New York Times, The (NY) - July 25, 2003
Author: This article was reported by Diane Cardwell, Kevin Flynn and Jonathan P. Hicks. It was written by Ms. Cardwell.
Roots of violence that left two men mortally wounded on City Hall balcony discussed; City Councilman James E Davis of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, shot dead by Othniel Boaz Askew, is described as popular and driven man, with charisma and also willingness to deploy tough, street-smart tactics against opponents; Askew was seen by his neighbors in Fort Greene as able, if sometimes erratic up-and-comer who was interested in running for Davis's seat; he was former model with minor criminal history and burning desire for place in limelight; combustible combination of one man's determination and political brawn and another's sometimes inscrutable ambition, perhaps instability, may have proved deadly; what is known is that two were locked in complex relationswhip, with Askew playing both antagonist and supplicant and Davis, while publicly confident, trying to deal with persistent if obscure rival; photos (M)
It is often when the prizes are small that the battles seem the most ferocious. Local elections for offices like City Council can attract neighborhood gadflies and the occasional oddball. But they are also frequently bruising street fights, full of threats and intrigue, promises and favors.
It was in a corner of that often-overlooked political world -- Fort Greene, Brooklyn -- that James E. Davis and Othniel Boaz Askew came together, and in that corner lie the roots of the violence that left both men mortally wounded on a City Hall balcony on Wednesday.
Mr. Davis, 41, was, by many accounts, a popular and driven first-term councilman, a man with charisma and a willingness, by his own admission, to deploy tough, street-smart tactics against opponents. One former rival said that Mr. Davis, in a move to discourage him from mounting a challenge against him, once threatened to investigate his child support payments. To Mr. Davis, he was simply playing the rough-and-tumble political game he had learned from the Brooklyn machine politicians he had faced down.
As a Brooklyn Democratic official put it, "He really seemed to like playing hardball."
Mr. Askew, 31, was something of a phantom character: like Mr. Davis, he was well dressed, charming and ambitious, but had no deep roots in the neighborhood and no record of community service or running for office. To many of his neighbors in a leafy, genteel section of Fort Greene, he seemed an able, if sometimes erratic up-and-comer who was interested in running for Mr. Davis's 35th Council District seat.
A former model, he had, according to court records, a minor criminal history -- driving under the influence, chasing his naked boyfriend into the street with a hammer -- and, according to some who came across him in Brooklyn, a near-desperate desire for some small place in the limelight. He also had a gun, a silver .40-caliber handgun bought in 2001.
The combustible combination of one man's determination and political brawn and another's sometimes inscrutable ambition, perhaps instability, may have proved deadly.
Just how hard Mr. Davis may have pushed during their brief rivalry -- if at all -- and the full extent of the demons troubling Mr. Askew are still under investigation. But this much is clear: the two were locked in a complex relationship, with Mr. Askew, who never formally qualified for the race, playing both antagonist and supplicant, and Mr. Davis, if publicly confident, trying to deal with a persistent if obscure rival.
On Wednesday, in Mr. Askew's blood-soaked suit jacket, the police found two documents. One was a letter that was either written by Mr. Davis or made to look that way by Mr. Askew. Investigators said the letter was very flattering of Mr. Askew and acknowledges his sacrifice in abandoning his race against Mr. Davis.
"I must say," the letter reads, "without hesitation that you might have altered history and succeeded me prematurely before all my commitments to the community were fulfilled if you made the ballot." The other document is a kind of contract promising that Mr. Askew will be Mr. Davis's fund-raiser and an aide.
The police at the moment have no idea whether the documents, both unsigned, are anything more than the fabrications of Mr. Askew.
They also found two other documents when they searched Mr. Askew's home: a last will and testament left on a table beside some keys, and a small note addressed to his brother that said, "Bye Duke." They were indicative, investigators said, of Mr. Askew's recognition that he would not be returning from his trip to City Hall.
Exactly when Mr. Davis and Mr. Askew first met is unclear. But Mr. Davis, along with the 50 other members of the City Council, was up for re-election this fall, and Mr. Askew was among the scores of people across the city who had filed papers with the Campaign Finance Board showing they wanted to compete.
Although the end of term limits and a generous new public finance program had made it possible for unknowns to mount credible campaigns, Mr. Davis had plenty of reason to be confident. He had become a player in a City Council that for the first time in generations was without entrenched veterans.
A former police officer and a volatile public speaker, he was fairly popular among his colleagues, was developing a reputation among his constituents for delivering on his promises and had worked hard to win over his most bitter opponents.
