Former Queens man, in London for five years, arrested in brutal Jackson Heights slaying
Nearly five years after the brutal, late-night murder of a 35-year-old costume designer and restaurant owner shook the gay and Latino communities in Jackson Heights, the New York Police Department made a startling announcement—a suspect had been arrested in the August 15, 2001 attack on Edgar Garzon, who lay in a coma for three weeks before succumbing to his injuries on September 4.
Police from the 115th Precinct in Jackson Heights apprehended John L. McGhee, 38, as he deplaned from a flight from London at Kennedy Airport the evening of June 28.
According to a statement from Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown, McGhee is charged with two counts of second-degree murder, one count of first-degree manslaughter, and one count of attempted robbery. Brown said that, if convicted, McGhee would face a sentence of 25 years to life.
On July 5, a spokesperson for Brown’s office said the issue of whether the murder was a hate crime, based on animus toward Garzon as a gay man, was “still under investigation.”
Detective Daniel Corey, the lead 115th Precinct investigator on the case, told Gay City News that McGhee had been “a person of interest for a while” prior to the arrest and was known to have left New York for London “within a few months” of Garzon’s death. He confirmed that leads on McGhee developed out of bragging the suspect had allegedly done to associates, but also based on “witness accounts and statements.”
Corey declined to say how many witnesses had come forward attesting that they saw the 4 a.m. assault on Garzon, but almost from the start stories circulated that Garzon had been attacked on 77th Street near Roosevelt Avenue by one of two men in a red car that was tailing him. Accounts have differed as to whether Garzon was coming from nearby Friends Tavern, a gay bar, or had been there earlier but then joined a friend at a nearby restaurant, before parting from him.
Asked to confirm a report published in The New York Times that a witness heard Garzon talking to one of the men “about wanting a date,” Corey said only, “That is being investigated.”
Brown’s statement charged that McGhee struck Garzon “in the head with a blunt object, fracturing his skull, and then attempted to rob him.” Only $10 was taken from Garzon’s wallet, according to a police spokesman. The district attorney characterized the crime as “one more shocking example of mindless violence that takes innocent lives.”
According to Brown, McGhee left London because he was extradited after he applied for citizenship but it was discovered he had lied in his application. Corey said that the suspect failed to disclose his criminal record—which included three and a half years in prison on a rape conviction, plus arrests on assault and drug charges. The detective had traveled to London to investigate leads the police had on McGhee and worked in tandem with law enforcement officials there.
Asked whether police were still seeking the other rider in the car reported to have been seen at the murder site, Corey said, “We believe that the person responsible has been apprehended,” but added, “There’s always further investigation.” He did not rule out another arrest in the case.
The New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project hailed the work of the police in the case, and also acknowledged the support that community members gave in the push to solve the murder.
“We would like to congratulate the NYPD and Hate Crimes Task Force for their vigilant pursuit of justice in this case, which has remained unsolved for almost five years,” said Clarence Patton, the group’s executive director, in a written statement. “Too often, the perpetrators of anti-LGTB hate violence are never apprehend.
Patton added, “We are also very proud of the work that our staff and volunteers did with other community members as well as the Garzon family in the immediate aftermath of this assault.”
For the AVP and many in Queens’ large Latino gay community, the Garzon murder brought to mind the brutal slaying 11 years earlier of Julio Rivera, another gay Latino man, also in Jackson Heights. That crime led to a number of mass protests, led by AVP and the community in Queens, against the police for what activists charged was their woefully inadequate response. Two of the three perpetrators were eventually convicted in that murder, though when their convictions were overturned and one, Erik Brown, turned state’s evidence against Esat Bici, the other, Bici disappeared, only to turn up dead in Tijuana in 2002. Organizing around the Rivera murder, however, is considered a turning point in gay activism in the borough, and the emergence of the annual Pride celebrations there, plus innumerable other organizations and efforts, are traced to that time.
For family and friends of Garzon, the arrest comes after years in which hopes for a resolution of the case were often frayed. Even as Garzon lay in a coma in Elmhurst Hospital in late August 2001, Jackson Heights gay community members and his family, some living here and others in Colombia, planned a prayer vigil of hope for September 6. After Garzon died on September 4, that became a memorial service. On the anniversary each year, the family held a memorial Catholic mass, attended by many gay friends of Garzon. During the 2002 Queens Pride Parade, the Colombian Lesbian and Gay Association, or COLEGA, for which Garzon had created Pride floats and choreographed dancers to accompany them, dressed as angels, with paper wings, to demand justice for their slain fellow member. Garzon’s parents walked at the head of the contingent, carrying photographs of their son.
In a Spanish-language interview last week with El Diario La Prensa, Armando Garzon, Eddie’s father and the only family member in New York at the time, said, of the suspect, “I’m not sure how I’ll react when I see him; I hope that God forgives him.”
“His punishment is in the hands of God up in heaven and, on earth, in the hands of the authorities,” said the elder Garzon, adding, “I do think that I will go to court. I want to know who he is and why he did this.”