When Myrtle McKinney first moved into the Carter G. Woodson Houses in 2004, she felt lucky to be there. The complex is one of only 38 public-housing developments in New York City reserved for seniors, and the waiting list for a one-bedroom can stretch on for years.
A Jamaican emigrant in her early 70s, she had raised seven kids working as a housekeeper in Florida and the Bahamas before relocating to Brooklyn to live with her daughter. By the time her application was approved, she was desperate for a place of her own.
After settling into apartment 6M, McKinney quickly jumped into the bustling social scene enjoyed by the development’s 450 residents. She joined a knitting circle in the first-floor senior center and spent her mornings relaxing with friends amid the rows of shade-dappled benches in the courtyard out front. In the afternoons, her neighbor in 6E, an easygoing man in his early 70s named Leon Gavin, whom everyone called “Music Man,” liked to DJ dance parties in the courtyard from a small speaker hooked up to his mobility scooter. It was like a middle-school dance, one resident said: girls on one side, boys on the other.
Situated in the heart of eastern Brooklyn along the border between Brownsville and East New York, the Woodson Houses occupy nearly an entire block in one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. But to the residents who lived there, the complex was a refuge, “a place of peace,” as one family member put it. Over the next decade, though, that feeling would slowly disappear. The complex had always dealt with its share of low-level crime, but around 2013, an influx of new tenants seemed to bring with them new dangers. Now, when a resident’s caregiver was buzzed into the main tower’s front door, a seemingly endless stream of interlopers sneaked in after, vanishing into the dark corners of the high-rise. Longtime residents suddenly found themselves accosted in the hallways by strangers asking for money. Some smoked crack in the stairwells and on the roof. And while some residents fretted over the conditions, others started supplementing their income by renting out couches to drug users off the street. Things got so bad that at one point, a small band of users took over an elderly tenant’s cramped second-floor apartment and turned it into a thriving crack den.
The residents weren’t alone in facing deteriorating circumstances at their development: NYCHA complexes have long suffered from issues of neglect, including mold infestation, contaminated drinking water, and lead-paint poisoning. When Woodson residents complained to the NYCHA staff that oversaw the property, they were told there was little that could be done to secure the premises. Woodson had no surveillance cameras, and the security guards NYCHA hired from a private firm to monitor the front doors were on-site only between 5 p.m. and midnight. The rest of the day, the complex was “wide open,” one resident said. Instead, NYCHA management encouraged residents to safeguard the lobby themselves as part of the development’s Tenant Patrol, a neighborhood-watch-style group that had been in operation off and on for years. At first, they offered snacks and water as an incentive for residents to join, but after a staffing change, the goodies went away, and the group eventually petered out.
As the situation grew worse, McKinney started sequestering herself in her apartment. She quit the knitting circle. “I’m not much for crowds,” she told her friends before heading upstairs when Music Man’s dance parties kicked off. She still woke early every morning to curl her hair and fix her makeup — she was always impeccably dressed — but by the time she was in her early 80s, McKinney was doing little else but watching TV, cooking Jamaican food, and running the occasional errand. Aside from a home health aide named Patricia Goodman, whom McKinney’s children had hired to keep her company on weekday mornings, she was spending nearly all of her time alone.
Just before 9 a.m. on November 9, 2015, Goodman arrived at McKinney’s apartment to take her to a doctor’s appointment and realized something was wrong. McKinney wasn’t answering her door or her landline. And she wasn’t down the hall, where she would sometimes watch TV with Music Man and his brother Kevin, who had been crashing on a spare mattress in the apartment for years. For two hours, Goodman knocked on neighbors’ doors and asked the maintenance crew if they had seen her. She scoured the benches and the aisles of the nearby Food Bazaar where McKinney liked to shop.
After giving up her search, Goodman called 911 and was soon joined in the hallway by two officers from PSA 2, the NYPD Housing Authority division responsible for more than 40 developments across northeastern Brooklyn. “Why are you assuming something’s wrong?” one of the officers asked as the superintendent unlocked McKinney’s door. There was no need to answer. In the small kitchen alcove just beyond the living room, McKinney lay on her back under a table, purple bruises circling her eyes, splotches of dried blood caked to her face and the floor. Her tongue lolled out over the edge of her lips, no longer fenced in by her dentures, which lay a few feet away. She probably fell and hit her head, one of the officers told Goodman.
