Ring. Ring. Ring.
It was a Wednesday morning and Wayne Graves, 62, wasn’t picking up his phone. That alarmed Gerard Torre, 61, a sculptor and Graves’ friend of 20 years. The night before, around 11 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, Torre also tried calling — one of many unsuccessful attempts throughout the day to reach his closest friend. But, it was late, he figured, and Graves was likely asleep.
As the phone continued to ring that morning, Torre grew increasingly concerned. The two men typically spoke or saw each other every day. He decided to go and check on his friend.
Graves and Torre first met in Greenwich Village around 1990 at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. They bonded over their mutual upbringing in Brooklyn and developed a fast friendship. Over the years, they traveled often and were roommates in the late 1990s. “Wayne was not the neatest person,” Torre said with a laugh. “It drove me nuts!”
It was raining as Torre made his way to Graves’ 11th floor studio apartment, number 11K, at the Berkeley Towers in Woodside, Queens. The door was locked and Torre said he left his spare set of keys at home. He asked the building’s superintendent to let him inside.
The apartment, with its white walls and modern furniture, was impeccably clean. Torre said. “Sheets off the bed, sinks immaculate, everything wiped down clean,” he said. That surprised him. He said the space was usually messy because Graves was sick with AIDS and used a walker, making it difficult for him to clean.
“Wayne, where have you been?” Torre shouted.
Jose Franqui, 36, the building’s maintenance worker who entered the apartment with Torre that morning, said that at first glance, everything seemed normal — until he entered the bathroom. Grave’s body was in the tub and there was a lot of blood.
Decades before, around 1987, Graves received what was then considered a death sentence: he was HIV-positive. Torre will never forget how angry he was the day Graves revealed to his parents that he was sick and going to die. “I yelled at him later and said, ‘How dare you say that to your parents,’” Torre said. “I was really mad at him because it scared me.”
Graves’ parents were in hysterics, but he remained oddly calm. He accepted his fate. He knew he was going to die, but it didn’t scare him, Torre said.
Years later, on the morning of Oct. 19, 2011, that fate became reality although the cause was not what Graves had anticipated. Graves, a frail man who weighed around 130 pounds despite his 6-foot-tall frame, was found dead of strangulation. Police said he was likely hit on the head with his oxygen tank, Franqui said. In court, Tara Mahar, the case’s medical examiner, testified Graves was dead for approximately 24 to 36 hours before being discovered.
“Wayne, come back, come back,” Torre gasped between sobs. On the phone with 911, he recited a Catholic prayer.
The Berkeley Towers is a modest, red brick building standing 12 stories tall in a quiet Queens neighborhood. Teenagers play basketball in a park across the street while residents hurry through the lobby, greeting the building’s night doorman, Jose Urena, 53, who opens the door with a wide smile.
On the morning of Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011, Graves left the building to meet his two sisters, Penny Graves Rodriguez and Robin Graves Osborne, for lunch at a restaurant near the Port Authority terminal in Manhattan, said the case’s prosecutor, Senior Assistant District Attorney Shawn Clark. After lunch, Rodriguez and Osborne took a bus back to Virginia, where they lived, and Graves went to the subway terminal to take the number 7 train to Queens.
He didn’t return home alone.
At the terminal, Graves met 54-year-old Raymond Epps, a homeless man from Massachusetts who said he was on his way to Florida to meet his sister. He was in New York to borrow money from another sister, who lived in the Bronx, but she was out of town until the following Tuesday, Clark said.
Graves lived alone with his two cats, Picasso and Wallace, and told Epps he could stay at his apartment for a few days.
“[Graves] had a lot of medical issues and this guy [Epps] approached him and said ‘Can I help you?’” Torre said. At the time of their encounter, Graves was taking photographs and using a walker. “[Graves] was a very private man, so when anyone opened their arms he was very receptive to kindness.”
That afternoon, after learning Epps was staying with Graves, Torre visited his friend’s apartment for around an hour and a half, according to court files. The three men watched television and drank beer.
Torre described Epps as about 6 feet tall, 185 pounds and stocky. “He had a chunky, masculine body,” he said. “Built pretty solid.”
For the next couple of days, Epps stayed with Graves at his home, even taking Graves to a doctor’s appointment. Urena, who has worked at the building for around 20 years, said he saw the two men enter the lobby around midnight that weekend. Epps wore a Boston Red Sox jacket and Urena made a joke about how he was a Yankees fan.
“We [Urena and Graves] laughed, but he did not,” Urena said of the encounter. “[Epps] had this strange demeanor that I didn’t like.”
