The Murders Down the Hall
New York magazine|October 11 - 24, 2021
393 POWELL STREET WAS A PEACEFUL HOME UNTIL RESIDENTS STARTED DYING IN BRUTAL, MYSTERIOUS WAYS.
Greg Donahue

WHEN MYRTLE MCKINNEY first moved into the Carter G. Woodson Houses in 2004, she felt lucky to be there. The complex is one of only 38 public-housing developments in New York City reserved for seniors, and the waiting list for a one-bedroom can stretch on for years.

A Jamaican emigrant in her early 70s, she had raised seven kids working as a housekeeper in Florida and the Bahamas before relocating to Brooklyn to live with her daughter. By the time her application was approved, she was desperate for a place of her own.

After settling into apartment 6M, McKinney quickly jumped into the bustling social scene enjoyed by the development’s 450 residents. She joined a knitting circle in the first-floor senior center and spent her mornings relaxing with friends amid the rows of shade-dappled benches in the courtyard out front. In the afternoons, her neighbor in 6E, an easygoing man in his early 70s named Leon Gavin, whom everyone called “Music Man,” liked to DJ dance parties in the courtyard from a small speaker hooked up to his mobility scooter. It was like a middle-school dance, one resident said: girls on one side, boys on the other.

Situated in the heart of eastern Brooklyn along the border between Brownsville and East New York, the Woodson Houses occupy nearly an entire block in one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. But to the residents who lived there, the complex was a refuge, “a place of peace,” as one family member put it. Over the next decade, though, that feeling would slowly disappear. The complex had always dealt with its share of low-level crime, but around 2013, an influx of new tenants seemed to bring with them new dangers. Now, when a resident’s caregiver was buzzed into the main tower’s front door, a seemingly endless stream of interlopers sneaked in after, vanishing into the dark corners of the high-rise. Longtime residents suddenly found themselves accosted in the hallways by strangers asking for money. Some smoked crack in the stairwells and on the roof. And while some residents fretted over the conditions, others started supplementing their income by renting out couches to drug users off the street. Things got so bad that at one point, a small band of users took over an elderly tenant’s cramped second-floor apartment and turned it into a thriving crack den.

The residents weren’t alone in facing deteriorating circumstances at their development: NYCHA complexes have long suffered from issues of neglect, including mold infestation, contaminated drinking water, and lead-paint poisoning. When Woodson residents complained to the NYCHA staff that oversaw the property, they were told there was little that could be done to secure the premises. Woodson had no surveillance cameras, and the security guards NYCHA hired from a private firm to monitor the front doors were on-site only between 5 p.m. and midnight. The rest of the day, the complex was “wide open,” one resident said. Instead, NYCHA management encouraged residents to safeguard the lobby themselves as part of the development’s Tenant Patrol, a neighborhood-watch-style group that had been in operation off and on for years. At first, they offered snacks and water as an incentive for residents to join, but after a staffing change, the goodies went away, and the group eventually petered out.

As the situation grew worse, McKinney started sequestering herself in her apartment. She quit the knitting circle. “I’m not much for crowds,” she told her friends before heading upstairs when Music Man’s dance parties kicked off. She still woke early every morning to curl her hair and fix her makeup—she was always impeccably dressed—but by the time she was in her early 80s, McKinney was doing little else but watching TV, cooking Jamaican food, and running the occasional errand. Aside from a home health aide named Patricia Goodman, whom McKinney’s children had hired to keep her company on weekday mornings, she was spending nearly all of her time alone.

Just before 9 a.m. on November 9, 2015, Goodman arrived at McKinney’s apartment to take her to a doctor’s appointment and realized something was wrong. McKinney wasn’t answering her door or her landline. And she wasn’t down the hall, where she would sometimes watch TV with Music Man and his brother Kevin, who had been crashing on a spare mattress in the apartment for years. For two hours, Goodman knocked on neighbors’ doors and asked the maintenance crew if they had seen her. She scoured the benches and the aisles of the nearby Food Bazaar where McKinney liked to shop.

After giving up her search, Goodman called 911 and was soon joined in the hallway by two officers from PSA 2, the NYPD Housing Authority division responsible for more than 40 developments across northeastern Brooklyn. “Why are you assuming something’s wrong?” one of the officers asked as the superintendent unlocked McKinney’s door. There was no need to answer. In the small kitchen alcove just beyond the living room, McKinney lay on her back under a table, purple bruises circling her eyes, splotches of dried blood caked to her face and the floor. Her tongue lolled out over the edge of her lips, no longer fenced in by her dentures, which lay a few feet away. She probably fell and hit her head, one of the officers told Goodman.

