Lives Tangle in Park’s Hidden World — (New York Times)

SSRI Ed note: Troubled teens, one on Zoloft and Loazepam, plan and carry out the brutal, motiveless murder of an older man in Central Park.

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New York Times


Published: June 1, 1997

When the two got to Carl Schurz Park around 4 P.M. that Thursday, May 22, they saw a familiar tableau of serenity and release: the sparkling East River, dogs cavorting, children scaling monkey bars and, of course, their teen-age friends, gathered along the chess tables and benches by the basketball courts, in the cool shadows of the trees.

Daphne Abdela was swinging a six-pack of Coors. Christopher Vasquez was staring blankly. She was a regular, but had not been around for two weeks, and the other teenagers didn’t remember her ever bringing him along. She had short brown hair and concealed her pudginess beneath her baggy grunge clothes. He had rimless glasses and a fade haircut. She had already started drinking, her friends recall. Before the night was over, he would be seen drinking, too.

She was a familiar presence to evening congregants of both Carl Schurz, the park surrounding Gracie Mansion, and Central Park. A brash young woman with rich parents, she found comfort crossing the borders of class to consort with teenagers who knew little of the privileges of wealth. He was newer to this scene, a haunted young man from a working-class family.

In the last week, of course, the two 15-year-olds have become notorious as suspects in the vicious killing of a 44-year-old real estate broker in Central Park. The victim, Michael McMorrow, was stabbed dozens of times and disemboweled before being heaved into the Lake. More than a week after the murder, the police say they still don’t know why it happened. They don’t know what, if anything, the victim may have wanted of the teenagers, or what, if anything, the teenagers may have wanted of him. Their lawyers say they are innocent. Mr. Vasquez’s lawyer will not comment on the case, though Benjamin Brafman, Miss Abdela’s lawyer, said that only Mr. Vasquez was responsible for the murder.

This account of their lives and the night of the murder is pieced together from interviews with investigators and about three dozen friends and others who knew the three.

The teenagers are the main characters, but there is no ignoring the alluring character of the park, particularly the park after dark. It is a place where things go on beyond the watchful eyes of parents and schools, where a secret world unfolds on its grassy fields and beside its still waters.

There is a point in every child’s life — it happens in all families, at different ages, but surely no later than the early teens — when a child enters a world of secret places and people, and parents are left to wonder what those secrets contain.

In this particular unspooling of lives, both Daphne Abdela and Christopher Vasquez had entered that part of the world where the sinister secrets are.

She was her usual obstreperous self this Thursday afternoon, her friends said, flashing her wad of twenties and tens, more than $100 in all. She left Mr. Vasquez on his own and went to share her beer with some of the others. She was wobbly on her feet, but steady enough to be frisky.

A popular activity among the teenagers was slap boxing, a test of reflexes in which two opponents take swings at each other with open hands to see who can connect. Miss Abdela started boxing with Jose Gonzalez, a muscular 16-year-old. She was getting routed. When he chose to stop, he said, she insisted that they continue. She cursed him. He ignored her.

Some of the others had never met Mr. Vasquez, and they wondered about his mettle. He seemed to walk in the shadow of Miss Abdela. As one friend later put it, ”He was like her little servant.” A tall, muscular teenager decided to take Mr. Vasquez’s measure by riding his bicycle back and forth at him, narrowly missing his toes. If Mr. Vasquez chose to challenge him, the youth planned to ”ice him.” But he did nothing and said nothing.

”He was quiet,” said a teenager who gave her name only as Lauren and has known Mr. Vasquez since he was an infant. ”He always kept to himself.”  Another friend said: ”It was hard to have a real conversation with him. He would say like one sentence and that was it.”

Something pivotal happened when he was 9. One day he stood up and walked out of his third-grade classroom at St. Ignatius Loyola, terrified. He suffered severe anxiety attacks about returning to school. Psychiatrists concluded that he had a form of agoraphobia, a fear of public places.

He was placed on medication, but it never entirely conquered his demons. He had spent much of the last two years studying at home. According to one of his lawyers, he was taking two drugs — Zoloft, an antidepressant, and Lorazepam, a sedative. ”He’s sort of a very depressed kid,” said Taylor Levin, 16, who recently came to befriend him. ”He told me he had really low self-esteem in the elementary years and it screwed him up in his head.”

He was fond of Rollerblading and liked to play roller hockey, but he was not known to hang out a lot. He usually went home after school. In the inimitable way that teen-agers categorize one another with a single revelatory word, he became known as a ”Herb,” someone who could be easily dominated.

