It was only a matter of time before a visitor was murdered in Times Square. That victim was Maria Ambrocio, a 58-year-old New Jersey cancer nurse who came to New York City on Friday to have lunch with a friend. Afterward, she and her friend were walking through the heart of New York when an alleged mugger, 26-year-old Jermaine Foster, running on foot after having just robbed one woman in her apartment and another woman on the street, slammed into Ambrocio at high speed, knocking her unconscious. She died on Saturday. “She’s gone,” her brother told the New York Post.
Ambrocio’s death wasn’t a freak accident—it was a predictable and preventable homicide. Times Square has been a mess for months. Last week, an illegally armed man accidentally shot himself while publicly urinating. The same day, a woman with a long record of similar violent, unprovoked assaults against other women shoved a stranger, another woman, into the side of a train, attempting (but failing) to kill her. In June, four muggers attacked yet another woman, stealing her phone. The same month, a 16-year-old boy allegedly shot a Marine, whom he didn’t know, in the back. In May, an illegal vendor with a violent history shot and wounded two women and a girl. Last November, a homeless man stabbed another man to death nearby.
I live just north of Times Square, and I avoid it. Friday afternoon, just an hour before Foster’s deadly crime spree, I went out of my way to steer clear of the area. Yes, I know that the chances of any one person being a victim of a violent crime are low. But the chances that someone will block my way and attempt to “sell” me a CD (read: try to scare me into giving him money); or that I’ll have to quicken my pace to avoid a deranged person screaming; or that I’ll see someone shooting up drugs; or that someone will make a crude comment—these are more likely than not, on any given trip. Going to Times Square isn’t worth it.
Statistics also show that the risk of becoming a serious crime victim is much higher than it was two years ago. Crime in the Midtown South precinct has soared in the past two years. Robberies have tripled since 2019; assaults have more than doubled. Just like on the subways, crime has risen as foot traffic remains low. Daily walkers through Times Square number about 218,829—42 percent lower than in September 2019. Everyone moving through Times Square today, then, is at greater per-capita risk of violent injury.
Mayor Bill de Blasio can’t decide whether this is a crisis. On one hand, he deems business leaders “unproductive” for being concerned about random shootings, stabbings, and assaults. On the other hand, he has deployed more police to the area. The police have helped some: the NYPD, along with the federal government, arrested eight men in August for running an open-air crack market. But this takedown took months of work and consumed scarce federal resources.
When it comes to low-level nuisances—CD hawkers and panhandlers battling over space, mentally ill or addicted homeless men screaming at each other or at passersby, shoplifters cleaning out the Duane Reade—the police don’t do much. Why would they, when anyone arrested for a low-level crime is quickly back out on the street? Less than a month ago, police arrested Foster for sexually assaulting and stalking a woman just south of Times Square; he was released without bail. Did the governor, mayor, and state legislature think that he was going to bide his time peacefully in Times Square after that incident? One of the men freed from Rikers Island two weeks ago by Governor Kathy Hochul was just rearrested smoking crack at Eighth Avenue and 44th Street. He has 21 prior arrests, including for robbery, dating back 26 years.
Last week, Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos said, apropos of the latest subway pusher, that arrests are “not working.” Wrong: what’s not working is letting people out of jail and prison, at least without strict mental-health-treatment and addiction plans. To make an arrest that sticks, police must wait until “small” crime escalates and someone is severely injured. This strategy requires lots of good luck; good luck wasn’t available for Ambrocio last week.
There’s never a good time for a murder in Times Square, but the high-profile killing of Ambrocio comes at a particularly bad time. Right about now is when people start making holiday-season travel plans. Broadway is trying to come back, and employers are trying to lure back the more than 70 percent of office workers still home. (More accurately, real-estate owners are trying to persuade employers to lure their office workers back: the employers themselves, facing logistical hurdles and worker resistance, are ambivalent.)
Now we have a woman murdered in the middle of the afternoon. Ambrocio wasn’t going to Broadway, but most domestic visitors who attend Broadway plays and musicals are women. The Ambrocio incident is just the latest in a series of violent attacks against women in core Manhattan: in addition to the woman nearly killed under a subway train last week, 58-year-old Than Than Htwe, walking with her son, was killed in a downtown subway nearly three months ago. It’s true that most crime victims are men, but most women are smaller and less muscular than men, and thus have less chance of defending themselves against assaults.
After months of escalating warnings, New York City and State public officials could have prevented Maria Ambrocio’s killing. Until they start taking concrete steps to reclaim public spaces, residents and visitors will protect themselves by staying away from places like Times Square—just as I now do.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images