mother was hurt.”
Gonzalez, by this time, her face slashed, streaking blood from her ripped shirt and pants, had staggered out of her apartment. She collapsed on the way to the elevator. “She just kept mumbling that there was a baby downstairs,” said Zeichner.
By the time paramedics drove Lourdes to St. Luke’s Hospital, it was already too late. She would live just over two hours more in the emergency ward, dying at 8 p.m. on June 14, 1989. She did not provide any details on her attacker. But investigating detectives knew enough to sense her killer had struck before and that he would strike again.
On both counts, they were correct.
Jackie: September 21, 1988
Nine months before Lourdes Gonzalez’s death, Jackie Herbach was on her lunch break. She worked as a receptionist for an obstetrician-gynecologist on 89th Street and Fifth Avenue, but that was a day gig to pay bills. Acting was her ambition, her reason for staying in Manhattan. She was 27, engaged to be married, and what preoccupied her most on the afternoon of September 21, 1988, was the acting class scheduled for that evening.
First, Herbach had errands to run during her lunch hour. She bought a bag of Wise popcorn and an apple juice to supplement the salami sandwich she’d already packed, then took out $200 from a nearby ATM to pay for the night class. She headed west to Fifth Avenue and sat at the first available park bench to eat her lunch. When she was done, she still had 15 minutes left on her break. The Church of the Heavenly Rest was right across the street.
Herbach was Catholic, and this church was Episcopal, but the denomination didn’t matter. She wanted to say a prayer for her parents and have “a few private moments with God and myself” before going back to the office. She went through the main altar and on to the adjacent and smaller chapel. There she sat in a pew, read a missal, and thought about the beauty of the church and how peaceful it was. Her mind calmed. Her breathing relaxed. Then she checked her watch: 2:25. Five minutes left. It was time to get back to work.
“Do you work here?”
She hadn’t noticed the man enter the chapel. He was younger than her, maybe 18, medium height, five-nine tops, wearing blue jeans and a beige short-sleeve football jersey with numbers on both sides. He spoke with a mild accent. His manner was polite.
She said no, she didn’t work at the church. He nodded, then walked up the aisle of the chapel and headed left into the main church. Herbach gathered up her things to go.
That’s when someone grabbed her from behind, one hand over her mouth, the other over her neck, and told her to shut up and not scream, otherwise he would kill her. He had a knife.
“I was always rather street-savvy, being careful, not doing anything where [something terrible] could happen,” Herbach told me. “Anything could happen anywhere at any time. But not at two in the afternoon in a church on the Upper East Side.”
He forced her down a flight of stairs. When they reached the vestibule, he asked for money, and she gave him the cash she’d withdrawn from the ATM. She gave him the gold bracelet around her wrist, three gold rings, and a watch because he asked for all of those, too. She tried to keep back one ring, the one with her mother’s initials. He said she could, then went ballistic and began banging her head on the floor, continuing to strangle her.
“It was a really ugly thing,” Herbach told me. “I felt like I was going to actually die. Being in that church basement, thinking, I didn’t think I was going to die at 27 in a church basement, but I guess I am.”
She was out for less than a minute. When Herbach came to, she was kneeling on the floor, the man looming above her. He told her to take off her blouse. “Please don’t rape me,” she said. “Take it off,” he said, repeating the phrase for the rest of her clothing. She knew what he wanted to do. She had to think of a way out. “I have an infection. You don’t want to catch this,” she said.
She didn’t have an infection, but the ruse worked. “I don’t want your body, forget it!” He told her to lie on the concrete floor, face down, for a few minutes. He took her clothes. If she moved, he and his partner would finish her off. Herbach waited less than a minute after the man left. She checked that the chapel doors were locked then ran back up the stairs, nearly naked, noticing that the gate to the chapel was open and that her clothes were there, all in a bundle. She put them on in haste, blouse inside-out, pants unbuttoned, and ran back to her office to call for help.
She made a brief visit to the hospital, after which a cop accompanied Herbach to the church, to the park, but she didn’t see her attacker. She went to the 19th Precinct to look at mug shots. One looked familiar, and a cop said he would check it out.
Jackie stayed home from work the rest of the week. Her fiancé looked after her. Already she could sense that she should feel lucky that it hadn’t been worse. That she hadn’t been raped. That she hadn’t been killed. She could get on with her life. She would hear about the woman raped in Central Park seven months after her own assault and feel a jolt of familiar understanding but not make deeper connections.
