The Upper West Side has been shrouded in grief and candlelight in the days following the murder of first-year Barnard College student, Tessa Majors, last week. Hundreds came together, bringing flowers and candles in hand, for vigils that honored the life of 18-year-old Virginia native — and in mourning, these residents, students and community leaders have asked what could be done to prevent a tragedy such as this, especially as it became clear that the reported suspects were children themselves.
At a vigil Sunday evening in Morningside Park — where the homicide took place last Wednesday during an apparent robbery attempt — Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and other elected officials talked about the need to make the park and area safe for all of the neighborhood’s children.
“Violence does not belong here in Morningside Park," said Brewer, adding that the park requires more lighting, cameras and officers on patrol to ensure its safety.
Earlier in the week, Brewer met with NYPD top brass, Columbia University public safety officials and members of the city’s parks department for a walk through Morningside Park to examine how safety could be improved in the park.
Families Destroyed on Both Sides
In his remarks at the vigil, Council Member Mark Levine considered the ages of the current suspects: one a 13-year-old boy who has been arrested on charges of second-degree felony murder, robbery and criminal possession of a weapon; and two other teens, one of whom was questioned by police, but not charged, and the individual believed to have stabbed Majors, who is still at large.
“I know that when we learned that the suspects — and they are suspects, let’s not assume anything — that the suspects were only 13 and 14 that only compounded this tragedy,” Levine said. “Families were destroyed on both sides of this horrible crime. We have failed not just Tess but the families of this community as well.”
On Thursday, the Barnard and Columbia University communities gathered at the Diana Center for a vigil, which quickly filled to capacity as community members spilled into the halls of the student center. Students, visibly shaken, huddled together to console one another.
At the event, according to a report from the Columbia Spectator, the university’s student newspaper, Barnard College President Sian Leah Beilock told students to take care of one another and to seek counseling if it was needed. She said Majors, who was in a band and had taken part in journalism internships, was passionate and energetic regarding her interests.
A Detective Testifies
The 13-year-old suspect, who lives in Harlem, was arraigned as a juvenile in family court on Friday, according to a report from the Daily Beast.
Detective Vincent Signoretti testified at the hearing that the 13-year-old confessed to robbing Majors along with the two other teens. According to Signoretti, the suspect told police that the two other boys attacked Majors at West 116th and Morningside Drive while he largely stood back and watched. One of the teens held Majors in a chokehold while the other searched her pockets. One of the two then dropped a knife, which the 13-year-old said he picked up and handed back to his friend. The teen still at large began stabbing Majors. The three fled in the direction of their homes.
Majors staggered back up the steps of the park and out onto the street where a security guard found her and called 911.
The 13-year-old was remanded without bail. He is being held in secure detention by the Administration for Children’s Services, as reported by the Columbia Spectator.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, Sergeants Benevolent Association president Ed Mullins sparked outrage when he gave a radio interview saying that Majors had been in the park to buy marijuana.
“And you think about that, we don’t enforce marijuana laws anymore. We’re basically hands-off on the enforcement of marijuana,” Mullins said. "So here we have a student murdered by a 13-year-old and we have a common denominator of marijuana. You know, my question to the people of New York City is, ‘Why is this happening?’”
The NYPD do not believe the 13-year-old stabbed Majors. Police also have not reported a reason why Majors was in the park on Wednesday.
Mayor Bill de Blasio responded to the police union official’s remarks on Twitter, calling the statements “heartless.”
“We don’t shame victims in this city,” he wrote.
The family of Majors gave a statement calling Mullins’ remarks “irresponsible.”
“The remarks by Sergeants Benevolent Association president Ed Mullins we find deeply inappropriate, as they intentionally or unintentionally direct blame onto Tess, a young woman, for her own murder," the family of Majors said. "We would ask Mr. Mullins not to engage in such irresponsible public speculation, just as the NYPD asked our family not to comment as it conducts the investigation."
A Pattern of Crime
The murder follows a pattern of crime on the Upper West Side in the last two months involving groups of young teens surrounding other teenagers in order to steal their property, often using violence. Deputy Inspector Timothy Malin of the 20th precinct reported the pattern to residents of the neighborhood at the precinct’s meeting just weeks ago.
“It’s packs of kids,” Malin said at the time. “They'll surround other kids with their phone and then take it.”
Malin, who declined to comment on the Majors case, previously said that the phenomenon was an issue all over Manhattan and not only in the 20th precinct.
Elizabeth Carr, a resident of the Upper West Side who recently created a Facebook group titled “NYC Moms for Safe Streets” in response to the violent crimes that had taken place in the neighborhood in the last several months, said that before Wednesday’s murder, she felt as though elected officials were not taking these events seriously.
“I’m sure that will change now,” she said in an interview Thursday.
Carr, who is a mother of three and has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, said she believes the stabbing is consistent with the pattern of crime that Malin had described in recent weeks. She called on members of her Facebook group to reach out to politicians to ask what they are doing to figure out the source of this new trend.
“I think the NYPD is really good at solving crime once they happen,” Carr said. “But of course, the real issue is what could have been done to prevent this tragic death.”
The Deputy Commissioner of Public Information did not respond to questions about this pattern of crime involving young teenagers by press time.