Strong Island: The story behind the Long Island killing in the film

William Ford Jr. was 24 when he was shot at a Central Islip auto shop. He was unarmed.

The shooting death of William Ford, a 24-year-old schoolteacher from Central Islip, is the focus of "Strong Island," an emotionally-charged documentary made by one of Ford's younger siblings. (Credit: Netflix)

At the 2018 Oscars, Long Island saw one of their own up for an award.

The Netflix documentary “Strong Island” was nominated for best documentary feature, but lost out to “Icarus.” The film follows the 1992 murder of a black schoolteacher and its aftermath on Long Island, as told by his brother Yance Ford, who grew up in Central Islip.

Who are William Ford Jr. and Yance Ford?

William Ford Jr. was 24 when he was killed.

He grew up the eldest of three children in Central Islip, where his family moved from Brooklyn when he was 5. Ford Jr. attended St. John the Baptist High School and spent one year at Howard University in Washington before returning to the Island. He took jobs in New York City schools to help support his parents and siblings after his father had a stroke and by 1992, Ford Jr. was working in the math department at Cardozo High School in Bayside, Queens.

His family and co-workers said despite Ford Jr.’s “linebacker” stature, he was notably kind, good with children and liked poetry. His mother told Newsday that when he considered becoming a police officer, she dissuaded him because she “feared he would lose the gentleness in him.”

Director Yance Ford is Ford Jr.’s younger brother. Ford, 45, has an extensive resume in documentary filmmaking, including a decade as a PBS producer for the documentary showcase “POV.” He is also the first openly trans director to be nominated for an Oscar.

What happened to William Ford Jr.?

On April 7, 1992, Ford Jr. went to Super Stang Auto Body in Central Islip to speak to the staff. It was an ongoing dispute about the quality of repairs the shop had done on his girlfriend’s car, his family told Newsday in 1992, and the latest point of contention was a loose door handle.

Suffolk County police said the white employee he was arguing with, Mark Reilly, then brought out a .22-caliber rifle and shot the unarmed Ford Jr. in the chest. Ford Jr. was taken to Stony Brook University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

What happened to Mark Reilly?

Reilly was arrested at the time. He was initially charged with manslaughter and held on $10,000 bail.

But the case never went to trial. Reilly claimed self-defense and Ford said an all-white grand jury declined to indict Reilly.

In Ford’s documentary, his mother Barbara said she felt the jury had been dismissive of her.

“How could you come to a viable decision if you’re reading a magazine?” she says in the film. “I will die believing that they didn’t care because my son was a young man of color. I will always believe that.”

Ford said that he had attempted to find Reilly with the help of a private detective but was unsuccessful.

The case file remains sealed, according to the Suffolk County district attorney’s office.

Why did Yance Ford make the documentary?

Ford was 19 when his brother was killed. He spent more than a decade using his documentary background to explore his brother’s death and the aftermath.

“I was really just setting out to fulfill a very personal obligation to not let my brother’s story vanish,” he said in a recent interview with Newsday.

Ford told Newsday that nothing has happened with the case since he released the documentary, but that wasn’t his intention in the first place.

“Frankly, I didn’t expect it to. The point was never to get his case reopened,” he said. “The point was to show that dysfunction in the criminal justice system can actually look very benign.”

— with Rafer Guzman; Top video courtesy of Netflix


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