12.29.12

A Murder on N.Y.’s Subway Tracks Leaves Authorities Scrambling for Answers

A woman pushed a man to his death on New York’s subway tracks on Thursday, and then fled, leaving authorities with nothing but questions, chief among them how the city treats the mentally ill.

The woman seemed lost in her craziness as she mumbled to herself and paced the elevated platform at the 40th Street station in Queens just before 8 p.m. Thursday.

But she turned crystalline in intent and perfect in timing as she then perched on a trackside bench while an automated voice on the public-address system announced a train’s approach.

“The next Queens-bound 7 local train will arrive in approximately three minutes.”

“The next Queens-bound 7 local train will arrive in approximately two minutes.”

“The next Queens-bound 7 local train is now arriving. Please stand away from the platform edge.”

Just as the front of the train entered the station, the woman propelled herself from the bench toward a man who was standing with his back to her. He seemed unaware of her presence until she had pushed him and he suddenly found himself on the tracks.

The man would later be identified as Sundano Sen, 46, unmarried and an orphan living with two cab drivers as roommates. He was returning home from the printing business he had opened in Manhattan six months before, a dream he had been laboring toward for the 20 years since he had come to America from Bangladesh. He was still working 12 hours a day seven days a week to keep it going. He now had not even enough time to scream.

The motorman might have been able to stop if the woman had pounced just a moment earlier, but her shove could not have been more deadly if she had rehearsed it. The front of the train struck the man, and the first one and a half cars ran over him before the motorman could bring the train to a halt.

One of the horrified witnesses turned his attention to the woman and called out for somebody to stop her. He and several others gave chase as she dashed down the steps to the street.

Video screenshot

A video camera affixed to the awning of the Oasis restaurant recorded her fleeing down 40th Street toward 47th Avenue in a blue, white, and gray ski jacket. She was fleet of foot in red and gray Nike sneakers and disappeared into the night. A wanted poster with a still from the video and an offer of a $12,000 reward would describe her as Hispanic, in her 20s, around 5 feet 5, and heavyset, with short black hair.

The incident marked the second time in a month that somebody had been pushed to their death in the New York City subways, but the prior attack had been preceded by an argument.

Until Thursday night, no woman was on record for pushing a man in front of a New York subway train.

This killing of Sen was more like one in 1999, when a man who had been pacing and mumbling to himself in a Manhattan station suddenly pushed 32-year-old Kendra Webdale in front of an N train with much the same deadly timing.

But that killer, Andrew Goldstein, made no effort to flee. He just stood there, saying, “I’m crazy. I’m psychotic. Take me to the hospital.” He later said in a written statement that he had been driven to kill by a “ghost or a spirit or something like that.”

In the aftermath, investigators discovered that Goldstein had been in and out of hospitals and various outpatient programs, invariably released before he made any real progress, then failing to take his meds.

One result was Kendra’s Law, which gave judges the power to order closely supervised outpatient treatment for the mentally ill who constitute a threat to others and to themselves. A 2010 study of this assisted outpatient therapy (AOT) found that patients were eight times more likely to be arrested for a crime of violence before AOT than during it and immediately afterward.

“AOT substantially reduces the risk of arrest, including arrests for violent offenses among people with serious mental illnesses,” the study concluded. “From the vantage point of a general public concerned with violence and who hold prevalent perceptions of dangerousness concerning people with mental illnesses this is a very positive and straightforward outcome: Kendra’s Law directly results in reduced crime and violence.”

In other words, the response to Webdale’s death almost certainly saved others from suffering the same. But not everybody. Not poor Sen, who could did not have imagined that the minutes before the train’s arrival was announced over the PA system would be his very last.

If he had noticed the woman at all as she paced and mumbled, he understandably may not have considered her to be as much of a threat as a crazed man. Records indicate that women have pushed someone to the tracks only twice, the first time in 1985, then in 1986.

And in both instances, the victim had been a woman and had survived. The 1985 victim, 22-year-old Catherine Costello of Breezy Point, lived despite being run over by the front two cars.

Until Thursday night, no woman was on record for pushing a man in front of a New York subway train. The woman in the ski jacket seems to have been the very first, and perhaps from now on people in the subway will be as leery of female crazies as they are of male crazies.

As the year ends, New York City is on track to have the lowest annual total of homicides since the NYPD began tallying them a half century ago. But somehow there had been two fatal subway pushings in a month.

“To say it’s the only two in a long period of time doesn’t help either person,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg allowed on his regular Friday radio show. “I don’t know what happened here.”

The first one seems to have been committed by a man who was unable to control his temper and exploded into a blind fury, despite his subsequent attempts to explaining it by saying he had been smoking pot and had heard voices.

The second killing was the work of a woman who seems to be a true crazy such as might have been institutionalized before the state began emptying the psychiatric hospitals and sending patients into the streets on meds.

As the police were searching for the first woman ever to push a man to his death in the New York subway, the windows of Manhattan State psychiatric hospital and the city’s other big facilities stood largely empty. These nuthouses had their own horrors and were clearly not a solution, but neither is the present alternative.

What seems to have the start of an answer is suggested by AOT and the law named after a woman pushed to her death by a crazed man.

Meanwhile, the 7 train was running again through the 40th Street station, where sand had been tossed on the track bed to absorb the blood of the first man to be pushed to his death by a crazed woman.