Classmates and neighbors grieving the loss of 18-year-old Tessa Majors held a candlelight vigil on Sunday evening in Morningside Park, near the spot where she was fatally stabbed last Wednesday.
Carrying small lamps and candles, several hundred people gathered to mourn the loss of the Barnard College student just before sunset. They filled the lower part of the 116th Street steps and surrounding areas as the blue sky faded to black.
Politicians and other public figures spoke in somber tones of the tragedy, but only Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents Washington Heights, spoke explicitly of its racial and economic dimensions.
"This is the city that we built," Rodriguez said. "We live in a segregated city. We live in a city of the rich. I know that we want to eradicate poverty. But we failed whoever did it."
Then a woman shouted at Rodriguez to keep politics out of it.
Most of Morningside Park was reopened by Sunday evening; only the uppermost part of the staircase at 116th Street, where Majors was stabbed, remained blocked off by police tape.
Despite a number of notable assaults in Morningside Park in 2019 and an increase in reported robberies in the area, Columbia University and its partner college, Barnard did not caution students about the emerging threat, Gothamist reported on Friday.
"Many of us live over in that part of Harlem and have to go through the park,” said Katherine Franke, the Sulzbacher Professor of Law, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Columbia University School of Law. "I stopped walking through the park about a year ago.”
Some commentators have compared Major's killing to notorious New York City murders from the 1980s or 1990s, such as the 1990 stabbing of Brian Watkins. But that year, New York City was the American murder capital, with 2,245 homicides. There have been 303 homicides to date in 2019, according to the latest CompStat report.
There have been 124 robberies in the 26th Precinct to date in 2019, an increase from the 107 reported for 2018, but still a far cry from 786 in 1990.
Reactionary police union head Ed Mullins even speculated that Majors was going to Morningside Park to buy marijuana, a comment Majors’s family called “deeply inappropriate, as they intentionally or unintentionally direct blame onto Tess, a young woman, for her own murder.”
“Our family is interested in knowing exactly what happened to Tess and who committed her murder,” Majors’s family said in the statement.
Franke, the Columbia law professor, said that while the school needed to provide better warnings to students, warnings alone were "not sufficient." Columbia also had "to engage with the underlying causes of the kind of violence that we've been seeing in that park rather than merely sending us a notice every time someone's been attacked."
Geraldine Downey, director of the Center for Justice at Columbia University, and an advocate for restorative justice, agreed: "This is an opportunity to build rather than to break the bridge with our neighbors," Downey said.
To local residents Michelle Kinney of the Upper West Side and Erica Lustig of Harlem, the most important thing right now was finding Major's killers.
"I want them to find out who did this," Kinney told Gothamist on Sunday. Until then, Kinney said, "Definitely I'm always looking over my shoulder."
Lustig agreed: "They need to catch these guys."
Still, Kinney said, she wanted cops "to make sure that whomever they're getting, they're being thorough and fair and following the law. Because we know what happened 30 years ago with the Central Park Five. We don't want that to happen to any innocent child again."
While police say they have three suspects in the murder, only one, a 13-year-old boy, has been arrested and charged with felony murder.
The 13-year-old and two others intended to rob people and were armed with knives when they entered Morningside Park last Wednesday evening, NYPD Detective Vincent Signoretti testified at a Family Court hearing on Friday.
Following the hearing, Family Court Judge Karen Lupuloff ordered the 13-year-old "remanded to the Administration for Children’s Services for secure detention," a statement from the City's Law Department said. He is due back in Family Court on Tuesday.
Gothamist is not naming the suspect because he has not been charged as an adult. The boy lives in Harlem and goes to PS 180, along with two other suspects, according to the New York Post. The school is across from Morningside Park and four blocks from the spot in the park where Majors was killed.
The NYPD also arrested one of the 13-year-old's alleged companions on Friday, but had to let the 14-year-old boy go on Saturday because prosecutors determined there wasn't enough evidence to charge him, the Daily News reported. A third boy, the suspect who allegedly stabbed Majors, is still being sought, police confirmed.
Before the group encountered Majors in the park, “They followed a man with the intention of robbing him and decided not to,” Detective Signoretti said the Family Court hearing.
The group ambushed Majors shortly before 7 p.m last Wednesday. One of the 13-year-old's friends "dropped a knife," Detective Signoretti said. The 13-year-old "picked [the knife] up and handed it back" to his friend, the 13-year-old allegedly admitted.
The 13-year-old said he watched his two friends grab Majors, put her in a chokehold and rifle through her pockets. When one of them started stabbing Majors, “feathers came out of her jacket,” Detective Signoretti testified.
Majors had fought back, biting one of her attackers, the 13-year-old told police, CBS News reported. Majors staggered up a wide stone staircase to Morningside Drive and 116th Street. There, a Columbia University Public Safety Officer found her and called 911. Majors was pronounced dead at Mount Sinai/St. Luke's Hospital. She'd been stabbed through the heart.
An eyewitness saw three teenage boys running out of the park, but it is unclear if the eyewitness could identify anyone. Detectives were observed on Friday carrying multiple computer hard-drives, presumably holding security camera video, into the 26th Precinct -- headquarters of the investigation. DNA testing was also underway, police confirmed.
The NYPD repeatedly swept Morningside Park for evidence and kept it closed until Saturday. After dark on Friday, two detectives used a flashlight to again scour the steps where Majors was stabbed for additional evidence. NYPD divers spent three days combing a small pond for clues.
Police recovered one knife from the scene, but it didn't have blood on it. The murder weapon has yet to be found.