Four Deaths, Four Mysteries: Why Were They on the Street?
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After four days, the police were still struggling to identify one of the four homeless men who were brutally killed in Chinatown on Saturday, and questions abounded about how the others ended up sleeping on the streets where they lost their lives.
Investigators generally face significant hurdles in finding information on homeless people who die, in part because they lack an address that can be used to find records and relatives. It’s been no different with this case.
The police said on Tuesday that they believe the fourth victim is a 39-year-old man, but they are withholding his name until investigators find a relative who can confirm his identity. The medical examiner’s office is checking fingerprint records, and may also have to turn to DNA in order to help identify him.
And information about the victims officials have identified has been scarce.
One of the them, Anthony L. Manson, 49, was a preacher who had started two nonprofit organizations in Mississippi that conducted outreach to the homeless. His family, based in Chicago, said they had no idea that he was living on New York’s streets.
Another, Nazario A. Vazquez Villegas, 54, had a large family who loved him and had a place to live, his son, Daniel Vazquez, said on NY1. “My father was a wonderful man,” he said. “He had many friends.”
A third, Chuen Kwok, 83, who was well-known in Chinatown, often accepted help from neighbors and slept in the same storefront alcove night after night. But those who knew him said he was quiet and never spoke about how he became homeless.
The fourth victim was carrying no identification. As with the others, his identity, the police said, has been hard to establish in part because his face was so badly beaten.
All four were bludgeoned to death early on Saturday morning as they slept on sidewalks near Chatham Square. Another homeless man, Randy Rodriguez Santos, 24, was arrested a couple blocks away, while carrying a bloody metal bar, and was charged with their murders.
The police have identified the surviving victim of the night’s attack as David Hernandez, 49. He remains in the hospital in critical condition.
But it may take days, weeks or possibly months to get a full accounting of everyone who was involved in that tragic night.
In general, the police record the names and other identifying information about homeless people, particularly if someone lodges a complaint about their conduct, on documents called 80-cards. But that information is usually not very detailed.
Many homeless people tend to be wary of giving up personal information, and often lose their personal identification documents. Many times, outreach workers must refer to a homeless person they encounter with a simple description, like “man with a cane.”
Over time, these descriptions can become how a person is identified. In some cases, social workers can get a full name, often because a person needs a birth certificate or another form of identification to get services, like social security benefits.
“We have a lot of clients in our database that begin as aliases,” said Frederick Shack, chief executive of Urban Pathways, a nonprofit that does homeless outreach for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “The reality is that in some cases, it does take time.”
The city’s medical examiner’s office had been trying to identify the unknown victim of Saturday’s attack by circulating a photo, said Mary Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Center for Community Urban Services, which oversees several city agencies that canvass Manhattan.
Ms. Taylor said social workers for these agencies had not immediately recognized the person in the photo and the center had been unsuccessful in determining whether anyone had ever encountered him while canvassing the neighborhood.
In order to make the final identification, the police might need a lucky break, such as a tip from someone who reports the person as missing.
Mr. Manson’s story is emblematic of the kind of fog into which the lives of the homeless tend to descend. Away from his native Chicago, he was living a much different life than his family had imagined.
For at least two decades, Mr. Manson had been a traveling minister, moving from place to place to preach the word. He had a special interest in homeless people, his brother, Bryant Manson, said in a phone interview.
Even after becoming homeless, he continued to preach. On the day before he was killed, Mr. Manson posted a video on Facebook of a short sermon that he had delivered, near what looked like a park adjacent to a housing project. On social media, he referred to himself as a “Priestly Artist,” and a circular insignia he used proclaimed his values as “enlightenment, faith, love and honor.”
On Sept. 18, he said in a video posted to Instagram that he had founded a support group called “Here We Are” to help people get through daily life.
“I am a strong believer of having different support outlets and systems where we can go to and gather strength to rejuvenate from the course of a day,” he said before the video abruptly cut off.
Mr. Manson was lying on the ground when, the police said, Mr. Santos, 24, struck him in the head with a heavy metal bar early on Saturday morning, beating him beyond recognition. But Mr. Manson was carrying his phone, which helped the police identify him.
A detective found Mr. Manson’s older brother’s number in his contacts, and delivered the sad news on Saturday night. “We are more hurt by the way it happened,” his brother said. “We accept that he passed, but we’re more hurt that he was murdered like that.”
The family did not know Mr. Manson was in New York, his brother said. The detective had sent the family a photo of a New York State ID card for Mr. Manson that had been issued in August, suggesting he may have arrived recently.
One of nine children, Mr. Manson grew up on the West Side of Chicago, and was raised by his parents, William Henry Manson and Barbara Manson.
Mr. Manson’s father worked as a conductor for the Chicago Transit Authority, while his mother cared for the children, instilling in them a strong Christian faith, his brother said. Four of the siblings, including Mr. Manson, became ministers.
About 25 years ago, Mr. Manson married and moved south to work as a youth minister, his brother said. For a short time, he lived in the small town of Kosciusko, Miss., where his wife had roots, according to another relative, Bertha Levy.
He energized young people from the pulpit at Bethel Apostolic Church, Ms. Levy, 64, said. “Everybody just loved how he preached,” she said, “the way he would explain everything.”
Records show that Mr. Manson also established two nonprofits, Community Hope Center and Apostolic World Ministries, while in Mississippi.
At Community Hope, Mr. Manson would try to help homeless people and others who had substance abuse problems, Ms. Levy said. “He would counsel them to get off drugs,” she said.
But Mr. Manson’s life, for reasons unknown, began to fall apart. He was a carpenter, but could not find work. The financial burden of caring for his wife and two sons was too much for him, Ms. Levy said. His wife also was unable to provide for the children.
Ms. Levy said she and her husband became foster parents to the boys, who were 4 and 10 years old at the time and are now in their 20s. Mr. Manson moved to California, where he “really fell on hard times,” she said.
He began moving from city to city, looking for work and preaching in places like Denver and various towns in South Carolina, his brother said.
In recent years, Mr. Manson became even more of a mystery to his family.
He called periodically to return messages left by his mother and siblings, speaking to each for just a few minutes at a time. But often, his family got their updates from his social media postings. Now, his family is looking for answers on how he ended up sleeping on East Broadway, where the attacker found him.
“We have no understanding why he was out there sleeping outside, homeless,” Bryant Mason said.
Susan Beachy contributed research.