Ira “Mike” Epstein, decided not to attend the holiday dinner at the last minute. It was December 20, 1996, and the 40-year-old father of two told his coworkers that he wanted to spend time with his family. He returned to his Long Island home in an anxious state. He told his wife, Marie, that he didn’t think he would see her again.
Epstein left his home at around 6:30 the next morning, December 21, according to court documents. He arrived at the East Elmhurst, Queens, check-cashing facility he owned a few minutes past 7. East Elmhurst, a culturally diverse lower-middle class neighborhood that lies just south of LaGuardia Airport, is a relatively quiet, residential area. Epstein pulled up to the store at about the same time as Officer Charles Davis, 38, an NYPD officer working off-duty as a security guard for Epstein.
Sunrise in Queens that day was 7:25 am. There was no moon visible. Daybreak was still twenty minutes away when a group of armed men stole swiftly across Astoria Boulevard in the predawn winter chill, guns drawn.
A woman who had been looking out her window across Astoria Boulevard watched as Epstein began rolling up the heavy front security gate of the store. The armed men crossed Astoria Boulevard and confronted Epstein and Davis, forcing them both into the store. Within seconds, shots rang out. The woman immediately called 911, and reports of a “10-30”—robbery in progress—began crackling across police channels as the gunmen fled the store on foot.
Police records indicate that an NYPD officer arrived on the scene less than two minutes after the shots had been fired. Moving cautiously into the storefront, the officer found Davis on the floor, barely alive. He had been shot in the chest, hip and leg. He was revived briefly in the ambulance en route to Elmhurst Hospital Center, but succumbed to his wounds and was pronounced dead at 8:00 am. Epstein’s body was found further back in the store, killed instantly from a bullet to the heart. When Epstein’s wife arrived at the scene of the crime minutes later, she was hysterical. As the New York Daily News reported in an article that went to print early the next morning, Epstein’s wife claimed he knew something about his impending death, quoting her as saying, “Oh my God! Oh my God! He told me last night.’”
The murders and ensuing manhunts were splashed across the front pages of all major New York newspapers for four days straight.
The Davis-Epstein murders occurred during the Giuliani era, at a time when the city’s hard-changing prosecutor-turned-mayor was building a reputation for “cleaning up” crime. “If you shoot and kill a New York City police officer, the Police Department is going to catch you, they’re going to find you, usually in a short period of time, and then at a minimum you’re going to spend the rest of your life in jail. And in this particular situation, it’s quite possible you’ll get executed,” Rudolph Giuliani told reporters at a news conference after the murders. Over the next four days, an enormous dragnet spread across the borough of Queens. According to police reports, NYPD officers stopped 6,000 cars and interviewed more than 1,000 people, looking for anyone with outstanding warrants. Posters went up all over town offering a $10,000 reward for information about the case.