Epps was last seen leaving the apartment building on the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 18, according to video surveillance. Franqui was exiting the elevator when he saw Epps, wearing a long, black trench coat and clutching an enormous suitcase, leave Graves’ apartment. Epps closed the door, looked over his shoulder and went down the staircase at the end of the hall.
“He went into the staircase and that was it,” Franqui said. “I never saw him again. He was looking back at me as I’m walking, I guess he didn’t want anybody to see him leaving.”
On Oct. 19, at approximately 7:27 a.m., someone used a credit card to buy a bus ticket to Boston at the Fung Wah Bus Terminal on 139 Canal Street, according to court files.
The name on the credit card was Wayne Graves. His body was found a few hours later.
On Jan. 28, 2015, Raymond Epps was convicted of second-degree murder, first-degree robbery, fourth-degree criminal possession of stolen property and fourth-degree grand larceny after a two-week trial. In courtroom 351 of the Queens County Supreme Court, Judge Gregory Lasak sentenced him to 25 years to life in prison. Epps did not respond to a letter requesting an interview.
Michael Schwed, Epp’s first defense lawyer who worked on the case between March 2013 and January 2015, remains adamant about Epps’ innocence.
Epps had a long criminal history, said Clark, the prosecutor. Between 1975 and 2010, he racked up 10 convictions in Massachusetts, including assault and battery of a public employee, destruction of property, armed robbery and breaking and entering.
“I’m not no murderer; I’m a criminal,” Epps said during the sentencing, according to a DNAinfo article.
Shenita Benjamin, who testified at court, described Epps’ delinquent antics. A former prostitute and crack addict, she met Epps sometime in the afternoon of Oct. 19, 2011 in Dorchester, Mass., Clark said. Over the next two days, Epps and Benjamin used Graves’ credit cards to buy items like cigarettes, an iPod and a gift card at a convenience store, Best Buy and a Marshalls department store.
They traded the items for drugs and smoked crack the remainder of the afternoon, Clark said.
Schwed acknowledged there was evidence to prove Epps stole the credit cards. However, he said a report by the medical legal investigator included a claim by an unknown person that Graves was seen alive 30 minutes after Epps left the building. Lasak wouldn’t permit Schwed to use the report in the trial.
“I had evidence that he was innocent and I wasn’t able to use it,” said Schwed, who has worked as a prosecutor and defender for over 40 years. “That has not really ever happened before.”
Mahar, the medical examiner, testified during the trial and later described the defense counsel as adversarial. The courtroom was cold as he repeatedly grilled her on Graves’ exact time of death. “[It was] a little bit draining when you find yourself repeating over and over again,” she said.
Graves’ sisters attended the trial every day, despite living in Virginia, Clark said. They stayed with family in Queens and were often upset after court. He described them as polite, proper and grieving the loss of their brother. The sisters declined to be interviewed for the story.
When the guilty verdict was announced, Epps didn’t cry. He showed no emotion at all, according to Schwed and Clark. He remained quiet throughout the trial and the day of the sentencing was no different.
“I’ll never comprehend why my brother had to endure such violence and rage,” Graves Rodgriguez was quoted as saying in the DNAInfo article.
Epp’s earliest possible release date is 2037 although he has filed an appeal to overturn the conviction. Appellate Advocates, which provides legal services for individuals unable to afford private lawyers, received the case last April and will represent Epps, said Paul Skip Laisure, the organization’s assistant attorney in charge. They have yet to assign a lawyer.
Five years after his murder, people who knew Graves still remember him for his quiet demeanor and gentle heart. A private man, he rarely interacted with other residents but that never stopped him from being kind to others, friends said.
“He would always say ‘Hi,’ no matter what, regardless of how he felt,” Urena said. “He was such a nice guy. I mean, this guy would not hurt a fly.”
Helaine Samuels, a longtime resident, said Graves used to bring in old items like furniture or scrap metal from outside. They didn’t know each other personally and she thought he was a bit strange, she said, but he always greeted her with a “hello.”
When Franqui thinks of Graves, the first image that comes to his mind are his top hats. They were his signature look and always made him appear especially tall. He described Graves as nice but a loner.
Graves was cremated after he died, his ashes scattered over his parents’ graves in Virginia. He doesn’t have a head stone and a new resident lives in apartment 11K.
Torre’s favorite memory of Graves is their two-week Hawaiian vacation in 2000. One afternoon, they explored a eucalyptus forest nestled in the hills. It was peaceful and the scent of the trees overwhelming. Before leaving, they carved their initials on a tree.
For hours, the two men sat together on a log in the forest and talked about everything — life, Graves’ parents, romantic interests. Torre remembers the conversation as deep, almost soulful. “It was so special,” he said. “That was the best time.”