So why didn’t she feel lucky at all?
Unnamed: April 17, 1989
Two days before the attack on Trisha Meili, a woman was doing t’ai chi near the Lasker Rink at the northern end of Central Park. Fort Fish was in a wooded, desolate area, overgrown with weeds; the 26-year-old woman was by herself in the middle of the afternoon. A man approached and asked her a question. She began to walk away, discomfited by his presence. He attacked her, tearing off her clothes, and started to rape her. She screamed, and a man nearby came to see what was happening. Her attacker ran off.
After the police came, she was taken to St. Luke’s, where she spent at least two nights. Though the attacker did not leave behind any DNA, the victim’s recall impressed the Sex Crimes detective who interviewed the victim. She not only identified her attacker as Hispanic but called attention to the fresh stitches on his chin. When the detective checked local hospital records, he found that a man fitting that description had been given stitches at Metropolitan Hospital. The man’s name was Matias Reyes.
The woman left New York not long after the attack and stopped talking to the police. The detective assigned to the case was transferred to a different unit. The unsolved case was closed within months. Reyes was never brought in for questioning.
Melissa: June 11, 1989
Melissa (not her real name) did not care much for her neighborhood. She’d moved to a first-floor studio apartment at 115 East 116th Street a few months earlier because it was cheap and she could live by herself. She was working as a researcher, saving up money to apply for graduate school in the biological sciences. She’d grown up in New York but had forged her own life, away from parents who offered little in the way of emotional support.
But the aggressive catcalls and hassling from men as she walked the 20 blocks north to her home every evening wore her down. She appreciated her neighbors, yes — they were especially kind later, when she wished she hadn’t needed them to be — but the Central Park Jogger case frightened her further. This was no place for a 23-year-old to be, contending with the sweltering heat and the rising crime rate of the summer of 1989.
She’d spent all Sunday outside in Central Park. She arrived home around six, thinking about her plan to sign up as a Big Sister. She no longer remembers why, but she’d set out some newspapers, preparing to clip some articles with scissors. She turned the television to 60 Minutes. She was, she told me, in a great mood.
Melissa’s buzzer sounded. Not once but several times. She asked who it was. He said he was the son of the building superintendent. She let him up because it was a plausible story. She was fighting with the building manager over undone repairs, and Melissa was ready to withhold rent. Only when it was far too late did she wonder: If he was the super’s son, why didn’t he have a key?
Over the next two hours, he raped Melissa three times. He slashed her about the eyes with a kitchen knife. He tried to drown her in the bathroom sink. He made her call her boyfriend, who mercifully was not home or did not pick up, because she had no idea what she would have said with her attacker right there with her. He asked if she wanted to do cocaine with him. He took her mother’s high-school class ring, and her own ring, but any jewelry that she told him wasn’t real he didn’t keep.
Melissa dissociated. She expected to die. He left her in the bathroom and told her not to call police. She thought, she told me, “If I stay here, I will die. But if I leave the bathroom, I might also die.” She decided to open the door. When she did, the man was gone. She couldn’t believe it. He’d brought binoculars with him, and they were still there. How could he be cunning enough to manipulate his way into her apartment and violate her but so stupid as to leave objects behind?
She had stab wounds all over her face, defense wounds on her hands, a shattered nose, and two black eyes. “I wanted to be a good citizen,” Melissa recalled thinking. She put aside his threat and called 911. When two officers arrived, ten minutes later, they asked if she wanted an ambulance. She declined, as she had to the dispatch operator. “Save it for someone who needs it.”
They took her to the hospital in a squad car, where Melissa still couldn’t reach her boyfriend. A nurse offered to put her up for the night if she had no place to go. “She told me I would be safe at her house. It was so kind, so amazing.” All through the examinations, the rape kit and the skull X-rays, Melissa felt numb. “But I knew that I would be devastated later, that I would be destroyed by this.”
Melissa blocked out how she left the hospital and ended up at her boyfriend’s house. He listened to her at first, seemed to empathize. But that night, he made her sleep in the living room instead of sharing his bed. “I realized this guy is no good. It was unforgivable.” She moved to a friend’s apartment. She took several weeks of leave from her job, spending her days alone, fearful of leaving. At night, her friend would help her bathe, because the defense wounds made it too difficult to do so herself.
