On a dark night in 1989, Raymond Santana and four other teens were taken into custody at a New York City police precinct house where they were interrogated for hours until they were finally pressed to tell a mistruth: that the five had been “wildin’ out” and had brutally attacked a white female jogger in Central Park.
By all accounts, the public adopted then-mayor Ed Koch’s statement that the offense was “the crime of the century.” It was a narrative that dominated the evening news for months: a story involving a 28-year-old investment banker who was raped and beaten to an inch of her life by an unruly gang of young thugs. In a city where crack cocaine and violence lead to bubbling racial tension, these kids – who at the time were between the ages of 14 and 16 years old – were pressured under hours of police interrogation to confess to a crime they did not commit, eventually serving years of jail time until 13 years later when a serial rapist came clean about the attack. And this is the story – about Santana and fellow victims Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson and Kharey Wise – that unfolds in a new film by award-winning documentarian Ken Burns.
“The Central Park Five” – now playing in select theaters nationwide and available On Demand Dec. 7 – offers Santana a voice that far belies the images of him as a skinny fourteen-year-old that were published in city newspapers and aired on television screens in 1989. He looks at the camera directly, speaking frankly to audiences about the horror of being called an “urban terrorist,” “rapist” and a member of the “wolf pack.”
“I thought I would have to live with those labels for the rest of my life,” says Santana, who is now 38 years old and resides not too far away from his childhood home in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York City. “For years and years, I was the only one who knew my truth. So when the chance came to do this movie, I was more than ready to talk – now the world knows the facts.”
Convicted and sentenced to prison in 1990, Santana was only freed after Matias Reyes confessed to the crime involving Tricia Meili in 2002. Back then, he says, he was approached by different authors, journalists and students, but none struck him like Sarah Burns. Burns was then a student at Yale who wrote a paper about the five young boys from New York City for an American studies class, eventually writing a book on the subject in 2006. She then approached her award-winning father about making a film (“I had no idea who Ken Burns was at the time,” says Santana), and later joined him as a co-director on the project alongside husband David McMahon.
“She was a woman who wanted to tell the truth,” recalls Santana of his first meeting with Sarah Burns as a young undergraduate nearly ten years ago. “I saw a woman who was willing to put her reputation on the line to get the truth out. Her passion made me grateful for the chance to tell the truth, share the facts. I didn’t hesitate.”
Santana, who has seen the final edited version of the film nearly 20 times, says that the screenings have allowed to begin what he calls a “long” healing process. After serving eight years in prison for the rape (he was released in 1998), finding closure is something Santana says he has struggled with.
“I’m not the man I was meant to be,” confides Santana, who works for the New York City pension and benefits fund. “In many ways, I feel left behind because I was in jail when I should have been investing in a career, in a house.”
Now, as a father to an eight-year-old daughter, Santana uses his story to teach and inform while he fights a civil suit regarding the case. He, with the other members of the Central Park Five, filed suit against the city of New York in 2003 and collectively are seeking $50 million in damages.
“The policemen and detectives who were involved in the case need to be held accountable for their actions,” explains Santana, who counts the other Central Park Five victims as “family.” “None of the hand prints, footprints and blood samples they took from us matched what was found on the body. Someone should have stepped up and something was wrong – and no one did. On the stand they said we were guilty, and that’s a crime they should pay for.”
And although Santana says that he is “almost healed” now, he feels that racial divides still linger within New York City.
“I don’t think I would have been locked up if I had lighter skin, lighter eyes,” says Santana, who is of mixed Afro-Puerto Rican heritage. “In the interrogation room and in the courtroom, I saw fellow Puerto Ricans turning on me, saying I was an example of ‘that type’ of Latino. And now, I still feel like those divisions, that type of mentality still exists with stop and frisk.”
Even so, Santana is trying to create his happy ending.
“I can’t write a book without it, so I’m trying to move on,” says Santana, who says he will only have complete closure once his court case is settled. “As a dad, I want to teach my daughter how to deal with police and legal enforcement so that she can find her way and become someone in a way I couldn’t.”
“Critical moments can shape your life forever, and despite how ugly things were, I know my story can do some good.”