The cops concluded that McKinney’s death was an accident. There were no signs of forced entry, and her apartment appeared untouched. When the officers called McKinney’s doctor, he confirmed that she suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure and agreed to sign her death certificate without viewing the body. “It may appear to be a lazy way,” one retired detective told me, “but it was your quickest way to wrap up the scene. If you can get a doctor to sign off, then things start to move.” No detectives arrived, and no one thoroughly examined the body. The responding EMT clocked the time of death, and within hours, McKinney was carted off to the morgue with a death certificate that declared she had died of natural causes.
McKinney’s family didn’t agree. Her daughter, Donna Meeks, an unassuming woman with a lilting Jamaican accent, arrived a short time after the police and immediately suspected foul play. Her mother’s body had come to rest too far under the table for a slip and fall, she thought. She began her own investigation and quickly discovered that McKinney’s keys and ID were missing. A week later, she found that $800, more than twice her mother’s monthly rent, was missing from McKinney’s bank account. The cash was nowhere to be found.
While McKinney’s body languished in the morgue, Meeks and her younger brother, Mark Lewis, pleaded with the NYPD to reexamine the case. “Do something,” Meeks remembered begging the police. “Take some fingerprints, I don’t know, do something.” She filed a petty-larceny complaint over the missing money in the hopes of jump-starting a new investigation but never heard back. She begged the pathologists at the medical examiner’s office to do an autopsy, but they too refused. McKinney wasn’t considered the victim of a crime, so if Meeks wanted the procedure done, she would have to pay for it herself. It would cost between $15,000 and $20,000. “I gave up,” she told me. “I just couldn’t afford it.”
In early December, Meeks and her brother transferred their mother to a funeral home in Flatbush. Despite their ongoing concern over the lack of an investigation, they wanted to give her a proper burial. But as the funeral director was dressing McKinney’s body in the gray suit her family had chosen for the service, he felt something peculiar on the back left side of her neck — long and thin, as if the skin had split open. Alarmed, he called the medical examiner’s office and explained what he had found. “I don’t even think it took them 20 minutes to come and take that body,” Meeks said.
A month after McKinney was found dead in her apartment, her body was finally given an autopsy. The results were devastating. “It was what we’d been trying to tell them from the beginning,” Lewis said. McKinney had suffered blunt-force trauma to her head and torso, three broken ribs, and a fatal stab wound to her neck. She hadn’t died of natural causes. She had been brutally murdered.
News of McKinney’s killing ricocheted through the Woodson Houses. It was the first time anyone could remember the development playing host to such naked violence. “Everyone is in shock,” one resident of 25 years told the reporters who flocked to the building when the story broke. Music Man told the New York Times that he thought McKinney had just had a heart attack: “Who would do something like that?”
At a press conference a few days later, the NYPD’s chief of detectives, Rodney Harrison, tried in vain to explain how the responding officers could have overlooked the wound in McKinney’s neck — the injuries “were not easily determined by initial viewing,” he said — but the consequences of that error were difficult to overstate: It left almost no chance of finding her killer. The crime scene had long since been cleaned up, and all of her belongings had been sold or split up among her children. Al Brust, the homicide detective assigned to the case, told me that when he first opened McKinney’s door, he could scarcely believe it. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he remembered thinking. It was completely empty. “There was obviously a lot of finger-pointing that night,” he said.
Still, Brust was able to draw up a shortlist of suspects. At the top was one of Woodson’s unofficial handymen, who went by Peebles and had removed McKinney’s air conditioner the weekend she died. Peebles had an alibi and was cleared. Brust also took a close look at Leon Gavin, a.k.a. Music Man, who had been identified on security-camera footage escorting McKinney to a bank in Downtown Brooklyn. McKinney had been worried a family member was stealing from her, Gavin told the detective, and had asked him to help her look over some statements. While at the bank, she withdrew the $800 that Meeks later reported missing from her mother’s account. Brust cleared Gavin, too. “Every time we spoke to him, he cried,” Brust said.
The only other name that popped up on Brust’s list was Gavin’s brother, Kevin. As Woodson’s other unofficial handyman, he was in and out of apartments all the time, fixing TV antennae, carrying groceries, and collecting bottles. Known around the building as “Point” in honor of the ice-pick-like tool he carried, Kevin, who was in his early 60s, cut an intimidating figure at five-foot-eight and 200 pounds and had a glass left eye. When he talked, his tongue darted out over his lips like a snake’s. Kevin had a criminal record, mostly for drugs and nonviolent offenses. Residents told Brust that he was always begging for money and was addicted to crack. “Everybody in the hood knows somebody like him,” one resident told me.
