NEW YORK — Nicholas Heyward Sr., 58, remembers the night. It was a warm Tuesday in 1994 and the sun had yet to set. Neighborhood children trickled into the Gowanus Houses, the Brooklyn housing project where he lived, answering their parents’ calls, while others stayed outside to enjoy the remainder of a beautiful fall day.
Heyward’s 13-year-old son, Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr., was one of those few. His friends had called him from outside to play a quick game of cops and robbers. After finishing his homework and begging permission to go out, the honors student at Nathan Hale Middle School was ready.
The game was easy to divide into teams: five cops and four robbers. One of the boys had gotten the toy guns from the Atlantic Antic, an annual parade on an adjacent street. Throughout the evening, the boys laughed and joked as they ran through the 423 Baltic Street projects, including up on the building’s scenic rooftop — this was their playground.
On the ground below, a 23-year-old housing officer named Brian George reported for a routine patrol.
By 3 a.m., Heyward Jr. would be dead.
Over the last 22 years, New York City has seen 63 fake-weapon deaths. Last year, New York state tried to do something about the problem, passing a law requiring that retailers selling toy guns make them look more like toys.
And in December, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman described a settlement requiring fines of up to $30,000 for online retailers who sell illegal toys. The settlement followed an investigation revealing that 5,000 toy guns were sold within the state last year — most of which resembled or were replicas of deadly serious firearms, guns, pistols and rifles.
The settlement currently prevents 30 major retailers, including chains such as Walmart, Amazon, Kmart and Sears, from selling guns that are not fluorescent, “brightly colored or have colored striping down the barrel.”
The measure could save lives — but it brings little comfort to Heyward, who believes that the appearance of his son’s toy — a small Western-style popgun with a long orange tip — didn’t make any difference.
At about 7:30 p.m., Officer George committed what would later be deemed a “tragic accident” by Charles Hynes, then the Brooklyn district attorney. The young officer climbed the stairs of the housing project, allegedly in response to shots fired in one of the two housing towers.
With his finger on the trigger of the .38-caliber service revolver he carried, George cautiously climbed the stairwell. Simultaneously, Heyward Jr. and the three “robbers” energetically hopped their way down the steps with their old, 18-inch, brown and black Western carbine-styled toy guns in tow. They were ready to get the “cops” and win the game.
Heyward Jr. led the way. When he turned the corner he saw Officer George. The two faced each other, and in that split-second, each made a life-altering decision. Heyward Jr. dropped his toy gun, according to court testimony, as George shot his real gun.
The last thing his friends heard Heyward Jr. say was, “We’re only playing. We’re only playing,” but by the second sentence, George had already shot him in the stomach.
Following Nicholas’ death, Hynes described the boy’s toy as “virtually indistinguishable from a real gun,” and did not present the case to a grand jury, shocking Heyward’s friends and family. Heyward Sr. was furious.
“He lied and placed the blame on the toy gun. He had an entire table full of realistic-looking toy guns to show people what Nicholas and the other boys were playing with — guns resembling those,” he said. “But that’s not what Nicholas was holding when he was shot. That gun was obviously fake.”
Heyward Sr. wants to persuade Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson to re-examine his son’s fatal shooting. The statute of limitations has expired for most criminal charges, but not for murder. Last week he and about 23 other activists picketed Thompson’s office, urging action.
Hayward Sr. says George’s statements about the incident have been inconsistent, especially as to whether he spoke to Heyward Jr. before firing the fatal shot. Hayward Sr. also wants Thompson to investigate the conduct of his predecessor Hynes, who ruled that the incident was an accident even though the toy gun Hayward Jr. had had an orange tip and was much smaller than a real lever-action rifle.
A spokesperson for Thompson said earlier this year he will re-examine the case but did not provide a timeline for when that would happen.
While the police collected and stored the original toy as evidence, Heyward Sr. said he bought a year later an identical gun at the same Atlantic Antic festival where the original had come from.
These days, he brings the toy with him to every gun violence protest he attends to show people how his son was killed. “Plastic toy guns are not dangerous weapons, it’s the officers,” he said. “You’re telling me trained police don’t know the difference between a toy and a real gun?”
At the time of his son’s shooting, Heyward Sr. was picking up his niece from her school in the Bronx. He didn’t know it yet, but Heyward Jr. was lying unconscious in a 14th-floor stairwell. “My pager was ringing like crazy,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Moments after he fired his gun, George paced the hallway just outside the stairwell door, leaving a dying Heyward Jr. alone with his three friends. Uncertain of what to do, the officer called in the incident and left in search of a local resident. According to court testimony, he then brought an elderly Hispanic woman to the scene and began to question her.
“Do you know this kid?” he asked. “Can you go get his parents?”
Heyward’s then-wife, Angela, rushed to the scene minutes after eight — but she was too late. By the time she arrived, as many as eight officers were already blocking off the stairwell door, refusing her access.
“She was right there and she couldn’t even touch him,” said Heyward Sr. “She was there on the 14th floor and right behind the door was her son, bleeding out and dying.”
Angela Heyward would be deprived of the chance to see her son twice more before his death — once on the ambulance ride to the hospital and again during his surgery at St. Vincent’s Medical Hospital.
Shortly after their son’s death, the Heywards separated, leaving Heyward Sr. in search of relief through community activism.
“I help parents who’ve lost their children,” he said, “like I’ve lost mine.”
He is a full-time community leader and activist for two nonprofit organizations — Parents Against Police Brutality and the Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr. Memorial Foundation. He balances his days between organizing and speaking out about gun violence around the country. When Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy holding a pellet gun, was killed by a police officer in Cleveland in 2014, the eerily similar case struck a chord for him, 20 years after his son’s death.
“I cried in front of the television when I heard that,” he said. “The fact that the officer wasn’t held accountable, and that he was only a boy with a toy … it all just reminded me of Nicholas.”
This year marks the father’s 23rd annual day of remembrance for his son. Each November, he gathers alongside hundreds of community members for a day of basketball games, arts and crafts activities, and local musical performances in the Boerum Hill park across the street from his housing project. In 2001 the park was renamed Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr. Park due to his father’s push to honor his memory.
In the days leading up to his death, Heyward Jr. was practicing every day to make the basketball team at his school. He would die before hearing of his acceptance.
Every other day, Nicholas Heyward Sr. takes a stroll through the park. It is a reminder, he says, of what could have been.