She relished mischief. ”Even when she was very young, she was boisterous, always horsing around,” said a woman who knows Miss Abdela. ”She almost seemed to have an impulse control problem.”

Classmates said she could be kind and warm, but also obnoxious and unpredictable, insecure and craving attention. Her parents got her a considerable amount of counseling and tutoring.

She was self-conscious about being overweight. Her mother, a former model, told her she looked fine. But Miss Abdela didn’t like being seen in a bathing suit, though she competed on a swim team for years. Her parents were troubled that she wouldn’t wear feminine clothing. She had any number of beautiful dresses, but they stayed in her closet. Several years ago, she went to a weight-reduction camp, where she shed many pounds. Not all of them stayed off.

She was an accomplished Rollerblader, and liked nothing more than to hang out in the parks, where she was free to be more than just another teen-ager who spent too much time cursing her physical flaws.

”Hey, what school you go to?” the friends recalled hearing Miss Abdela shout. She was calling to a teen-age girl visiting the park, having given up trying to resume her slap boxing.

”What do you care?” the girl said, crossly.  The two traded profanities.  The other girl’s father was playing chess at a stone table. He looked up and asked Miss Abdela, ”You looking for trouble?”

She moved inches from his face, and her friends remembered her screaming: ”We are trouble.”  She returned to her friends and tried to persuade them to gang up on the father. One youth, Jose Gonzalez, was game enough to investigate. When he saw it was just an older man playing chess, he came back and told her, ”Leave him alone.”

Much the same, Mr. Vasquez tried to be a peacemaker. He began talking to her as a social worker would. Francisco Lopez, a 16-year-old, remembered his description: ”That Daphne is crazy. She can fight, man. She’s crazy.”

He didn’t like to fight. At an age when it was the rule to stand apart from one’s parents, the other teen-agers were always struck by how close Mr. Vasquez was to his mother. ”She was very nice and very protective of him,” said a friend, Robert Pino, 16. ”Wherever his mother went, he went. Even here in the park, sometimes he’d be with his mother.”

His life had radiated around a single block. His parents grew up around the corner from each other. Patricia Reidy lived on East 97th Street and Gerardo Vasquez on 98th Street. They were childhood sweethearts, and it was only a matter of time before they married. They moved to a top-floor walkup on East 97th Street, between Park and Madison. They had a daughter, and on New Year’s Day of 1982, Christopher was born.

Gerardo Vasquez worked various jobs and most recently has been managing a store. His wife did secretarial work in a school.   Mrs. Vasquez’s parents, who lived across the hall, were parishioners at St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church, and Chris Vasquez occasionally walked them to Mass. Five years ago, he volunteered to be an altar boy, as many neighborhood children do. But the Rev. Oscar Aquino said that he showed up only infrequently over a couple of years.

His parents separated two years ago, and Chris took it hard. ”He was, like, torn in half,” Mr. Pino said.  Friends say she bragged about fighting. She would tell them, ”Hey, I beat up a girl last night,” and they would say, ”O.K., Daphne, anything else?”

Her parents seemed intimidated by her, confused by her complexities, and they puzzled over how to control her. The police said that her father even filed a harassment complaint against her once, saying she had slapped him.

Miss Abdela was born on May 18, 1982, and adopted by the Abdelas three days later. The Abdelas did not know her parents’ identity, but they told their daughter of the adoption when she was small.

Her mother, Catherine, is from France. Her father, Angelo, is from Israel, and is vice president for strategic and capital investments at CPC International, a food-services company in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. They live in a duplex in the Majestic apartment house at Central Park West and 72d Street. Pictures of Miss Abdela adorn the walls and tables, and family friends said her parents were attentive without spoiling her.

But the father worked long hours. And friends said there was a gulf between the mother and daughter. Mrs. Abdela spoke English with a heavy French accent that some found difficult to understand. She taught her daughter French, and all three were fluent. When the parents reprimanded Miss Abdela in front of others, they did it in French. Miss Abdela, in turn, taught her park friends French phrases of the sort her parents would look on with disfavor.

And her mother fought her own devils. Associates of the family said she has long suffered from acute depression. She had no family in this country. A classmate said that Miss Abdela once told her that her mother suffered from depression, and that her mother wondered if her daughter had the same illness.

Friends said Miss Abdela never acted like a rich kid, but she always carried plenty of cash. Francisco Lopez said: ”You’d say to Daphne, ‘Daphne, can you hook me up with this?’, and she’d give you the money.” On one excursion, she took a group to Times Square and treated them to fake ID’s.

