N.Y.C. teacher hired student to kill her, police say, but bullet only wounds

October 23, 1992|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- For a decade, the yellow-brick high school in East New York had been the center of Barbara Mendez's life. It was where she had grown up as a student, where she had met her husband, where she had won a special teaching apprenticeship and where she had become a teacher.

When everything seemed to turn sour -- her marriage crumbling and her health deteriorating from multiple sclerosis -- it was at the school, the police now say, that the young woman recruited a student to take her life.

Ms. Mendez, 23, a machine-shop teacher, had long been a protege of the faculty at the East New York High School of Transit Technology in Brooklyn. She had been selected by her teachers in 1987 for a union-initiated program to train vocational students to become teachers and return to the high schools where they had studied.

"They had been so proud of her," says Anne Millman, a spokeswoman for the United Federation of Teachers. "They saw her as a shining example of their own success."

And when the young teacher befriended one of her students, Lamar Goodwine, 17, her colleagues saw it as a mark of good teaching, of reaching out to a student with a history of troublesome incidents in school.

"She had a very good influence on him. She sort of took him under her wing," says one education official. "They were close. She tried to help him."

But about two weeks ago, Ms. Mendez asked the young man to help her. According to the police, she implored him to kill her and end both the physical deterioration that was already making it difficult for her to walk, and the misery she felt over a separation from her husband, Eric, a GTE employee whom she had met when they were both students at the high school in the class of 1987.

Officials say they did not know exactly why Ms. Mendez had selected Mr. Goodwine. To convince him that she was serious, she offered him $100, say law-enforcement officials. For some time she had been asking him to do it, says a law-enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We got the feeling he really didn't want to do it."

But last Friday at lunchtime, Mr. Goodwine botched the job, a shooting at close range in a secluded stairwell of the school, the police say. One bullet missed Ms. Mendez and one hit her in the shoulder. The police have yet to recover the gun.

Now Mr. Goodwine, a high school senior from Brownsville, Brooklyn, is facing charges of attempted murder and weapons possession, and the Brooklyn district attorney is considering whether to bring charges against Ms. Mendez.

"The situation is a tragedy," says her attorney, Donald Vogelman, who gave no details about the case. He did say that he hoped the district attorney would not pursue his client. "Right now she's in a bad emotional state," Mr. Vogelman says. "She has MS, and stress brings on MS. There's a physical problem and an emotional problem."

The death pact left students, teachers and friends of the two young people stunned and disbelieving even though many knew that Ms. Mendez had learned in September that she had multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease. Her marriage had started to fall apart at the same time and she had separated from her husband and moved into an apartment with a roommate.

"This school will never be the same again," says Richard Culmoney, a shop teacher and the school's union representative. "We're going to live with this for a long time."

Demetrius Barrow, 17, who took Ms. Mendez's shop class and had known her from the neighborhood since 1987, had spoken with her on the phone just days ago when she came home from the hospital after the shooting. In the last few weeks, he says, he had seen her usual upbeat demeanor change. "Sometimes, sometimes, she seemed depressed," he says. "I could see in her face she had a problem."

"She had so much going for her," he adds. "She wouldn't hurt nobody."

Mr. Goodwine's friends, who know him by the nickname Pop, are equally surprised, although law-enforcement officials say he has a prior arrest for robbery.

Six months ago, a girlfriend of Mr. Goodwine's in Bedford-Stuyvesant gave birth to a son. Mr. Goodwine proudly showed pictures of the baby to friends at the Fashion Cutt barbershop in Brownsville, where he worked after school.

"He was a good kid," says Willie "Shaka" Gaye, who opened the small shop in May. "He didn't have time for this stuff. I just don't understand any of it."

For almost a week as Ms. Mendez lay in a hospital room filled with flowers and tried to turn her shooting into a plea for more school security, she and Mr. Goodwine kept their pact a secret.

But Det. Jack Cutrone kept probing at inconsistencies.

Mr. Goodwine was arrested at his home Tuesday night after Ms. Mendez revealed his role.

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