Only Murders … In My Old Neighborhood

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been glued to your screen every Tuesday night since August 31st along with every other Hulu subscriber to watch one of the most entertaining shows on TV. Only Murders In The Building starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez has been one of my favorite series of 2021, and I’m ecstatic a second season has been approved for next year. One of my favorite things about the show, aside from its hilarious star-studded cast, is its affectionate tribute to the Upper West Side. Capturing the macabre humor and stunning architecture that exists between the Hudson River, Central Park, Columbus Circle, and Morningside Heights.

The building, as seen on the show, is not actually called The Arconia. The pre-war structure, which was completed in 1909 and is located on West 86th and 87th (the size of an entire block), is called the Belnord. A building I passed by (and fantasized about living in) regularly on my walks around the neighborhood, its location a mere six blocks from my old apartment. For a little under $5 million dollars, you could call this place home and relish in its glamorous 13 stories of rich history.

The Belnord’s location, like many other buildings on the Upper West Side, holds a long sordid history of murder and hauntings that span back over the 19th century. A theme reflected throughout Hollywood in movies and shows like Rosemary’s Baby, Ghostbusters, and The Night Of which continue to depict the stark contrast of one of the most beautiful locations where horrific things can and do still happen. From seances and psychics in the basement of the Ansonia on Broadway (sounds a bit like Arconia, I know) to 455 CPW—a once cancer hospital turned abuse-ridden nursing home turned luxury condominium building to the disembodied voices and childlike apparitions at the Dakota (noted as one of the most haunted locations in NYC to live). John Lennon even attested to seeing the ghostly presence of a weeping woman there before he was shot and killed outside the building on the street. Now residents have reported seeing his spirit roaming the halls of the building—yeesh!

In the 1930s and 40s, the Upper West Side became a sanctuary where those fleeing Naziism settled after the war, provided they could disclose an affidavit from an American relative. The Eclair bakery on West 72nd street became famous for its guestbook, where newly arrived refugees would sign their names and perform a frenzied search for the names of loved ones they hoped had made it out.

Scene outside the Dakota after John Lennon was murdered.

Setting the supernatural aside for a moment, some of the grisliest murders I’ve ever read about have occurred in this somewhat suburban neighborhood so many New York families call home. A few so shocking they still resonate with me to this day. And unlike on TV, the outcome is rarely ever satisfying, but rather more surreal.

The Killer Nanny

Yoselyn Ortega—nanny to three young children murdered two of them in 2012 when they were under her care. She was finally sentenced to life in prison in 2018. Victims, Lulu, six, and Leo, two, were the two members of the Krim family left with Ortega, while Nessy, their three-year-old sister was out with their mother at the time.

Ortega, who was supposed to take the two kids to Lulu’s dance class, decided instead to go back to the apartment on West 75th street. She lead the kids into the bathroom where she proceeded to use a pair of kitchen knives to stab and slash both of them to death before placing their bodies in the bathtub. Mom, Marina Krim, walked in right as Ortega turned the knife on herself, thrusting it into her wrists and throat.

Neighbors reported hearing Marina’s screams echoing throughout the building after the grim discovery. Father, Kevin Krim, was out of town on a business trip at the time of the murders and was met at the airport by the police who escorted him directly to the hospital where his wife was being treated for shock.

Ortega “told a psychiatrist hired by her defense that she was following the commands of the devil,” but later undermined her own statement “denying hearing any instructions from Satan in video interviews shown to the jury.” Her motives for the crime remain hidden inside a twisted and delusional mind.

A Tragic Murder Suicide

When people saw Yonathan Tedla jogging around the Upper West Side, they knew him as a friendly neighbor with a beautiful wife, Jennifer Schlecht, and an adorable five-year-old daughter called Abaynesh. For eight years, they’d been seen as outwardly happy, chatting, and smiling as they left for work and school during the weekdays. They’d even dress up for Halloween and go door to door, with Tedla carrying his daughter up on his shoulders. “When you saw them, they were a happy couple. Funny dude, always smiling,” one neighbor said. “It’s just unbelievable. They were an adorable family. Absolutely adorable. I never saw them fight — ever,” another concurred. But that’s not what the police found when they entered the third-floor apartment on West 121st Street in November 2019.