Most everyone had beepers, and used pay phones to respond to a page. She carried both a beeper and a cellular phone.   Her companions in the park all had their curfews: 10, 11, 12. A few were liberated until 1 A.M. Some of them would sneak out after their curfews. Miss Abdela’s parents unsuccessfully tried to enforce a curfew. Several times they called the police to report her missing.

”Daphne always seemed to be the last one out,” a friend said. ”As far as I could tell, she had no curfew. She seemed to do whatever she wanted.”   By now, Miss Abdela’s speech was slurred. As one park friend put it, ”She was buzzed, man, and on her way to fully blasted.”

She tried her hand at romance. Her boyfriend, Brian Miller, a tall and stocky 15-year-old, said she kissed him, but at 5:45, obeying an early curfew, he left for home in the nearby projects. Then she draped herself over a former boyfriend and tried to smooch with him. He pushed her away and told her, ”Come on, get away from me.” Then he rode off on his mountain bike.

With no fight and no romance on the horizon, friends said, she grew nasty. ”Before this day is over, I’m going to kill someone,” recalled three friends who said they heard her words, although they believed then — and still do — that she was simply blowing off steam.

These friends — Francisco Lopez, Jose Gonzalez and Michael Thomas — said in separate interviews that she alluded to a knife and declared, ”I’m going to slice someone.”   Mr. Vasquez strove to quiet her down, though he seemed to be getting riled up as well, eventually boasting of his own skills with his fists.

No one had yet seen him take even a sip of alcohol.   ”He didn’t drink that much,” Mr. Pino said. ”A beer here and there.”

He had passed through much upheaval of late. He was smart but caught up in a seemingly endless odyssey to find a school where he would not be scared. According to the Board of Education, his mother wrote last November to the special education committee of District 2, seeking to place him in a public school. She said that her son was under a doctor’s care and had a phobia about school. On Jan. 3, the committee recommended that he go to Benjamin Cardozo High School in Bayside, Queens, which has a program for school-phobic students.

But his mother rejected the placement and enrolled her son in the Beekman School, a small private institution on East 50th Street that caters to students with emotional or physical difficulties. Mr. Vasquez took just three courses — history, science and English — from 12:30 to 3 P.M.

At Beekman, he was soon drawn into a loose gang known as the East Coast Vandalists, or E.C.V. To some, it was a benign ”kiddie gang,” mostly involved in writing graffiti and acting tough, though others said its members would rob children from neighborhood projects. Mr. Levin said that Mr. Vasquez found E.C.V. ”cool.” And while friends said he avoided fights himself, they sensed changes in him.

One day a few weeks ago he told some friends, ”Hey, look what I got.” It was a knife, four inches long, the folding kind.

It was while watching a fight between two teenagers in Central Park about three weeks ago that Mr. Vasquez met Miss Abdela. They started hanging out in the park, but never seemed romantically involved. Friends said he occasionally took drugs. ”His mother used to beep him all night,” Mr. Levin said. ”One night, she beeped him 10 times, and he didn’t respond.”

Mr. Levin told Mr. Vasquez that Miss Abdela seemed wrong for him.   ”No, I really like her,” Mr. Levin recalled him saying. ”I like how she acts freely. If she wants to do something, she does it.”

His friends began to speak of the blankness of his face. ”If someone gave him a certain look, there was, like, this look he gave them,” Mr. Levin said. ”Not that he was a rough kid. But he had this crazy look.”

A few weeks ago, Mr. Levin said, an E.C.V. leader told Mr. Vasquez that he wanted him out of the group. He said Mr. Vasquez started crying and punched a Jewish Sentinel newspaper box on the street until it caved in and his hand bled.

She was known as the heaviest drinker in her crowd. ”I’m an alcoholic; big deal,” is what friends said she would say.

Associates of the family said she drank for several years before her parents ever knew. Friends of the parents said that they became aware of their daughter’s problem only a few months ago, when her school told them. She had gone to Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, a private school on the Upper West Side, and last year enrolled as a freshman at Loyola High School, a Jesuit-run school with high academic standards on the Upper East Side.

Her parents sent her off in March to a substance-abuse program in Westchester. She returned after several weeks and, continuing the program, agreed to attend Alcoholics Anonymous sessions at the Y.M.C.A. on 63d Street near the park.

She occasionally took drugs as well, several friends said, especially marijuana and LSD. (Other friends said they had not seen her use drugs.)

