Since the release of Netflix’s documentary When They See Us (2019) many have followed the case of the Central Park Five and the heart breaking events that led five innocent teenagers to serve time for the brutal assault on 28-year-old Trisha Meili in Central Park on 19th April 1989, Kevin Richardson 14, Raymond Santana 14, Anton McCray 15, Yusef Salaam 15 and Korey Wise 16. Here is the story of the real offender Matias Reyes who himself was only 18 at the time of the crime.
Matias Reyes was born in Puerto Rico in 1971 and moved to New York City as a child with his mother, the relationship was not a close one and he claimed “they went their separate ways” when he was 15 or 16. Throughout his education many described him as “emotionally disturbed” and that even as a child he would exhibit violent behaviours, Reyes’ later claimed that as a young child he had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of his father.
After leaving school he got a job as a deli clerk in upper Manhattan, he was considered a loner, mostly known to his customers, it was also reported that at the time he was working in the deli he spent his nights sleeping in a van near the deli shop.
Reyes’ first known attack was on 21st September 1988, aspiring actress and receptionist for an obstetrician-gynaecologist 27-year-old Jackie Herbach, while on a lunch break she had been running errands and stopped to sit on a bench to eat her lunch, when she was done she still had 15 minutes of her break left so she headed to The Church of the Heavenly Rest located across the street. Herbach stayed until 2.25pm, leaving to return to work, as she turned to leave 18-year-old Reyes appeared inquiring whether she worked at the church, she said no and he appeared to leave into the main church after walking up the aisle, she started to leave again and Reyes re-appeared and grabbed her from behind, he put one hand over her mouth and the other over her neck, he instructed her to not scream or speak or he’d kill her, showing her the knife he had brought with him. Reyes forced Herbach down a flight of stairs into the church basement, he asked her for money, specifically cash from an ATM he’d seen her use while she was running errands, he also asked for the expensive jewellery that she was wearing including a gold bracelet, three gold rings and a watch, Herbach asked to keep one ring back as it had her mother’s initials on, he initially agreed but then turned violent as he started to bang her head against the floor and strangle her.
Herbach was unconscious for less than a minute and when she came to Reyes was looming above her telling her to take off her blouse, she begged him “please don’t rape me” while he continued to tell her to take off her clothes, Herbach then told him she had an infection that he would not want to catch if he raped her, although not true Reyes was hesitant after hearing this and told her “I don’t want your body, forget it!” he instructed her to lie on the concrete floor face down for few minutes while he made his escape taking her clothes and threatening to kill her if she moved. Once he left, she ran upstairs to the main entrance of the church and found her clothes in a pile next to the open main gate, she put them on in haste and ran back to her office for help. Herbach visited the hospital briefly and after an officer accompanied her to the church and the park to see if she could spot Reyes in the area after being unsuccessful she was taken to the 19th precinct and shown mugshots, she claimed that one did look familiar and a detective said he’d check it out with no further developments.
He struck again two days before the attack on Trisha Meili, on 17th April 1989 he attacked a 26-year-old woman in Northern Central Park, while she did t’ai chi in the Lasker Rink, the surrounding area was described as wooded, desolate and over-grown with weeds, Reyes approached her and asked her a question, she began to walk away in discomfort when he launched his attack, he tore off her clothes and started to rape her, she screamed loudly alerting some passers-by to run over, making Reyes run away. The unidentified woman spent two days in St. Luke’s, the police learnt that Reyes did not leave behind any DNA, but the woman was able to give a detailed description of her attacker including the fact he had fresh stitches on his chin. This proved to be valuable information as the police were able to check hospital records for recent cases involving chin stitches that matched the description of the attacker, they found one in the Metropolitan Hospital and it was Matias Reyes, but not long after the attack the woman left New York and stopped speaking to the police, and the detective on the case was transferred to another unit so the case went cold within months, without Reyes being questioned.
The months after the attack on Meili saw Reyes unleash violence and terror on the women of New York, the first after Meili was a 23-year-old woman, she had been living in a studio apartment on 115 East 116th Street, on the evening of 11th June 1989 her buzzer sounded several times, Reyes was on the other end of the buzzer and told the woman that he was the son of the building’s superintendent, she believed his story and let him up into the apartment as she had reportedly complained about repairs that needed doing in her apartment. As soon as he got into the apartment, he attacked the woman, then raped her three times before slashing her eyes with a kitchen knife. He led her into the bathroom and attempted to drown her in the bathroom sink, before making her call her boyfriend who did not answer the phone. The ordeal continued with Reyes asking the woman if she wanted to do cocaine with him then robbing her of any jewellery that she told him was not fake, Reyes left her on the bathroom floor and told her not to call the police as he fled the apartment. Once the woman left the bathroom to call for help, she noticed that Reyes had left a pair of binoculars behind.
