The murder investigation in the case of Rashawn Brazell, a 19-year-old Brooklyn gay man, whose severed limbs and torso were discovered at two locations in the borough over the last two weeks, is ongoing, according to a police official who said that investigators are working around the clock to apprehend a suspect in a case so ghastly, some young gay men have expressed fear for their safety.
After an initial flurry of telephone calls from people who knew the victim, detectives are now following up on leads and waiting for the completion of forensic testing. “A lot of the leads we had have panned out,” acknowledged a police official who said that one man whom investigators sought for questioning, an individual with whom Brazell may have had a romantic relationship, is not a prime target of the investigation. “Everything seems to be panning out on this guy, but there are other things on this guy we need to check out,” said the police official.
Early on the morning of February 17, a transit authority maintenance worker came upon two legs and an arm stuffed in a bloody plastic bag jammed against the tunnel wall of the A line subway track, just north of the Nostrand Avenue platform. The hand’s fingerprints allowed authorities to identify the limbs as belonging to Brazell, an aspiring Web designer who lived on Gates Avenue in Bedford Stuyvesant with his parents. The young man left on the morning of Valentine’s Day, ostensibly for a meeting with a tax preparer, never to return home.
Last Wednesday, nearly a week after the harrowing find inside the subway, the badly decomposed sections of a human torso, wrapped in paper inside plastic bags, were discovered at a Greenpoint recycling plant, Rapid Processing on Humboldt Street, which regularly treats refuse collected from subway stations. Immediately, speculation arose among police officials that the body parts were Brazell’s and that because of the discovery of the limbs inside a blue recycling bag, the killer had left the torso parts at the plant in some bizarre, ritualistic manner. However, investigators have since said that they are unsure how the body parts wound up at the plant, perhaps having been carted there during a regular sweep of trash receptacles at the Nostrand Avenue station. At a news conference last week, before the city’s medical examiner had positively identified the torso parts, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told a reporter for the New York Times that the dismemberment suggested that the killer had in-depth knowledge of the human anatomy, suggesting that the person worked in a medical profession.
However, on March 2, a police official said that while that information was not discounted in compiling a suspect’s profile, detectives were not limiting their investigation to individuals with medical backgrounds. The official added that “DNA testing takes time,” but it appears very likely that the torso parts belong to Brazell.
Nevertheless, the body parts’ lack of positive identity was an achingly cruel dilemma for the Brazell family on the eve of the young man’s funeral. On Thursday, February 24, in a heavy snowfall, mourners arrived at Harvey’s Funeral Home on Bushwick Avenue to grieve the loss of the well-liked, handsome young man. Family and friends crowded the main parlor for the hour-long service, a slow file of mourners making their way down a center aisle to stop and gaze at a handmade mural of photographs—Rashawn at various ages up to the image of a neatly groomed student, the same photograph now published by the press in the accounts of his murder. In the space usually reserved for a casket, sat a simple bronze urn of Rashawn’s cremated remains, flanked by two unlit white candles.
Outside, mourners gathered briefly to chat and smoke cigarettes in the driving snow, the lights of the two police vehicles cordoning off the street flickering reds and blues across faces huddled under umbrellas and the hoods of parkas. Dozens of young gay men, many from the close-knit community of African-American gay youth who socialize in local Brooklyn bars known for being gay-friendly or, in the warmer weather, on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, arrived to grieve Brazell’s death. One 20-year-old, a passing acquaintance of the deceased, said that he last spoke to Brazell about six months ago and that the death so shocked him that felt compelled to brave the inclement weather and show up. The man refused to give his name, out of fear of outing himself publicly, a necessary reminder, perhaps, of homophobia’s pervasive grip across the vast stretches of this city where most gay and lesbian youth reside. His companion, a 19-year-old gay man, replied, “He was flamboyant, come on now,” when asked if Brazell was open about his sexuality. If accurate, the description underscores an alarming national statistic indicating that gender-transgressive youth—feminine boys and butch girls—are more at risk to be the victims of unusually brutal, bias-related violence.
Last Friday evening, along Chelsea’s Eighth Avenue, several gay men said that they recognized Brazell from the leaflets police are distributing asking for information that helps solve the crime. One young man said that a gay friend of his dated Brazell within the last year and that within the city’s community of African-American gay youth, news of the crime has rippled like a shock wave. “There could be a psycho out there,” said another young man who said he was hearing about the crime for the first time. His friend, a young lesbian, said, “This could even happen to me. I look like a little boy and there are people out there who hate gays.” All three refused to provide their names.
Investigators have not classified the Brazell murder as a hate crime. In fact, according to several conversations with detectives, it appears that the victim might have been romantically involved with his killer and that the two might have met in a telephone or online chat room.
After some initial coverage after the discovery of the body parts, the major daily newspapers have not run stories, despite the recent flood of coverage about the shooting deaths of an aspiring female model in the East Village and of a man involved with a married woman struck down on a Chelsea subway platform. Asked about the lack of coverage in this case, one police official said, “That’s the media. That’s not us. This is not a routine case. We want to catch this guy.”
When asked if the police had located the scene of the bloody dismemberment, one veteran detective declined to answer, but replied that investigators are on the lookout for Brazell’s remaining body parts. While remaining tight-lipped about any specific strategy that will lead to a break in the case, the veteran detective made a candid acknowledgement: “Our concern is if another person shows up like this.”
The NYPD asks that anyone with information about the murder of Rashawn Brazell, contact Detective St. John at 718-636-6655 or Detective Baker at 718-963-5370 or 1-800-577-TIPS. All calls are kept confidential.