On Saturday evening, 37-year-old Qiao Zhen Li tried to telephone her husband, Yi Lin Zhuo, at his job to tell him she was becoming alarmed by his cousin, who had seemed to grow increasingly unstable while staying with them in their Brooklyn apartment, where they were raising their four young children.
The cousin, 25-year-old Mingdong Chen, had come to America illegally in 2004 and had held a series of restaurant jobs, but had been repeatedly fired after a week or two. He had most recently been working out of state, most likely in Chicago, but had been fired once again. He had shown up at the Zhou house some eight days ago, as he had on earlier occasions, broke and in need of shelter.
Chen is said to have seemed more resentful than grateful, and he had spent entire days doing nothing when he could have been getting another job and a place of his own. One relative would later report that Li had finally told him he would have to leave.
Li was now so worried by Chen that when she was unable to reach her husband, she called her mother in China. Her mother then telephoned a daughter-in-law in New York, who went with her husband to Li’s first-floor apartment on 57th Street in Sunset Park. They arrived around 10:45 p.m. and pounded on the door.
Chen answered, covered in blood but with no apparent injuries. The daughter-in-law called 911, and two detectives who happened to be nearby on an unrelated robbery case responded. The detectives detained Chen and went inside to discover a home that had been turned to a slaughterhouse with a meat cleaver.
Li was sprawled on the kitchen floor with her 5-year-old son, Kevin Zhou, both of them grievously wounded. Her other three children, 9-year-old Linda Zhuo, 7-year-old Amy Zhou, and 18-month-old William Zhou, lay slashed to death in a rear bedroom.
Li and Kevin still showed faint signs of life, and paramedics fought to save them. Kevin looked tiny on the stretcher as he was carried out, the top of his yellow pajamas cut open, his legs in what looked like bandages. He was loaded into a waiting ambulance that had come onto the block against traffic and now backed up to the corner, then roared off to the hospital 10 blocks away.
But the race was in vain, and the boy was pronounced dead on arrival, as was the mother at another hospital. Chen was handcuffed and taken to the 66th Precinct stationhouse. His bare feet were coated with blood as he was led inside.
Chen allegedly gave a measure of his temper when he attacked one of the cops as they began the process of charging him with five counts of both first- and second-degree murder. He is said to have made a brief spontaneous statement that suggests he may have been jealous about the Zhou family’s success compared to his own failure.
“He made a very short comment…since he’s been in this country, everyone seems to be doing better than him,” NYPD Chief of Department Philip Banks reports. “We’re not really sure what that means. But that is the only thing that we have now.”
Yi Lin Zhuo, 31, had not yet returned from work at the time of the attack. He arrived home to see the emergency vehicles outside and became inconsolable when he was informed that his wife and children were dead. Two plainclothes officers tried to comfort him in an unmarked car and then took him to the precinct, where he was interviewed along the sister-in-law and her husband.
As night gave way a brilliant morning, 29-year-old Gao Yun, a cousin of the mother, Li, arrived on 57th Street still unaware of the tragedy. She would not have been surprised to see the Zhou kids out playing in the sunshine, making happy sounds such as neighbors remember.
Yun instead saw a big NYPD Crime Scene Unit van. She spoke to a cop who told her something terrible had happened. She asked which apartment and on hearing it was her cousin’s she broke down in tears. Her voice was shrill with disbelief and choked with grief as she spoke to someone on her cell phone in Fujianese.
Yun afterward talked with reporters. She described the suspected killer with a word that is the direst of curses among people who labor maximum hours for minimal wages with the hope of giving their children a better life.
“Lazy,” she said. “Don’t work too much.”
She added that he was unstable. She raised her right index finger to the side of her head and moved it in a circular motion, a universal gesture signifying craziness.
After more public massacres of innocents who were unknown to a manifestly psycho killer armed with a firearm, there have rightly been calls for stricter gun control and improvements in mental health care.
But the strictest of gun controls and an entirely overhauled mental health-care system in America could not have prevented this horror, which was allegedly visited with a meat cleaver upon innocents known to a killer who slipped in among us illegally from China and who at this point appears to have been less delusional than simply enraged.
As Yun walked up to the corner, she joined the father of the murdered children. He had returned from the precinct and now stood gazing past the crime scene tape to where an investigator in a white suit was emerging from the slaughterhouse that had been a home. We can make ourselves safer, but nothing will ever make us completely safe.
“What we have is just a normal family who unfortunately was the victim of an unspeakable act,” says Banks of the NYPD.