The afternoon of Sept. 4, 2012 was hot and humid, even for late summer in Brooklyn. Mildred Black, 69, remembers buying grapes at a grocery store in Flatbush on her way home. Her son Ezra, 31, was living with her but would still be at his job in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park for another hour.
When she returned to her apartment, she opened the windows to let in some air. She took off her sweaty shoes and headed towards the kitchen with her groceries.
Then the phone rang. It was someone from Booth Memorial Hospital in Queens.
“Your son Ezra is hurt,” a woman said. “You have to come, now.”
Black immediately called her eldest son Azaryah Benyisrael, 45. He was driving back from a carpentry job in Manhattan. He promised to get her and his youngest brother Daniel right away.
As she sat waiting, the phone rang again.
“Can you please come?” the hospital staff woman asked.
Once Benyisrael arrived, everyone crowded into his truck and raced to the hospital. Black remembers a balmy rainstorm and nearly three miles of cemeteries spinning past them on Jackie Robinson Parkway. Her phone rang again as they entered the parking lot.
“We are around the corner,” she assured the hospital.
Benyisrael turned towards his mother. “Ma, how many times have they called?” she remembers him asking.
In that moment, Benyisrael says he felt the truth land in his bones: something terrible had happened to his brother.
That same evening, Rico Swann, then 23, was leaving his job in Times Square when he got a call from his cousin Jun Cales.
“I got something to tell you,” Cales said nervously. “Your father has been arrested.”
“For what?” Swann remembers asking. He hadn’t talked to his father in a few weeks and hadn’t seen him in four months.
Cales didn’t answer.
“For what?” Swann repeated.
Cales told him that Robert Swann, Rico’s father, had gotten into a fight with a coworker in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. He had stabbed the man and fled. Swann was in custody and had admitted to the assault. When he made his statement to investigators, he didn’t know that Black was dead from stab wounds.
Rico Swann’s father had just become a killer – and the victim’s name was Ezra Black.
Swann, now 55, had been working on the city parks department’s sanitation crew for nearly six months; Black since mid-August. According to court testimony, they started arguing from the first week they met. Both men had criminal records and struggled to find steady employment. They were now in a job-training program that offered them seasonal work with the possibility of longer-term employment.
Picking up trash and weed-whacking wasn’t glamorous, but for Black and Swann, it was a chance to turn their lives around. Their families saw this as a hopeful new chapter. Finally they could start being the fathers they said they wanted to be, start saving money to move into their own place, and stop living week to week, job to job.
“As soon as I get my own house, I’ll take you with me,” Rico Swann remembers his father promising him in the years before the crime. When he was two years old, his father pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a weapon. With his father serving 18 months in prison and his mother battling crack addiction, Rico Swann ended up in foster care.
When Robert Swann got out on parole in 1992, he immediately began searching for his son in the foster care system. He won full custody of him later that year. Yvonne Mercado, a big-hearted friend of the family, became the boy’s unofficial adopted mother. The three of them lived together in Mercado’s one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side that was often full of neighbors and family.
Rico Swann remembers going on bike rides with his dad in Central Park. The minute Robert Swann heard buskers in the distance, he started racing towards the band, where he invariably charmed his way behind a drum set or congas. That’s when Rico Swann knew the bike ride was over. He would watch his father play for hours – joyful and at ease. The bike-ride-turned-jam-session became a routine for the two.
But with a felony on his record, Robert Swann had a hard time finding a job, even as a construction worker or maintenance man. He mostly made money doing short-term manual labor or playing timbales with professional salsa bands. Mercado grew frustrated with his lack of steady employment.
In the late 1990s, Robert Swann moved in with a girlfriend in Queens and split his time between there, Manhattan, and his mother’s house in the Far Rockaways. His mother, Leonida Sanchez, was ill and lived off Social Security. Even as father and son grew apart, Robert Swann maintained hope that they would live together again.
Sometimes the two would see each other on the Upper West Side when Robert Swann was hanging out or partying with old friends. But as his son became a teenager, they had fewer things to talk about.
“Are you ashamed of me?” Robert Swann would ask.
“I don’t remember my answer,” Rico Swann laughs. “But it probably wasn’t very good.”
“He was a very emotional guy, and sometimes when he would drink a lot, his emotions would be enhanced,” Rico Swann recalls. “When those situations happened…I would just close up.”
