On an early summer Sunday that was the stuff of childhood memories, 6-year-old Prince Joshua Avitto was at the playground at a Brooklyn housing project with his best friend, 7-year-old Mikayla Capers.
“It was a beautiful day until the monster came,” Prince’s godmother, Annabelle Diaz, later said.
The monster was still beyond imagining when Prince, known as P.J., told his godmother that he wanted an Italian ice. She was just outside the building, and she did not anticipate that there could be any danger in telling him to go on in with Mikayla and get ices from the freezer in his sixth-floor apartment.
Prince’s mother buzzed them into the building and the children scamperedinto the elevator just before 6 p.m. They were talking with each other when a husky man wearing a gray sweatshirt came in behind them.
Mikayla would later tell detectives that she became frightened when the man told them to shut up. Prince apparently saw no danger in continuing to talk to his friend.
Between the first and fourth floor, the man became a monster, as if in some horror movie the children were too young to watch. He drew a black-handled kitchen knife and began repeatedly stabbing both children. Mikayla got defensive wounds in her hands as she tried to ward him off.
“We are a family. We did everything we could. We love him with all our hearts.”
When the elevator returned to the lobby and the doors opened, Mikayla managed to crawl into the lobby, leaving a trial of blood and collapsing as the monster fled. Prince lay crumpled and bleeding inside. Screams were followed by sirens.
The commotion caused Prince’s godfather, Hank Alston, to go to the front window of his apartment on the sixth floor, the same floor where the boy lived. Alston had last seen Prince at midday, when the two walked to the store together.
“He asked me to buy him some Bubble Yum,” Alston recalls. “I bought him some Bubble Yum.”
Alston now watched a police officer hurry from the building with Prince in his arms. The boy was placed in an ambulance that sped off to nearby Brookdale Hospital. A second ambulance arrived there with Mikayla.
“Did P.J. die?” Mikayla asked on the way. “Why did this man hurt me?”
The girl’s great-grandmother, Reginia Trevathan, arrived at the hospital and saw Mikayla for a moment. Trevathan noted the defensive wounds the girl HAD suffered, along with those to the chest, a total of more than 15. She clearly had resisted the monster as best she could.
“She’s feisty,” Trevathan later said.
The great-grandmother then joined family members of both children in a room as the trauma team fought to save the two. Trevathan would later recount the moment when Prince’s mother, Erika, got the worst possible news.
“The doctors came in and told her her son did not make it,” Trevathan would report.
The mother went in to see her son, who had visible wounds to his neck. She embraced him.
“He was just a baby,” she was heard to cry.
Mikayla clung to life and managed to speak briefly to a detective, giving an account of what happened and a general description of the monster. There were no surveillance cameras in the elevator or the lobby, even though government funding had been allocated for them more than a year ago.
The knife was recovered in the immediate vicinity of the attack. The weapon proved to be a Dura Edge model that Imperial King has not manufactured since 2004. A black-handled kitchen knife of the exact same make had been recovered a few blocks way on Friday night, after an 18-year-old nursing student named Tayana Grant was stabbed more than 30 times and killed.
In addition, the suspect in Friday’s killing was also described as a husky man in a gray sweatshirt. And there were similarities in the nature of the wounds. There arose the likelihood that the monster had committed both attacks and might strike again.
A slasher had gone on a rampage in Brooklyn back in 2011, killing four and wounding five before he was finally caught, but he had started with two people he knew. And he had not hurt any children.
Word that two youngsters had been so savagely attacked brought a visibly upset NYPD Commissioner William Bratton to the scene on Sunday night. The surrounding 75th Precinct has long been known for its violence, and it been the subject of some discussion during a crime meeting at headquarters on Thursday because of a recent increase in shootings. This was set aside for the moment, now that a man with a knife had committed something so singularly horrific.
“That is not the city of New York that we want to police,” Bratton later said of the attack. “That is not the city of New York that we are responsible for.”
He was heard to make a promise.
“We’re going to get this guy.”
No fingerprints were recovered from either knife, one of which was said to have an 8-inch blade, the other 6, both described as inexpensive. Investigators still hoped to obtain DNA.
There was also no surveillance camera footage of Friday’s killing of Grant, though there was some grainy footage of a husky man hurrying away from the direction of the scene around the time of the murder.
Detectives were seeking other footage from a growing area around both attacks. They also were canvassing for witnesses and tracking down a number of tips, this being one crime in a tough part of Brooklyn where nobody seemed to worry about being a snitch.