A few days after the attack, Melissa and her friend went out for a walk. They passed a bar. The television was on, broadcasting Lourdes Gonzalez’s picture, describing her murder. “Oh my God, that is him, son of a bitch,” Melissa said out loud to her friend. She read and saved every story she could find about Lourdes.
But she also got angry, so angry. Because a News story about Lourdes suggested a connection between the attacks and revealed what had happened to Melissa, too. A few days after her assault, someone approached her. “Are you the girl from East 116th Street?” She told him she was not that woman.
Amanda: July 19, 1989
Amanda Eisley cut class early because she wasn’t feeling well. She was on summer break after finishing her freshman year at Bryn Mawr, spending every weekday, five hours a day, drawing and painting at the Art Students League. Class usually finished up by two o’clock, but at noon she didn’t think she could get through the rest of the day. She took a crosstown bus to her parents’ place on the corner of Madison and 95th. They weren’t home and wouldn’t be for several hours.
Amanda, born in Paris but a New Yorker since she was a small child, spent her life surrounded by the arts. Her father was a musician. Her mother was an artist. She began drawing at 3, more seriously at 7. She studied dance at the Martha Graham school. She took photography classes at Bryn Mawr and later at ICP. She hung out in the downtown art scene in high school and that summer worked for an art dealer, translating Surrealist poems from French (her first language) to English.
She was 20 and experiencing all of life’s pleasures and sensations. “I would follow an impulse when I had it, artistically, and just go with it, without checking myself, without doubting myself,” Amanda told me. She wasn’t totally ignorant of bad things happening. “I grew up in the city, so I was aware, but their actual reality — a sense of what crime is and what it does — was something I was emotionally protected from.”
Three months before, home from school for Easter, Amanda and her father had taken a walk through Central Park. She saw a man running, holding his head, covering his eyes. (There were several attacks in the park that night.) She heard the commotion. She knew something was up but wouldn’t learn the details of what happened in the park, until it was splashed in the news the next morning, the focus on the rape and beating of a female jogger.
Amanda got off the bus a stop early to buy water bottles at a nearby drugstore. She walked to her building, carrying the bag of bottles, and saw the front door propped open. “There was construction being done. It’s pissed me off ever since.” She took the elevator up to the apartment. When she opened the door, she heard someone breathing strangely coming up the stairs. “He passed me and I thought, Oh, good, he’s probably delivering something.” Then the man came back down the stairs. Amanda asked him where he was trying to go.
He darted at her. She felt the pinprick of a knife at her neck. He forced her into the apartment. He raped her several times and issued his ultimatum: “I have to kill you, or I have to blind you.” Amanda made a conscious decision not to fight back. As she explained, “I sensed this dynamic that if you ever pushed at him, talked back in an aggressive or combative way, rather than being completely yielding and soft, something would come up in him that was scary or monstrous.”
When he was done, he ripped the telephone cord out of the jack, wrapped it around Amanda’s wrists and ankles, then bound her limbs together. He took the $90 she had in a bowl in the dining room, money she’d recently been paid by the art dealer. He took her ATM card and forced her to give him the PIN number. He gagged her. He told her that if she tried to call the police, he would kill her. And then he began to cut her face around her eyes.
“I was on my knees, and I guess I kind of just slid out of his grasp to the floor. There was a certain point where the cutting was getting uncomfortable. Surpassing superficial cuts. He thought I had fainted.” The man walked toward the front door. From the hallway, he placed an anonymous 911 call to the police, giving them her address, then exited the apartment. Later Amanda learned he withdrew $300, all the money she had in that account.
The entire assault had lasted an hour.
Amanda waited a while, unclothed and still tied up. “I didn’t know if I could see. That was the first thing I checked. It was all sticky and wet and hazy. But I opened my eyes and I could see.” She crawled down the hallway of the apartment, freeing one limb from the tie, and got to the window facing Madison Avenue. She screamed for help. Blood dripped down her eyes. People responded to Amanda’s cries, moving from all directions toward the window.
The police came. They covered her, undid her bonds, and escorted her to the ambulance. At the hospital, and after going through a physical exam she recalled as “unpleasant and intrusive,” Amanda called her best friend, a filmmaker. She stayed with the friend that night and over the next three days. She didn’t tell her parents what had happened until she returned home. “I wasn’t crying. I was completely composed. It was a weird disconnect. There wasn’t emotion. I was matter-of-fact about it, but that was how I talked about it, not how I felt.”