And things were intense behind closed doors. Three years previous, Jennifer obtained a temporary restraining order against her husband after he threatened and harassed her. The couple had met ten years prior at Columbia when she was studying for her master’s degree in social work and public health and Tedla was working there as an IT freelancer. Schlecht worked in Namibia with the Peace Corps for over a year before refocusing her career in the area of maternity and child health and had over 15 years of experience in international relief and development.

Jennifer Schlecht’s father, Kenneth Schlecht, stated the couple’s marriage began to deteriorate shortly after the birth of their daughter. “She was in tears, said her husband had indicated that if she served him with divorce papers he would ruin her or take them all out.” And it’s noted Tedla threatened his wife specifically when she mentioned divorce. Unfortunately, when she finally made the choice to leave him it was already too late.

A 4- to 5-inch serrated knife was identified as the murder weapon.

A week before the murders, Tedla was spotted by coworkers who stated, “He was a nice guy, but strange.” Jennifer was about to obtain an order of protection from the courts, but she never made it in front of the judge. And when police arrived at the scene after responding to a nervous call from the victim’s brother, they were met with a gruesome and tragic scene.

When officers entered the residence they found Jennifer Schlect’s body lying dead on the bathroom floor, her decapitated head in her lap. Upon searching the remainder of the apartment, they found Abaynesh, with a gash so deep to her throat she was left headless, inside a gore-spattered bedroom. Tedla had hung himself with a rope from the child’s door.

Don’t Trust Your Neighbors

I moved apartments on October 1st, 2018, from the Upper East to the Upper West side. At that time, I lived on the edge of Riverside Park, a short walk to the subway, in the heart of the Historic District and the bustling end of Broadway. Three weeks after settling into my new apartment, a notification flashed across my phone screen. A woman had been found murdered less than a three-minute walk from my front door in a neighboring building. But not like you’d imagine a regular NYC-style murder: strangled by an ex-lover, shot while being robbed, stabbed on the subway. No. This woman was found inside her own apartment with her throat slit.

THE KILLER LIVED INside THE BUILDING

I remember feeling a sense of anguish that something so gruesome could happen this close to my new place of residence. Especially considering it was one of the nicest areas of the city I’d ever lived in. Something came over me and I couldn’t help but go and look for myself. Like everyone who lives in New York City for a certain length of time, you become jaded toward terrible things since they happen constantly. I needed more details in order to feel safe and somewhat in control (I know that sounds insane). I made the three-minute walk around the corner from my building to the street and was immediately met with streams of police tape cordoning off the entrance to 710 West End Avenue. There was a small crowd of people including NYPD, journalists, and passersby all waiting for answers.

710 West End Avenue
The Girl Next Door

On October 17th, Anya Johnston, 24, was filed as a missing person. Her mother, Isabel, hadn’t heard from her for hours and grew concerned until she received a call from her daughter explaining she’d be home soon and that she’d gone for a walk.

At 10:30pm that same day, police officers arrived at Anya’s apartment on the 15th floor where she and her mother sat waiting for them. When asked where she’d ventured off to, she replied that she’d taken a long walk to the Brooklyn bridge but returned because it was too cold and she’d had a long day. When asked to elaborate on what ‘a long day’ meant, Anya said she didn’t want to comment saying “Well, I’m not sure what your version of the events are. So, I don’t, I don’t really know what to say. I don’t want to say a damn thing.”

They responded by telling her she was going to be transferred to a hospital, where she went without protest, arriving at Mount Sinai West’s psychiatric unit.

Anya Johnston.
The Bird Lady

To her neighbors, Susan Trott, 70, was an annoying tenant whom they wanted to evict from the building, but to her closest friends and colleagues, she had the biggest heart, with an even bigger personality. One friend fondly described her as, “A tornado kind of person.”

Trott, who’d lived in her apartment for over ten years, owned two rescue dogs (both elderly) and would take them out in the middle of the night to pee, which regularly prompted fights with other tenants. They complained she didn’t use leashes and that the dogs were aggressive. Another fight ensued when she purchased a vacant apartment next to her own and would have friends stay there. Some neighbors complained that she was illegally renting the apartment out, spurring the board’s anger. Another fight was over how she carried a loaf of bread or a bag of birdseed around to feed pigeons on the corner of West End Avenue and in Riverside Park. 

Friends of Trott’s stated, “she had gotten into altercations – at times physical – with neighbors over the past decade.” And, “She was attacked over her apartment and love of animals.” Despite the animosity, she refused to move.

