Two Lives and a Murder in Hollis

Attica Correctional Facility in New York where Rohan Hankerson is currently serving his 42-year sentence.
Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York where Rohan Hankerson is currently serving his 42-year sentence. (The Ink/Gabriela Bhaskar)

At 8:30 p.m. on Friday, March 13, 2011, Rabia Mohammed, 23, and her husband, Shazam Khan, 29, were walking to Khan’s mother’s house — as they had dozens of times before. At the same time, four young men who were robbing people of their cell phones and cash were also driving around the quiet neighborhood in Hollis, Queens.

Khan remembers that he was thrown to the ground by two hooded people, while a third grabbed his wife’s purse. Suddenly, he saw a blinding flash of light. Mohammed collapsed to the ground after being shot twice in the chest. The three assailants fled, speeding away in a car with an unidentified driver. Mohammed was pronounced dead before the ambulance reached the hospital.

Three teenagers, Corey Brown, 17; Ian Green, 17, and Tiyquon Hodges, 17, were arrested four days later in connection with another spree of robberies. The driver that day, Mercedes Flonard, 21, and another passenger, Rohan Hankerson, were also arrested. Hankerson, then 19, was accused of being the driver of the car that helped the three teenagers escape after Mohammed was shot. He is now serving a 42-year sentence at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York after being convicted of   second-degree murder and robbery as well as possession of stolen goods and an illegal weapon.

Before their paths crossed that tragic night, Mohammed and Hankerson had been on two very different trajectories.

Mohammed was born in Pakistan and was her parents’ only daughter. She, her three brothers and her parents moved to Kuwait when she was young. After former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the family fled back to Pakistan for safety.

Friends say Mohammed was a devoted daughter and sister. Mamoona Farhan, 26, one of Mohammed’s best childhood friends from Lahore, Pakistan, said, “I still remember in high school and in college, she used to cook food for them [her father and brothers]. She was so young. At that age, I didn’t even know how to boil an egg.”

“She used to be very much involved in social work, you could say,” Farhan said. “She used to raise up money for all the girls who can’t put up their school fees.”

Her husband also recalls her kindness. “She was altruistic,” Khan said. “She sent money back to her family. She had some orphanage back there in Pakistan and up to this day, they owe their start to her efforts while she was here.”

After Mohammed completed her bachelor’s degree in commerce from Punjab College in Lahore in 2008, her father secured immigration papers for her and two of her brothers. By then, Mohammed’s parents had divorced and her mother had remarried.

“I didn’t want her to leave but then I understood that it is good for her,” Farhan said, “because Pakistan is not at all safe.”

Shortly after her arrival in New York in 2009, she met her future husband. Khan helped Mohammed secure her first job in New York doing clerical work for a clothing store in the Bronx. He also showed Mohammed a tenderness and thoughtfulness that both Khan and Farhan say she was not receiving from her own family in New York.

“I guess she was living with some people who weren’t really paying attention to her well-being,” Khan said, “and she was coming to work in the snow and cold weather with sandals on.”

“I got some boots for her,” he said. “I guess in her mind, she thought, ‘Wow, someone cares for me.’”

“He loved her to an extent that Rabia was like, finally, I have found the man who I’ve been dreaming of my whole life,” Farhan said.

Khan fell in love with her modesty. “I just found her very genuine,” he said.

After six months of dating, they were married in October 2010. In her wedding photo, she has a shy smile. “I think she tried her best to be the cliché Indian/Pakistani wife,” Khan said, “cooking food all the time…making sure she was beautifully dressed when I got home.”

“It was fun,” Khan said of their short marriage. “It was a five-month honeymoon period at that time.”

They started making plans for a family. Mohammed even had a name picked out if they had a daughter. But just three months after the wedding, Khan’s father died on Dec. 30, 2011.

“She tried her best to be there for my mom and I, to be the strong one for all of us,” Khan said, “perhaps to show us what being strong in the wake of a death looked like.”

According to both Khan and Farhan, Mohammed used to have dreams that were like premonitions. In the week leading up to her death, she told her husband that she dreamed they were together and that she was locked in a totally dark room. She said that in her dream, Khan began to recite a particular verse from the Koran that Muslims read when someone dies.

The same week, she started packing many possessions, including some of her favorite Pakistani outfits that she wore regularly and adored. She claimed that she would not need them anymore.

Farhan said that Mohammed told her younger brother, Umer, about another dream she had. In her dream, her brother was frantically searching for the diamond that had fallen out of a precious ring. Mohammed told her brother that she thought this meant someone in their family was going to die soon.

