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Monday, December 31, 2012

Sunando Sen: Two NYC Subway Murders in One Month

     New York City, compared to urban murder centers like Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., is a relatively safe place to live. In Chicago, with 500 criminal homicides so far this year, residents of that city were 3.7 times more likely to be homicide victims than New Yorkers. In 2012, New York was the site of 414 criminal homicides, a 19 percent decrease over 2011. This will mark the lowest number of homicides in New York City in 40 years. In 1990, with 2,262 homicides, the city was five times more dangerous than it is today. But even in the Big Apple, murder can raise its ugly head anytime, and in places that are normally safe. These unexpected, high-profile cases, particularly if they suggest a dangerous trend, create a degree of pubic fear out of proportion to the low risk of victimization.

     On Thursday morning, December 27, 2012, in the Sunnyside section of Queens, 46-year-old Sunando Sen stood on the elevated platform at the subway stop at Queens Boulevard and 40th Street. Mr. Sen, who had immigrated to the U.S. from Calcutta, India twenty years ago, was on his way to work. Six months earlier, Sen had started the New Amsterdam Printing Company, a small copying shop located on Manhattan's upper west side. Mr. Sen resided with three roommates in a small apartment in Elmhurst, Queens.

     As Sunando Sen waited for the Flushing-bound No. 7 train, a heavyset Hispanic woman in her late 20s paced the subway platform behind him. This woman, wearing a blue, white, and gray ski jacket and Nike sneakers, was mumbling to herself. She took a seat on a wooden bench near the north end of the platform, then, as the train rolled into the station, rushed up to Mr. Sen, and from behind, pushed him off the platform onto the tracks below.

     When the train ground to a stop, Mr. Sen's crushed body was pinned under the second subway car. His sudden, violent death had come out of nowhere, a reality that makes this kind of murder so frightening. Nobody is safe from that kind of bad luck.

     After pushing Mr. Sen in front of the train, the woman ran up the subway station stairway onto Queens Boulevard where she disappeared into the crowd. In addition to descriptions provided by at least five eyewitnesses, detectives had access to grainy, black and white images of the suspect from a surveillance camera positioned at the top of the subway stairway.

     Two days after the murder, on December 29, New York City detectives arrested  31-year-old Erika Menendez who said she pushed Mr. Sen to his death because she thought he was a Muslim. Menendez has been charged with murder as a hate crime which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. According the the New York District Attorney's Office, Menendez said this to her police interrogators: "I pushed a Muslim off the train [platform] because I hate Hindus and Muslim ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers. I've been beating them up."

     Erika Menendez and her victim had never met. She had killed a total stranger, a mild-mannered, hardworking man who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

     New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in a moment of uncharacteristic political candor, admitted that there is nothing anyone can do to prevent mentally ill people from pushing innocent victims in front of subway trains. We have to have the trains, and there is no way to keep crazy people off the street. If you throw a ball into a group of fifteen or more people, it will bounce off at least two individuals suffering from some kind of serious mental illness. Moreover, one of those persons will be off his medication. Since most mentally ill people do not walk around in baby steps talking to themselves, it's not always possible to spot and avoid them. Nobody really knows how many out of control meth users and paranoid schizophrenics off their medication are wandering around our big city streets. Also unknown is how many of these people are capable of murder.

     On December 30, 2012, a 30-year-old mentally ill street vendor named Naemm Davis pushed Ki-Suck Han in front of a train at the Times Square Station in mid-town Manhattan. Davis has been charged with second degree murder. His attorney is claiming that Davis acted in self-defense. The 58-year-old victim had a wife and a daughter, and lived in Queens. He and Davis didn't know each other, but had argued after Mr. Han asked Davis to stop frightening other subway patrons. At the time of his death, Mr. Han had been drinking vodka.

UPDATE

     Since 2005, police officers have been called to Erika Menendezs' home five times on reports of a mentally disturbed person behaving violently. On one of these occasions she threw a radio at a police officer. In 2003, police arrested her for punching a 28-year-old man in the face. He had been a visitor in her family's home. That case was dismissed when the victim dropped the charges. Later that year Menendez assaulted a stranger on the street near her house. As she punched and clawed him in the face, she accused the victim of having sex with her mother. According to members of her family, the mentally ill woman becomes violent when she stops taking her anti-psychotic medication. 

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