Unnamed: July 27, 1989
She called 911 three minutes after the assault. The man had followed her into the lobby of her apartment building on 95th and Lexington. He wore a navy-blue shirt with white trim, a pair of blue shorts, and a gold chain around his neck. He told her that he would shoot her (though she didn’t see any sign of a gun), demanded she hand over her purse, and punched her in the head. “I guess it’s worth reporting because a couple people recognized the guy,” the woman, 28, told the 911 dispatcher. Before he could worsen his assault upon her, a neighbor on the main floor heard the commotion, recognized him as someone who’d been snooping around the building earlier in the day, and intervened before he could finish.
“I’m just lucky that’s all that happened,” said the woman.
Meg: August 5, 1989
His final assault happened over a week later.
Meg (last name withheld for privacy reasons) had moved to New York from the Mid-Atlantic area four years before, in 1985, to take classes at a tiny fashion school in the East Village. She’d recently left a job at a menswear company and was about to start a new gig. She was 24. She was single. She loved living by herself, unencumbered, save for her cat.
She’d recently moved from a one-bedroom to a studio in the same building on 91st and Lexington to save on rent. It turned out to be a blessing, Meg tells me. “I don’t think I could have escaped from a one-bedroom the way that I did.”
She’d gone around the corner that Saturday afternoon to get a bagel for a late lunch. On her way back to the building, Meg noticed the front door was propped open, probably for movers. She didn’t notice that a man had seen her on the street. That he followed right behind her, watched her get into the elevator, and when he saw it stop on the third floor, ran upstairs and knocked on her door. For reasons that are still mysterious to her — maybe because she’d seen a neighbor earlier and given her change for laundry and thought she had come back for another favor — Meg answered. “It was literally the one time in my life I didn’t ask who it was.”
What happened next followed the same terrifying script, including the threat of “Your eyes or your life.” Meg, though, didn’t know she was part of a pattern. She knew about the Central Park Jogger case, but everything else that happened in the neighborhood? “I had no idea.”
What differed this time is that he said he would shoot her, his right hand under his shirt as if he had a gun. Meg was scared, but she remembered advice from an article she’d read years ago. “I just kept thinking in my head, Keep calm, keep calm. I was trying to figure stuff out. I wanted to lower the volume. It sounds weird, I know, but I tried to treat him like a guest. I offered him water. I think, at one point, I said, ‘Do you like cats?’ because my cat was sitting in the chair. He said no.” She pushed the chair under the table in case he thought of picking up the cat and strangling it. And then Meg wouldn’t be able to maintain the calm façade anymore.
After the rapes, he took Meg into the shower to clean her up. Then he began to ransack the place. He demanded Meg’s ATM card and said he would tie her up or kill her. “I think I said, ‘I’ll choose option one,’” in a joking voice in part to placate him, but also to undercut her own fear. “One reason I’m alive today is because I gained his trust. I was close to him every second. I was so calm, he let me walk a little away.” Meg knew things would only worsen, and she eyed the chain and the bolt on her door. “I took the chain off with my right hand, the bolt with my left, and then opened the door. I ran out, screaming like a banshee, and he was inches behind me.”
Meg ran down the three flights of stairs to the superintendent’s apartment on the first floor. “She had two big towels wrapped around her when she knocked on my door,” the superintendent’s wife told the Daily News at the time. “She said [the rapist] was going to choke her with her own scarf.” (Meg recalled wearing a single towel, and insisted she didn’t knock on the door. She was running from a murderer. She didn’t have time to stop and knock.) A building porter and another tenant saw the man in the lobby, and before he could flee, they set upon him, pinning him on a couch for 15 minutes until police arrived.
Later that evening, after the cops had arrested the man, and after the hospital examination, the cops asked Meg where she wanted to go. “The liquor store,” she said.
Matias Reyes, the man behind the rampage, was 18 and worked as a stockboy at the Real Apple bodega on Third Avenue and 102nd Street, a block south of the apartment where he was staying, which belonged to his boss’s son. Born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, Reyes shuffled between his birthplace and Manhattan before returning to the city in September 1988, sleeping in vans or crashing at acquaintances’ places.
