We’re re-running this feature in case you missed it over the holidays.
By Jack Mirkinson
On September 2, 2005, Robin Lyde was upstairs in bed when she heard the gunfire. It sounded close enough that she raced downstairs to check that the children playing in the living room were alright. They were unharmed. Then someone started yelling to her that her son Benny had been shot.
“I thanked God that the bullet didn’t come in my house and didn’t hit any of my children just to step outside the house and see that all of my kids didn’t dodge it,” she said, sitting in her living room over four years later with Benny’s father, Carlton Scott, next to her.
She ran to Benny’s side and started calling him. He was lying on the ground and did not respond. He had slipped into a coma from which he would never emerge. He died three months later. He was 21.
The police determined that he had been shot in retaliation for something in which he was not involved. A friend had beaten someone up; that person’s friend couldn’t find him, so he found Benny instead.
That was in 2005. This year, Benny Lyde has been officially memorialized by the city of New York. In September, the block in Crown Heights where he was shot, and where his family still lives, was renamed “Benny A. Lyde Place.” Hundreds of people turned up at the naming ceremony where Benny was recalled as a young man who spent time tutoring children and helping people learn to read. State Senator Eric Adams, who represents Crown Heights, has talked about founding a Benny Lyde Institute, a building to house programs where children help other children.
But another matter is more pressing. The man accused of killing Benny Lyde is scheduled to go on trial. Cody Nelson, an army medic and veteran of the Iraq War, says he is innocent.
Robin Lyde and Carlton Scott speak of their son as a young man with a “little old soul.” He was the sort of child who would lie down next to his mother in her bed and ask her how she was doing. He helped with the bills when his parents were having trouble making ends meet.
He liked to plan ahead. When he was ten, his parents told him they would get him a car if he graduated from high school. He told them that by then technology would have leaped ahead so much that they could get him a flying car. “This ain’t the Jetsons!” Robin told him. Benny, she said, just kept thinking about what type of flying car he was going to get. He settled for a black Altima.
When he was 12 he told his mother that he would be America’s first black president— this was, of course, well before the coming of Barack Obama. He cautioned her about her behavior in public, lest her actions come back to haunt his future political career.
He liked to play chess. He would play for hours at night with his father, sometimes until three in the morning. Benny was so good that his father would get annoyed when his wife would come downstairs to talk with him — he needed to focus completely on the game to avoid being outsmarted by his son.
Benny would travel to Brownsville and East New York to teach reading and to help at after-school programs. When people talked with his mother about a great kid they knew she would realize with surprise that they were talking about her son.
He went to Long Island University in Brooklyn and majored in accounting and business management. He wanted to run a business before he got into politics.
His parents said he liked to party, but not too much. Robin remembered seeing him break off from a group of friends to come back home one night. Benny told his friends he would go back to the party they had come from. They said he always told them that, but it never happened. “You’re not coming back schoolboy!” his friends chided him. “Somebody’s gotta be the CEO to hire you!” he laughed back.
For two-and-a-half years the police searched for his killer. Their investigation took them all over the country. Meanwhile, Robin and Carlton talked seriously about leaving Crown Heights. Their children—especially Benny’s younger brother Prince, who was inseparable from him—were reeling. Looking at his brother lying in the hospital, Prince said that doing the right thing “didn’t pay off.”
But the family decided to stay. Leaving, they reasoned, would be a rejection of the way they had tried to live their lives. But they still needed to know who had killed their son. “As a family, we were not going to sit here and wallow in sorrow,” Robin said. “We needed answers, and we were stepping out to get them.”
They talked to everyone they could find: community board meetings, block associations, television stations, local officials, all asking the same thing: please come forward if you know something.
Initially, Carlton said, the police thought it was just another drug or gang-related case. The underlying thought, he said, was that Benny could not have been completely innocent.
“They thought that because my kids drive big cars with every little gadget in them they had to be doing something wrong,” he said. “It was an insult,” Robin added.
Carlton said that as the years went on, police tried to label the investigation a cold case, meaning that they would stop actively looking for the perpetrator. It was community pressure that kept them from doing so, he said. The police told the family that people kept calling them up and asking them what they were doing to catch Benny’s killer. So they kept looking.
The NYPD said it could not comment on the details of the case because of the upcoming trial. Finally, on March 6, 2008, they arrested Cody Nelson. He was the same age as Benny at the time of the shooting, and grew up two blocks away.
Little is known about Cody Nelson. He and his family refused to be interviewed for this article. What is known can be gleamed from court records and news accounts. He was a member of the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum in upstate New York. He served in Iraq as a medic in 2004, treating both Iraqi and American soldiers. His lawyer, Joseph Ostrowsky, said that, as far as he knows, Nelson had a clean record until his time in the Army. He said he was trying to get Nelson’s records from his days as a soldier to see what psychological effects his service may have had on him.
Upon his return, Nelson began to get into trouble. In 2006, he spent a stint in jail for assault and robbery. That same year, he stabbed a 16-year-old boy at a high school basketball game in Watertown, the town where Fort Drum is located.
He was sentenced to two to four years in prison.
Those crimes occurred while Nelson was still attached to the base at Fort Drum. Prosecutors contend that he shot Benny Lyde while he was on leave from the Army in 2005. Ostrowsky would not discuss the specifics of the defense he intends to make, but he said it was possible Nelson was not even in Brooklyn at the time of the shooting.
Robin Lyde has become a powerhouse in her neighborhood. She shows up each month to the Community Board 8 meetings and works the room like a politician, laughing and kibbitzing with all the people she has come to know. She has work and a family and a hole in her heart that the passage of time does not fill.
The first thing she thinks of when she remembers her son is this: he never forgot to give her a kiss when he left the house. It is the thing she says she misses the most from him. The last moment Robin shared with Benny before he was shot was the kiss he gave her on his way out the door.
“When I wake up in the morning, I get the kiss from my husband, I get it from my children,” she said. “I don’t get it from him.”