A Stranger at the Door

Vaughn Keith loves real estate, more specifically he loves coaching first-time homeowners through the intimidating process of financing a home and finding the perfect investment in New York City. Standing on his stoop in Crown Heights, Keith’s breath quickens with pride as he talks about home ownership. “I feel it was the greatest achievement I ever did in my life,” said Keith. “I know a lot of people think it’s hard to get a house. But once I knew how to do it, I felt it was easy for me to help somebody else and somebody else and somebody else.”

Vaughn Keith and his wife, Tara Wilson-Keith, sit with their children Valen and Vayla in front of their Brooklyn home. (The Ink/Juan Torres-Falcon)

In 2015, Keith, 37, was convicted of manslaughter and assault for the 2013 attack that lead to the death of his 69-year-old neighbor, Willie Davis. Keith’s passion for real estate is mentioned in nearly all of the 28 character reference letters written on his behalf.

“This is it,” said Keith, pointing to his house. “This is where it happened.”

Keith said that on Jan. 30, 2013, he was enjoying a day off from his job with the Department of Sanitation’s lot-cleaning unit. At 10:15 a.m., he encountered a stranger fussing with the door handle and trying open the door at the top of his stoop. Keith, then 33, confronted the man he said he thought was breaking into his house. He would learn later that man was Davis, who lived at  631 Halsey St. Keith lives at 635 Halsey St.

According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, Davis was at the wrong address because he suffered from “cancer and diabetes – ailments that caused him to become confused and disoriented at times.” The two buildings stand adjacent to one another like identical twins wearing different accessories to differentiate themselves in the class photo. In a 2014 photo of the exterior of the buildings, there are only slight color variations from building to building; the architectural elements are almost identical.

After exchanging punches, Davis collapsed and hit his head on the concrete. “He popped right up; he was conscious,” Keith explained. “We both just walked away.”

Two weeks later, on Feb. 13, 2013, Keith was arrested and charged with second-degree assault, a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison, and a second count of third-degree assault, a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison.  Charles J. Hynes, then the district attorney, was able to pursue the higher felony charge because Davis was 65 and Keith was more than 10 years younger than the victim.

Keith recalled being taunted by a detective at his arraignment who said, “You know if this guy dies, it’s over for you?” Davis was conscious when Keith left the scene. But on Feb. 14, 2013, Detective Edmond McDonald stated in an affidavit that, according to “Paula Davis, Willie Davis’ daughter, the above described actions caused Willie Davis to be admitted to a local hospital and that Willie Davis is currently unconscious and in a coma, with a blood clot to the brain and numerous fractures.”

Davis died five months later due to bronchial pneumonia, skin ulcers and seizures that led to cardiac arrest, according to Irini Scordi-Bello, a pathologist with the city medical examiner’s office. In Scordi-Bello’s testimony, she stated that the condition would not have occurred without the long-term hospitalization that began with the blunt trauma to the head after Davis was punched.

Throughout those five months, Keith and his wife, Tara Wilson-Keith, to whom he was then engaged, expected Davis to make a full recovery. “We kept getting different stories about how he was doing better,” Wilson-Keith said. “We just didn’t expect that.”

Keith was subsequently charged with three counts of second-degree manslaughter after Davis’ death. Keith said that he was offered a “6/5 split,” a plea deal that would take him away from his family for six months and the rest of his sentence would be satisfied with five  years of probation, but he refused it. “How am I gonna go away and say I did something I didn’t do?” Keith said. “We both walked away. He was good.” Keith went forward with a trial before a jury.

“My grandmother always told me to protect my life and my freedom – so I did,” Keith said. Keith said he was willing to risk going to prison to protect his name and his record.

After an eight-day trial, Keith was convicted on July 16, 2015 of the top counts of second-degree manslaughter and second-degree assault. On Aug. 3, the morning of his sentencing, he realized two families had lost their fathers. “It was a lose, lose, but for them, they are never going to get their father back,” Keith said.

Keith would be leaving two children behind from previous relationships and a baby that was on the way with Wilson-Keith.

At the sentencing, he was overwhelmed with emotion as he addressed the victim’s family and the court. “I never would wanna take anybody from anybody and I told them that,” Keith said. “I grew up with no father and that’s a blessing for them–to even have their father.”

“I’ve only seen my father in pictures,” he said. “He left when I was seven months. I don’t wanna carry that burden.”

In a press release after his conviction, the district’s attorney’s office stated that Keith “viciously attacked and killed an elderly neighbor who simply needed help.  He will now pay a steep price for his senseless acts of violence that took an innocent man’s life.”

