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.

Have you hired a psychopath?

Toxic corporate culture has been in the spotlight over the years with the more recent examples including Harvey Weinstein and the late, Jeffrey Epstein. The term, ‘Psychopath’ gets thrown around in the media with various books and academic articles exploring the subject. From popular TV shows like Dexter and Mindhunter, to documentaries like HBOs, The Jinx, society has become more familiar with the vernacular coined by health professionals to describe a person with an antisocial personality disorder. As a result, sociopaths and psychopaths often are identified as scary individuals who either look frightening or have other off-putting characteristics. In reality, they could be anyone—a neighbor, coworker, or even a family relation. Each of these seemingly harmless people may prey continually on others around them.

Antisocial personality disorder is described as an engrained behavioral pattern that consistently disregards and violates the rights of others. The most extreme examples of these are regarded as ‘sociopathic‘ or ‘psychopathic‘. According to Dr Robert Hare, 1% of the general male population are psychopaths, and 15 – 20% of the prison population are psychopathic. A clinical assessment of psychopathy is based on the person having the full cluster of psychopathic traits—at least to some degree—based on a pattern of lifetime behaviors.

This also means that there is a significant percent of the population that aren’t necessarily psychopathic but who do display some of the traits and still thrive in society. These types could be categorized as (BPD); Borderline Personality Disorder. Some of the traits include: narcissism, pathological lying, lack of empathy or guilt which, at worst, can still lead to violent crime or, at best, create a chaotic work environment. If you’ve ever been in the presence of someone with a borderline or full blown personality disorder, it’s easy to detect something is amiss without necessarily understanding the science behind their psyche. But what if you’ve ever been the target of such an individual?

Since moving to New York City in 2011, there were a few crimes that shocked me, however the shooting at the Empire State building in 2012 stood out from the rest. I was walking to my office building in Midtown Manhattan when I received an alert on my phone.

Jeffrey T. Johnson deceased at the crime scene in front of the Empire State building in NYC, 2012.

August 24th, 2012: the day of the shooting

Steven Ercolino was headed to his office inside the Empire State building where he worked as vice president of Sales at Hazan Imports. What he didn’t know was that his former colleague, Jeffrey Johnson, was hiding behind a white truck with a handgun, waiting for him.

Johnson fired the first shot at Ercolino’s head and the helpless victim crumpled to the sidewalk. Johnson then stood over the dying man and shot him four more times. Witnesses described the shooter as eerily calm, as he then walked east on 33rd Street and turned north onto the bustling Fifth Avenue.

Johnson, who was carrying a black canvas tote-bag, pulled out his .45 as he spotted two cops — who were posted outside the Empire State Building. The officers ordered him to “freeze” and drop his weapon, but Johnson raised his gun instead. The cops opened fire — hitting Johnson seven times. Johnson — who was dead at the scene — had no arrest record or history of psychiatric problems. He legally purchased his .45-caliber pistol in 1991 in Florida, while he was living there but never registered it in New York.

Before the carnage, an office grudge festered

Following the bloodshed, there was only one question on everyone’s mind: what was Johnson’s motive for killing his former boss? With no arrest record or history of mental illness, it’s difficult to understand or to have predicted his actions. The two worked together at Hazan Imports, which sells bags and belts, up until two years before the shooting, when Johnson was laid off. According to several people at the company, Johnson was a “meticulous” and “eccentric” designer who never got along with Ercolino, a “laid-back” salesman. Another Hazan employee who was standing next to Ercolino when he was killed, stated, “There was bad blood between Steve and Jeff, for no particular reason. Jeff just did not like Steve.” Said another, “You chalk it up to two guys being around each other too much.” Johnson and Ercolino’s bad relationship had gotten physical in the past, with the two regularly shoving and elbowing each other in the office hallways. Later, a few months after Johnson lost his job, he returned to the building and the two had a physical confrontation, with Ercolino grabbing Johnson by the throat and threatening, “If you ever do anything like this again, I’m going to kill you,” according to an eye witness.

His building’s superintendent and neighbors described him as a quiet and polite man who was seen every morning wearing a suit, greeting his neighbors and getting takeout from a nearby McDonald’s, then usually remaining in his apartment for the rest of the day. On the morning of the shooting, Mr. Johnson reportedly emerged from his building at the usual time and in the usual attire, said his superintendent, Guillermo Suarez, 72, whom everyone calls Bill. “He said, ‘How you doing, Bill?’ and he never came back to the building,” Mr. Suarez said.

Theories of crime, including Strain theory could be applied to this case; read (Merton, 1968), (Agnew, 1992), and (Blau and Blau, 1982), who describe various social-psychological factors which can trigger criminal behavior.

Was Johnson pushed over the edge? After feuding with Ercolino and eventually being fired by him, Johnson’s ego was bruised. His mother described conversations she’d had with her son in the year or so leading up to the shooting that illustrates a depleted man who was disappointed at how his life had turned out; he wanted to support his parents ‘as a son should’ and was unable to do so. He also mourned the loss of his favorite pet within the same year, and received an eviction notice after he couldn’t afford to pay rent. All of these factors, more than likely, contributed to his actions that fateful day.

