My apartment's grisly history

A mystery writer moves into a new apartment that seems too good to be true...

Gabriel Cohen
(Image credit: (Narratively/Jem Cohen))

The summer of 2005 is the worst time in my life. My landlord decides to sell the Boerum Hill house I've rented an apartment in for 16 years, and then — in the aftermath of arguments about where to move — my wife suddenly walks out on our marriage. In the midst of a ferocious heat wave and at the peak of one of New York City's most inflated housing markets, I trudge across Brooklyn searching for a rental I can afford on my own, on a freelance writer's budget. One tiny apartment's only window looks out on a grimy airshaft. Another is a dark basement below the office of a doctor who practices adolescent gynecology.

Two days before I'm scheduled to move in, I learn why the rent is so cheap.

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I ask the broker for the keys so I can clean the place up. At the house, I introduce myself to an upstairs tenant. He's a single guy about my age at the time, 44. I ask what the landlord is like.

My neighbor gives me an odd look. "You mean you don't know?"

"Don't know what? All I know is that he lives out of town."

The tenant grimaces. "Well, he does. He's upstate. In prison."

My heart plummets. I've barely managed to survive a horrendous summer and I'm desperate for a little peace and calm. "What's he in for?"

"He killed his wife."

I can feel myself go pale, but I manage to ask two more questions. "Where did he kill her?"

"In your apartment."


"Seven months ago."

The news would be a shock for anyone, but it has special resonances for me. Not only am I in the middle of a painful divorce, but I'm the author of four novels about a Brooklyn homicide detective. I've just signed on to live in a crime scene.

* * *

I stand out on the patio under a broiling sun and wonder what the hell to do. If I had found out about this earlier I would probably have ripped up the lease and run, but I have only two days to get out of my other place and can't face any more apartment hunting.

I only want one more detail. "What room did it happen in?"

When I learn that it was the bathroom, I'm a bit relieved; at least it wasn't the room I'd have to sleep in every night.

My broker is as appalled to learn about the murder as I am, but even if she had known the apartment's secret she would not have been obliged to tell. New York realtors don't have to disclose the history of such "stigmatized properties." The principle is plain: buyer beware.

* * *

I move in.

I'm not superstitious, but several friends advise me to burn sage to clear away bad spirits. (Evidently, native New Yorkers have a protocol for such situations.)

The first couple of weeks are unsettling. Not only do I have to adjust to sleeping without my wife, but I lie in the dark wondering what actually transpired in that little room just five feet away. I'm still roiling with grief and resentment in the wreckage of my own marriage, and pondering such aggression doesn't help.

Over time, I begin to grow accustomed to my new home. I set up my office in the big middle room with the stained glass windows. While I write, dreaming up fictional homicides all over south Brooklyn, I do my best not to imagine the real killing that took place a few feet from my desk. Even so, the bathroom — walled, incongruously, in black and green Art Deco tiles and silvery disco-era wallpaper — is where I shave every morning and brush my teeth every night, and it takes a while before I stop looking for bloodstains.

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One night, though, I'm woken in the wee hours by a repeating clanking from the direction of the bathroom — it sounds like the chains of Jacob Marley's ghost. Heart palpitating, I get up and tiptoe across the hall. It takes me a moment to realize that I'm only hearing the basement furnace kicking on.

Another eerie moment: For the first time, I follow the steps down to the dark basement and one of the most desolate sights I have ever seen. I click on a dim bare bulb, which reveals that the entire space is filled with a waist-high sea of furniture, clothes, children's toys, hair dryers, and Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo DVDs, all tossed there to clear my apartment for rental. My landlord, I will soon learn, had two daughters, aged three and 14 when he killed their mother. They were in the house at the time.

I try to imagine how powerful a rage a person would have to be in to do such a terrible thing. I have my own reasons to think about anger. I consider myself a cheerful guy, and my wife and I got along peaceably for most of our time together, but when we hit our rough spot, tempers flared. I remember one argument during which I suddenly felt like the Incredible Hulk — I saw red, shouted, slammed a door. Yet I never came close to physical violence.

I wonder why my landlord did.

