Before Carnage, Frantic Warnings of Relative’s Odd Behavior

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Published: October 27, 2013
A version of this article appears in print on October 28, 2013, on page A18 of the New York edition

The phone calls came in rapid succession, each call more frantic than the last, made by a woman intent on warning her relatives that her husband’s 25-year-old cousin, who had been staying with their family only a few days, was not acting right.

The killings occurred in a Chinese enclave near Ninth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The suspect told police he was disillusioned with his lack of success.

By the time the woman could get any of her family members to stop by her home in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, on Saturday, it was too late. Inside the apartment, the woman, Qiao Zhen Li, lay unconscious in the kitchen, next to her 5-year-old son, Kevin Zhuo; both were mortally wounded. The bodies of her three other children, all stabbed to death, were in a rear bedroom.

“They bang on the door and they bang on the door,” Chief Philip Banks III, the Police Department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, said of Ms. Li’s relatives. When they finally got inside on Saturday night, they came upon the carnage, and the man believed to be responsible, Chen Mingdong, covered in blood.

Mr. Chen, the cousin, was charged on Sunday with five counts of murder. He was also charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest; the authorities said he had attacked an officer in the 66th Precinct station house while his arrest was being processed.

The killings tore through the family like a fire: sudden and complete. The five murders in the three-room home on 57th Street, where the children and their parents enjoyed a seemingly ordinary life, the police said, stood out for their brutality and magnitude.

It was “not something that has been seen before in recent memory,” said John J. McCarthy, the Police Department’s chief spokesman.

Chief Banks said the scene was one that was seared into memory. He called the crime an “unspeakable act” visited upon a “normal family.”

That very New York normality appeared to grate on Mr. Chen, who lived an impoverished and itinerant life between Chinatown in Manhattan, Chicago and most recently, his cousin’s home in Sunset Park.

Under interrogation by detectives, conducted in Mandarin, he told of his disillusionment with life since coming to the United States in 2004 and of his jealousy toward those who had found success here. The police listed him as unemployed.

But it remained unclear what prompted him to turn his rage on his cousin’s wife, Ms. Li, 37, and their four children, identified by the police as Linda Zhuo, 9; Amy Zhuo, 7; Kevin; and William Zhuo, 1.

The police said Mr. Chen appeared to have stayed with them before without incident. The family did not appear to be better-off than those who lived around them in their Chinese enclave near Ninth Avenue in Brooklyn, neighbors said. They sent their three school-age children to a local public school, the Education Department said. Ms. Li stayed at home with William. The authorities had no record of troubles in the household.

May Chee, who is a neighbor of the family and grew up on the block, said she would often see Ms. Li outside with her children, who would chase one another and play with the other children who live along 57th Street, a block teeming with young people.

Ms. Li watched over them from her front stoop, often chatting on her cellphone, said Ms. Chee, who added that the mother did not speak much English.

Few in the area recalled Mr. Chen, who had only recently arrived there.

A woman who lives next to the family and gave her name only as Ms. Zheng said she had seen the cousin in recent days standing outside the two-story, two-family home, smoking cigarettes and talking on the phone.

A cousin of the mother, Yun Gao, 29, told reporters near the home on Sunday that Mr. Chen was emotionally unstable; she did not elaborate.

The only weapon used in the killings, the police said, was a large kitchen knife, described by the authorities as a meat cleaver. Chief Banks said that the bodies “were cut and butchered” and that most of the wounds were to the neck and torso.

Ms. Chee said she saw the children’s father, Yi Lin Zhuo, 31, arrive after the police cars on Saturday night. “He was crying,” she said. “He was screaming.”

Two women arrived with him, one of them weeping.

“It’s so sad,” Ms. Chee said. “The only thing I can do is pray for them, pray for the family. It’s crazy. You don’t kill kids. Don’t take it out on the kids.”

The nature of the attack, using a kitchen implement, pointed to spontaneity, and the number killed surprised even veteran investigators.

“I just can’t think of anything like that,” said Vernon J. Geberth, a retired homicide commander who dealt with thousands of murder investigations. “I’m going to call it a family annihilation, because that would be the technical term that you’d use, and most involve firearms.”

It was a gun that was used by an Amityville, N.Y., man in 1974 to kill his parents, two brothers and two sisters in their home. Similarly, John E. List, a New Jersey accountant, shot his wife, mother and three teenage children to death in 1971.

But in terms of mass family killings using a knife, “we just don’t have any history of that,” Mr. Geberth said. Multiple stabbing deaths are uncommon in general because people have time to escape, he added, though children are often the victims because they are less able to do so.

Indeed, the killings recalled the stabbing deaths on the Upper West Side last year of two children, 6 and 2; the police arrested the family’s nanny, who was said to have harbored anger over her treatment by the children’s parents.

It was not clear what may have precipitated the killings in the Sunset Park apartment or what caused Ms. Li to become alarmed.

Mr. Chen had no prior arrests in New York, the police said, and did not appear to have had trouble with the law in Chicago. Investigators believe that Mr. Chen, who does not speak English, has not left the United States since arriving here nearly 10 years ago.

During the interrogation, Mr. Chen spoke in general of feelings of resentment, the police said.

“He made a very soft comment that since he’s been in this country, everyone seems to be doing better than him,” Chief Banks said.

“We’re not really sure what that means,” he added. “But that is the only thing that we have now. We’re still looking into it.”

Emma G. Fitzsimmons, Mei-Yu Liu and Julie Turkewitz contributed reporting.

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