When Brust canvassed the building, more than a few residents mentioned that he should look into the “man that helped her,” but when he finally reached Kevin on the phone, he claimed he was out of state and wouldn’t be back for a while. Later, he agreed to take a polygraph test, but he never showed. At the time, there was little else Brust could do. He added a “suspect wanted” note to Kevin’s record in case he was picked up by police for anything else, but without any evidence, he couldn’t bring him in for questioning. As the months passed, Brust and his team caught other homicide cases, and McKinney’s murder slipped lower on their list of priorities. “It bothered me that it was basically left open,” Brust said.
Many Woodson residents felt abandoned over the lack of police progress, so in early 2016, a few months after McKinney was killed, an especially frustrated group resurrected the Tenant Patrol. “We’re going to have to take care of ourselves,” said resident Esther Williams of the sentiment at the time. Starting at 6 a.m., patrol members met in the lobby they used as a home base and fanned out for two- or three-hour shifts. They demanded visitors sign in and performed wellness checks on residents who hadn’t been seen in a few days. “It was serious,” one resident told me. “They didn’t open the door for anybody they didn’t know.” It wasn’t always easy. Denying entry to anonymous visitors could sometimes be dangerous. One patrol member was threatened so viciously by a stranger that she retreated to her apartment and refused to come out. Eventually, the atmosphere grew so hostile that even the most ardent members stopped signing up for shifts, but for a brief moment, the patrol helped return a collective sense of well-being.
Other, more formal efforts to secure the complex were less successful. Diane Johnson, a ninth-floor resident trained in eldercare, was sworn in as Woodson’s tenant-association president in 2017 and almost immediately began lobbying NYCHA to install closed-circuit-television cameras throughout the complex. To her, a CCTV system was a no-brainer. The Van Dyke Houses, a sprawling NYCHA complex across the street, had had one for years, and Mayor Bill de Blasio had promised to install cameras at the city’s most crime-ridden developments as part of a program started in 2014.
“Cameras don’t stop the crime,” Johnson said. “But if we had them here, we could have seen that person — what time they got off that elevator, what time they got back on the elevator.” If a CCTV system had been in operation at the time of McKinney’s murder, police could have at least tracked the movements of her killer throughout the building. But when Johnson raised the idea at her monthly meetings with NYCHA, managers told her to take it up with the City Council, which had traditionally funded cameras at other NYCHA developments.
Johnson also told NYCHA that the private security guards hired years earlier to monitor the buildings’ front doors were all but useless. In addition to being on-site for limited hours, many of the guards refused to fulfill even their most basic responsibilities. They kept the doors propped open late, allowing visitors into the building, and never patrolled the exterior or upstairs hallways. One time, a guard refused to call the police on behalf of a female tenant who was bleeding from the face because he was afraid the man who had attacked her might later be able to identify him. When Johnson asked for round-the-clock security and a new contract, she was told the funding didn’t exist.
Over the next two years, Johnson worked every angle she could think of to come up with the money. She reached out to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office to try to secure a piece of the $100 million in state funds he had set aside for NYCHA projects. When that failed, she called on City Councilmember Inez Barron, whose district includes the Woodson Houses, to set up meetings with NYCHA brass and implore them to do something. Barron, who had been calling for cameras in NYCHA buildings since the murder of a 6-year-old boy at a nearby development in 2014, quickly became a powerful ally in Johnson’s quest, but the talks with NYCHA still went nowhere. It was as if the entire development was bound up in red tape. “You can burn yourself out trying to do this thing with NYCHA,” Johnson told me.
The worst part was the feeling that her concerns weren’t even being heard. At one meeting, Curtis Cabell, the chief of operations of NYCHA’s safety-and-security division, tried to pin the blame for Woodson’s shortcomings on Johnson herself. “The buck stops with you,” she remembered him saying before Barron’s chief of staff cut him off. At the next meeting, Cabell didn’t bother to show up.
In March 2019, a member of NYCHA’s safety-and-security team arrived at Woodson to assess the development. The surveys are supposed to include checks of the entire perimeter, every stairwell, and all of the magnetic door locks, but they’re notoriously rushed. To get through them all, the 12-member team is required to visit around 15 buildings a day. When the final report for Woodson was filed, the only red-flagged items were a few exterior lights that had gone out and a handful of broken stairwell doors. There was no mention of Johnson’s requests for cameras or round-the-clock guards. “This is your development,” she remembered thinking. “Why didn’t nobody from that office speak up for us?”