The woman called the police after seeing the extent of her injuries including stab wounds to the face, defence wounds on her hands, a shattered nose and two black eyes. Two officers arrived at the apartment and asked if she wanted an ambulance but refused stating “save it for someone who needs it” and was taken to hospital in a squad car. A few days after her attack the woman caught a 60 minutes episode that covered Reyes’ next attack that escalated into murder, she saw the connection between their cases and began to read and save every story she could find on the murder of Lourdes Gonzalez.
On 13th June 1989 Reyes barged into the apartment of pregnant Lourdes Gonzalez while her three children were present in their basement apartment of a complex where Lourdes’ husband was superintendent. One of Lourdes’ children Tony answered the door when he heard the knocking, Reyes stood there and asked Tony if the building superintendent was there, Tony told him that his father was not around, Reyes then barged past the child, Lourdes appeared after this and sent her two sons and infant daughter upstairs, telling them to lock the door of their shared bedroom. The children claimed to have heard nothing saying “I didn’t hear nothing my mother closed the door” but they did hear Reyes threaten Lourdes with “I’ll take your eyes or your kids” followed by Lourdes’ pleas to Reyes to “Please stop” “Please don’t hurt my kids” and “you can take anything you want” according to reports Lourdes also screamed at Reyes that he was a motherfucker and ordered him to leave. Reyes fled the apartment leaving Lourdes bleeding heavily, her boys left their bedroom and discovered their mother on the phone frantic, and clinging to life, she screamed “Get help, Get help! Give me the police please, it’s an emergency I’m bleeding to death” desperately to the 911 operator, the boys hid their baby sister in the closet wrapped in a blanket to try and keep her safe while they ran to the building’s elevator, which required a special key to access. Unable to access the elevator they ran to the first floor where a neighbour, Harriett Zeichner had also dialled 911 she spoke to the Daily News about the attack and said “The two boys were standing outside the elevator panicking because there was no way to get back downstairs, they said their mother was hurt”.
Lourdes was bleeding heavily from the slashes to her face, she managed to stumble out of the apartment to the elevator before collapsing, Zeichner said that when she found Lourdes “she just kept mumbling that there was a baby downstairs”. The paramedics arrived and took Lourdes to St. Luke’s Hospital, but it was too late as she died after two hours on the emergency ward. Lourdes did not provide any information about her attacker, but the police determined that due to the nature of the attack, he had struck before.
On 19th July 1989 Reyes barged into the apartment of 20-year-old Amanda Eisley, she was a college student who had just finished her freshman year at Bryn Mawr, she was spending the summer drawing and painting at the Art Students League, she left her class early that day as she felt unwell, she took a crosstown bus to her parents’ apartment on the corner of Madison and 95th, both were out for the day and would not return for several hours.
Amanda got off the bus to go to a drugstore near her building, she noted that the main door had been propped open, she assumed from construction that had been going on in the building. She took the elevator up and as she got to her apartment and opened the door she heard someone breathing strangely as he ran up the stairs, she initially thought he was delivery man, but he quickly left to go back down the stairs so Amanda asked him where he was trying to go. That’s when Reyes turned and ran for Amanda, he held a knife to her neck and forced her into the apartment, when in the apartment he raped her several times a nd gave her the ultimatum “I have to kill you, or I have to blind you”. When he was finished with the assault Reyes ripped the phone cord out of the wall and bound her wrists, ankles and limbs together, then robbed the apartment he took $90 from a bowl in the dining room and he took her ATM card and demanded the PIN, it was found that he emptied the account completely after he left, but before he left he gagged her and told her that if she tried to call the police he would be back to kill her, then he began to cut her face around her eyes. While he cut her Amanda was on her knees in front of him and slid out of his grasp to the floor, Reyes thought she had fainted and walked to the front door leaving her on the floor after an hour-long assault. Reyes placed a 911 call from the hallway anonymously, giving her address to responders.
