So the thing is, and I’ll admit, I have a pretty niche interest. What can I say? I grew up looking forward to Fridays … because that was the day of the week that Law & Order: SVU premiered new episodes (in the late 90’s-early 00’s). Honestly, I’m kind of amazed that I still decided to move to The Big Apple after years and years of eagerly devouring both new and rerun episodes of cases ripped from the headlines. But is it any wonder that I have spent the last 8+ years of my life making a hobby/career out of telling gruesome stories of New York City to tourists?
So after reading a particularly fabulous true crime book, I decided to search my soul for the one crime that I felt defined New York City in the sleazy 20th Century. Of course, everybody knows that the Big Apple got a rotten reputation for a while there, and I wondered to myself, Why? What was the headline, the crime, that soured public opinion so much on my beloved town? I found it hard to narrow it down and then I decided, in the spirit of those countdown shows I loved so much on VH1, to do a 55-year retrospective on some of the headlines that kept the city that never sleeps up at night… for all the wrong reasons.
2014 – The Death of Eric Garner
During an arrest on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes, Eric Garner was put into an illegal chokehold for 15 whole seconds, and as a result of police brutality, died. Considering the absolute absurdity of these words I just typed is maddening. The case of Eric Garner’s murder was just one of many in an epidemic of fatal police violence against black citizens. Unsurprisingly, neither of the police officers involved in Garner’s slaying were indicted for his death. Tragedy compounded tragedy when, three years later, Eric Garner’s daughter Erica died of a heart attack at the age of 27, having been one of the loudest activist voices decrying her father’s deadly assault. As we continue to watch police murder our neighbors simply for the color of their skin, the name of Eric Garner will keep resurfacing as long as we are forced to watch this epidemic of police violence play out in the media.
WATCH: “‘I can’t breathe’: Eric Garner put in chokehold by NYPD officer — video” The Guardian (trigger warning: police brutality, murder)
READ: “‘I Can’t Breathe’: 5 Years After Eric Garner’s Death, an Officer Faces Trial” The New York Times
2009 – Bernie Madoff
The late 2000s were defined by financial crisis. The news constantly blasted headlines with words like “Recession” and “ENRON” and the name: BERNIE MADOFF. The Madoffs were so intricately embedded in New York society, such a high-profile family, that the shockwaves of his Ponzi scheme rattled New Yorkers from the top down. The corruption and mistrust in Wall Street and in the deep pockets that toyed with our economy and our life’s savings and our futures trickled into modern day left-wing ideology. It’s fair to say that the recession of 2008 — and the excesses of Bernie Madoff — led to the Occupy Wall Street movement, which defined New York life in the fall of 2011.
READ: “Ex-Nasdaq chair arrested for securities fraud” CNN
WATCH: Madoff (2016)
1996 – Party Monster Michael Alig
Fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 9 know exactly what I’m talking about when I say “Club Kid Couture.” As a matter of fact, “Club Kids” existed on the fringes of society before the body of Angel Melendez washed ashore on Staten Island. Paraded as “freaks” on the daytime talk shows of Geraldo Rivera, Joan Rivers and Phil Donahue, to the rest of the country, they must have seemed dangerous long before Michael Alig gave the group a deserved bad reputation. But to the New Yorkers who sought the glamorous parties at The Limelight as a means to escape from 90s-era Gen X apathy, it must have seemed like the glamorous Andy Warhol days all over again. Sure, there were drugs… drugs that led Michael Alig to snap and murder his friend Andre “Angel” Melendez. That alone would be horrifying enough… but the fact that Alig left his body in the bathtub covered in ice for over a week before deciding to dismember Melendez and dump his body in the river… made the case a legend.
WATCH: Party Monster
1989 – The Tricia Meili Attack — Central Park Jogger
This case is still making headlines today. You may not remember Tricia Meili’s name, but you’re probably familiar with the attack on the “Central Park jogger,” or the so-called case of the “Central Park Five.” This case is still regularly in the news today, a little over thirty years later. Everyone, of course, knows the story: a white woman in her late 20’s is found in Central Park, raped and brutally beaten within an inch of her life. Five boys were falsely convicted of the crime, which later turned out to be committed by Matias Reyes. The convictions of the Central Park Five were officially vacated in 2002, and their continued quest for justice over their false convictions and the years of their lives that were stolen by a corrupt justice system continues even to this day. We all know about this case because of the injustice that pushed the Central Park Five into confession and conviction today, but at the time, it caused panic for entirely different reasons. The victim, a pretty white woman, was made into a martyr by the press, who were all too eager to see five young men of color go down for the crime. Truth be damned, this was about making a statement: that “the city” (read: white people) would not live in fear in the face of “urban blight” (read: teenagers of color). The fact that the actual perp raped and even murdered other women before the chance attack on Tricia Meili largely falls by the wayside, due to the media’s fascination with pretty, white, female victims. In this case, I hear echoes of the Kitty Genovese murder 25 years before… but don’t worry, we’ll get to that.
