It was approximately 2:36 p.m. on a sunny April day in 2017 when Zedias Mudzimba, a 56-year-old plumber, drove past a two-story house in Queens Village and witnessed a destructive force coming to life before his eyes — bringing darkness to what should have been a beautiful day.
“I saw the smoke coming out of the second floor and thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to call 911,’” Muzimba told the Daily News.
A fast-moving fire had broken out, trapping five people: Destiny Dones, age 20; her younger sister, Jada Foxworth, 16; and their cousins Rashawn Mathews, 10; and Chayce Lipford, 2, along with Jada’s best friend, Melody Edwards, 17.
The families were interviewed. Their voices were heard. Their stories were told. But amid the chaos and confusion, one voice was forgotten. One story never made the headlines, a man forced to do his mourning quietly. Keith Foxworth, now 40 years old, was in prison at the time of this tragic event and is finally having his story told a year later.
* * *
A native of Queens, New York, Foxworth — often goes by Fox or, more regally, Black God due to his semi-dark brown complexion and his affiliation with a spiritual organization called the Nation of Gods and Earths, which promotes righteousness, self-study, research and fact finding.
Fox was born in 1977 to a loving married couple, Timothy and Vivian Foxworth.
“Vivian was the responsible one,” Fox recalls. “She was a supervisor at NYNEX. Pops, he was a functional alcoholic. We were well off, I guess.”
When Fox was around 10 years old, his parents divorced, citing “irreconcilable differences,” and he went to stay with his mother. Like most children whose families suffer divorce, Fox blamed himself.
“I wanted my parents to stay together,” he said. “I thought they had split ‘cause something that I did. That was hard on me.”
He wound up getting in fights in school and was placed in special education. People in these classes often fall through the cracks and receive subpar education, and they rarely get help addressing the underlying issues — such as Fox’s parents’ divorce — that cause some of them to act out. Unsurprisingly, in Fox’s case, the move to special ed only made his behavior worse.
At 19, he landed on Rikers Island for selling drugs.
The year was 1996. “Da Island,” as it is typically called, was filled with racial tension between the Black and Hispanic populations. There were stabbings, slashings and gang assaults — passed back and forth between the groups like they were playing a game of tag. Fox had gotten swept into the undercurrent of prison culture like many young men before him and countless more after him.
“It’s about survival,” Fox said. “It’s either them or you.”
Eventually, he found himself in the punitive segregation unit — “the box”— for slashing another prisoner who’d attacked him with a razor.
While in the box, Fox made a few friends, including one named Steve and another named Sherm the Worm, who most likely got his name from his ability to navigate life in the jail.
That time in the box was not as dark for Fox as it was for other prisoners. It was there that he was introduced to the light of his life, Tamara, Steve’s 16-year-old sister.
“I was close with her brother, so he kind of hooked us up,” Fox recalls. “Sherm would always pass me the phone so I could call her, and she would always answer my calls.”
Prisoners in the box are not normally allowed to make phone calls as a part of their punishment. I can only imagine that this phone privilege was “the worm” at work.
They became best friends, he said.
“I had a lot of respect for her,” he said. “Hell, it took me a year to get in her pants.”
As we sit in a room at Wallkill Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in which inmates live behind cherry-wood doors rather than bars, I can see the light in Fox’s eyes as he stares past me, seemingly transporting himself back to another time and place.
* * *
Tamara already had a child, Destiny Dones, whom Fox was helping to raise as his own, when on Jan. 11, 2001, they were blessed with their daughter, Jada. Fox was free at the time but wanted in connection with another crime. When he called his mother to tell her the good news, he hung up within seconds out of fear the call might be traced.
“I was scared that people would get me knocked” — slang for arrested — “so I couldn’t really enjoy her coming into this world,” Fox admitted reluctantly. “I wasn’t stable at the time.”
* * *
Eventually the law caught up to Fox and he served some more time. However, that did not stop him from being a father to his children and a husband to his wife. It was just a lot harder. Not only on Fox, or the girls who missed having their father around, but also on Tamara, who had to support their entire family, including Fox, by herself.
After Fox was released again, he and Tamara finally tied the knot on Aug. 27, 2011. This was an unusual day for a wedding. The streets of New York were shut down due to Hurricane Irene.
“Only a couple of people showed up,” he said. “The highways were closed. I wore a white tux and mint green tie. And Tamara, she wore a pretty white dress. I remember thinking, ‘Wow she is so beautiful.’”
This time Fox managed to stay out of trouble. He got a job working at the Holiday Inn next to LaGuardia Airport as a security guard. He was paid $10 an hour, and after putting in countless hours of overtime, he would give his entire earnings to Tamara so that she could take care of the bills, rent, food shopping and transportation costs. After which, they were left with nothing. It wasn’t enough. Determined to support his family, Fox returned to selling drugs.
“As they say in the streets, ‘I had a good run,’” he said. “I mean my clients loved me. I always did right by them. I made sure they was taken care of.”