Reyes was questioned by Detective Bruno Francisci, who’d worked the serial rape case from the get-go, and Detective Michael Sheehan, who had interrogated two of the Central Park Five in April. At first Reyes denied he had anything to do with the assaults, never mind that he had been apprehended in his last victim’s apartment lobby as he fled. But soon he admitted to the rapes and attempted sexual assaults from June through August, his recall candid even as he called what he did “making love.”
He held off on confessing to Lourdes Gonzalez’s murder until the next day. He cracked when Sheehan adopted a more sympathetic approach, letting Reyes know that if he’d been abused, it was no affront to his manhood to admit it. Sheehan had nearly been assaulted himself as a teen. Reyes got angry, but the gambit worked. Under Sheehan’s questioning, Reyes spoke of his intent to rob and to rape Lourdes. He recalled how much she fought back, and how the kids were hidden in the bedroom. He claimed she brandished a knife and that he took it away from her. Thirteen years later, he would admit that he’d had the knife all along and that she complied the entire time.
Two things stand out about Reyes’s confessions: His denials gave way to the truth with minimal prodding from detectives, but his answers depended entirely on what questions they asked him. And if they didn’t ask about a case, like, say, the Central Park Jogger, Reyes wasn’t about to volunteer information. Why confess to a crime no one knew you committed?
There was plenty to try him for. The cops didn’t need to know about the women he hurt, or tried to, before April 17, 1989. Nor about another woman who, everyone later learned, he had apparently exposed himself to in the basement of another church on February 16, two months before that attack. And certainly not Trisha Meili, whose near death lit the city on fire.
Antonio Serrano watched the news of Reyes’s arrest at his sister’s apartment in the South Bronx. He’d quit his superintendent job because he couldn’t bear to be in the same building where she’d been murdered. He and Lourdes had worked so hard to merge their families, but the bonds holding the family together had broken. Within weeks, Amanda had been sent to Puerto Rico to live with Antonio’s mother. Carlitos was with Lourdes’s sisters, only seeing Amanda during the summers and Antonio rarely. And then, eventually, hardly at all. The family fracture was deep, and it would turn out to be permanent.
Serrano realized, when he saw the news of Reyes’s capture, that the man looked familiar. He’d seen him working at the bodega on 102nd Street and Third Avenue, right across the street from the 19th Precinct. “I saw him twice in that grocery store when I went to buy cigarettes,” Serrano told the Daily News the morning after Reyes’s arrest. “Who would have thought that was the guy?”
Meg was the only one of Reyes’s victims who attended his sentencing on November 7, 1991. She wondered if any of the other women might be there, since she hadn’t met them yet. She had spent time with Tony while waiting to testify to the grand jury days after Reyes’s arrest. That day, Meg was full of nervous energy, wearing a dress and shoes borrowed from her friend, carrying a box of fortune cookies to snack on. She offered one to Tony, which he took, eagerly, and then shared the whole package with him. He was calm, Meg remembered, and she felt a surge of affection. She had endured something horrible, and so had he, and both had survived to be here.
Reyes had already pleaded guilty to his crimes, including murder and multiple rapes, the month before. It ended more than two years of delays stemming from the then-novel scientific technique of forensic DNA analysis, which connected him to the crime scenes. At the sentencing, Reyes received a life sentence, the earliest possible parole in 33 and a third years, or 2022. But he did not go quietly. Before the sentence was handed down by Judge Gilligan, Reyes stood up, mumbled “Fucking judge,” and punched his lawyer in the forehead.
Over the intervening decade, Reyes’s crimes were forgotten and the Central Park Jogger case became established lore. The calamitous crime rates of the late 1980s and early 1990s dropped significantly. Then Reyes confessed to being solely culpable in Trisha Meili’s rape and near murder, and old wounds reopened, not just for New York City but for his victims.
Melissa had known there were other women who had gone through the same ordeal she had, and who, like her, had survived. She was now in graduate school in a nearby state. She was suffering, feeling alone, and she wanted to change that. After Reyes’s sentencing, she sent Assistant District Attorney Peter Casolaro, who tried the case, a letter addressed to Meg and Amanda. “I thought we could be a support to one another,” Melissa told me. “We were the only ones who knew what had happened.”