By then, nearly four years had passed since McKinney’s murder, and for most residents, the shock of her death had long since faded. If anything, the seeming randomness of the crime was almost reassuring. The belief that her killer had come from outside the building was pervasive. “The assumption was it was a one-off,” Williams said.
Seven weeks after NYCHA’s security assessment was completed, 83-year-old Jacolia James was relaxing with her grandson Darrin in her 11th-floor apartment when there was an unexpected knock on the door. James was an especially popular tenant, known for her generous smile and calm demeanor. She had taken over her mother’s one-bedroom after years of caring for her and was now the matriarch of an enormous extended family that included more than two dozen great-grandchildren. She was the “giant tree of her family,” one grandson said.
When James opened the door slightly to see who was there, a strange man stuck his head through the crack and peered into the apartment. The man never came in, but Darrin, who was sitting on the couch, locked eyes with him long enough to feel a twinge of anxiety course through his body. “I will never, never forget that man’s face,” he would later say. When he asked his grandmother who the man was, she waved off the question and said he was just a friend. Darrin didn’t press it. Having lived at Woodson for decades, James wasn’t prone to letting just anyone into her home. She had even been a part-time member of the erstwhile Tenant Patrol. “My mom would walk me to the elevator every time to make sure I got on safe,” her daughter, Lynda, told me.
Around 11 p.m., Darrin, who had planned on spending the night on his grandmother’s couch, returned from visiting a friend. At first, he thought he was in trouble. James had a rule about not accepting visitors after 11, and he was late. But when he pushed open the unlocked door, he found her lying facedown on the living-room floor, bruises the color of wine grapes splashed across her face and neck. By 1 a.m., the lobby was awash with police, EMTs, and an investigator from the medical examiner’s office. Lynda, Darrin’s aunt, swirled through the chaos with one thought on her mind: Get them to call it a homicide. She had heard about the mistakes that had hamstrung the investigation into McKinney’s murder years earlier and was determined to keep the same thing from happening to her mother. “When the guy from the coroner’s office came, I begged him, ‘Please check very carefully,’ ” she said. “My mom weighed something like 99 pounds. She did not fall.” An autopsy would later confirm that Jacolia James had been strangled to death.
Fear swept through the complex as residents contemplated the viciousness of the crime and the lack of forced entry. “How does that happen unless you know who it is?” Williams remembered thinking. In the senior center, tenants pressed one another for details. “Did you hear about, did you hear about, did you hear about …?” was how Williams described the endless exchanges. “It was just like wildfire.”
The most urgent mystery — the identity of the stranger who had visited James’s apartment earlier that night — was solved within hours. While police collected evidence upstairs, Diane Johnson, the tenant-association president, was in the courtyard with Darrin, who began to describe the man who had knocked on his grandmother’s door. “The potbelly, the glasses, the cap, the blue-and-white bandanna,” she told me, recounting their conversation. Johnson knew right away whom he was talking about: Kevin Gavin, the handyman known as Point. “He was describing him to a T.”
Johnson turned to an NYPD community-affairs officer who was lingering nearby and told her that Darrin had ID’d Kevin, who had just returned to the building. The officer barely responded. Taken on its own, Kevin’s presence at James’s door that night wasn’t enough to incriminate him; he was knocking on doors all the time looking for handouts. What Johnson couldn’t fathom was the way the officer had so easily brushed her off. She found out later that, again, the NYPD had decided not to bring Kevin in for questioning.
A week later, Lynda organized a press conference in the Woodson courtyard to call for better security in the building. As she spoke, she was surrounded by nearly two dozen family members, each of whom wore a purple T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Jacolia’s face. “I don’t get it,” she told reporters. “If my mom’s death was on Tuesday, on Wednesday there should be cameras.” Had there been, police might have easily identified the killer. Without them, Lynda continued, the residents were “like sheep surrounded by wolves.”
For the next two years, she would spend nearly every Monday on the phone with detectives, politicians, and community leaders demanding to know what was happening at Woodson. Her mother began appearing to her in her dreams and “tapping me on the head,” Lynda said, asking, “What are you doing about them?” “That’s what Monday was for,” she told me. “I wouldn’t go to sleep unless I made sure I did something.” By June, it appeared that Lynda and Johnson’s efforts to secure Woodson might pay off. At a City Council hearing to discuss NYCHA’s safety issues, Alicka Ampry-Samuel, the councilmember whose district is adjacent to the Woodson Houses, grilled NYCHA’s director of safety and security, Raymond Rodriguez, about the delays in implementing better security measures at Woodson.