Some “hustlers” treat their clients with disrespect, assaulting or robbing them when without necessary funds. Meanwhile, Fox said, he treated his family well, too. Whereas some guys might have spent their earnings on a new pair of Jordans, a pair of Robins Jeans and a bottle of Hennessy, Fox brought it home.
* * *
At this point in Fox’s life enters a woman named Christal. Fifteen years his junior, she was daring, young and ready to take over the world with Fox. Shortly after she gave birth to their daughter Ja’niya Foxworth.
Although bringing Ja’niya into the world was — and still is — a blessing, Fox says, he is consumed with guilt over betraying Tamara.
“I really messed up,” he said. “I took for granted such a beautiful, loving and caring woman. She is the greatest person I know. I’m lucky to still have her in my life.”
* * *
Life on the outside finally caught up with Fox in April 2017, when Tamara left a message with the staff at the Wallkill Correctional Facility. Fox called back.
“I’ll never forget her words,” he said. “‘I think our babies is dead, they got caught in a fire’ I thought that she [was] going to say something positive. Then to hear the hurt in her voice.”
As tears began to flow, I could see, in that moment, everything that Fox had become so adept at hiding from the world. His love. His pain. His confusion. His anger. His humanity — something that the prison system attempts to strip away. But not on the day that two of Wallkill’s “Boldest” escorted him to his daughter’s funeral. Instead, they were understanding. That day, they were humane.
* * *
The ride to the funeral was the longest ride of Fox’s life. He stares off into the distance, taking slow, steady breaths in order to keep from breaking down.
“I’ll never be able to take my daughters shopping the way I wanted to,” Fox told me with tears in his eyes. “I used to talk to them every day.”
Fox found himself confiding in the officers who accompanied him to the funeral.
“We had a nice talk,” he said. “I let them know my situation.”
Fox was able to speak about his emotions, his past obstacles, problems with school. It was are rare moment — a chance to be seen, spoken to, empathized with and treated like a human being. However, on the ride there, Fox was quickly coming to grips with the fact that this trip, his loss, his pain, was real.
* * *
A car parked in between the Foxworth household and the one next door had caught fire about 2:36 p.m. on the day of the tragedy. Destiny, Jada, Chayce, Rashawn and Melody, had been trapped in the attic by the flames.
The fire spread quickly. As Lloyd Taylor, 31, who lived in the basement apartment, later told reporters.
“I ran out the door. Then when I looked back there was no way of getting back in,” he said.
“The baby was literally burned to a crisp,” another witness recounted to the New York Post. “The guy who was carrying the baby out, you could just see the stress on his face. I’m just so emotional about it because I’m a grandfather and I have kids too.”
* * *
Fox carries himself with honor and respect. He is a humble man. He’s the type of person that would give you the clothes off his back or the food off of his plate if you were hungry. I know personally, because I’ve seen Fox offer food to people and give away sweaters and polo shirts to other prisoners who don’t have family looking out for them. He calls every man that he comes in contact with “good brother,” not because that’s what you are, but because that’s what he sees in them.
Another time, Fox even brought me a bowl of food that he prepared without my knowledge — a bowl containing rice, mackerel, smoked oysters, baby clams and thinly sliced onions, all fried together, and made to look like an Asian delicacy.
“Yeah, Fox is a good dude,” another prisoner tells me. “A true to heart brother.”
Seeing him, sitting there in front of me, in tears — I could only imagine what he was thinking. I asked him if he’d like to take a break.
“Nah, good brother,” he replied. “I need this. I need to start the healing process. Ain’t nobody come holla at me when my babies died.”
All too often when you are locked away in a cell, people forget about you. Aside from the “usual suspects,” family, friends and significant others, Fox can add the media to the list of people who forgot about him during this time of crisis, simply because he was in prison.
For the first time during the interview, I watch Fox’s face turn dark, not only with the hurt of feeling forgotten in prison but with the selfish longing for his daughters to be alive, to hear their voices once again. I picked up the industrial sized toilet paper, unraveled a huge wad and then passed it to him.
“Thank you good brother,” he said, a sincere look of gratitude in his eyes. It had been a simple gesture, but in prison, the slightest act of kindness seems paramount.
“I never blamed Tamara,” he goes on finally. “My wife is a great person. I blame myself. As a black man with a family, I should have been out there taking care of my cubs.”
He reaches for a cigarette.
“I’m thinking about getting a patch,” he says, “so I can quit.”
* * *
That’s not the only change he’s making. Fox recently decided to work at the Wallkill optics program to earn some money and lighten the financial burden on Tamara. He expects to be released from prison as early as June of this year, and he plans to reunite with Tamara, build a positive, working co-parenting strategy with Christal and help to raise his daughter Ja’niya.
“There are three avenues that I am going to explore, when I get out, sanitation, optics and I’m thinking about going to school for real-estate,” Fox proclaims, smiling with a look of relief on his face and determination in his eyes.
Fox’s healing has begun. He has finally shed the tears of a father.
Read more from The Wallkill Journal’s April 30 issue here.
Email the Gregory Headley at [email protected]