Her parents found out that she skipped some A.A. meetings. On May 14, they took her out of Loyola and had her see a private tutor while they searched for a new treatment program. She was on the waiting list at Daytop Village. The week before, her freshman class had been to a one-day religious retreat in Manhasset, N.Y. Miss Abdela seemed moved by the experience, and declared to her friends that she was finally going to get her life together. But she had often made such vows.

In recent months, Miss Abdela had told her parents and her friends that she wanted to know who her biological parents were, and the Abdelas agreed to try to find out. Friends sensed that this mission was terribly important to her. Her parents confided to friends that they had a second reason for wanting to succeed in the search. Their daughter was an alcoholic for reasons they could not fathom, and they wondered, Was the birth mother a drinker?

Miss Abdela and Mr. Vasquez left Carl Schurz Park around 7 P.M., and they traveled toward her home on the West Side. They stopped at a Blockbuster Video store on 68th Street and rented ”Reservoir Dogs,” the Quentin Tarantino movie about a botched robbery that is heavily accented with explicit brutality, including a lurid scene in which a policeman is tortured with a razor and has an ear sliced off.

According to investigators, the clerk at the counter asked Miss Abdela, ”Have you been drinking?”   Miss Abdela replied, ”Why, have you?”

The movie in hand, they returned to her apartment. Mr. Brafman, Miss Abdela’s lawyer, said she told him that they never got around to watching it. The night beckoned. They got on their Rollerblades and skated toward Central Park.

They wandered north into Strawberry Fields, near 72d Street on the West Side, where two groups of park regulars were serene and happy, some drinking beer.

Gary Dos Santos, a homeless man, said his group of about eight regulars was sitting on the grass about 140 yards from the 72d Street transverse, listening to a radio station playing songs from 1972. The other group of a half-dozen younger Rollerbladers was gathered north of them.

Miss Abdela and Mr. Vasquez walked over the rolling terrain of Strawberry Fields on their skates. They seemed to be moving too nimbly to be drunk, but she was certainly loud. Several people recalled her asking of each group: ”Hi, how are you? I’m Daphne and this is Chris. Do you have any acid or pot?” She was rude and insistent, and she struck some of them as a spooky little kid.

If anyone had drugs, they were not selling them to these two, so Miss Abdela announced, ”Fine, I’ll get us some beer.”    It was about 11. She told Mr. Vasquez to wait there, and he flopped down on the grass while she ambled off. At least 15 minutes went by before she returned with four six packs of Heineken packed in two brown bags. She began distributing them like some sort of beer fairy.

As she handed out the bottles, many of those present recalled, she took a closer look at one of the men. She had met him in the park several weeks before and they had chatted about rehabilitation programs.

”Hi, you remember me?” she asked.   ”Yeah.”   ”I’m Daphne from rehab.”   ”Yeah,” Michael McMorrow said, accepting his Heineken. ”Daphne from rehab.”

Michael McMorrow had absorbed the culture of New York and the culture of drinking, and, like others, had put them together into a routine of drinking in the park.

His friends called him Mike or Irish, and he grew up in the University Heights section of the Bronx. He prided himself on being a people person, and something of an athlete. When he was young, he attracted neighborhood attention when he climbed Columbia Rock and dove off the highest plateau.

He did his first drinking as a teen-ager in a park across from the Major Deegan Expressway, and he continued to drink in bars and parks through adulthood. He lived with his mother on Second Avenue near 93d Street, and worked as a real estate broker for Dansar Realty, where his colleagues always found him kind-hearted.

He played softball and touch football in the park, and he drank. Sometimes he would simply bring beer to Strawberry Fields, then go down to the band shell and eventually home. Other times, he would get drunk and indulge in the theatrics of shouting at strangers. A favorite question was, ”Are you mad?” Then he would shake his head, and shout, ”The madness, the madness!” as if he were in a Joseph Conrad story. Tom Taylor, a friend, said Mr. McMorrow told him that he sometimes took LSD, and at such times he probably came into contact with some young regulars in the park known as the Deadheads. He said he never knew Mr. McMorrow to express a sexual interest in anyone.

A neighbor named Frank Acquaviva said he cautioned him not long ago, ”Stay out of the park at night, the demons come out.”   Mr. Acquaviva remembered Mr. McMorrow’s reply: ”Frank, nothing ever happens.”

And so the night wound down, and it was almost over. There is not much more to tell except what two teen-agers can reveal.   The teen-agers drank, as did Mr. McMorrow. Around 11:30, a three-wheeled police vehicle rumbled into Strawberry Fields, shining its swirling searchlight. A police officer ordered the groups to disperse. They grumbled that the park was not yet closed, but the officer was resolute. The drinkers gathered themselves up and began to fan out in different directions.