The cops concluded that McKinney’s death was an accident. There were no signs of forced entry, and her apartment appeared untouched. When the officers called McKinney’s doctor, he confirmed that she suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure and agreed to sign her death certificate without viewing the body. “It may appear to be a lazy way,” one retired detective told me, “but it was your quickest way to wrap up the scene. If you can get a doctor to sign off, then things start to move.” No detectives arrived, and no one thoroughly examined the body. The responding EMT clocked the time of death, and within hours, McKinney was carted off to the morgue with a death certificate that declared she had died of natural causes.

McKinney’s family didn’t agree. Her daughter, Donna Meeks, an unassuming woman with a lilting Jamaican accent, arrived a short time after the police and immediately suspected foul play. Her mother’s body had come to rest too far under the table for a slip and fall, she thought. She began her own investigation and quickly discovered that McKinney’s keys and ID were missing. A week later, she found that $800, more than twice her mother’s monthly rent, was missing from McKinney’s bank account. The cash was nowhere to be found.

While McKinney’s body languished in the morgue, Meeks and her younger brother, Mark Lewis, pleaded with the NYPD to reexamine the case. “Do something,” Meeks remembered begging the police. “Take some fingerprints, I don’t know, do something.” She filed a petty-larceny complaint over the missing money in the hopes of jumpstarting a new investigation but never heard back. She begged the pathologists at the medical examiner’s office to do an autopsy, but they too refused. McKinney wasn’t considered the victim of a crime, so if Meeks wanted the procedure done, she would have to pay for it herself. It would cost between $15,000 and $20,000. “I gave up,” she told me. “I just couldn’t afford it.”

In early December, Meeks and her brother transferred their mother to a funeral home in Flatbush. Despite their ongoing concern over the lack of an investigation, they wanted to give her a proper burial. But as the funeral director was dressing McKinney’s body in the gray suit her family had chosen for the service, he felt something peculiar on the back left side of her neck—long and thin, as if the skin had split open. Alarmed, he called the medical examiner’s office and explained what he had found. “I don’t even think it took them 20 minutes to come and take that body,” Meeks said.

A month after McKinney was found dead in her apartment, her body was finally given an autopsy. The results were devastating. “It was what we’d been trying to tell them from the beginning,” Lewis said. McKinney had suffered blunt-force trauma to her head and torso, three broken ribs, and a fatal stab wound to her neck. She hadn’t died of natural causes. She had been brutally murdered.

NEWS OF MCKINNEY'S KILLING ricocheted through the Woodson Houses. It was the first time anyone could remember the development playing host to such naked violence. “Everyone is in shock,” one resident of 25 years told the reporters who flocked to the building when the story broke. Music Man told the New York Times that he thought McKinney had just had a heart attack: “Who would do something like that?”

At a press conference a few days later, the NYPD’s chief of detectives, Rodney Harrison, tried in vain to explain how the responding officers could have overlooked the wound in McKinney’s neck—the injuries “were not easily determined by initial viewing,” he said—but the consequences of that error were difficult to overstate: It left almost no chance of finding her killer. The crime scene had long since been cleaned up, and all of her belongings had been sold or split up among her children. Al Brust, the homicide detective assigned to the case, told me that when he first opened McKinney’s door, he could scarcely believe it. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he remembered thinking. It was completely empty. “There was obviously a lot of finger-pointing that night,” he said.

Still, Brust was able to draw up a shortlist of suspects. At the top was one of Woodson’s unofficial handymen, who went by Peebles and had removed McKinney’s air conditioner the weekend she died. Peebles had an alibi and was cleared. Brust also took a close look at Leon Gavin, a.k.a. Music Man, who had been identified on security-camera footage escorting McKinney to a bank in Downtown Brooklyn. McKinney had been worried a family member was stealing from her, Gavin told the detective, and had asked him to help her look over some statements. While at the bank, she withdrew the $800 that Meeks later reported missing from her mother’s account. Brust cleared Gavin, too. “Every time we spoke to him, he cried,” Brust said.

The only other name that popped up on Brust’s list was Gavin’s brother, Kevin. As Woodson’s other unofficial handyman, he was in and out of apartments all the time, fixing TV antennae, carrying groceries, and collecting bottles. Known around the building as “Point” in honor of the ice-pick-like tool he carried, Kevin, who was in his early 60s, cut an intimidating figure at five-foot-eight and 200 pounds and had a glass left eye. When he talked, his tongue darted out over his lips like a snake’s. Kevin had a criminal record, mostly for drugs and nonviolent offenses. Residents told Brust that he was always begging for money and was addicted to crack. “Everybody in the hood knows somebody like him,” one resident told me.

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