(NEW YORK) — The mayors of New York City and Washington D.C. appealed to the public for help Monday in an urgent search for a gunman who has been stalking homeless men asleep on their streets, killing at least two people and wounding three others in less than two weeks.
Police in the two cities released multiple surveillance photographs, including a close-up snapshot clearly showing the man’s face, and urged people who might know him to come forward.
“Our reach is far and wide, and we’re coming for you,” Metropolitan Police Department Chief Robert J. Contee said at a news conference in Washington, speaking directly to the gunman.
However, investigators admitted that they knew very little about the suspect killer and his motives.
Muriel Bowser from Washington D.C. and Eric Adams of New York City, addressed the press conference.
“We know that our unsheltered residents already face a lot of daily dangers and it is unconscionable that anybody would target this vulnerable population,” Bowser said.
Adams stated that New York City’s police and outreach team for homeless would be focusing on unhoused individuals in subways, and other places to encourage them to take refuge at city-owned shelters.
In Washington, city outreach workers were passing out flyers among the homeless population, urging people to “be vigilant” and featuring multiple pictures of the suspect.
Jacquelyn Simone is the policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless New York City. She said that the recent violence has highlighted the urgent need for homeless people to be moved from the street and into shelters.
“The reason that these people were attacked is because they didn’t have that safety of permanent housing,” she said. “And that’s why we really need to use these tragedies as an opportunity to redouble our efforts to ensure that people have a better option than the streets where they’re exposed to both the elements as well as people who might wish to do them harm.”
Investigators in the two cities began to suspect a link between the shootings on Sunday after a Metropolitan Police Department homicide captain — a former resident of New York City — saw surveillance photos that had been released Saturday night by the NYPD while scrolling through social media.
The photo of the man on those photographs looked very much like that taken by his department.
D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee credited the quick coordination between departments, saying that without that officer making the connection, “It could have been months,” before the link between the attacks was discovered.
The earliest known shooting happened at around 4 a.m. on March 3 in Washington D.C., police said, when a man was shot and wounded in the city’s Northeast section. On March 8, a second victim was injured just before 1:35 a.m.
On March 9, at 3:00 a.m., firefighters and police found the body of a man in a burned tent. Initial reports suggested that he had suffered from fatal burns. However, an autopsy later revealed that he died from multiple gunshot and stab wounds.
According to police, the murderer then headed north towards New York City.
As he lay down, a 38 year-old man in Manhattan was shot in the arm.
Police said that the victim shouted, and the gunman ran.
According to police, the shooter fatally shot another victim on Lafayette Street, SoHo around 90 minutes later.
“He looked around. He checked to make sure that nobody was around. And he intentionally took the life of an innocent person,” Adams said.
The man’s body was found in his sleeping bag just before 5 p.m. Saturday.
“Any one of us who’s homeless could have went to that same situation,” said Kess Abraham, who fell into homelessness last month.
Abraham sought refuge in Brooklyn parks and Manhattan and found help from the Bowery Mission. This mission houses homeless individuals in several locations throughout the city.
He said he was “pained” to learn of “a guy who lived on the streets who probably was minding his own business getting murdered for no reason.”
Joel Castillo, a 24-year-old experiencing a first brush with homelessness who was also at the mission’s downtown facility, said more should be done to keep the city’s residents safe — homeless or otherwise.
“I don’t know if it’s a police problem, but given the circumstances, the police should actually kind of step up and do a little bit more. I’m not saying that they don’t already do enough,” he said, “but what I am saying is that there should be a lot more measures taken to ensure that the city’s taxpayers are kept safe.”
James Winans, the mission’s chief executive officer, said it was “very sobering” that one of the killings happened just blocks away from the organization’s emergency shelter.
The latest attacks were reminiscent of the beating deaths of four homeless men as they slept on the streets in New York’s Chinatown in the fall of 2019. Randy Santos, another homeless man has pleaded no guilty to those murder charges.
Four people were attacked by an attacker who targeted homeless persons in New York’s subway system one year ago. Two of them died. This assailant is also homeless and is being held in custody.
New York City’s mayor has been criticized by some anti-poverty advocates for his plan to remove homeless people from the city’s subway system by deploying police and mental health workers to keep people from sleeping in trains or stations.
Adams defended Monday’s policy and said it was intended to safeguard the safety of commuters as well as homeless people.
“There is nothing dignified about allowing people to sleep on subway platforms,” he said.
Khalil reports from Washington, D.C.