Reyes attempted to attack another woman on 27th July 1989, he followed the 28-year-old into the lobby of her apartment building on 95th and Lexington, he told the woman that he would shoot her, even though he did not present a gun, he demanded she hand over her purse and then punched her in the head, some neighbours heard the commotion and stepped in before things worsened, the neighbours had seen Reyes earlier in the day “snooping around the building”.
Reyes committed his final assault on 5th August 1989, Reyes followed a 24-year-old woman into her apartment building on 91st and Lexington while she popped to get bagel for her lunch. Reyes watched her go into the building from the street and followed her to the elevator to see what floor she was going to he then ran up the stairs to the 3rd floor and knocked on the apartment that he saw her go in to. He followed the same pattern with her as he did with the other victims, he raped her several times then gave her the choice of “your eyes or your life” but this time he held his hand under his shirt, making it look like he had a gun and threatened to shoot her. After the assault he took the woman to the shower and cleaned her up, and started to ransack the apartment for valuables, he demanded her ATM card and said that he would tie her up or kill her, she kept a calm demeanour for the ordeal and spoke to Reyes, she started conversation with him when he first threatened her in a bid to keep the situation calm and gain his trust, she credits this to her surviving, in keeping up this calm act when he said “tie you up or kill you” she replied “I’ll take option one” in a joking way to further placate him and mask her fear. Due to this tactic Reyes gave her more freedom than he did his other victims and she was able to open the apartment door and run out into the hallway screaming while Reyes ran out behind her. She ran down three flights of stairs to get to the superintendent’s apartment, while she sought help at the superintendent’s apartment Reyes had run into the lobby of the building, a porter and another tenant saw him and pinned him to a couch, they held him there for 15 minutes until police arrived and arrested Reyes.
After his arrest Reyes was identified as serial offender the police had been investigating nicknamed “The East Side Slasher” for the series of apartment invasion rapes he had committed, he confessed freely under interrogation and DNA was then matched to that found on three victims in the apartment invasion rapes including Lourdes Gonzalez. Detective Bruno Francisci and Detective Michael Sheehan questioned Reyes Sheehan had also questioned two of the Central Park Five. Reyes initially denied everything, despite the evidence now being stacked against him, but he soon gave in and admitted to the rapes and assaults from June through August, when talking about them he would call the attacks “making love”.
It took until the next day for him to confess to the murder of Lourdes Gonzalez, Sheehan adopted a more sympathetic approach and spoke to him about the possibility that Reyes had been abused, he offered comforting words telling him how it did not make him less of a man to admit it, and that he himself had nearly been the victim of an assault as a teen. This angered Reyes at first, but under questioning Reyes admitted his intent to rob and rape Lourdes and recalled how much Lourdes fought him, how her children were hidden in the bedroom and how Lourdes had brandished a knife to try and defend herself and he took it away from her, he admitted thirteen years later that Lourdes had complied and that he’d had the knife all along.
Reyes was sentenced to life with earliest possible parole in 33 and a third years on 7th November 1991, during his sentencing he stood up and mumbled “Fucking judge” in response to the sentence just passed by Judge Gilligan, then he punched his lawyer on the forehead before being led away.
In When They See Us it shows the first meeting between Korey Wise and Matias Reyes where the two get into a fight over the volume of the TV, this did in fact happen, when the two were imprisoned on Rikers Island they encountered each other by chance and fought over the TV. Years later the two encountered each other again in the yard of Auburn prison in 2001 but had a much friendlier exchange where they made peace for the incident with the TV.
Reyes felt guilty about the fact that Korey Wise was still serving time for a crime that he committed and decided to come forward and confess to the rape and attempted murder of Meili, he told investigators in 2002 “I know it’s hard for people to understand, after 12 years why a person would actually come forward to take responsibly or a crime, at first I was afraid, but at the end of the day I felt it was definitely the right thing to do”.
As a result of Reyes’ confession, the case was reopened and the DNA evidence re-examined, it confirmed that Reyes had raped Meili and acted alone in the crime. Reyes could not be prosecuted for the attack on Meili as the statute of limitations had passed by the time he confessed to the crime.
The convictions of the Central Park Five were overturned leading to the exoneration of the five men on 19th December 2002, the five men had completed their sentences by the time they were exonerated so the order only had the effect of clearing their names. They sued New York City for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress. The case was settled for $41 million in 2014.
The prosecutor on the assault on Meili, Linda Fairstein who was also reportedly an instrumental part in gaining the false confessions from the five men maintained their involvement in the assault despite the evidence, she said to The New Yorker in 2002 “I think Reyes ran with that pack of kids”.