Khan remembers that the night his wife was shot, he sat in a police car, stunned, and unable to process what was happening. The paramedics told Khan that the local hospital did not have the resources to save her, so they would be taking her to Queens Hospital. He had already tried giving her CPR with no success, but part of him hoped that the ambulance racing ahead of them  or the doctors at Queens Hospital would save her. When he saw the ambulance make a turn towards the local hospital instead, he knew all hope was lost.

“Rabia really was the diamond of her family,” Farhan said.

Hankerson’s memory of the night Mohammed died contradicts the testimony against him in his trial. “I wasn’t even there,” he said in an interview recently at Attica. The shooter, Ian Green, received a 21-year sentence. The other two young men who the police say were at the scene were charged with robbery and are serving 20-year sentences.

Hankerson, now 24, denies driving the car. In fact, he claims he was with his girlfriend that night.

The case files at Queens County Criminal Court include four handwritten confessions about the murder. They all describe Hankerson driving Corey Brown, Ian Green, and Tiyquon Hodges around Hollis as the three passengers jumped out and committed a series of robberies. According to Hankerson, the police coerced him, Brown, Green, and Hodges into making the confessions.

“I was young and didn’t know better,” said Hankerson of his confession. “They [the police] said the quicker you say something, the quicker you’ll go home,” he added.

According to Shazam Khan, Hankerson received the longest sentence because the police argued that he had been selling stolen phones and had convinced his friends to engage in the multi-day robbery spree that left Mohammed dead. Hankerson denies everything.

“The system isn’t set up for people like me,” said Hankerson. Sitting in the echo-filled coldly lit visitor’s room at Attica, he pointed to his black skin and said, “This changes everything.”

A shiny scar marbles most of Hankerson’s right forearm. When he was 5 or 6, his mother, Teresa Hankerson, threatened to punish him for bad behavior by burning him on the radiator. An unforseen gust of steam sent him to the hospital. Hankerson and his sister were eventually taken from their mother by Child Protective Services and were put in the foster care system.

Hankerson and his sister claim to have been abused, molested and raped by their foster mother. On one of their visits with their mother, Rohan and his sister told her about the abuse they were facing. Teresa Hankerson filed a complaint against the foster mother in response to her children’s accusations. It was not until Hankerson’s sister was found with a cut on her cheek after an altercation with the foster mother that the two were removed from the foster mother’s care.

After several years in the foster care system, Hankerson finally returned to his mother when he was in the eighth grade. Teresa Hankerson said she had been suffering from severe depression and the effects of domestic violence when her son was burned. When her children were taken away, she turned her life around. By the time her son returned home, she was working as a family home care provider in Queens and Brooklyn and was involved in several parenting and self-help groups. Life looked like it was starting to improve for the Hankersons.

“He was good at everything,” Teresa Hankerson explained while smiling proudly. “He wanted to be a boxer. They called him to do the Golden Glove and everything.”

“Rohan was a dancer,” she said. She remembers that he used to dance on the street with his friends, a style they call “get lite.”

But he was also disciplined regularly at John Adams High School in Jamaica, Queens, for reasons Teresa Hankerson said she never understood. The school would not allow him to pursue playing football, she said.

Hankerson admits to selling drugs but claims that he never sold stolen goods and insists that he was not involved in Rabia Mohammed’s death.

“I made bad choices but not 42 years to life,” he said.

“I’m sorry for his [Shazam Khan’s] loss. It’s messed up,” Hankerson said. He adds that he was shocked when he found out it was a woman who died.

“Females are what create our future,” he said. “Females are not people in the street.”

Hankerson says he regrets getting into the car with his friends on March 17 when the entire crew was arrested. He claims he and his friend Mercedes Flonard were sitting in the champagne-colored Yukon talking about issues she was having with her family while his friends were running in and out of the car robbing people.

“Yeah, I’m not stupid.” Hankerson said. “I knew what they were doing but what could I do?”

“I should never have gotten in that car,” he added about the day he was arrested.

Hankerson is currently undergoing the appeals process for his case. He is hoping that the cell phone data from his phone can prove that he was not at the scene of the crime and he is optimistic about his chances. He also hopes that his appeals lawyer will bring in witnesses he says can corroborate his claims of his whereabouts on the night of the murder.

“The things that I used to like, I used to do, I don’t want to do that anymore,” said Hankerson. “I got things I wanna do.”

He hopes that even if his sentence is just reduced and he is not acquitted, that one day he will be able to have the family he has always wanted. For now, Hankerson passes his days making his way through the prison law library in order to understand his case and the rest of his time exercising and trying to stay optimistic.