NBC’s ‘Dateline: Tipping Point’ chronicles how 22-year-old Brian Watkins, an aspiring tennis athlete, lost his life because of mugging in a Manhattan subway station in September 1990. The case created a huge uproar and made national headlines, with the police arresting the perpetrators within hours of the crime amidst intense political and media pressure. If you’re interested in learning more about the case, including the killers’ identities, we’ve you covered. Let’s begin then, shall we?
How Did Brian Watkins Die?
Brian Scott Watkins was born to Sherwin James and Karen Cox Watkins in Provo in Utah County, Utah, on May 15, 1968. He was an active child and fell in love with tennis at a young age. He played competitive tennis throughout his life, competing in the USTA’s Intermountain Section, where he was always a top seed. Brian was a member of Provo High School’s State Champion Tennis Team, where he also won the state singles title. He graduated from Provo High School in 1986 and was offered a tennis scholarship at Idaho State University (ISU).
He played tennis at ISU for two years and received the 35th Annual Sam Bennion Award, which is given to the most inspirational athlete at Idaho State. Brian was placed second in the state in singles during his senior year, rebounding from a severe knee injury. According to reports, he dropped out of college after two years and worked for the American Business Service — a company that organizes motivational seminars. He also had taught tennis at the Ridge Athletic Club in Provo, where his parents were members.
However, Brian’s aspiring tennis career was cut short in September 1990 while visiting New York to attend the US Open — their yearly ritual. According to reports, Brian, his parents, his brother, Todd James Watkins, and his sister-in-law, Michelle Watkins, watched a US Open match with Ridge Athletic Club’s social tennis director, Debbe Jaspering, to watch Brad Pearce, a professional player from Provo on September 1, 1990. The Watkins family was going to dinner at the Tavern on the Green in Central Park on September 2.
According to news reports, they were in a Manhattan subway station on 53d Street and Seventh Avenue when a gang of eight teens approached them and asked for their money. Assistant District Attorney Thomas Schiels later stated the attack “was as savage as it was swift.” The young assaulters slashed Sherwin’s pants pocket with a box cutter, slashing his buttocks, and robbed him of a money clip holding $200 and some credit cards. When his wife, Karen, stepped in, they knocked her to the ground and kicked her head.
Police sources state that 22-year-old Brian and his elder brother, Todd, then 25, fought the attackers, who fatally stabbed Brian as he tried to protect his mother. Witnesses stated he chased the youths down the station before collapsing at the foot of a station stairway, blood pouring from a knife wound in his chest. Sherwin recalled, “I put pressure on his chest. He was hurt badly. My wife, Karen, went to find someone to help.” He added, “I was telling Brian, ‘Please breathe.'” He claimed his son was puzzled by the brutal attack.
Sherwin quoted Brian saying, “Why did they do this to me? We’re just here to have a good time.” Nick Rosanovich, a witness to the attack, stated, “He (Brian) had a knife in his chest. He looked like he was gone.” He was stabbed once in the chest and died on the way to St. Vincent’s Hospital. Trevor Rothfels, a tennis pro who tutored Brian in the sport, recalled, “It was his mom that he helped, but it just happened to be her. He would have laid down his life to help anyone. It didn’t have to be someone he knew.”
Who Killed Brian Watkins?
Within hours of the attack, the New York Police Department started rounding up possible suspects, with two supposed assailants arrested around midnight outside the Roseland Ballroom. Three more possible suspects were apprehended at 4:00 am while leaving Roseland. Police sources stated two others, including Yull Garry Morales, then 19 — the individual who allegedly wielded the knife to kill Brian — were arrested on the afternoon of September 3, and the eighth suspect was arrested at 11:00 pm.
When asked how the authorities traced the suspects to Roseland, Captain Stephen Davis, a police spokesperson, explained, “Most transit police know that most of the kids who get off at 53d Street are going to Roseland. It was a logical place to check.” Police sources stated the murder weapon — a folding knife with a four-inch blade — and the box cutter used to cut the father’s pants were recovered from the suspects at Roseland. Thomas Schiels stated the teen’s motives “were no less trivial than to finance a night of dancing.”
According to reports, the Watkins family entered the precinct station house on West 42d Street at 2:35 pm on September 3 to view lineups and identify the aggressors. The authorities claimed the teens said they did not intend to kill. However, Sherwin denied their claims and stated a young man came running at them with a knife and shoved the blade at his throat. He testified, “They were pushing me down by my shoulders, and someone was cutting the back of my pants. I could hear my wife and daughter-in-law screaming. I was yelling, too.”
He was treated for an 8- to 10-inch slash on his buttocks. Yull Garry Morales, the alleged stabber, claimed the victim “accidentally fell on” his knife. However, Thomas Schiels claimed some defendants had alleged Yull bragged about killing Brian. The arrested individuals were Anthony Anderson, 18, Louis Fernando Montiero, 20, Pascal Carpenter, 18, Ricardo Nova, 18, Ricardo Lopez, 18, Emilo Fernandez, 17, Johnny Hincapie, 18, and Yull. The defendants were tried in two groups of four in 1992 and were convicted of felony murder.
All of them, barring one who was let off, were sentenced to 25 years to life. One of the convicts, Johnny Hincapie, served almost 25 years in prison before his conviction was vacated, and the indictment against him was dismissed in 2015 due to insufficient evidence. Brian’s family established The Brian Watkins Memorial Foundation in 1990 to award scholarships based on financial need, academic performance, and extracurricular participation (especially for athletics and leadership).