Screams that went silent: Prosecutors' account of Asian woman's murder in US

Assamad Nash, arrested for the murder of a woman in her Chinatown home, is taken by officers in New York on Feb 14, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Police officers who responded to a 911 call about a disturbance in a lower Manhattan building Sunday (Feb 13) heard a woman screaming when they reached the sixth floor, but the door to the apartment where the screams had come from was locked.

As police struggled with the door, at first they still heard her calls for help, but "then she went quiet," a prosecutor, Ms Dafna Yoran, said in a Manhattan Criminal Court hearing Monday night.

Another voice emerged, sounding like a woman and telling them: "We don't need the police here - go away."

When a specialised police unit arrived and broke down the door, they found Ms Christina Yuna Lee, 35, dead in her bathtub with more than 40 stab wounds. The second voice, Ms Yoran said, was actually that of Assamad Nash, who had followed the victim into the building on Chrystie Street in Chinatown, forced his way into her home and stabbed her.

When officers broke into the apartment, the police found Nash hiding under a bed and the knife believed to be the murder weapon hidden behind a dresser, prosecutors said.

Nash, 25, whose last known address was a men's homeless shelter in the Bowery, was arraigned on first-degree charges of murder, burglary and sexually motivated burglary.

A judge ordered him held without bail, and prosecutors said he was facing a sentence of up to 25 years to life in prison if convicted.

Though the authorities have not determined that Lee was targeted because of her ethnicity, her killing stoked fears in the city's Asian community, which was already on edge after a rise in attacks during the pandemic.

Her killing also fit a pattern that has become an unstintingly common feature of the pandemic in New York City: A seemingly unprovoked attack in which the person charged is a homeless man.

In many neighbourhoods in Manhattan, residents have expressed growing concern about homeless people, some of whom seem to be struggling with mental illness, menacing and harassing passersby.

Ms Lee, who graduated from Rutgers University in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in art history, worked as a creative producer for Splice, an online music platform based in New York City.

The company said in a statement that it was heartbroken over her "senseless" death.

At a vigil Monday morning, community organisers, workers and residents of Chinatown gathered across the street from Lee's apartment to mourn her and to voice their fears.

Organisers handed out flyers with a map of where they said shelters are situated in lower Manhattan, with the words "no more shelters" written across it.

Flowers left as a memorial outside the building where Christina Yuna Lee was murdered in her home, on Feb 14, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"Should we be fearful every time we take a subway or every time we get on the street?" Mary Wang, one of the organisers of the vigil, said.

A proposed homeless shelter on East Broadway, a few blocks from where Ms Lee was killed, has drawn fierce opposition from residents who say they fear it will make the neighbourhood more dangerous.

The city announced plans for the shelter after four homeless men in the neighbourhood, including an 83-year-old Chinese American, were killed in a 2019 rampage.

Officials have said the shelter will cater to Chinese immigrants, with staff who speak three Chinese dialects, but will be open to anyone.

Ms Mae Lee, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, said the presence of the new shelter "doesn't necessarily mean the community will be any less safe."

She added: "Asians are often stereotyped. It's not right to have a stereotype of people who are homeless."

Nash had a string of arrests dating to 2015 in New York and New Jersey on charges including assault, burglary and drug possession.

He proclaimed his innocence as detectives led him in handcuffs out of the 5th Precinct station house on Elizabeth Street in Chinatown on Monday afternoon.

"I didn't kill anyone," he said. "I don't know what's going on."

In the aftermath of the killing, prosecutors and judges are facing scrutiny over how they handled his previous criminal cases.

The building in the borough of Lower Manhattan where a woman was found stabbed to death in her bathroom, in New York on Feb 13, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In January, he was charged with criminal mischief and unlawful escape; the police said he was disabling MetroCard machines at several subway stations and tried to escape from a police van after his arrest.

The judge handling the case could have set bail on the escape charge, but prosecutors did not request it and Nash was released under supervision, according to court records.

It is not clear whether the request for bail would have been granted if the prosecutors had asked for it.

Mayor Eric Adams, who was in Albany on Monday meeting with legislators, was asked during a news conference whether Nash was a "poster child" for the need to amend the state's bail laws.

Mr Adams rejected that suggestion.

But the mayor, who has pushed for lawmakers to allow judges to set bail for people who they believe are dangerous, said the case deserved scrutiny because Nash should not have been on the streets.

"We need to really examine what happened here, where did we fail," he said, before calling again to "close the loopholes that allow dangerous people to be on the streets."

Outside MsnLee's apartment Monday, roses and other memorabilia accumulated and passers-by stopped to pay their respects.

Ms Kristal Zhang, 31, and her partner, Mr John Liu, 30, had driven from Whitestone, Queens to leave a single white rose at the makeshift memorial.

Ms Zhang, an accountant who grew up in Chinatown, said that young Asian professionals have come to feel vulnerable no matter what precautions they take.

"We work late, we take a cab home, and it still happens," she said, alluding to the way Ms Lee's killer entered her building.

Mr Jacky Wong, 45, a founder of Concerned Citizens of East Broadway, which organised the vigil, said he believed Asian residents of New York are at greater risk.

"The list is getting longer and longer," Mr Wong said.

"We can't see an end." Wong said that at a vigil last month for Asians who had been killed or injured in recent attacks, he had carried an "empty flame" symbolising that the next victim could be anyone.

"Unfortunately, it was Christina this time," he said

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