Rico Swann left for SUNY Old Westbury, a four-year college on Long Island, and his grandmother’s health worsened. Robert Swann became her in-house caretaker.
“He would brush her hair, make her breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Robert Swann’s half-sister Rosa Cales remembers. “He was her guide, her comfort, her everything.”
Leonida Sanchez died in 2009. The loss was devastating, Swann said in a recent interview.
Two and half years later, when he got the job in the park, Swann was emerging from a long depression. On the day he stabbed Ezra Black, he had saved $1,800, enough to stop relying on family members and live on his own. Maybe he could finally offer a home to his son.
“He was finding his way, and that’s the thing that really got me,” Benyisrael remembers about his kid brother Ezra Black. Black had struggled in his twenties, looking for work without a high school degree, fathering two children, and getting arrested when fights with his girlfriend turned violent. Other than with his brother Daniel and mother Mildred, Black didn’t get close to people easily. His mother says he was like her, shy and introverted since childhood.
But Benyisrael remembers detecting a shift. Black started asking him for career advice and told their mom he wanted to become an arborist. Raised as a Hebrew Israelite, Black had eschewed the conservative customs of being a Trinidadian Jew, but in the year before his death, he started asking Benyisrael more questions about the Torah.
When he began his new park job, Black was fighting with a woman about whether he was the father of her infant son. But when Mildred Black saw the baby, she immediately recognized his dark almond eyes, wide face, and high cheekbones. It’s yours, she says she told him. She urged him to start “bucking up and doing what he was supposed to do.”
At lunchtime on Sept. 4, witnesses say Swann and Black had already been arguing about who was supposed to pick up garbage. Swann says that he told the crew chief that Black was threatening to hurt him after work, and that the crew chief called the superintendent, Luis Zuniga. During his lunch break, Swann went to the work shed and pocketed a knife.
A little before 3 p.m., Zuniga called Swann into his office to discuss the problem. Swann left the office and waited near the garage entrance for a truck to pick him up for overtime work. Zuniga then called in Black. After their conversation, Black left Zuniga’s office fuming.
What happened next is the question that haunts the Black and Swann families every day. Grainy video footage shows Black veering towards Swann away from the park exit. Swann recalls him yelling: “‘You motherfucker, what the hell?’” and says that Black came at Swann and put his hands in his face. Mildred Black says that her son couldn’t even make a fist with his right hand because of a permanent injury. Black was empty-handed at the time of the fight.
Angelina Zirkiyeva, a crew chief, saw them fighting. It looked like it was about to turn physical. She ran in between them.
“Robert stop, Robert stop!” she remembers pleading. “Are you going to fight? You are going to lose your job.”
Zirkiyeva pulled Swann toward her truck and sat him in the passenger seat. “Do you want to go to the subway station?” she asked. “I want to go home, I want to go home,” Zirkiyeva remembers Swann murmuring over and over. Then she looked at his right hand. It was holding a knife and covered in blood.
According to witnesses, Black ran into the garage, clutching his bloody torso and yelling, “He stabbed me, he stabbed me!”
Zuniga darted past Black towards the truck and ordered Swann to stay. But Swann began walking toward the golf course. At some point, he testified later in court, he tore off his jumpsuit and threw away the knife.
Back at the garage, Black lay on the floor. According to Zirkiyeva, his face was already turning blue and white. A park employee called 911.
“Are you with the patient right now? Is he breathing?” asked the EMS medic on a recorded ambulance call.
“Yes,” the employee replied.
“Is he conscious?”
As the ambulance raced towards the garage, the medic instructed someone to hold a towel against Black’s torso as tightly as possible.
“Try to keep this guy alive until we get there, okay?”
The ambulance arrived after 3:30 p.m. but according to medical records, the knife had punctured Black’s heart. He was pronounced dead at 3:58 p.m.
Police found Swann around the same time, wandering the park in what they remember looked like a daze. They handcuffed him and brought him to the precinct. The next morning Swann woke up in a cell in Queen Central Booking. A lawyer named Alfred Piliero called him before 8 a.m.
“I am going to read you your charges,” Swann remembers Piliero saying. “Criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, tampering with physical evidence, and murder in the first degree.”
Swann was stunned.
“First-degree murder?” he remembers asking. “You must have the wrong guy.”
No, Piliero explained, Ezra Black had died. That, along with Black’s first name, was news to Swann. He was hysterical.