Trott was a successful copywriter and major player in the advertising industry for decades, working for firms including BBDO, J Walter Thompson, McCann-Erickson, Satchi & Satchi, and Y&R and for brands like Levi’s, Nickelodeon, Ambien, Virgin Atlantic, and Air Canada. She ran her own ad company out of her apartment. She split her time between London and New York and owned an apartment in Manhattan as well as a home upstate.

Susan Trott.

When Eric Boscia, a long-time friend, and colleague of Trott’s, failed to reach her by phone on Sunday, October 21st, he was concerned and contacted police to request a welfare check. Officers responding to the call entered Trott’s residence in the early hours and discovered a trail of blood leading them through the apartment to the bedroom. There they found the unconscious and unresponsive body of a 70-year-old female, clothed, and laying on her back. Upon closer inspection, they noted a deep laceration to her throat.

The apartment wasn’t in disarray, and there was no sign of forced entry so police surmised Trott had let her killer in and may have even known them. There was also no sign of the murder weapon in her apartment, nor was there a clear motive. However, after speaking with neighbors it became clear that Trott wasn’t a very popular tenant, and that, according to some of her friends, she’d had issues with a particular woman in the apartment above hers on the 15th floor.

All Evidence Pointed Upstairs

Once forensic units descended onto the crime scene, the trail of blood was discovered in footprints leading from the crime scene, into the hall, and up a flight of stairs. It quickly leads investigators directly inside a 15th-floor apartment belonging to neighbors, Isabel and Anya Johnston. Anya, who, three days prior had been admitted to a psychiatric unit. Officers searched Anya’s apartment, looking for evidence but were unable to find a weapon matching the incision marks on Trott’s body. Carpet swatches were cut out and submitted for testing. NYPD also confiscated, among other things, a jacket, some pants, and a pair of Converse All-Star sneakers from Anya’s apartment, which were later matched as having Susan Trott’s DNA profile all over them. Reports also indicated that the right Converse sneaker “was consistent” with the impressions made on the carpet in Trott’s apartment.

Johnston was arrested and immediately transferred from Mount Sinai West to the psychiatric unit of Elmhurst, and once her medical status stabilized she was sent to Rikers. But her mental health has remained a pivotal aspect of the case, with her defense attorney claiming Anya has “an extensive mental health history, going back probably 20 years.” He confirmed reports that Anya was adopted from a Russian orphanage as a preschooler and later attended Winston Prep, a private school in Chelsea for students with learning disabilities. He confirmed they would be exploring a defense of insanity regarding the case.

The question of motive continues to perplex the public. Initial media reports mentioned the notion of Anya possibly being caught in the act of burglarizing Susan’s apartment, but the indictment has no burglary-related charges. Boscia, Susan’s friend stated, “Sue never mentioned [Anya] by name, but had said a woman was assaulting her and had been stealing from her. If Anya was in the midst of a theft when the confrontation happened, Boscia believes that Susan would have been sensitive to Anya’s agitated state.

M48 Cyclone knife.

And there’s the question of the murder weapon. According to court records, Anya’s Amazon purchase history reveals she bought an M48 Cyclone knife, the same type of weapon the coroner stated made the unusual tunneling lacerations to Trott’s throat. But the knife itself was never recovered. And nobody really knows what transpired between the two of them. There are those in the building that feel awful for Isabel, Anya’s mother, stating “Sue and Isabel [knew] each other for decades…and [had known] Anya ever since her mother adopted her.” When asked specifically about Anya, she was described as “a highly disturbed person…Anya has always had ‘issues’ according to other people in the building.”

Sadly, about a month before Trott was murdered, it has since been revealed she was planning to leave the coop for good. According to her close friend, Boscia, “She’d already found the real estate agents.” He employed the same team to sell her unit in June of 2020. “Her thought was to get either a place in the country or a pied-à-terre in the city and just travel…just enjoy her 70s.”

But were there warning signs of an impending murder? 

About a month before her death, Boscia visited Trott and she mentioned feeling uneasy about someone but didn’t want to get into specifics, dismissing his concern with a wave of her hand. “She was like, ‘Next. It’s fine, it’s fine.’”

Anya Johnston remains at Rikers in pre-trial custody, having been indicted for second-degree murder. The case is still open and pending trial.

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