None of the tips immediately panned out. One police official began to worry that this meant nobody knew the killer’s identity.
“If somebody knew him, we’d have a lead by now,” the official said.
The official wondered aloud about the monster.
“Who would walk around with an 8-inch kitchen knife?” the official asked. “Not a lot of people.”
On Monday morning, the very opposite of a monster appeared outside the murdered child’s building in the mournfully loving person of his father, 56-year-old Nicholas Avitto. Prince had come to him as a late-in-life blessing, born on Father’s Day. The elder Avitto had walked the first-grader to AF Aspire Elementary School each day, and he would have on Monday, had the boy not been murdered 17 days before his seventh birthday.
The father now set off for the school alone, taking the same route with his son’s Spiderman backpack on his right shoulder, speaking to the person he wished most in all the world was at his side but would never be again.
“I talked to him,” the father told reporters. “I acted like he was there.”
He said of his son’s lost future: “He could have been Einstein.”
After the elder Avitto returned to the building with the backpack, a 5-year-old named Amani Ali stood with her own father on the sidewalk, a few feet from where there were still blood spatters as well as a gauze wrapper and a blue latex glove left by the paramedics. Her father said she had known Prince.
“She said, ‘I think he’s alive, he’s coming back,’” the father, Saleh Ali, reported. “I don’t say anything to her.”
The boy’s godmother, Diaz, stood nearby. She issued a warning to the monster should he try to strike again anywhere near her.
“I have Mace, and I will use it,” she said. “I have a cane, and I will use it.”
She was asked to describe her godson.
“What his name says: Prince,” she replied.
She was still in shock, unable to believe that such a thing could have happened to him.
“All he wanted was an Icee,” she said.
The godfather, Alston, was around back of the building, sitting on a bench at the edge of the playground. He was aware of the murder nearby on Friday night.
“We heard about that,” he said.
But he had not felt even the faintest premonition that the killing could have had anything to do with Prince as he spent Saturday at the playground with him. Alston and the boy had gone upstairs when it began to rain, but then it stopped and the boy had not been someone to just sit inside and play video games once the sun was shining again.
“He asked, ‘Could you take me back outside?’” Alston remembered.
The boy had been back at the playground with his godmother early Sunday evening when he decided he wanted an ice. He headed upstairs with Mikayla and surely would have hurried back into the waning sunshine to enjoy the last of a perfect early summer Sunday.
Alston now sat looking at photos of the boy he keeps in his phone. One was of Prince’s christening. Alston recalled that Prince’s mother had asked him to be his godfather before the boy was born.
“I was reluctant at first, but she insisted,” he said. “So I just said, ‘OK, if that’s what you want.’”
Once he agreed, he had embraced the role, as every godfather should. He is disabled, and that gave him added hours to go to the playground with Prince or to sit with him on the two steps outside the building where the boy spent so much time they were called his “office.”
“I used to sit there and just talk with him,” Alston said.
He encouraged the boy to express his opinions, gently correcting him when he was wrong.
“He was very opinionated,” Alston said.
Alston knew the boy’s passions.
“He loved action figures: Captain America, Spiderman, Batman, Superman,” Alston reported.
Prince had dressed as Spiderman for Halloween, but the picture that Alston likes most is one in which the boy is sitting on a wooden bench in a red shirt, looking exactly like himself. His eyes are bright and knowing and eager to know more.
“He was just beginning to understand things, just beginning to come into his own,” Alston said. “He was curious, adventurous.”
Alston had begun to teach him checkers and chess and wanted to show him so much more and witness what he learned for himself as he grew older. This godfather extraordinaire had made a request of the Almighty.
“Just to see him grow up to be a man,” Alston said. “That’s what I asked God.”
That was never to be. Alston could now only hope that the police catch the man.
“I believe in justice, I believe if you do something wrong, you should have to pay,” Alston said. “That’s the law of the land. That’s how I was raised. That’s how I tried to raise him. We tried to teach him right from wrong.”
Of course, nothing could right this wrong, which made a cruel irony out of Monday’s fine weather and of the rubber matting that carpeted the playground to prevent children from getting hurt.
“Play Safely,” a sign said.
The sunshine gave a glisten to Alston’s tears as he spoke of the father, mother, aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents and friends who all felt this loss.
“We are a family,” he said. “We did everything we could. We love him with all our hearts.”
His voice rose with deepest hurt as the birds sang from the surrounding trees on what would have been another perfect early summer day were it not for the monster who was still out there, willing to slash even children and liable to attack again if he is not caught.