The gruesome, unprovoked murder of FDNY Lieutenant Alison Russo-Elling on a sidewalk in Astoria in the middle of a September afternoon calls forth a sadness and rage that, for many of us, will never subside.
Russo-Elling, a 24-year veteran of the FDNY’s Bureau of Emergency Medical Services, was walking to lunch near EMS Station 49 when a total stranger suddenly bowled her over, straddled her body and began stabbing her in the chest with a long knife before running off. A man named Peter Zisopoulos, who lives near the station, was arrested shortly afterward; he has been charged with second-degree murder and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon. “The accused killer murmured and spewed gibberish as he paced back and forth” in police custody, reports the Daily News.
But the justice meted out by cops and courts cannot and must not close the chapter on this tragedy. Our city’s leaders — especially Mayor Eric Adams — must summon the strength and focus to move beyond mourning and address one of the known, often overlooked sources of the criminal violence that is haunting New York.
Our city is reeling. “This event has cut deep into our souls and has rippled to the first responder communities across the nation,” said FDNY EMS Chief Lillian Bonsignore on Friday. “We are heartbroken and we are very angry.”
Bonsignore spoke outside Station 49, where Russo-Elling’s fellow paramedics lined up, saluted, hugged, and wept. Bunting has been hung outside the station, and praise and prayers will be raised to God at a memorial service on Wednesday in Huntington, Long Island that will be streamed on the FDNY website.
“Pray for my family and remember her for the hero that she was,” said Russo-Elling’s daughter, Danielle Fuoco. “Because that’s truly who she was and she died doing what she loved.”
City leaders must now match the moment with the same kind of determination, savvy, and cold nerve that Russo-Elling and her colleagues display every day. That means fully committing to finding and treating the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers living with serious mental illness. People like Zisopoulos, who reportedly had no prior arrests or criminal record but was hospitalized for observation in 2018 after sending disturbing texts to a friend.
Zisopoulos joins a list that includes Martial Simon, the man accused of shoving Michelle Go in front of a speeding train in Times Square in January. Simon, who had been hospitalized 20 times and cycled between psychiatric facilities and the streets, was declared mentally unfit to stand trial.
Last year, police arrested Rigoberto Lopez, who’d cycled in and out of homelessness for years and randomly stabbed four other homeless people during an hours-long rampage on the subway. Two of his victims — Claudine Roberts and Dwayne Dixon — died.
And more recently, we saw the sickening video of Elizabeth Gomes being brutally beaten at a JFK AirTrain station, allegedly by Waheed Foster, whose long arrest record includes beating his 82-year-old grandmother to death at age 14, stabbing his sister in the hand years later, and attacking workers at Creedmore Psychiatric Center in 2011.
For too long, seriously mentally ill people have cycled between jails, prisons, hospitals, subways, and the streets, with no one agency applying continuous, sustained attention until tragedy strikes. The Adams administration, to its credit, has vowed to end the game of bureaucratic musical chairs.
In May, Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan issued a passionate call to arms. “There are over 250,000 New Yorkers known to have SMI, up to 40 percent of whom are disconnected from all or most forms of care,” Vasan said in a speech laying out a master plan for mental health services. “Many of these New Yorkers are isolated in their homes, or more tragically, living on our streets and subways, in our shelters, and cycling in and out of hospitals and of jails, which remain the largest providers of mental health treatment in our city, and in our country.”
The city’s newly-created Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health aims to coordinate more than a dozen agencies and hundreds of community-based health programs to stop seriously ill people — especially those at risk of resorting to violence — from bouncing from place to place. The team includes Eva Wong, an early education specialist, and Brian Stettin, a veteran of the state Attorney General’s office who helped draft what is now known as Kendra’s Law, which governs court-supervised treatment for seriously mentally ill New Yorkers.
Coordination is necessary — and so are major investments in treatment and housing for people struggling with serious mental illness. Earlier this year, the Coalition for Behavioral Health, an alliance of more than 100 community-based health centers, begged Albany lawmakers for $500 million to tackle the twin ills of homelessness and mental illness. They got turned down.
We owe it to past and future victims to bolster our prayers and anger with the financial and legal tools needed to put up a serious fight against the violence that has claimed so many innocent lives. As Dr. Vasan eloquently put it earlier this year: “We have allowed people with SMI to become victims of our failures, and our soft bigotry of low expectations, and instead have given too little thought, time, resources, and attention to meet the holistic needs of this most marginalized of peoples. And this must stop.”