LISTEN: Not Guilty on the Parcast Network, The Central Park Five Pt. 1: “Wilding” & Pt. 2: “The Sixth Man”
WATCH: When They See Us
1977 – The Son of Sam — David Berkowitz
The 1970’s were a real time of despair in New York. The city was bankrupt. The Bronx was on fire. And then, the lights went out. Fun aside: the only time in history that the Coney Island Wonder Wheel ever “broke down” was during the Blackout of ’77! Amusement park employees had to manually crank the wheel to get trapped passengers down: imagine being at the top of the Wonder Wheel and feeling it grind to a halt as you overlook a completely dark city. You might have felt as scared and helpless as the entire population felt during the seemingly random crime spree of the Son of Sam. The unassuming postal worker stabbed, and then shot, seven victims. His attraction to murdering women with long, dark hair led to panic where many women cut and bleached their hair in 1977, to improve their chances of survival as David Berkowitz carried out seemingly random attacks across Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Ultimately brought down by a parking ticket, he later said that his neighbor’s black labrador retriever told him to commit the murders. Everyone knows the case of the Son of Sam because of his odd proclivities and the almost comical way his crime spree ended, but few people can imagine the terror that must have reigned between July of 1976 and July 1977. ANOTHER FUN FACT: The final two Son of Sam murders occurred on my birthday, July 31st! In 1977, I wouldn’t exist for another 7 years. Fun “On This Day In History” fact, huh? But it wasn’t fun to the neighbors of New York City. The decade of the 70s could easily have been defined by serial killer terror. The Zodiac Killer, the Hillside Stranglers, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy. Many would say that the country lost its innocence after the Manson family murders in 1969, kicking off a wave of serial killer awareness that came to define a generation.
LISTEN: The Last Podcast On The Left Son of Sam series takes a humorous (and sometimes tasteless, I’ll admit) look at the murders which carefully elucidates each of the murders and delves into Berkowitz’s early life.
1964 – the Kitty Genovese stabbing
By the 1960’s, automobiles and bridges made it possible for affluent families to spread out into suburbs in Long Island and Upstate New York, commencing the “white flight” away from the cramped, urban centers of the city and towards the imagined relative safety of the suburbs. This was what Vincent Genovese had in mind when he packed up the family in Brooklyn and moved to Connecticut — but his eldest daughter Kitty — a semi-closeted lesbian — chose to remain behind in the Big City, where she felt she could be herself. Everybody remembers the headline: 37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police. It caused a sensation: the sleepy suburb of Kew Gardens, Queens was supposed to be a safe, quiet community, but overnight it became the epicenter of urban apathy, embodying the “Bystander Effect.” The fame of Kitty’s brutal death often outshines the beautiful ordinariness of her life: the romantic wooing of her girlfriend Mary Ann and their life together, at a time when it was still ILLEGAL to knowingly serve alcoholic beverages to “known homosexuals.” More blame is placed on the “37 witnesses” — and on the apathy of the big, scary city in general — than on her remorseless killer, Winston Moseley, a vicious rapist and murderer who not only committed vile atrocities against women before Kitty Genovese, but went on to escape from prison and go on a terrifying crime spree in Buffalo, New York (where my mother lived at the time!).
READ: Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America by Kevin Cook (I just read this and highly recommend this page-turner)
WATCH: The Witness, starring Bill Genovese, Kitty’s own younger brother, in one of my favorite crime documentaries ever made.
1959 – The Capeman Murders
A hot August night in Hell’s Kitchen. A gang of teenagers, led by a child in a cape, descend upon a playground. Then, murder. It’s the plot of West Side Story, and it happened for real in 1959 when Salvador Agron stabbed and killed two innocent bystanders in the notorious Capeman murders. The story of his descent into homicide, and subsequent surprising turn, was so legendary that it earned its own musical — The Capeman, lyrics and music by Paul Simon. And if you’d like to learn more about this infamous crime, and/or if you’d me to sing the bridge of “Adios Hermanos” to you in person, you have to book the Hell’s Kitchen Mostly Murder tour with me! Come to think, if you enjoyed learning about any of these crimes and want to learn about even more that I didn’t even mention, you’d love the Mostly Murder tour, and I’ll see you then!
LISTEN: “Adios Hermanos” from Songs from The Capeman by Paul Simon.