Mr. McMorrow, beer bottle in hand, was seen tramping north for about 20 yards toward a footpath that led down a steep slope toward the Lake, but then he abruptly changed directions and took a better-kept trail through rose bushes and witch hazel a bit farther north. The two teenagers straggled behind him, Miss Abdela clutching her two brown bags that still contained some beer bottles. As she walked, she glanced over her shoulder at the twirling police light.

Under a full moon, in the encroaching stillness of the midnight hour, Daphne Abdela, Christopher Vasquez and Michael McMorrow left Strawberry Fields behind them and walked single file into the darkness.


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Why Are Kids Killing? — (People  Vol. 47  No. 24)

June 23, 1997

Coincidence—or Scary Trend? A Spate of Murders Allegedly Committed by Teens Leaves Experts, Family and Police Seeking Answers
DURING THE PAST DECADE THE NUMBER OF murders committed by teenagers has leaped from roughly 1,000 a year to nearly 4,000. Worrisome as that trend may be, a fleeting glance at recent headlines—announcing that, in Texas, a teenage couple, formerly students at U.S. military academies, will soon stand trial for the carefully plotted murder of a girl who interrupted the smooth course of their love affair or that, in New Jersey, an 18-year-old high school senior delivered a baby while attending her prom, left the infant in the trash and returned to the dance—suggests some teens these days are also committing crimes of incomprehensible callousness. “The young people involved in some of these violent acts are without the capacity to make the connection with another life,” says Dr. David Hartman, the director of neuropsychology at the Isaac Ray Center for Psychiatry and Law in Chicago. “They need have no more reason for hurting another human being than they have for peeling an orange.”
How they get to that point is a matter of heated debate. Poverty, broken homes and physical, psychological and sexual abuse are frequently cited, and clearly such factors do play a role. But New York psychologist Michael Schulman, the author of Bringing Up a Moral Child, observes, “Given the fact that most people who suffered similar kinds of abuse don’t do these kinds of things, the explanations feel a little hollow.” Indeed, as the following cases illustrate, kids accused of acts of casual violence come from a variety of backgrounds. For Schulman, the solution to the problem is both straightforward and daunting. “You need to teach the child that the family stands for good ness,” he says, “not simply for comfort and intellectual achievement, but that moral excellence is honored.”

Daphne Abdela, 15
Christopher Vasquez, 15For all the thousands of New Yorkers who venture into Manhattan’s Central Park by day, few are aware of the hidden world that flourishes in the park after dark. That’s when teenagers like 15-year-old Daphne Abdela, daughter of a millionaire businessman, come in their Tommy Hilfiger jackets and baggy pants to share the night with other would-be rebels in an odd subculture of privileged kids playing “gangstas.”On May 22 the playacting stopped; now, Abdela and her new boyfriend, Christopher Vasquez, 15, stand accused of one of the grisliest crimes in recent New York history. Police say Vasquez attacked Michael McMorrow, a 44-year-old real estate agent with whom the two had been drinking, stabbing him 30 times, almost cutting off his nose and a hand. Then, Abdela allegedly told police, she instructed Vasquez “to gut” McMorrow so “it would sink” when they heaved his body into a lake.

Since their arraignment on murder charges, a portrait has emerged of two troubled teens, adrift and desperately seeking acceptance. Abdela was known as a quiet rich kid who got loud once she started drinking. “She always tried to act like she was from a bad neighborhood,” says a friend. Vasquez, meanwhile, slight and bespectacled, attended the exclusive Beekman School but hoped to prove his toughness by joining a gang. A longtime friend says that in the past year, Vasquez suddenly changed. “He was never in school,” he says. “He punched my friend in the face at this party…for no reason.”

Both teens have a long history of emotional problems. Vasquez was taking Zoloft, an antidepressant, and Lorazepam, an antianxiety drug. And Abdela has undergone treatment for her drinking. Clearly her parents—Angelo, an Israeli-born top executive in an international food company, and Catherine, a French-born former model—had an inkling she was once again heading for trouble. Only one week before McMorrow’s murder, they had withdrawn her from the competitive Jesuit-run Loyola School she attended and wait-listed her at the Day Top Village drug treatment center. Still, friends and teachers of both teens find the violence of the crime unfathomable. “If you’re looking for some pattern of behavior,” says Richard J. Soghoian, her former headmaster, “it’s just not there.” In fairness, it’s not.