For Keith, being portrayed as someone who acted out of malice was most hurtful. “I was watching ‘Beauty and the Beast’ with my wife and kids and it’s perception,” Keith explained. “The Beast is the beast because they don’t know the Beast. They don’t know why he looks the way he does – I was their beast. And until they know me and know the situation, I can’t change that. I know what it is in my heart.”

Judge William Harrington sentenced Keith to three years in prison.

After only five months, on Nov. 4, 2015, Keith was released on $100,000 bail, two weeks after Wilson-Keith gave birth to a boy, Vaden, now 2. He awaited a decision on his case from the Court of Appeals.

“He and the baby got to start a new life together,” said Wilson-Keith. “Vaughn just wants to be a great father. He wants to give his kids the father he never knew–he wants this house to be their home.”

635 Halsey St. (The Ink/Juan Torres-Falcon)

Keith grew up close to the neighborhood where he now lives. His childhood wasn’t easy. He said that his mother’s drug addiction forced Keith into group homes and foster care. Eventually his grandmother became his primary caregiver. Keith said his relationship with his grandmother was strained. Today Keith is estranged from both his mother and grandmother.

“There are a lot of people who use their upbringing as a crutch,” said Xiomara Maloney, Keith’s close friend, current tenant and a captain with the city’s Department of Correction. “I saw him come from so much hardship and it would have been just so easy to fail.”

Maloney and Keith became friends nearly two decades ago in Crown Heights where they grew up. “We’re not blood, but we’re family,” said Maloney. “I learned early on about his mother not being around and we became very close. My mother loves him like a son. From growing up in group homes to owning a home. We were so proud to see him buy his first home.”

Keith said that he never really had a home. “I was a young black man in the hood, with no role model or person to trust,” he said.

At 19, Keith was taken into custody on a charge of possession of a firearm, for which he was never convicted. While in custody overnight at the Brooklyn House of Detention, he met a convicted drug dealer who told him a story about buying a Lincoln Navigator for his daughter, despite having been in jail for 10 years, because of real estate. “He told me the government had taken everything except for his houses–they took cars, money, jewelry,” said Keith. “So I set out to get myself a house!”

Working at the Department of Sanitation, Keith found the father figures he so longed for. “I was working with grown men – some with fathers, some without – and sometimes you don’t realize the kind of guidance you need.” Keith longs to return to the Department of Sanitation, where he spent a more than a decade beginning in 2004.

The equity from his main property at 635 Halsey St. enabled Keith to wait for his appellate decision out of prison with his family.  Wilson-Keith was able to secure the $100,000 bail by using the equity from his home.

“He is Mister Mom,” Maloney said. “It’s unique, that he can stay at home because of his resources while waiting for this to all happen. His kids love him, and he is doing what he always wanted to do — be a great father.”

Keith seemed surprised when asked how he would feel if the appellate court grants him his freedom. “If I won? I’ve thought about what I would do, but not how I would feel.”

“I  would feel like Ali. I’m the greatest,” said Keith. “ I went and I fought the fight and I won. They make movies about stuff like this. I will feel like that will probably the best feeling I ever had. To go through the mud, and the dirt and to say I believed and I fought and I won? Even when I lost, I still won.”

On Oct. 20, 2017, while sitting in the home he worked  so hard to earn and protect, Keith learned from his lawyer that he had lost his appeal. Keith came home to meet Vaden and he will now have to say goodbye to Vayla for at least two years. The court reduced Keith’s minimum sentence to two years with a maximum of six.

After the decision, Tara Wilson-Keith sat silently, smiling as her son bounced–almost dancing–on his father’s lap to the music from the Talking Tom Cat game playing on his childproof Kindle. “It hurts me to think I won’t be here every day, teaching them words–just being with them,” said Keith.

As Keith read through a stack of court papers, the heaviness of his sentence — that had been dissipated by the energy of a baby and a toddler — took hold of the room.

“What’s the point of buying a house? What’s the point of working hard to protect your family and getting a city job and bettering yourself? Why did I better myself if I am still going to be viewed as the person I worked so, so hard to change from?” Keith said. “I end up being the felon I should have been – what I was told as a kid I was going to be.”

“I fought all this time to keep my record clean, to get back to my family and I keep losing.” Keith said. “But I don’t know, I’m still gonna fight.”

When Keith returns home to 635 Halsey St., he will have have one less tenant. His lifelong friend and current tenant, Xiomara Maloney, recently closed on her first home. “He told me not to get an apartment; he said I could get a house. He guided me through every step. And now I  have something that’s mine – for me and my daughter,” Maloney said. “Vaughn did that for me.”


Keith and his family on their stoop. (The Ink/Juan Torres-Falcon)