Meg and Melissa corresponded for several years, then met in person around 1997 in Northern California, where Melissa had moved. “It was fantastic,” Melissa told me. “We talked and talked at dinner and then some more at my place. She met my cats. We’d realized, independently, that if this guy had harmed our cats in any way, we would have tried to rip him to shreds, and we probably would have died.”
When Casolaro called her at work, Melissa learned Reyes had confessed to raping the Central Park Jogger. “I was flabbergasted. And I hate to say it, but I felt vindicated, that there were other women before me.” Meg was similarly floored at the news, which she learned from a friend. “It was a big shock, because, like everyone else, I thought it was these boys. They were convicted. I thought that was that.”
When they learned Reyes would be interviewed from prison by Cynthia McFadden on ABC’s Primetime, Melissa and Meg decided to watch it together. They were separated by thousands of miles, so they did so by telephone. They cursed when he appeared on their television screens. “We were laughing and making fun of him,” said Melissa. “Meg was using a lot of curse words. I think I was too. I remember him being older and more mature, saying he was sorry, and we thought it was bullshit.”
They were both floored when they saw Lourdes’s son on the broadcast, no longer “Little Tony” but Antonio, no longer a child but a psychology major at LIU Post. He’d spent a few years in Puerto Rico with family, including Amanda, then came back to live with his biological mother in the Bronx. He was a restless kid, prone to mouthing off at authority figures, but found his footing around the age of 14, when he moved in with the family of his first girlfriend. Antonio poured his energy into school and into sports, graduating from Wings Academy High School in 2000 as class salutatorian. (He’s now dean of discipline at a charter school in the Bronx.)
He always wore No. 89 while playing football to remember the year she died. He hoped she would be proud of him, that he’d taken what she’d tried to teach him about being a good man to heart. He used to carry Lourdes’s Social Security card in his wallet, the last tangible link to his mother, until he finally lost it. “I was frustrated and disappointed,” Antonio tells me now, “but I also knew it seemed like a sign I needed to let it go.”
Jackie Herbach hadn’t put it all together until that fall, when she bought a copy of New York from a newsstand. Flipping through the pages of the October 21 issue in the elevator, she stopped when she saw the photo accompanying Chris Smith’s article “Central Park Revisited.” There was a reprint of the Daily News shot of Matias Reyes’s arrest 13 years before. “Oh my God, oh my God, that’s him, I thought. That’s the man who attacked me.”
Her self-confidence, already low in her 20s, had worsened after the attack. She kept Mace on her at all times. She was particularly angry at the Church of Heavenly Rest after receiving a letter, three months after her assault, in which it absolved itself of any liability. The letter stated, “When the largest most sophisticated police force in the world, [the] NYPD, has all but lost the war against crime, why would you expect more of a church?”
Therapy helped a lot, as did getting married. She did some work for Salomon Brothers in 1995, and one of her clients that year, in an astonishing coincidence, was Trisha Meili. “It was so bizarre. It was such a weird twist,” Herbach told me. So, too, was seeing her attacker’s photograph in New York and realizing that man was responsible not just for her assault but for attacks on many more women.
Herbach contacted Smith with her story. He put her in touch with the District Attorney’s Office, and she was questioned for hours. Herbach had to know: Was Matias Reyes also her attacker? Prosecutors confirmed it was, but because the statute of limitations on assault cases expired after five years, they could not prosecute.
“It used to make me feel stupid on some level, that a 17-year-old could do this to a woman of 27 … I asked the cops, ‘What could I have done differently?’ They said, ‘You did everything right.’” She did not believe them at the time. Now she does, but she still wonders what would have happened if she had trusted her instincts when she first saw Reyes’s picture in newspapers and on television in August 1989.
“I’m alive and mostly okay, but there will always be a part of me that knows there is a very dark side in some people and in this world,” Herbach told me. “All I know is that I am glad [Reyes] is behind bars and can harm no one. He should never be let out.” He is up for parole in three years, although it is highly unlikely to be granted.
Amanda Serrano, at 30, has outlived her mother by six years. She has a daughter of her own, age 8. Like Lourdes, she’s slim and petite, barely cresting five feet. Her personality, shy but curious, is also like her mother, her family says. Amanda was a nervous child, prone to biting her nails. It’s a habit she still can’t kick and one more way in which she took after Lourdes.
