New York Times



21 Years After a Murder, an Alibi Witness Is Willing to Testify

By JIM DWYER
Published: April 23, 2013

Joann Butler
Joann Butler says Everton Wagstaffe, who was convicted of a 1992 killing, was home with her when the murder was said to have occurred.

At the sound of the name “Everton,” Joann Butler could be heard over the phone drawing a deep breath.

“Is he out yet?” Ms. Butler asked.

No, not yet.

Her former boyfriend, Everton Wagstaffe, insisting on his innocence in a kidnapping that ended with the death of a 16-year-old girl in Brooklyn, is now in the 21st year of a sentence that had a minimum of 12 and a half years.

As a rebellious teenager, Ms. Butler, the daughter of a New York police detective, had set up house with Mr. Wagstaffe, a Jamaican citizen who had entered the country illegally and was selling marijuana in Brooklyn.

Frightened by the shadows of violence that his arrest had cast on her life, distressed at having to face her father who had warned her against hanging around with Mr. Wagstaffe, she had never spoken in any legal forum of his whereabouts on the night of the killing.

The body of the dead girl, Jennifer Negron, was found dumped on a corner in East New York early on Jan. 1, 1992.

Ms. Butler visited Mr. Wagstaffe once on Rikers Island while he was awaiting trial, then gradually lost touch with him.

On Monday, Ms. Butler, now 44, a licensed practical nurse and the mother of a daughter about to start college, was asked about Mr. Wagstaffe for the first time in many years.

Would she receive a stranger to speak about the case?

Ten minutes later, she was waiting by the door of her home in Freeport, on Long Island.

“I was never contacted by any attorneys,” Ms. Butler said. “I was never asked to testify. Nothing.”

Had she been asked, Ms. Butler said, she would have told the police, prosecutors and defense lawyers the same thing: that Mr. Wagstaffe had been home with her in their apartment on Fulton Street in Farmingdale from before midnight on New Year’s Eve until the following morning, never leaving.

It was during those hours, sometime between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., that Ms. Negron was stripped and beaten to death in Brooklyn, 27 miles west of the home that Ms. Butler and Mr. Wagstaffe shared.

She had no knowledge of the details of the crime, Ms. Butler said.

“I don’t know the facts of the other stuff, but I do know that he was home before midnight,” she said. “There were times he didn’t come home until 5, 6 in the morning. But that night he did. I laid that rule down.”

She believed, she said, that the person she was with at midnight on New Year’s Eve would be alongside her for the coming year.

“If he hadn’t been there, I would have raised hell,” she said.

Mr. Wagstaffe was picked up a week later in Brooklyn on the word of a police informer, a woman who supported a severe addiction to crack and other illegal drugs with prostitution. She would provide the sole direct evidence against him and another man, Reginald Connor.

Mr. Wagstaffe told detectives that he had spent the night at home with Ms. Butler, and provided her phone number.

They never contacted her, she said, and no police reports contradict her.

Jennifer Negron was the city’s first homicide of 1992, when about 2,000 people were murdered. In Brooklyn’s 75th Precinct, where she died, so many people were being killed or shot that detective work was rushed and riddled with holes, frequently patched over with testimony from informers.

Michael Race, the detective sergeant who oversaw the investigation, said that of the 750 homicide cases he had handled in his career, only one was “done the correct way, from A to Z.”

From the outset, both Mr. Connor, 45, and Mr. Wagstaffe, 44, each insisted he had nothing to do with the killing. As the trial approached, Mr. Wagstaffe has said in prison interviews, he asked Ms. Butler about providing alibi evidence. “She told me that she couldn’t come, she had to work at her job in the phone company,” he said.

He then sought help from a friend, he said, who falsely testified at the trial that Mr. Wagstaffe had been with her at a party. “I know it was wrong to use that lady,” Mr. Wagstaffe said. “That’s the only thing I’m guilty for — trying to save myself from something I know that I didn’t do.”

At age 23, Ms. Butler said, she had simply recoiled.

“I remember, honestly, shying away from the whole thing,” she said. “I was scared. Was whoever was involved, were they going to look for me?”

The years have eased her worries, she said, and heightened her sense of responsibility. If she were asked to testify, she said, she would.

“Without a question,” she said. “Without hesitation.”

E-mail: dwyer@nytimes.com

Twitter: @jimdwyernyt


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