“It has been said that a society is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members,” Ampry-Samuel began. “In the wake of incidents like these, today I cannot say that New York City has been measuring up.” She wanted to know what changes had been made at Woodson since McKinney’s murder and what would follow now that another elderly resident had been killed.
Rodriguez struck an almost apologetic tone. “Unfortunately, there are no cameras to this day over at Woodson,” he explained, reading in part from a prepared statement. He did, however, have some good news to offer. He assured the council that, in fact, a CCTV system had already been approved, and following James’s murder, the installation was being expedited. “We have a total of $680,000 to make this thing happen,” he added later.
It was exactly the kind of news Johnson and Lynda had been hoping for. The only problem was it wasn’t true. A few minutes later, Steven Lovci, NYCHA’s executive vice-president in charge of capital projects, leaned into the microphone to correct him. NYCHA had priced the project at $680,000, but the funding had yet to be allocated. The project wasn’t moving ahead at all. In the gallery, tenants from developments across NYCHA jeered. If two unsolved murders weren’t enough motivation to secure the Woodson Houses, what would be?
Four months later, Hector Higgins, a beloved fourth-floor resident, was found dead in his apartment by a home health aide returning after a long weekend. For those who knew him, the loss was torturous. Higgins, who was in his early 80s, was the building’s resident pool shark and an avid dancer. “He could dance a whole disco record and never catch a short wind,” Johnson told me. “The women loved dancing with this man.”
Police told Johnson it appeared that Higgins had died after falling from a ladder that was propped up against a wall in his apartment. When an officer met Johnson outside the building, she was told that detectives hadn’t found anything “suspicious or funny.” Johnson didn’t agree. Despite Higgins’s enthusiasm for the dance floor, she didn’t think he was flexible enough to climb a ladder. She thought the scene had been “set up,” she said. Other residents were also skeptical of the police’s take. Rumors quickly spread that Higgins’s ribs had been black and blue when he was found — “Like somebody punched them,” 71-year-old Carmen Feliciano told me — leaving residents to wonder whether he had been beaten to death. It didn’t matter to them that the authorities had attributed Higgins’s death to natural causes — the medical examiner’s office determined the cause of death to be heart disease, with broken ribs as a contributing factor. What mattered was that they believed he had been murdered. As far as they were concerned, their “place of peace” was now home to three unsolved killings.
After that, the Woodson Houses felt like a development under siege. Feliciano, whose son had taken to texting her every day, vowed never to leave the building on her own. “If I go out, I go with somebody so that we could defend ourselves,” she told me. Other tenants simply refused to open their doors, sometimes even to take out the trash. “It was terrifying,” Williams said. “It was a whole other level.” One 89-year-old resident took to leaving a two-by-four next to her door in case she was attacked. “You gotta protect yourself,” she told reporters soon after James’s murder.
There was, however, one positive development. With the help of Barron and her husband, State Assemblyman Charles Barron, Johnson had finally secured a commitment from de Blasio to fund a comprehensive CCTV system. It took four years and countless hours of phone calls and meetings, but Johnson’s efforts had paid off. Installation was set to begin the following spring.
A new terror struck the Woodson Houses in March 2020. The hallways and stairwells grew quiet as residents locked themselves inside their apartments against COVID-19. The cafeteria began delivering premade meals to residents’ doorsteps. It still wasn’t enough. Within a month, half a dozen seniors had died.
But of all the deaths that rattled the building during that dark period, one stood out: Leon Gavin’s. He was found dead on the floor of his apartment in early April. In a way, it was the end of an era. The courtyard dance parties that Music Man had overseen as DJ would never return. However, his passing did present an unlikely opportunity — the chance to get Kevin out of the building. Ever since ID’ing him to the police after James was killed, Johnson had grown wary of Kevin. “We had our suspicions,” she told me. She had stopped talking to him and pressured her friends to stop hiring him for odd jobs.