Amanda didn’t fully understand until her early teens what had happened to her mother. Most of what she knows about her mother comes from Antonio, with whom she’s still close, and Google. She’d never seen a picture of herself as a baby until a few months ago, when an aunt texted her a grainy image of Lourdes holding her shortly after her birth.
It was the PBS documentary about the Central Park Five, directed by Sarah Burns, that finally made her understand the injustice with awful clarity. When she got to the part about her mom, the gallery of newspaper clips and a picture of her (Gonzalez is not identified by name in the documentary, though she is discussed in Burns’s book), it bothered Amanda for the same reason that she’s not happy about the upcoming Netflix series.
“His face is everywhere … I just feel like they used bits and pieces of [my mother’s] story to make another story so huge. The only person who lost her life was [my mom]. Everything that happened to everyone else is horrible, but they are still living. Our family was torn apart. Not just because someone was murdered and no longer there. Literally torn apart. We all were scattered everywhere. It’s never been together again.”
Antonio and Amanda Serrano, at least, lead adult lives that are stable and largely happy. The same cannot be said for Carlos Vega, Lourdes Gonzalez’s biological son, the other witness to her murder. He lived with his aunts, Lourdes’s sisters, but he dropped out of high school as a sophomore. At 16, he watched his cousin get stabbed and held him in his arms as he bled to death. Twice he got tattoos under his right eye, teardrops as a memorial to his mother and to his cousin. An arrest record accumulated.
In 2007, at 24, he was charged with the murder of Robert Gaston, a decade older, in an East Bronx bodega, shot six times as he shopped for juice. Tried three times, with one deadlocked jury and two mistrials, he had, by July 2016, spent nearly nine years on Rikers Island. That dubious honor, as the New York Times reported at the time, made him the longest-incarcerated person with an unresolved case in New York City.
He continued to profess his innocence but took a plea deal for manslaughter the day after the article was published. Vega was sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison, less time served. He was paroled in June 2018. “I think he was affected the most, to be honest,” reflected Amanda. She hadn’t spoken to Carlos for over a year. “Him, right there, a rock. I think he’s holding on to a lot of anger, but he won’t say it.”
For so long, Trisha Meili has been at the center of the narrative, but the center is large enough to include others. The women Reyes harmed and who survived are in their 50s. The traumas they endured are still part of them, even if they do not define them.
“This will never end,” Meg told me when she explained why she wanted to speak now. Melissa’s anxiety is even more pronounced: Her daughter didn’t know about the rape until this May, and her workplace, she says, would become inhospitable if people knew there.
Amanda Eisley finished college on time, passing all of her classes, including a 4.0 in Mandarin, even as she had trouble studying. “I would wander around the library, unable to concentrate. That was very distressing. I could not string a thought together.” She sought counseling, tried living in France for a summer, eventually settling in Los Angeles. But she went out less and less.
She wouldn’t connect with Meg and Melissa until 2005, years after Reyes’s reemergence. She’s working on a memoir and revising several scripts, consulting journals from the time of her assault and its aftermath. She married in 2015. She has two dogs and a cat. “I can finally go after things. I’ve processed a lot. I’ve got my full energy. I’m ready to do things.”
When the news cycle starts up again and leaves them out, Meg, Melissa, and Amanda draw comfort from their friendship. They had dinner at a midtown Manhattan restaurant not long after the Central Park Five documentary aired on PBS. They FaceTimed recently, on the eve of the new Netflix series. Each reported to me, separately, how good it felt to talk to the others. How much their shared bond mattered.
Any narrative, no matter how elegant the construction, will have loose ends. In the story of the Central Park Jogger, the blame, recrimination, toxic media coverage, vacated convictions, and civil-lawsuit settlements all happened because we didn’t get the narrative right. There were understandable reasons: understaffed police, strained city services, a skyrocketing murder rate, public-health crises, and a media environment prone to stoking fears, not assuaging them.
And there were unforgivable ones, like reassigning the detective and prematurely closing the investigation into the April 17, 1989, rape, one that could have led to Matias Reyes’s capture early enough to stop subsequent crimes — including the murder of Lourdes Gonzalez.
Looking through a cracked mirror rendered the other victims — the other women assaulted, raped, and murdered between the fall of 1988 and the summer of 1989 — invisible. Any real, proper reckoning with the injustices done to the Central Park Five can’t happen until we change the narrative and put the women, living and dead, first.