First, a funeral director found a stab wound in the neck of an 82-year-old woman who died in Apartment 6M in 2015. Four years later, the grandson of the 83-year-old woman in 11C found her strangled. Then on Friday, the son of an 78-year-old woman in 6A found her dead with a telephone cord wrapped around her neck.
The killings cast a spell of grief and terror at the Carter G. Woodson Houses in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a public housing development for seniors where the women had lived and died at the hands of a killer who remained elusive until this week.
Police announced on Thursday that they had arrested a 66-year-old man who was the women’s neighbor in the Powell Avenue building in connection with the heinous crimes. Rodney Harrison, the chief of detectives, said forensic evidence tied the suspect, Kevin Gavin, to the women, but he did not elaborate.
Chief Harrison did not reveal a motive for the crimes, but he said Mr. Gavin, who lived in apartment 6E, had befriended the victims and run errands for them. On Thursday evening, he was waiting to be formally charged with second-degree murder in Criminal Court in Brooklyn, one count each for killing Myrtle McKinney in November 2015, Jacolia James in April 2019 and Juanita Caballero last week.
Mr. Gavin’s name had come up in the investigation as early as 2015, but investigators did not have enough evidence to move forward with charges until recently, according to two law enforcement officials who discussed the case on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so. The officials said he had since admitted to killing all three of the women.
Eric Gonzalez, the borough district attorney, said he would move quickly to present the case to a grand jury and was confident there would be an indictment.
“I understand how devastating these losses have been to the people of Brownsville, to the residents of those houses, that these women who are beloved mothers and grandmothers and neighbors, the fear that has existed in the Woodson Houses regarding what’s happening there,” he said.
Relatives of the victims said they were glad to learn that police had arrested the suspect. But they were angry that two of the killings had not been investigated as murders from the start.
Mark Lewis, one of Ms. McKinney’s sons, said in an interview that the arrest gave him a measure of comfort, but he felt that people needed to be held accountable for failing to heed signs of foul play in his mother’s death for over a month.
Ms. McKinney’s death was initially attributed to congestive heart failure before the funeral director found the stab wound on her neck. But police had ignored the fact that her keys were missing and $800 had been withdrawn from her bank account the weekend she died, Mr. Lewis said.
“They dropped the ball from the beginning,” he said. “If a family says something isn’t right, you should at least take the initiative to look into it.”
Some relatives and elected officials accused the Police Department of negligence and systemic racism in its handling of the death investigations. One family has filed a lawsuit, and another is preparing one, a lawyer for the Caballero family said.
Councilwoman Inez Barron, whose district includes Brownsville, said at a news conference on Thursday outside the housing complex that police had not followed up on tips given to them after Ms. McKinney’s death.
“This is an instance of what we feel, once again, is systemic racism where Black lives have not in fact been afforded the resources and the time and attention to investigate complaints of people who live here and know what’s going on,” she said. “We’re saying that we’ve got to have systemic change.”
She said the death of an 86-year-old man who was found in his apartment in 2019 was also suspicious. Chief Harrison said police were investigating other deaths in the building.
Relatives of the victims pleaded for better security in the building, including more cameras and better-equipped security guards — measures they said could have prevented at least some of the deaths.
The housing authority referred questions about the killings to the Police Department, but said the building has a security camera in the lobby, a security guard and locks on the doors. The housing authority said it is working to “expedite the installation of CCTV cameras.”
“NYCHA is committed to ensuring the safety and security of our residents,” officials said in a statement.
One of Ms. James’s grandsons discovered her lying face down in her apartment four hours after he had left her alive, Chief Harrison said. Bruises on her face and neck suggested she was strangled, which the medical examiner confirmed to be the cause of death.
Lamarr Crafton, Ms. James’s oldest grandson, said there needed to be a more consistent police presence at the building.
“These are human beings in there,” he said. “We don’t know whose grandmother and grandfather could be next.”
One of Ms. Caballero’s sons, Peter Caballero, said his mother had lived in the building over a decade. In that time, he had never heard of Mr. Gavin, but he did not know the names of most of the other people who lived in the building.
“I’m happy that they got somebody, but I’m hoping that they can go through the whole process and, you know, make sure he’s guilty, make sure it’s the right person, and make sure if it is the right person that he pays for what he has done,” he said.
Steven Caballero, another son of Ms. Caballero, who found her body last week, said the housing authority had “failed our families” and that he was heartbroken.
“My mother was brutally murdered, brutally murdered,” he said, struggling to speak. “I’m sorry this is tough on me, it’s still fresh. I can never get the vision of seeing my mother out of my eyes.”
He said the families did not want condolences from the housing authority or other officials.
“We want justice, we want action,” he said. “My mother’s friends, they still live in this building, they need to be protected.”
Mr. Gavin had been arrested several times, according to available police and public records, though mostly for low-level drug dealing, and not at all since 2010. Details of the cases were not readily available.
His older brother, Leon Gavin, spoke to The Times after Ms. McKinney’s death was ruled a homicide in 2015. He said he said he thought she had died of a heart attack and was shocked when detectives came to his door.
“Get the heck out of here,” he said, recalling his reaction. “Who would do something like that?”
Leon Gavin died last April. His younger brother then took over his apartment, 6E.
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.
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