Ten Years After Dual Tragedies, Families of Crown Heights Victims Meet for First Time

The father of a black boy whose death sparked days of race riots a decade ago met for the first time with the brother of a Jewish student slain during the violence.

Carmel Cato, father of Gavin Cato, said he hoped the encounter would promote better understanding.

Norman Rosenbaum, the brother of slain rabbinical student Yankel Rosenbaum, said the two families share a "very dark bond." He said the symbolism of their meeting Monday should not be lost on anyone.

"If anything should happen, we would know that we can reach out," Cato said.

Rioting in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section started on Aug. 19, 1991, after Cato's 7-year-old son was struck and killed by a driver belonging to the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch community. Three hours later, a gang of angry blacks shouting "Get the Jew!" fatally stabbed Rosenbaum.

For more than two days, black youths tore through the neighborhood, looting stores, burning police cars and hurling bottles.

"That's a pain that never goes away," Cato said. "We should be able to talk about this."

Cato, Norman Rosenbaum and several others had lunch in Brooklyn before meeting with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at City Hall for about 45 minutes.

"We approach today with positiveness that we hope others will draw on," Rosenbaum said.

Afterward, Rosenbaum gave Cato a letter from his parents, who live in Australia and were unable to attend the meeting.

"This is, unfortunately, a very special time for our respective families," the letter read. "No words can fully express our feelings -- yours and ours -- at this time."

Giuliani said it was "heartwarming and wonderful to see that they are able to come together and help each other, even 10 years later, to ease some of the pain."

A state investigation into the riots concluded that then-Mayor David Dinkins "did not act in a timely and decisive manner in requiring the police department to ... protect the lives, safety and property of the residents of Crown Heights."

Lemrick Nelson, then 16, was charged with killing Rosenbaum; a state jury acquitted him. In federal court, he was convicted of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights. He is serving 20 years in prison, along with another man, Charles Price, who was videotaped provoking the rioters.

A grand jury declined to charge the driver, Yosef Lifsh, who has since moved to Israel.

On Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the deaths, Crown Heights residents celebrated the improved relations between blacks and Jews in the community with a street fair and reception.