Jon Lester landed behind bars as a swaggering teenager with zero remorse for his role in one of the city’s most notorious crimes — the 1986 killing of a black man in Howard Beach.
Fifteen years later, he emerged a sorrowful man. The British-born Lester also had a brimming intensity that had driven him to get his GED and an associate’s degree in business administration while in prison. He built a solid career as an electrical engineer in his home country, where he was deported after his release.
But he never could shake his demons.
Lester killed himself in his hometown of Manchester, England, on Aug. 14 — a sad coda to a searing chapter of New York history.
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“He suffered from depression,” his sister Jayne Lester said Tuesday in confirming his suicide but declining to give details.
“The whole thing was a huge tragedy, and it was for everybody that was involved. If he could have changed it, he would have.”
Lester’s death drew only sadness from the mother of his victim, Michael Griffith.
“It’s nothing to feel joy about,” Jean Griffith-Sandiford told the Daily News. “Please give the family my sympathy. I’m sorry that he passed away.”
NO PAROLE IN SLAY AT HOWARD BEACH
Lester was a fresh-faced 17-year-old when he led an attack on three black men whose car had broken down in the predominately white Queens neighborhood on Dec. 20, 1986.
“Kill the n—–s,” Lester allegedly yelled as he and the teens he rounded up ambushed the victims.
Griffith, 23, sprinted away from the youths and onto the Belt Parkway, where he was fatally struck by a car.
The white teens brutally assaulted Griffith’s stepfather, 36-year-old Cedric Sandiford, pounding him with a baseball bat, a tire iron and tree branches.
The third man, Timothy Grimes, outran his attackers and escaped without injury.
The crime ignited the city’s already simmering racial tensions. The Rev. Al Sharpton led marches through Howard Beach and was cursed by local whites.
Mayor Ed Koch likened the killing to a lynching.
“This incident can only be described as rivaling the kind of lynching party that existed in the Deep South,” Koch said.
KEY FIGURES IN THE CASE
Lester was convicted of manslaughter and assault for his role in Griffith’s death. He was sentenced in 1988 to 10 to 30 years in prison.
Lester showed “no remorse, no sense of guilt, no shame, no fear,” Justice Thomas Demakos said at his sentencing.
“What kind of individual do I have before me, who, after witnessing a young black man get crushed by a car, continues his reckless conduct by savagely beating another black male with a bat?”
Behind bars, Lester devoted himself to his studies, played guitar and wrote music that included a song for Griffith’s mother.
In letters to The News, he insisted that he had no idea Griffith had been fatally struck until the news came out the next day.
“I am constantly trying to think of things I can do after I get deported to somehow ease the Griffiths’ suffering and the animosity they have towards me,” Lester wrote in June 1998. “I wish there was a way I could convince them that I really really am sorry for all of the pain my actions have caused them.”
In May 2001, Lester was sprung from prison sporting a scar down his right cheek from a razor attack. He was sent back to England, where he earned a degree in engineering and launched his own electrical services business, his family said.
“He worked pretty much all over Europe,” his sister said. “He was a perfectionist. He was very well respected in the business.”
PAROLE DENIED IN QUEENS CASE
Lester moved in with a girlfriend and had three children. But despite the quiet, productive life he carved out for himself, Lester’s mental health woes deepened.
His family declined to explain the circumstances of his suicide and said he was cremated.
“Every night I cry,” his father, John Lester, wrote on Facebook shortly after the death. “Jon loved his pals and family of NY he was so sad when he had to leave the US.”
Charles Hynes, who prosecuted the case before going on to become Brooklyn’s district attorney, called the news of Lester’s suicide “another unnecessary tragedy” arising from the confrontation that led to Griffith’s senseless death.
“Mr. Lester was convicted and punished for that crime,” Hynes added. “Today my prayers are for Jon and his family.”
Two of Lester’s pals, Jason Ladone and Scott Kern, were also convicted of manslaughter and got similar sentences.
Kern, now 48, lives in a modest two-story home in Howard Beach and works in construction. He said Tuesday that he was stunned to learn that Lester was dead.
“Mentally, you gotta be tough to do 15 years,” Kern said. “My thing is, why come home and . . . kill yourself out here? It’s baffling to me, but I’m gonna let that rest.
“We all been through a lot,” he added. “We just tried to move on and learn from our mistakes.”
Griffith’s mother was forced to grapple with the death of her son and the assault of Sandiford, her longtime partner at the time. The two later married, and Sandiford died of an illness in 1991.
“When someone takes a part of your life away from you, that never goes away,” she said of her son’s death.
Jayne Lester announced on Facebook that the family brought her brother’s ashes to the U.S.
“Today we are bringing Jonathan L. Lester home,” she wrote on Sept. 12. “At last he will be at rest in the USA. Where his heart was and always wanted to be.”
Among the people who posted comments was Victoria Gotti, a former neighbor and the daughter of the notorious mob boss John Gotti.
“So, so sad,” she wrote. My love to you all may you find peace.”
In an interview with a British paper in 2001, Lester expressed remorse for the crime but pushed back against the claims that it was motivated by racial animus.
“I bitterly regret what I did,” he said. “But I don’t suppose I will ever escape my past.”
“I know this race thing is following me wherever I go, but I have never been a racist,” Lester added. “I was very young when it all happened. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
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