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.
Investigators acknowledged, though, that they still knew little about the suspected killer or his motive.
Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and New York City Mayor Eric Adams, speaking together at the news conference, urged anyone living on the streets to go to city shelters where they might be safer.
“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 said New York City police and homeless outreach teams would focus on finding unhoused people in the subways and other locations to urge them to seek 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.
The latest violence underscored the urgency to get the homeless off the streets and into safe housing, said Jacquelyn Simone, policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City.
“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 man in those photos looked similar to the one being sought by his own 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. A second man was wounded on March 8, just before 1:30 a.m.
At 3 a.m. the next day, March 9, police and firefighters found a dead man inside a burning tent. He was initially thought to have suffered fatal burns, but a subsequent autopsy revealed that the man had died of multiple stab and gunshot wounds.
The killer then traveled north to New York City, police said.
At 4:30 a.m. Saturday, a 38-year-old man sleeping on the street in Manhattan not far from the entrance to the Holland Tunnel was shot in his right arm as he slept.
The victim screamed and the gunman fled, police said.
About 90 minutes later, the gunman fatally shot another man on Lafayette Street in SoHo, police said.
“He looked around. He made sure no one was there. 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.
After finding refuge in parks and other places across Brooklyn and Manhattan, Abraham tried to find help at the Bowery Mission, which houses hundreds of homeless people in its facilities across 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. Another homeless man, Randy Santos, has pleaded not guilty to murder charges in those attacks.
A year ago, four people were stabbed in New York City, two fatally, by a man who randomly attacked homeless people in the subway system. That assailant, who was also homeless, is awaiting trial.
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, on Monday, defended the policy, saying it was designed to protect the safety of both commuters and homeless residents.
“There is nothing dignified about allowing people to sleep on subway platforms,” he said.
Khalil reported from Washington, D.C.