It’s also probable that Johnson had a borderline personality disorder that went unnoticed throughout his life and during his interview process at Hazan Imports. Instead, he was dismissed as ‘eccentric’ by his colleagues. But his particular set of personality traits, coupled with a hostile work environment ultimately caused him to react with violence. After considering the testimonies of former colleagues and acquaintances, police determined that revenge may have been Johnson’s primary motive.

Fahim Saleh: beheaded and dismembered

After a chilling crime was committed in July this year, the words ‘reserved’ and ‘non-violent’ were used to describe 21 year old murderer, Tyrese Devon Haspil. His aunt expressed he was “sometimes troublesome but never having shown any inclination toward brutality,” after he tased, stabbed, beheaded, and dismembered his employer, Fahim Saleh, in his Manhattan apartment.

LEFT: Personal assistant, Tyrese Devon Haspil. RIGHT: Entrepreneur and Tech CEO, Fahim Saleh.

According to Paul Babiak and Robert Hare’s book ‘Snakes in Suits‘, and mentioned in a 2019 Forbes article, it is estimated that the rate of psychopathy in the executive suite is 3.9%. Since the release of the book there has been much disagreement over the extent of the presence of psychopaths in corporate America with most other estimates landing between 8% and 12%. People with these traits are good at “impression management” and know how to get people to like them. Studies show that some are quick to anger, though when climbing the corporate ladder they are more likely to use charm and flattery on superiors in order to propel their careers.

Haspil’s background revealed that his family history includes mental illness. And after his mother died, he was passed around family members until finally being placed in foster care as a young teen, after which, his father passed away. Haspil is described as, “never showing his emotions,” and it’s noted by his aunt that, “His behavior, the way he was, he acted nonchalantly. He would do whatever he wanted.” Travis Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory states that persons who have strong and abiding attachments to conventional society (in the form of attachments, involvement, invest- ment, and belief) are less likely to deviate than persons who have weak or shallow bonds. The theory provides some insight behind Haspil’s extreme decision since, as a child and adolescent, he failed to form these these bonds which are imperative for building relationships and understanding consequences of one’s actions.

Ryan Andres, a classmate of Haspil at Valley Stream Central High School on Long Island, said he never saw any flashes of violence or anger in his former friend. “As far as I can recall, he was always pretty friendly with everyone,” Andres, 22, recalled.

The day of the crime

Police believe that 21 year old Tyrese Devon Haspil murdered his boss, 33 year old Fahim Saleh on Monday, July 13th after following the tech CEO to his Lower East Side penthouse in New York City, immobilizing him with a taser, and stabbing him to death. Surveilance footage revealed that he returned the next day, August 14th, to conceal the crime. But not before using the victim’s credit card to rent a car, and purchase an electric saw and cleaning supplies. His plan was interrupted that same day when the victim’s sister visited the apartment to check up on her brother, and Haspil ran off. The electric saw used to dismember Saleh was still plugged into an outlet, and some of the remains had been stuffed in bags, according to NYPD officials.

So what was Haspil’s motive? After investigators read text messages exchanged between Haspil and his employer, Fahim Saleh, it was revealed that he had embezzled tens of thousands of dollars from the former tech CEO. And to their surprise, Saleh offered Haspil an out, stating that if the money was paid back in full he would not report him to the police.

This detail, investigators believe, was the deciding factor in Saleh’s death. Haspil most likely determined that murder was his best course of action in a twisted version of what economists call a cost-benefit analysis. In his situation, he believed that committing a violent crime was easier than paying back the money he stole. Unfortunately, it’s clear that Saleh hired and trusted the wrong person; a stone cold psychopath.

Haspil being led out by detectives in NYC after killing his boss.

Conclusion

How can we predict anti-social behaviors in society and, in this case, the workplace? Are there specific markers identifiable early in childhood or adolescence? Awareness and education is where it needs to stem from, particularly if and when children are not receiving the mental nourishment and positive stimuli required for healthy thought and decision-making processes. The sad reality is that the system is broken, and people who truly need help are not receiving it. It should be a societal and individual requirement to understand or better yet, possess a certain level of emotional intelligence in order to maintain a peaceful existence. After all, aren’t emotions what make us human?

Where do we start? By developing and introducing in-depth EQ tests into schools, beginning at nursery level and continuing into elementary as a way of identifying EQ (emotional quotient) levels. These should transpire into adolescence as a continued form of measurement in order to positively assess and improve areas of cognitive development into adulthood. Higher education should require students to study behavioral sciences, just as they’re required to study english and math, in order to learn the importance of hypothetical reasoning and hone the skills needed in key decision making.

Mental health awareness and support networks need to be considered ‘essential’ in the workplace. Therapists or in office counselors should be available to provide a safe space for employees when needed with regular in-person check ups during key personal/career oriented transitions. Upper management must be carefully selected and educated in these areas including a wide range of sensitivity training.

If we can achieve these positive societal steps hopefully, the stigma surrounding mental health will lift and eventually fade once it’s recognized as a serious issue and tackled accordingly. Increasing awareness through continued education at all stages of life is the best way to enact positive change.