Despite her misgivings, Johnson struggled with the notion that he could actually be a killer. It was true that he had an intimidating look, but he also had a softer side. He always added a Ms. before calling female tenants by their first names and was known to travel long distances across the city to help elderly residents purchase the right TV. He had even installed Johnson’s own washing machine when she first moved in. Then again, on the night before he died, Johnson saw Kevin approach Higgins in the senior center with an offer to clean his apartment. Higgins accepted and handed Kevin a wad of cash to pay for supplies. “The same people that we seen him with or around,” Johnson told me, “they ended up dead.”
Johnson had no actual proof of Kevin’s involvement in the deaths, but with Music Man gone, she hoped she wouldn’t need any. Because he wasn’t listed as a resident on his brother’s lease, Kevin had no legal claim to stay in the building now that Leon was dead. Leon had tried adding him back in 2017, but NYCHA rejected the application because of overcrowding and Kevin’s arrest record. At the time, Johnson and others complained that Kevin had long overstayed the 15-day limit for visitors, and building management told Leon he would need to get his brother out or forfeit his own rights to the apartment. It turned out to be an empty threat. “He stayed away for about two weeks,” Johnson said of Kevin. And then he came back. He had been living at Woodson ever since.
At the end of April, NYCHA staff reached out to members of Leon’s family, who agreed to return his keys, but the handoff never happened. Kevin simply took over the apartment. “A bunch of us had talked about it,” Williams said. “Okay, his brother is dead. Why is he still here?” Normally, Kevin would have been on the street in a matter of days — NYCHA’s unsympathetic eviction policy is well known among tenants — but he had assumed his brother’s apartment at an auspicious time for a squatter: The city’s eviction moratorium had gone into place a few weeks earlier at the start of the pandemic. If Kevin refused to turn in the keys, NYCHA couldn’t take him to court. Housing assistants tried reaching out in September and November, but Kevin never responded. When he was confronted again in December 2020, he claimed he had nowhere else to stay.
Johnson was beside herself. She didn’t want him evicted; she wanted him escorted off the property. Worse yet, by identifying him to NYCHA and the police, she thought she had made herself a target. “He must have heard something,” she told me. “Because I was going to be next.”
Johnson said she was getting off the elevator on the ninth floor a few months after Music Man died when Kevin, ice pick in hand, suddenly stepped in front of the sliding doors, blocking her exit. For a brief moment, he was mere inches from her face. Then, without a word, he retreated back down the hall. She believed he had planned to “stick” her, and she credited the caretaker who had joined her on the ride with saving her life. When she told management about the menacing encounter, she was told nothing could be done. Their hands were tied, she was told. Still, Johnson considered herself lucky. “I’m the one that got away,” she said.
On a Friday afternoon in January of this year, Steven Caballero arrived at the Woodson Houses to spend the weekend, as he always did, with his 78-year-old mother, Juanita. Known around Woodson as Jenny, she lived in 6A, a few doors down from where Myrtle McKinney had lived and across the hall from where Kevin was squatting. Despite using a walker to get around, Jenny was as vibrant as ever, a beer drinker who loved the Coney Island boardwalk and teased Steven and his two brothers in Spanish whenever they visited. “That used to make her happy, to cook for me and, you know, treat me like a little kid again,” Steven said. She had helped raise her grandson in the building and even earned herself the nickname “Lucy” for her side hustle selling loose cigarettes in the lobby.
But when Steven opened the door to her apartment that day, Jenny wasn’t waiting for him with a gentle slap on the cheek, as was her custom. She was lying motionless on the floor in the hallway just off the living room. He dropped the bags of groceries he had brought to fill her fridge and rushed to her side. At first, he thought she had fallen, so he called 911 and started CPR. It wasn’t until he put his hand above her mouth to see if she was still breathing that he noticed the telephone cord wrapped around her neck. He left the cord there until police arrived. “I didn’t want to touch nothing,” he said.
Caballero’s sons told me their mother was familiar with police officers in the neighborhood, some of whom called to offer their condolences after her death. “There was a lot of pressure put on the police department from other detectives and other friends that she had,” her son Peter said. He didn’t think that was true with the other murders. The political pressure ramped up too. Inez Barron spoke to reporters at a press conference the day after Caballero was killed. “We are not waiting for any more tragedies to occur here,” she said. She called for a federal probe into the unsolved killings.
The slaying sent the Woodson Houses into a tailspin. “You don’t think it can go any higher,” Williams said of the fear that had consumed the development over the previous two years. This time, at least, it wouldn’t last. A week later, Williams was returning home after receiving her first vaccine shot when she saw a half-dozen news crews gathering in the courtyard outside the main tower. She asked one of the caretakers what was happening. “They found the serial killer,” the caretaker responded. “And you won’t believe who it is.”
