Five days before 18-year-old Barnard College student Tessa Majors was slashed to death in Morningside Park at the edge of campus, a younger teenage girl was chased into the 118 Deli one block further away.
The younger girl lost her footing as a boy who would prove to be 13 came in after her.
“He kicked her on the floor,” the woman behind the counter would recall. “Situation like that, all I know is I got to call the cops. Once I see something like that, I’m calling the cops.”
The counterwoman, who declined to give a reporter her name, made the call. She then took a cellphone photo through the deli window of the boy after he rejoined four other young teens out on Manhattan Avenue, two male, two female.
The boy who had kicked the girl wore a black parka with red and white stripes, the hood up. He and his friends had departed by the time police responded.
The girl who had been kicked remained in the store. The counterwoman had been told that the boy and the girl were an item, and she offered her the same advice she would have given in an instance of adult domestic violence.
“I told her to speak with the cops,” the counterwoman recalled.
The girl did as she was advised. But there wasn't much the cops could do, just as there was not much they could do when another of the teens stole a box of bite-sized cakes from the deli and when they threatened the 67-year-old manager, Rachid Ousaji. He had the audacity to tell them “Don’t steal” and they challenged him to come out from behind the counter, intimating they would do him bodily harm.
“They start talking bad; ‘Come over and I will show you,’” Ousaji recalled on Friday.
The teens had hit the man who worked the counter in the afternoon in the face with a snowball.
“They robbing the store, I told them to stop,” the man recalled.
The afternoon counterman had made another of many calls of his own to the police in recent weeks.
“I call, I call, I call,” he reported on Friday. “Sometimes, I’m shamed to always call 911.”
The people who run the deli say the kids often spoke of committing robberies. The woman said she heard some time back that they had robbed somebody in Morningside Park, a block away.
On Wednesday evening, the whole city heard of another robbery in the park, this involving a knife and resulting in the death of Tessa Majors, an incandescent 18-year-old Barnard College freshman from Virginia.
“The first thing that came to mind was those kids,” the woman behind the counter recalled.
So, the counterwoman was not surprised when the police became the ones to call the deli. A detective said they were looking for a group of teens in connection with the killing.
“They said the kids that have been making all the problems here is the same kids,” the woman behind the counter later told a reporter.
The detective came and took the device that recorded the surveillance camera footage on the day of the crime.
“They said they want the video to see [the teens] all together,” the counterwoman said.
At 2:20 p.m., when nearby Public School/Intermediate School 180 let out for the day and the boy who had kicked the girl would normally have been causing more problems at the deli, he was in Family Court, charged with felony murder. He was arraigned as a juvenile rather than as an adult because he was not believed to have actually inflicted the wounds that resulted in the death of Tessa Majors.
“I’m 13,” he replied when asked to state his age.
Detective Vincent Signoretti testified that the 13-year-old had confessed to robbing Majors along with two other teens. One, a 14-year-old, had been questioned, but not charged. A third teen remained at large.
By the 13-year-old’s account as told by the detective, the three teens had considered robbing a man before targeting Majors. The 13-year-old had cast himself as almost a spectator while one of his pals rifled her pockets and the other pal applied a chokehold such as been popular with New York muggers since the “bad old days” of the 1980s. One of the pals dropped a knife and the 13-year-old said he had picked it up and given it to them. The teen still at large began stabbing Majors, slicing through her down jacket and causing feathers to fly in the air. She had struggled up the steps leading to Columbia University and Barnard. The teens fled in the direction of their middle school and the deli and their homes.
The 13-year-old was remanded without bail.
“This time they got themselves into something,” the counterwoman at the deli said. “Somebody died.”
The screen on the wall that usually carries images of the surveillance cameras was blank. The detectives were still checking the footage.
“They want to know what time he was hanging around here, make sure it's him and where he was,” the counterwoman said.
The superintendent for the apartment building that includes the deli came in. He had often called the police on the 13-year-old and other young teens who seemed to be growing ever more out of control even as the neighborhood itself grew more gentrified.
“The neighborhood start picking up, but these little kids…” the super, 53-year-old Tyrone Singleton, said. “The kids out there, no home training, just getting wild. They’re just getting crazier.”
He added, “You’d figure it’d be an older kid messing with you. No, [it’s] 12- or 13-year-old kids. What do they know about things? It’s just crazy.”
The “No Trespassing” signs he posted in the building mean nothing. He calls the police every other day to have the kids cleared from the lobby and hallways and stairwells.
“Soon as the cops leave, they right back,” he reported.
The Majors killing struck doubly close to home for him, not just because the murder scene was a block away but also because his own 18-year-old daughter is away at college, attending the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.
“I gave my daughter a stun gun,” he said. “I had to. You got to be careful.”
He then said, “I’m going tomorrow morning to pick her up for the holidays.”
He was wearing a proud-dad Plattsburgh hooded sweatshirt and his smile made you think that Majors’ father would no doubt have been equally thrilled to have his daughter back home for Christmas. Your next thought was of what the holidays will be like for Majors’ family without her.
Singleton then strode out beneath the blank surveillance screen that has often shown the 13-year-old and his pals in the deli and in the street outside.
A number of very polite young teens came in to buy snacks, suddenly the manifest majority in the absence of the hooligans. They included a 13-year-old girl who gazed at the counterwoman’s cellphone photo of the boy in the black parka with red and stripes standing outside the deli with his buddies. The girl allowed that she knew the boy, though only through a mutual acquaintance.
She was told the boy had been arrested in connection with a murder and she went quiet for a moment before the enormity of that fact. She then said she had been with friends the day before who had wanted to play basketball in the park only to find it closed off by the police.
“They said something happened,” the girl now reported.
At Morningside Park, signs announced that its annual Christmas tree lighting would be held at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, in the early evening darkness such as cloaked the killing of Majors three days before. The event would feature music and hot cider.
“Light the Night,” the signs said.
Over the weekend, police divers had been searching the pond in Morningside Park, along with ponds in upper Central Park and Riverside Park. No blood had been found on a knife the 13-year-old had been carrying when he was arrested. There was also no blood on a knife that had been discovered near the crime scene. The murder weapon had not yet been recovered and the investigation continues.