Swann refused a plea deal of 18 years in prison. He wanted a trial. It had been self-defense, not murder, he insisted. For the next 17 months, Swann lived in the city jail on Rikers Island.
His days in jail were monotonous and anxious. He worried that his son would lose hope in him, but every month, Rico Swann went through hours of public transportation, waiting, security, then some more waiting, to visit with him.
Rico Swann set aside money for his father from his paycheck as a supervisor for the clothing retailer Zara. They talked every week on the phone, more than Rico Swann says they had in years. When the trial approached in March 2014, he took an emergency vacation and went to every day of the proceedings.
Ezra Black’s family showed up as well. Mildred Black says she wept for much of the trial and Black’s 12-year old son Joshua came for the final days.
On April 4, Robert Swann approached the witness stand for questioning. He was bumbling and soft-spoken, and he kept asking the lawyers to repeat their questions.
“He was nervous,” Rico Swann remembers. “When it comes to public speaking, he has a really hard time.”
Robert Swann had admitted to stabbing in his original statement, but on the stand he called the knife a work tool.
The district attorney grilled him.
“Sir, did you stab him with the knife?”
“He got stabbed,” Swann replied.
“Did you stab him, yes or no?”
“He got stabbed,” Swann repeated.
“Instead of simply smacking him in the face, you stabbed him in the heart, right?”
Swann says he felt like his mind had left his body. He couldn’t think straight.
A few minutes later, the prosecutor asked, “You don’t have a scratch on your body from this incident, do you, right?”
“Yes, I do,” Swann replied.
“In my heart.”
“Because you killed a man, right, sir?” the prosecutor said.
“No ma’am—yes, of course.”
“As you are sitting here right now, you’re not even sorry that you killed Ezra Black, right?”
Swann’s attorney Michael Siff objected, but Swann continued in confusion: “That’s not true. How are going to say—”
Siff said Swann’s testimony was a failure.
Before the sentencing, Benyisrael stood up and read a letter to Swann. He was the member of his family who knew on Sept. 4, before even entering the hospital, that his kid brother had died. In the ER, he had stayed quiet as his brother Daniel grew hysterical and his mother wailed Black’s name in disbelief.
With that same calm, Benyisrael now turned to Swann.
“Life is about choices,” he read.
“We didn’t choose to murder everyone we have gotten angry with. But you chose to murder another human being because of your anger. Let me tell you who you murdered.”
“You murdered a son, the son of this woman right here who carried her son for nine long months, who labored to have this healthy baby boy and named him ‘Ezra’.”
“You murdered a brother…you murdered a father of three children, one of them that will never know his father because when you murdered him – when you murdered my brother – his son was a newborn, just one month old.”
He finished: “This court today is going to say you’re going away to pay your debt to society. But what about the debt that you owe our family, a debt that will never be repaid? Today you pay a man’s justice, but your final justice will be with HaShem, Ya God.”
According to Benyisrael, it was the only time Swann wept during court proceedings. He was given the maximum sentence for manslaughter and sent to Sing Sing Correctional Facility for 25 years to life.
Swann’s family was shocked. Black’s family say they think that in another state, Swann would have been sentenced to the death penalty.
In Brooklyn, Black’s surviving family has made sure that his three children grow up as Hebrew Israelites. Benyisrael brings them to Sabbath services on Saturdays. Mildred Black says that her grandchildren are what keep her going. Joshua, the eldest, is “a spitting image” of Ezra. He visits his grandmother often. Now a teenager, “he need a little roughing up” Mildred Black laughs. Then she grows serious. Joshua “has to do something with his life – he has to do something.”
In Sing Sing, Robert Swann brings armloads of cases from the law library to his room and arranges them in foot-tall stacks. He studies them daily, hoping they will illuminate his own appeals process. He plays drums every week with the Sing Sing Bad Boys Salsa Band. Other than that he doesn’t have any good friends, he explains, because he wants to keep out of trouble. He says that his life is over but he refuses to die in Sing Sing. He’s going to get out for his son’s sake.
“This is actually the closest I’ve ever been to my dad,” Rico Swann said recently. His father calls him almost every day and Rico Swann visits several times a month. Rico Swann has misgivings about his father’s appeals process, but he knows his job is to keep his father’s spirits up.
“It’s a battle with myself,” he admits. “It’s hard to keep giving him that hope. I can’t give him any doubts…I don’t want him to think that it’s over.”