At the same time, he was, as he would note himself, a provocative presence within the Brooklyn political scene. He had taken on Clarence Norman Jr., the Democratic Party leader, and come close to winning his Assembly seat. Mr. Davis told a reporter that he had learned some of his aggressive and combative techniques from Mr. Norman.
One of those lessons, something of a truism in local politics, may have been to eliminate all rivals, even long shots. So when Mr. Davis wanted the support of an elected official, several Brooklyn political workers said, he would sometimes brandish the threat of supporting an opponent against that elected official.
"He would tell you that he would work day and night to make sure you had competition," one Brooklyn Democratic official said.
One rival, who spoke anonymously because he said he did not want to be punished for saying something possibly unflattering about Mr. Davis, said the former councilman could be cut-throat. He said Mr. Davis, as a move to discourage him from running, once threatened to investigate his child support payments and, at the same time, called members of his staff to discourage them from working on the campaign.
"He could really try to push people sometimes," said one candidate who once considered opposing Mr. Davis.
None of this, though, was exactly uncommon or regarded as out of bounds in Brooklyn.
"It is par for the course," said State Senator Kevin S. Parker, a Brooklyn Democrat. "It's what happens in Brooklyn and in politics across the country. But nothing he did was more egregious than anything anyone else was doing. If James was guilty of anything, it was the elimination of the pretense that people use when they are doing the same thing."
Mr. Askew, meanwhile, was a different sort of character. He had spent his formative years in a working-class neighborhood on Long Island, with his mother, stepfather and six siblings, according to neighbors. His stepfather, whose name he took, drives a truck for Pepsi in Brooklyn along with another son.
Mr. Askew had expressed some interest in politics as a youth. "He always wanted to be a politician," said Latrice Curry, 31, who attended North Babylon High School with him, where he was known as Niel. "He always had his eye set on that."
His route, however, appears somewhat circuitous. He graduated from the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University with a degree in accounting, according to a spokeswoman, Rita Langdon. He at some point served in the Air Force, but a spokesman, Lt. Col. Rob Koon, could provide no further details. He held office jobs and sold pharmaceuticals several years ago, said a lawyer who represented him at the time.
Mr. Askew, unusually good-looking by many accounts, also modeled at times and lived something of a boisterous life in Manhattan during the mid-1990's, according to neighbors. He frequented the Roxy in Chelsea, a raucous dance club.
But there were troubles along the way, records show -- an arrest in Huntington, N.Y., for driving under the influence in 1993, and another for assaulting his domestic partner, Mario Romero, with a hammer at their 11th-floor apartment on West 43rd Street in 1996. During the dispute, Mr. Romero fled into the street. He was later treated for bruises at a hospital. Mr. Askew was fined, and Mr. Romero got an order of protection against him.
Mr. Askew, who described himself in Brooklyn as a developer, also had financial problems. In 1997, he filed for bankruptcy.
Investigators say that Mr. Askew did not have a history of psychiatric hospitalizations but that he did, in his Brooklyn house, have prescriptions for Valium and Paxil , drugs generally used to treat anxiety.
Struck Neighbors as Smart
Once in Brooklyn, Mr. Askew moved into and began rehabilitating a row house on South Elliott Place in Fort Greene. He struck several of his neighbors as smart, handsome and charismatic, although they were surprised when he began to talk about unseating Mr. Davis.
But a friend who helped him collect petition signatures said that he struck her as focused and dedicated, and that she and many residents had been frustrated by what they regarded as Mr. Davis's failures on issues that concerned them. She also said Mr. Askew did not seem unstable.
At first, Mr. Davis appeared to take little notice of Mr. Askew. "I spoke to James about Askew and he didn't consider him to be much of a serious candidate," said Hakeem Jeffries, a lawyer and a political ally of Mr. Davis's. "As far as I could tell, he was nothing more than a blip on James's radar screen."
But Mr. Askew would allege, to both friends and law enforcement officials, that Mr. Davis was consumed with eliminating him from the developing race. One friend of Mr. Askew said he talked darkly of how Mr. Davis had threatened him, how he had gathered the names and addresses of 11 of his relatives.
And, in a telephone conversation with the F.B.I., Mr. Askew laid out what he said was a sustained effort by Mr. Davis to intimidate him. In early July, some 10 days before petitions were due to qualify as an official candidate, Mr. Askew said that Mr. Davis had come to his home and bothered his family.
According to a law enforcement official, Mr. Askew told the F.B.I. that Mr. Davis had later returned with an explicit proposition: get out and you will get a job, complete with medical benefits. Still later, Mr. Askew said Mr. Davis had confronted him and threatened to reveal that Mr. Askew was gay, and that he had done a criminal background check that revealed his incident with his former boyfriend.
