In the last minutes of her 18 years of life, Tessa Majors started through the gathering darkness toward the winding steps that ascend the 100-foot cliff at the eastern edge of the Columbia University campus. Her school, Barnard College, lay just beyond.
The 450 million-year-old geological formation she approached through Morningside Park is composed of schist, the remarkably strong and suitable bedrock that support the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, the skyline that for many people is synonymous with New York.
But what really makes the city are the hopeful people who come to it. They included this young woman with a green tint to her blond hair and a gleam of the genuine in her eyes. She had come from outside Charlottesville, Virginia, with a love of music and writing, and so many interests she reported she had not even begun to decide on her major.
“No idea,” she had said. “No clue.”
She had already proven during an internship at a local newspaper called the Augusta Free Press last summer that she had the stuff to become a fine journalist.
And she and the two other members of her band Patient 0 had already released their first single, “Short Term Fixes,” in March of last year.
Patient 0 released its first album, Girl Problems, in September, just after she and the other first-year students arrived at Barnard to register for their classes.
The band had its New York debut in October, and a photo on Majors’ Instagram page shows on stage a petite woman with an electric bass guitar nearly as big as herself.
“Safe to say the first NYC show went well ;)” she wrote.
On the album, you could hear her set the tempo and propel the songs, the tone as positive as the thumping of a heart. She was able to sing of angst in such a way as to make you want to jump up and shake it off.
“No one can control the fact that life won’t ever go your way” goes the song “Paper Cut” on the album.
Yet her life seemed to be going exactly her way. And she was just getting started. There was so much more ahead in her life that she had yet not discovered and ventured.
Up at the college beyond the top of the steps, she already had a reputation in class for not only being the first to offer an opinion but also to have a new and unexpected perspective.
Police said they believe she had yet to reach the bottom step when between one and three figures closed in on her through the dim light of the cast-iron street lamps.
Back in what are known as the bad old days, when New York saw more than 2,000 murders a year, a student from the heights where Columbia and Barnard stand would not likely have ventured into this park after sundown.
The annual body count was now below 300 and New York was known as the safest big city in America. But safest does not necessarily mean safe, as a 24-year-old man discovered back on the afternoon of Aug. 29, when three men threatened him with a box cutter and robbed him of $120.
Majors had arrived at Barnard by then, but since the man was not hurt, the incident received no public attention. Nor did the 19 other robberies reported in the park or at its edges this year, as of the first week in December. Five of them were on the steps just since June.
Majors was not dissuaded from venturing into the park even after sundown on Wednesday.
Suddenly, she became the latest one to face menace in the park. This time the threat was accompanied by a knife. One of the attackers repeatedly stabbed her before they fled.
She was left grievously wounded and alone. She started up the wide granite steps toward her home away from home. She ascended to the left and then to the right and then up one 20-step flight and then another and then another. She somehow reached the top.
A Columbia University public safety officer was in the security booth by the top of the stairs, but she turned away from it toward some benches. She was bent over with her hands on her knees when the guard saw her. Her leggings and running shoes led him to assume she was just winded.
She sat down on the ground and then struggled to get up, and started in the direction of Barnard but fell over. The guard hurried to assist her. He was joined by a couple who had been passing by and a woman who had been walking her dog.
The guard called 911. The police and an ambulance arrived moments later. She was unconscious and beyond saving.
The whole park was closed off with crime-scene tape. Majors had been bleeding as she ascended the steps, and investigators marked the result trail with numbered yellow evidence markers.
At some point, she had dropped her cellphone. It was uncharged when the police found it. They vouchered it as evidence, along with a knife that was found in the park but may not have been the murder weapon. (On Friday morning, two senior law-enforcement officials told The Daily Beast that a 13-year-old boy has been charged with second-degree murder after he is said to have told police that he and two friends that he and two others robbed and killed Majors.)
Late Thursday, several dozen officers conducted a shoulder-to-shoulder search of the park to ensure nothing had been overlooked. Up at the top of the steps, a man who said he was a visiting scholar at Columbia and had chanced to pass by the night before as the cops and paramedics were fighting to save Majors stepped up to the crime-scene tape. He set down a single red rose.
Many others were setting flowers down at the main entrance to Barnard. Students who are new to New York were stunned. Even those who know the city better imagined it had changed more than it actually has since 1999, when a graduate student named Amy Watkins was stabbed to death while walking home in Brooklyn.
Majors’ parents had been notified and they had boarded a plane to New York. The press noted something that the father, Inman Majors, wrote on his Facebook page on his daughter’s 18th birthday back in May.
“18 years ago today my life got redefined in all the right ways when this little bundle of fun came into the world. Happy Birthday to Tessa Rane Majors, a fantastic young lady. I can’t wait to see what the next 18 years have in store.”
The local paper where she had interned posted a podcast in which she had been interviewed about her experience. She was asked about what she would be doing in the fall.
“I’m going to Barnard in New York City,” she said. “I’m really excited about that.”
She had come to New York with her hopes and seemingly boundless possibilities. And, just as she would have been coming to her first exams, she ended up mortally wounded atop a cliff of the stone that made the skyline possible.
And now she was in the city morgue. What is certain is that the police can only do so much to reduce crime. They cannot improve the schools or remedy mental illness or keep families together. Safest will still not mean safe.