On Dec. 28, 2000, Calvin "CJ" Helton, a bystander, was one of seven people killed in the Lex Street Massacre, the worst mass murder in the city's modern history.
In the 10 years since the execution-style slayings and the wounding of three others, Helton's mother, Veronica Conyers, said, "I've been to hell and back."
"I lost everything," Conyers, 49, said yesterday. She lost her job, her home, her sobriety and her sanity.
"I had a mental breakdown that took me four years to come out of," Conyers said. "I've just restarted to live my life 10 years later. I've been from shelter to shelter to homelessness and on drugs."
Conyers said that every Dec. 28, she and family members have a memorial dinner to celebrate CJ Helton's life. Tonight will be the same: a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, CJ's favorite meal.
He was 19 when he was killed. It was a year of milestones, his mother recalled.
"That year, in May, he went to his high-school prom; in June, he graduated; in October, he turned 19 and in December he was gone," she said.
The Lex Street Massacre was notable not only for the seven people killed at 816 N. Lex St., but also for the prosecution of two groups of men.
The first four young men accused of the crimes - Jermel Lewis, Sacon Youk, Hezekiah Thomas and Quiante Perrin - spent 18 months in jail awaiting trial. But charges against them were dropped, and the city had to pay them a total of $1.9 million for wrongful arrests.
Then there would be a second prosecution of brothers Dawud and Khalid Faruqi, who denied involvement in the murders but were convicted in the case along with two other men, Shihean Black and Bruce Veney, who pleaded guilty.
"The system failed me twice," Conyers said. "The first time they failed me was when I went to court every day for 18 months when they had the wrong guys charged with the crime."
The second time, she said, was when the prosecution struck a plea deal in the sentencing of the Faruqi brothers after a jury convicted them of the murders. The deal led to consecutive life terms in prison rather than the death penalty.
On the day the deal was announced, Conyers had to be removed from court for yelling: "They shot my son! Now they don't want to die?"
Yesterday, Conyers said she was still destroyed by the case.
"They think everything was drug-related," she said. "That's why they had the wrong persons charged in the first place.
"It wasn't drug-related. This was over a car, but how many people know that? Every time I tell people my son was killed on Lex Street, they think it was about drugs."
She wants it known that CJ had nothing to do with drugs, even though the house was known for drug activity.
Testimony in the trial revealed that George Porter, one of the murder victims, had traded cars to Shihean Black.
Witness Tyrone Stanton testified that Porter traded a Dodge Intrepid for Black's Chevrolet Corsica. But because neither Porter nor Stanton knew how to drive the Corsica's stick shift, they blew out the clutch.
Porter demanded his Dodge back but refused to pay for the damaged Chevy, according to testimony.
The next day, Stanton testified, Porter took an extra set of keys and took back his Intrepid. Prosecutors said the bad car deal led to the massacre.
According to former Daily News reporter Theresa Conroy, who covered the case, it was also revealed in court that Conyers' son had no involvement in drug dealing, although he was friends with two of the young men who officials said were selling drugs.
"When I first started to cover the trial, I didn't believe her when she said he [Helton] was only there playing video games," said Conroy, who left the Daily News in 2007.
Conroy said she saw Conyers attend every hearing for 18 months when the wrong men were charged with the crime. Relatives said she lost her job because she was always going to court. That led to homelessness and a return to drugs.
"She put all her faith in the D.A.'s Office to bring justice to her son, and when she learned that the first case fell apart, I watched her deteriorate," Conroy said.
"She went from being very clean at the start of the first trial to completely messed up and back on drugs by the end of the second trial."