by Katerina Iliakopoulou and Mary Kekatos
On a cold night in early February, a family dispute on a relatively quiet street in Flushing turned deadly in an instant, leaving a 57-year old man dead outside the front door of a two-story Tudor stone house on Utopia Parkway.
Police arrested the man’s 19-year-old son, Dimitrios (Dimitris) Safetis, and charged him with manslaughter, assault, and criminal possession of a weapon. According to the criminal complaint, the teenager wrestled a metal car club away from his father, Ioannis Safetis, also known as Yannis. Dimitris allegedly struck his younger 16-year-old brother, Niko, in the face first and then bashed his father over the head with the club. Safetis was rushed to New York Hospital of Queens, where he was pronounced dead from blunt force trauma to the head.
What unfolded on that cold Feb. 5 will likely be talked about in court in the months ahead, but what happened in front of 4705 Utopia Parkway is not a simple story.
The house was not where the Safetises lived, but the place appears to mourn for the deceased man. The wall-mounted lantern next to the front door is dressed in a black gossamer veil. Small red paper hearts rest on the stone walls. A clay pot with three red heart balloons, two flags—one American and one Greek—and photos of a salt-and-pepper haired man smiling, is set as a memorial on the spot where Safetis fell dead. Attached to it, a note on red paper reads:
“Yianne Safetis my beloved that I Love near and far Died in front of Utopia, once we shared of Love and dispute. Peaceful Mind Soul.”
Safetis’ ex-girlfriend, Irene Vrachnos, 50, has lived in the house on Utopia Parkway with her daughter and two sons from a previous marriage for 17 years. The first time Vrachnos remembers meeting Safetis was in 2009 at a Waldbaum’s on Francis Lewis Boulevard in Flushing, when the then-50-year-old bearded construction worker in his dirty uniform, as she recalls, heard her speaking in Greek with her daughter. She says she made him laugh. He gave her his number, but she didn’t call him until a few months later, when the house on 4705 Utopia caught fire. Safetis helped her rebuild, she says. He mended all the things the insurance didn’t cover. He painted the walls. He put up the curtains. He replaced the chandelier. “I see him everywhere I look in this house,” says Vrachnos.
Safetis would often tell her that they would die together, Vrachnos recalls. But other times, she says, he was worried that his kids would break them up. Safetis’ sons from a previous marriage—Dimitris and Nikolaos (Niko)—grew up in Hicksville, Long Island with their mother and grandparents. But when the children started having problems in school in 2013, they moved in with their father into his apartment on 190th Street in Auburndale.
According to Anna Myroni, a friend of the father, the older son, Dimitris, suffered from a drinking problem. “Yannis complained a lot about Dimitris getting drunk often or not waking up on time to go to work,” says Myroni.
Vrachnos says both Safetis and his sons found the transition of living together overwhelming. She says they would have many confrontations in public. A neighbor of Safetis, who asked not to be named, says he would often hear loud yelling from their apartment. Another neighbor across the hall from the Safetises’ described the father as a man of few words. “He was no-nonsense with everybody,” he adds.
“He was a history buff,” says a close friend of Safetis, who did not wish to be named. “He would playfully boast that he hails from Mounta Olympus in Greece, where the ancient Greek gods reside. He had a heart of gold.”
Myroni, who also runs Bahari Estiatorio, a Greek restaurant in Astoria, also remembers Safetis as a kind and honest man. She says he would stop by the restaurant every day, on his way to or from work for a cup of coffee. “He was very energetic,” says Myroni. “A proud father, who strived for his sons.”
According to Safetis’s former girlfriend, the relationship between Safetis and the two boys was not easy. She says she would try to help him. “I was always there being a supportive system,” she explained. “I was part of their lives.”
But when Vrachnos and Safetis broke up—in May 2015—the father wanted his sons to put her behind them. “Close the door to her,” he would say to the two boys, according to Vrachnos. She says she encouraged them not to. “I would drive them, pick them up, drop them off. I would give them advice. That’s my choice as a mother, because my job is being a mother.”
In January, Dimitris was becoming more of a regular at Vrachnos’ home. She said that one time, her ex-boyfriend got so upset by this he called the cops on her because his son was hanging out at her place. His son ignored him.
On the day of the incident, Vrachnos says, Safetis’ sons were both grieving. Their grandfather—who, according to Vrachnos had played a critical role in raising the two boys—had died the day before. They both visited the ex-girlfriend’s house. She recalls the younger boy being in particular distress, while the elder one seemed to mourn quietly. Then, suddenly, she says, the 16-year-old boy snapped and started verbally attacking his older brother, accusing him of being apathetic.
At 8:22 p.m, she says she dialed Safetis’ number for help. “Come over and pick up your son. He’s upset,” Vrachnos said.
Fifteen minutes later, Vrachnos says she saw Safetis through the window, stopping his car in front of her house on Utopia Parkway. She says he would never park his car so close after their break-up. He would always wait down the block when he had to pick up his sons from her house. But this time, he came right to the front.
Vrachnos says that she went out of the house followed by her daughter Kyriaki, her son Michael and the Safetis brothers. The younger son was still yelling at his older brother, she recalls. Their father started yelling too, Vrachnos says. Then, she says, 19-year-old Dimitris punched the 16-year-old Niko in his face, causing his nose to bleed and splattering Vrachnos’ lemon yellow sweater.
“Take them, I don’t want them fighting in my house,” she says she told Safetis.
The father, Yannis Safetis, then went to his car and took a metal car club out, says Vrachnos. He then grabbed her by the right arm and hit her on the nose. Safetis’ older son, Dimitris, stepped in the middle, says Vrachnos, wrestling with his father to protect her. Vrachnos’ son Michael tried to push her into the house. “Mommy you don’t need this drama,” she remembers him telling her. “My son grabbed me because Yannis was attacking me,” adds Vrachnos. She turned her head for a moment, she says, and when she looked back the 57-year-old Safetis was lying stiff on the pavement.
According to Dimitris Safetis’ attorney, Michael Schwed, the defendant pled “not guilty,” stating he was under the influence of alcohol and acted in self defense when he wrestled the weapon from his father. Vrachnos says she won’t comment on the youth’s drinking problem or on whether he was drunk the night of the incident. Dimitris is currently being held on $500,000 bail at the Vernon C. Bain Center in the Bronx. He faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted. His next appearance in court is February 29.
Meanwhile, Safetis’ body remains in the morgue at New York Hospital of Queens. The funeral was supposed to be held on February 18, but the body was not released, according to family friend, Konstantinos Mitrakas. The younger Safetis, Niko, is staying with his mother in Hicksville, Long Island.
Vrachnos says that she is slowly recovering. The cut on the bridge of her nose has almost healed and the bruises on her right arm are fading away. When she talks about Safetis she still refers to him as her “beloved Yannis.” She plans to sell her house and start a new life, she says. In the meantime, she tends her temporary memorial in front of 4705 Utopia, which she says will soon be gone.