At first, I don't want to know anything more about the murder, especially not gruesome particulars, but curiosity creeps up on me. In time, and with a little effort — a nervous internet search, a few questions over a beer with my neighbor, a visit to a library newspaper archive — a picture inexorably emerges, detail by graphic detail, like a crime scene photographer's print in a slow developing bath.

* * *

My landlord, an immigrant from Jamaica, was 39 at the time of the killing. He and his wife, who was the same age and hailed from Barbados, bought this big house for $325,000 back in 1999. The man was not some sort of career criminal; he had a full-time job as a supervisor for a beer distributor, and his wife owned her own beauty parlor (which explains the hair dryers and salon chairs heaped in the basement).

My neighbor rarely heard our landlord raise his voice; after the killing, a coworker wrote a pre-sentencing letter of character support; and the defense lawyer was quoted as saying that "he got along well with everybody. Everybody felt he was an easy-going guy."

And yet, the man and his wife had argued, and the police were called to their home several times. After talk of a divorce, my landlord moved to the third floor. Late on the evening of January 21, 2005, something very bad must have been going on inside his head: He cornered his wife in the bathroom, bashed her four times with a brick, and stabbed her in the head and torso.

Right after the attack he called one of her sisters and told her what he had done, and he called the couple's live-in nanny, who was asleep upstairs along with the children. Then he took off. By the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late to save his wife. At 2:06 a.m. she was pronounced dead.

The story of that fateful night doesn't end there, but it isn't until a year later, when I come across an old newspaper story, that I learn the extraordinary next installment. Distraught over what he had done, my landlord jumped into his 1998 Lexus, wearing only his underwear — I suppose he must have stripped off his bloody clothes — and sped off into the night. Six miles away, near the Belt Parkway, he saw a fuel tanker parked at a gas station and decided to end it all. Spurred, perhaps, by the thought of fireballs on TV shows, he floored his car and slammed into the truck — which didn't explode. The tanker leaked two thousand gallons of gas and the crash just mauled the man; he ended up in the Riker's Island jail infirmary with a shattered hip and other severe injuries.

Another part of the picture emerges when I read that my landlord has finally appeared in court. Though he was charged with second-degree murder — as well as ramming the tanker and endangering lives in the gas station — his lawyer argued that he had acted in a state of "extreme emotional disturbance." He pled guilty to first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 18 years in prison, where he now resides.

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There is no question about who committed the crime, but for me, the killer's identity remains a mystery. Was my landlord a "monster," as his wife's relatives testified, or a regular person who committed one sudden crime of passion?

Given certain circumstances, could anyone "just snap"?

* * *

Naturally, I think of writing up my wild New York apartment story, but there's a catch: I don't have a lease, so I'm afraid that a published article will get me kicked out of my new home.

For five long years I sit on the story of the killing in my apartment. It's hard to ignore the irony that the tragedy has still provided a bonus for me. I have a huge, cheap apartment, with a whole big extra room to write in. And I do — three more novels (about fictional homicides) and a nonfiction book about the hard lessons I learned from the collapse of my own marriage.

As the years pass, the house suffers a severe lack of maintenance. The roof leaks, leading to a little waterfall in my bedroom closet every time it rains; a family of raccoons moves into the crawlspace above my kitchen; the chimney begins to tilt at an alarming angle. The tenants — myself, my neighbor upstairs, and a very nice young Japanese family on the third floor — make do as best we can, but the front steps crumble, porch floorboards cave in, and an overhanging section of the roof collapses in a snowstorm. The place begins to look like what, in fact, it is: a haunted house.

In the daytime, I work on new novels. At night, as I lie in bed, I think of my landlord, upstate in his prison bunk. In my writing life and personal life, I'm fascinated by what makes people tick. (Myself included.) I've spent countless hours trying to write complex, believable fictional characters, and also struggling to make sense of my divorce. How did two well-meaning people, so deep in love, manage to go so wrong?

I have to admit that I feel a strange bond with my landlord, a man I've never met.

Read the rest of this story at Narratively.

Narratively is an online magazine devoted to original, in-depth and untold stories. Each week, Narratively explores a different theme and publishes just one story a day. It was one of TIME's 50 Best Websites of 2013.

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