It was perhaps the first time that the words serial killer had been spoken so plainly in regard to the killings at the Woodson Houses. Aside from Johnson and a few others, many residents had assumed the murders had been perpetrated by different individuals. They had taken place years apart and been shrouded in speculation and rumor. “It’s not going to be ‘The call was coming from inside the house,’ ” Williams said of her thinking at the time. “The only real connection was that it happened here.”
Earlier that day, however, Kevin had been identified from camera footage as using Jenny Caballero’s EBT and debit cards at a nearby grocery. Police officers descended on the building and found him on the 18th floor. He was arrested and brought to the 73rd Precinct house a short time later, where he allegedly admitted to strangling Caballero with a telephone cord. Then, unprompted, he said something that surprised everyone in the interrogation room.
“Do you want me to tell you about Myrtle?”
Over the next few hours, according to prosecutors, Kevin also admitted to killing Myrtle McKinney and Jacolia James. All three killings were ostensibly over disputes about small amounts of money. While the specific motive in each murder remains unclear, it appears that Kevin either was angry about not being paid for odd jobs he had performed or had been stealing from the women and feared being turned in. According to a source close to the investigation, in James’s case, he had tried to lift a few bills from her jacket pocket and been caught in the act. “If I had left there,” he told investigators, “she would’ve told on me.”
At the time, police had recovered DNA from inside James’s jacket, and when they ran it through the system, Kevin’s name came up as a match. But according to the source, police were worried that if they brought him in for questioning, he might lawyer up. Back in 2015, Al Brust, the detective in charge of McKinney’s case, had backed off after Kevin mentioned during one of their phone conversations that he was thinking of hiring an attorney. With no evidence to go on, Brust couldn’t afford his only suspect clamming up. The DNA found in James’s case should have changed that calculation. “That was a bad one,” said Brust, who retired a few months before James was killed. He believes there was “absolutely enough probable cause” to make an arrest in 2019.
Kevin Gavin has since pleaded not guilty to one count of first-degree murder in the death of Jenny Caballero and three counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Caballero, James, and McKinney. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He has not been charged in the death of Hector Higgins, which authorities maintain was the result of natural causes.
At Woodson, the news of Kevin’s arrest was met with a degree of resignation. “It was unbelievable that it was someone that we knew,” Williams said. “But it wasn’t unbelievable that it was him.” Stories began emerging about run-ins between Kevin and other residents. He had tried to talk his way into Carmen Feliciano’s apartment after offering to recycle her empty bottles. “It could have been me,” she said. Johnson remembered Kevin sneaking up behind her as she stuffed bags into the building’s incinerator chute. Only the creak of the exit door gave away his approach. The most unsettling exchange, though, took place just a few minutes after Steven Caballero discovered his mother’s body. As he sat sobbing on the ground in the hallway outside her apartment, Kevin approached from down the hall and offered a bottle of water to the heartbroken son. “I’m sorry for what happened,” he said quietly before returning to his apartment.
What hasn’t been as easy for residents and their loved ones to accept are the institutional failures they say allowed a serial killer in the building to prey on them for years without being caught. “This is what we live with,” Williams told me. “I mean, how many people can say they know a serial killer and everyone that he killed?” In January, the NYPD reached out to Donna Meeks, McKinney’s daughter, with an invitation for her to meet with Rodney Harrison, who oversaw the department’s detectives and has since been promoted to chief of the department, becoming the NYPD’s highest-ranking uniformed officer. Meeks decided against it. “They never listened to me then,” she told me. “Why should I listen to them now?” In addition to the erosion of trust, there may be a heavy financial toll. Both the Caballero and James families have filed multimillion-dollar lawsuits against NYCHA, citing the agency’s “failure to protect” its most vulnerable tenants.
Meanwhile, after being put on hold at the start of the pandemic, the camera installation Johnson was promised in 2019 is finally happening. According to NYCHA, the project is now about halfway complete, and the system should be fully operational by January 2022. Along with Gavin’s arrest, news of the upgrade has soothed the tension that pervaded the development for so many years. “Everything is mellow now,” Feliciano told me. Game nights in the senior center are picking up again, and at noon the line for lunch stretches nearly from the lobby to the cafeteria door. “We talk, we play pool,” she continued. “It’s a lot of action.”