Put a teenage girl in a shopping mall and you've got a 1990s match made in heaven. That's how it was for Cynthia Nicole Wiggins. She loved shopping at the Walden Galleria Mall in suburban Cheektowaga and, after her baby was born, she was thrilled to get a part-time job there too.
But her bus line, the number 6, from Buffalo's largely poor and black section to predominantly white Cheektowaga, had been banned from Walden Galleria property.
"They feel it will not bring in the type of people they want to come to the mall," a local transport official wrote in internal documents presented here last week in a state court civil trial.
The Galleria's attorneys say the people the mall wanted to avoid were "riotous youth" who use the number 6 and had caused troubled at another mall nearby. But the mall's exclusion of the number 6 bus meant that passengers like the 17-year-old Wiggins were let off on the opposite side of Walden Road from the mall, with no sidewalks, crosswalks or pedestrian signals, and left to traverse seven lanes of heavy traffic.
There on Dec. 14, 1995, in a freezing rain on a roadway narrowed by snow mounds higher than hydrants, Wiggins wove her way through cars stopped at a red light and was crushed under the wheels of a dump truck.
In a trial that is probing the insidious dynamics of race and class often used to divide the nation's cities from its more affluent suburbs, attorneys for Wiggins's family are arguing that the mall's developers and local transportation officials are responsible for her death because they obstructed inner-city shoppers headed to the mall. Their lawsuit seeks $150 million in damages.
For some people here, Cynthia Wiggins has come to symbolize poor inner-city blacks who often are viewed as undesirable in predominantly white suburbs, where many of any region's new jobs are.
Others, however, portray her as the victim of a tragic accident that could have been avoided had she behaved differently while crossing the roadway--or had she taken a different bus altogether.
With its high-money stakes, cast of famous legal characters and elements of race, class and responsibility, the trial before a state Supreme Court judge in Erie County is a titanic legal battle.
Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., the leader of O. J. Simpson's criminal trial team, is representing the Wiggins family along with local lawyer Robert H. Perk. In opening arguments, Cochran characterized the case as one "about David and Goliath, about the rich and poor, about the haves and the have nots, those who can speak and those who have no one to speak for them."
Cochran protested jury selection rules that yielded an all-white panel from this western New York county, which is 12 percent black.
Goliath in this case is the Walden Galleria Mall and its developer, the Pyramid Co. of Buffalo. They are represented by Robert P. Watkins of the powerhouse Washington law firm Williams & Connolly, one of whose members defended President Clinton against impeachment charges.
During opening arguments, Watkins--also a member of the D.C. financial control board--portrayed Wiggins as a bus rider who had other choices, who did not have to get off on Walden Road as she did. She could have taken a bus route to another mall that had a shuttle right to the Galleria parking lot, though such a transfer could have added up to 40 minutes to her 50-minute bus ride.
"How she got to the Galleria Mall was her choice," Watkins said. "But the fact of the matter is the mall had nothing to do with the choice that she made."
Suggesting that Wiggins's behavior may have been at fault, Watkins noted that Wiggins did not cross at the intersection but was "weaving between the cars that were waiting there."
But Wiggins's father, Leonard Wiggins, 41, an auto painter, said in an interview that considering the snow piled up on the road's shoulders, "she did the only logical thing that anyone would do. The light [for traffic] was red."
He said his daughter often complained about how treacherous it was to cross Walden Road. "Daddy," she'd say, "it's dangerous crossing that street."
More than the money the suit could bring, said Wiggins, "I want justice for my child." As plaintiff, he is joined by Rogelio Castellanos Jr., the father of Cynthia Wiggins's now 4-year-old son, Taquilo.
In addition to the Walden Galleria, its developer, the Pyramid Co., and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, Cochran also is arguing that truck driver John P. Bunch, of a company called Majestic Pools, is liable for Wiggins's death. Cochran said in court that Bunch ran over Wiggins due to "inattentiveness."
Bunch's lawyer, D. DeForest Cummings, told the court that Bunch was unable to see Wiggins because of the height of his truck's cab and her close proximity to the truck as she wove through traffic.
But the heart of the case centers on internal documents from the transit authority and witness testimony that both characterize statements made by the mall developers about how number 6 bus riders were not wanted at the mall.
In testimony that the defense tried but failed to have excluded, Stafford Ritchie II recounted a conversation he had with a Pyramid executive before the mall's 1989 opening. Ritchie, a retail store owner, was among the mall's original tenants and was concerned about methods being used to attract customers. In that conversation, he said, the Pyramid executive told him that the number 6 bus would not be coming onto mall property.
"I cannot recall his exact words," Ritchie testified, but it was something similar to "the people who rode the Walden Avenue bus were not the kind of people they were trying to attract to the Walden Galleria."
"I was shocked," Ritchie said, explaining that working-class people were the kind his music and gift shops depended on as customers and workers. He knew also, he said, that the Walden bus "carried mostly black riders."
"I concluded that this was discrimination based on race."
Darryl Rasuli, a communications official with the transport authority, said he was troubled by the bus situation--especially knowing that the mall would allow private tour buses bearing Canadian shopping excursions onto mall property, but not the number 6 bus. The mall said that public buses like the number 6 would wear mall roadways, but the tour buses were even larger than the public ones.
"It seemed that some people were being valued more than other people," Rasuli testified.
But Terrence M. Connors, the attorney for the transit authority, argued that the agency did all it could--including starting the mall-to-mall shuttle--to make up for the mall's ban on the number 6 bus. As owners of private property, the Pyramid company had the right to determine bus movements there.
In a hint at testimony to come, Connors raised questions about Wiggins's character, such as her status as an unwed mother and her absence from school on the day of her accident.
Her father said she had become more serious about life and had matured as a result of the baby. After his birth, she searched for a job and found one as a clerk at the Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips shop at the Walden Galleria.
"She didn't want to go on welfare," Wiggins said.
What she wanted and often talked about was a career in medicine--perhaps as a nurse or pediatrician. As a child, Wiggins liked to play doctor with her younger siblings and friends, wrapping them up with comically excessive bandages for the tiniest scrape, her father recalled.
After the accident, she lingered on life support for three weeks before dying of massive injuries on Jan. 2, 1996.
On Jan. 28, The Buffalo News published an expose about the mall's ban against the number 6 bus.
A few days later, under threat of a multiracial boycott, the mall finally allowed the number 6 bus to stop regularly on its property.
CAPTION: Taquilo Castellanos, 4, and his father, Rogelio Castellanos, right, greet lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. last week before entering a Buffalo courtroom where the family is suing a suburban mall for the highway death of Taquilo's mother.
CAPTION: Cynthia Wiggins was killed crossing 7-lane road from bus stop to mall.
CAPTION: Lawyer Terrence Connors contends the transit authority did all it could.