Investigators have been told by a witness that Mr. Davis did make at least one trip to Mr. Askew's house. But they have so far played down Mr. Askew's more incendiary claims. Mr. Davis's staff members say that these scenarios were the delusional ramblings of an unbalanced man.
Anthony Herbert, another candidate in the race against Mr. Davis, said he also considered Mr. Askew to be unstable. He said Mr. Askew had approached him recently and told him that he would drop out of the race if Mr. Herbert, once elected, would make him his chief of staff.
"He wanted me to agree to providing him with his own office and his own secretary and some of the powers of being councilman," Mr. Herbert said. "He suggested that we could be sort of, co-candidates. He came in here and wanted me to put this down on paper. He wanted it signed. I thought he was crazy."
Seen Around the District
Whatever went on between the two men in early July, in recent days, with Mr. Askew having failed to make the race, the two had been seen together around the district.
To those who knew Mr. Davis, it was not impossible that the councilman had quashed a threat and was now turning Mr. Askew into an ally. Mr. Davis, after all, had a history of placating defeated rivals. Peter Williams, an administrator at Medgar Evers College and an opponent of Mr. Davis in the 2001 Democratic primary for the City Council seat, said that Mr. Davis had reached out to him after defeating him. "He said he wanted us all to work together," Mr. Williams said.
Mr. Williams described how, when he was between jobs after the 2001 race, Mr. Davis offered him his City Council office as a place to make telephone calls and fax his résumé to seek employment. "He didn't have to do any of that," he said. "He treated me like a brother."
Mr. Davis seemed to have begun treating Mr. Askew similarly, to some degree. Mr. Askew had asked Mr. Davis for a letter of support saying he had potential as a public servant, something Mr. Davis had told his aides he believed he had. Mr. Davis's spokeswoman, Amyre Loomis, said her boss had asked her to draft the letter of support.
And investigators said Mr. Davis and Mr. Askew met at Mr. Davis's office for several hours on Monday. Throughout, Mr. Askew, at least at some moments, seemed to enjoy being in Mr. Davis's circle.
About a week and a half ago, for example, a row of school buses lined up to retrieve students from a summer program at Brooklyn Technical High School were blocking Mr. Davis's car. "He was angry, and he made sure we knew who he was," a teacher who was there at the time said of Mr. Davis.
According to two bus drivers, Mr. Askew threatened to have them towed, saying to one that he was one of Mr. Davis's aides. He told the other simply that he knew Mr. Davis.
But Mr. Askew clearly had not let go of some of his mixed feelings and his thwarted ambitions.
According to Anthony Herbert, the candidate still in the race against Mr. Davis, he received five telephone calls from Mr. Askew on Wednesday morning, hours before the shooting at City Hall. In each call, Mr. Herbert said, Mr. Askew was seeking to persuade him to drop his candidacy and to support Mr. Askew instead, still trying to get back in the race.
"He kept saying to me that he had hoped that I would see that he was the better candidate and that I would drop out and support him," Mr. Herbert said. "He kept saying, 'Let's get together and meet.' " Mr. Herbert concluded, "I thought he was crazy and that his idea was insane."
But Mr. Askew, hours later, was again eagerly at Mr. Davis's side.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Davis and Mr. Askew went to a barber shop in Clinton Hill.
At the X Kings and Queens Unisex Parlor, Mr. Davis's barber said, the two men had a spirited discussion. The barber said Mr. Davis seemed to be giving Mr. Askew advice about what it would take to make it in politics.
Mr. Davis, the barber said, "told him what he went through to get where he was."
Hours later, at City Hall, Mr. Davis was dead, shot multiple times by Mr. Askew. And Mr. Askew was crumpled next to him, dead in a hail of six police bullets. There, in the City Council balcony, the Fort Greene political story that no one had ever heard of was headline news.
Caption: Photos: Officer Richard Burt, who killed the gunman, was promoted yesterday to detective. Next to him was Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Page B6. (Angel Franco/The New York Times)(pg. A1); James E. Davis, left, 41, was in his first term. Othniel Boaz Askew, above, wanted Mr. Davis's seat. A sometime model, Mr. Askew, 31, is shown in a 1992 studio portrait. (Victor Carnuccio); (Nancy Siesel/The New York Times)(pg. B6)
Edition: Late Edition - Final
Section: Metropolitan Desk
Page Column: 4
Index Terms: Politics and Government; City Councils; Biographical Information; Murders and Attempted Murders
Location(s): New York City
Personal Name(s): Cardwell, DianeFlynn, KevinHicks, Jonathan PDavis, James E (Councilman)Askew, Othniel
Record Number: 2003-07-25-652679
Copyright (c) 2003, 2004 The New York Times Company
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