Violent spree against homeless people in subway leaves 2 dead

By Andy Newman, Edgar Sandoval and Christina Goldbaum

The first killing was just after 11 p.m. Friday on a subway train in Queens: Police found a man, apparently homeless, dead from stab wounds to the neck and torso, slumped on a seat.

The second was two hours later and 25 miles away, but on the same New York City subway line: a 44-year-old woman, also apparently homeless, stabbed throughout her body underneath a seat on a train at a station in Upper Manhattan.

At a third subway station, a homeless man sleeping on an exit stairwell was awakened by a sharp pain in his back. He, too, had been stabbed. He ran to a bank, collapsed and was in “stable condition” at a hospital, police said.

All three attacks, police said, were likely committed by the same person. And they may be linked to a nonfatal attack Friday morning, in which an assailant yelled “I’m going to kill you,” then stabbed a 67-year-old homeless man in the knee and buttocks as he pushed his walker on a train platform.

The four attacks — all within 24 hours on the A line — amounted to an alarming surge in the recent spate of violence in the subways, and underscored the vulnerability of the hundreds of homeless people who shelter in the transit system.

Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said Saturday that 500 more officers would be immediately deployed throughout the subway system, both above and below ground.

The stabbings, all of which were unprovoked, recalled a horrific night of violence in October 2019 when four homeless men were beaten to death while sleeping on the street in Chinatown. A homeless man, Randy Rodriguez Santos, was eventually charged in the murders.

On Saturday, investigators were canvassing the locations of the new attacks: the 181st Street station in Upper Manhattan, where the two nonfatal stabbings occurred; Rockaway-Mott Avenue station in Queens, where the man was found dead; and Inwood-207th Street station in Upper Manhattan, where the woman was killed.

The manager of a bodega just outside the 181st Street subway entrance, Abdulrahman Mohumed, said that shortly before 3 a.m., a man came into his store, Fort Washington Candy & Grocery, and ordered coffee. “I see the guy coming out of the subway,” Mohumed said.

He noticed that the man had blood on his mouth. There was no coffee, and the man left. On Saturday afternoon, Mohumed said, police came in and showed him security photos of the suspected assailant. It was the same man. The officers asked for his security video of the man coming in to buy coffee, Mohumed said.

Deputy Chief Brian McGee, commanding officer of the Manhattan North detective bureau, said detectives were interviewing the surviving victims and trying to piece together what took place. “We don’t have much at all on the perpetrator at this point,” he said.

Even though the subways have only a fraction of the ridership they had before the pandemic, violent crimes have persisted and at times increased. For 2020 through mid-November, there were more incidents of felony assault, rape, homicide and robbery in the subways than during the same period in 2019.

Since then, attacks have continued. In January, a homeless man, Khari Covington, was charged with nine assaults on women dating back months, most of them at a subway station in Brooklyn.

Several attacks in the stations appeared to have been committed by people who are homeless and have mental illness, feeding a debate on how to help the homeless people who continue to use the trains for shelter, even though the system has shut down overnight for cleaning since spring because of the pandemic.

According to the most recent statistics, crime in the transit system in January 2021 was down more than 50% from January 2020, but subway ridership was down about 70% during that time, making crime that occurs there stand out.

So far in February, at least five people were slashed on trains or in stations, a 26-year-old man was shoved to the tracks in the financial district, and a woman was shoved off a subway platform in the Bronx by a woman in what appeared to be another unprovoked assault.

In recent years, transit officials and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who controls the transit agency, have been pushing to expand policing in the subway. In 2019, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subways, approved a $249 million plan to hire 500 additional transit officers; about 200 of them have been hired.

On Saturday, Sarah Feinberg, interim president of the MTA’s subway agency, and Tony Utano, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, released a joint statement calling for increased police presence on the subway.

For months, a policy battle has been waged over homeless people in the subway system. Many homeless people say they choose to sleep there to avoid the risk of contracting COVID-19 at the city’s barracks-style group shelters, which have a reputation for being unsafe. The city has added hundreds of additional private shelter beds in hotel rooms and stepped up efforts to move homeless people from the subway to shelters, but some homeless people now move to the Staten Island Ferry or camp outdoors when the trains close down shortly after 1 a.m.

The MTA drew criticism last week after a spokesperson said that benches were removed from a station to discourage homeless people from sleeping there. On Friday, advocates for homeless people sued the transit system, arguing that pandemic rules barring people from staying in a station for over an hour and prohibiting large carts violated the civil rights of homeless people.

Mark Levine, a Democratic City Council member who is on the council’s transportation committee, said homeless people need more than increased police presence.

“The majority of homeless people seeking refuge in the subway system are there for one reason: They don’t feel safe in shelters,” he said. “If we can fix that, it will change everything.”

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