NEW YORK, NY – A 13-year-old boy was arrested Friday in the stabbing death of a Barnard College freshman who was approached in a park by as many as three youths as she ventured from her New York City campus on the eve of final exams.
The arrest of such a young suspect added another tragic element to the slaying of 18-year-old Tessa Majors, a case that has troubled city and campus leaders.
The boy was arrested on charges including felony murder, City Corporation Counsel James E. Johnson said in a statement. The teen appeared Friday in family court and is being held in a juvenile detention facility. He is due back in court Tuesday. Charges will not be formalized until a future court hearing.
Rodney Harrison, the New York Police Department's chief of detectives, said on Twitter that one arrest had been made in the killing and “this remains an active investigation.”
At Friday's hearing, Detective Vincent Signoretti testified that the 13-year-old boy said his two friends grabbed Majors, put her in a chokehold and robbed her, The New York Times reported. The detective testified that the teen said he did not stab Majors — the boy watched his friend slash her with a knife and saw feathers flying out from her coat's stuffing.
The boy, whose name has not been made public, is among just a handful of people in their early teens to be charged with murder in the city in recent years. He will be tried as a juvenile delinquent in family court.
The teen's lawyer, Hannah Kaplan of the Legal Aid Society, said police didn't have evidence beyond the statement from her client, who she said hadn't been arrested before.
“There is no allegation my client touched the complainant in this case,” Kaplan said. “He was merely present when this took place.”
The attackers are all believed to attend a middle school near the park, police have said.
The president of Barnard College said Majors was stabbed during an armed robbery. Authorities on Thursday questioned two people who were later released, police said.
Majors, from Charlottesville, Virginia, played in a rock band in New York and had told an editor from a newspaper internship in high school that she planned to take journalism classes in college.
Flowers and candles were left at a makeshift campus memorial and her family said in a statement Friday that they “are devastated by the senseless loss of our beautiful and talented Tess."
Majors was walking in Manhattan’s Morningside Park, which is located down a staircase from street level, just before 7 p.m. Wednesday when she was confronted and stabbed during a struggle, Chief of Detectives Rodney Harrison said.
She staggered up the stairway to a nearby street, where she was spotted by a campus security guard who called 911, Harrison said. Majors died at a hospital.
Investigators recovered a knife Thursday but were not certain whether it was connected to Majors’ death. Police have since increased patrols around the park and campus, which is part of the Ivy League’s Columbia University.
Mayor Bill de Blasio told WNYC Radio that he was "absolutely confident that any individuals involved in this terrible, heinous attack will be brought to justice and will be brought to justice quickly.”
Under state law, the teen can only be tried as an adult if he is charged with intentional murder.
Juveniles convicted in New York state's family courts can be sent to detention facilities until they are 21 in many cases, and are often released after that.
It's increasingly rare for young teens to be charged with murder in New York City, where the homicide total has plunged to below 300 in recent years.
Last year, just two people 14 or younger were charged, according to police records: a 13-year-old girl in a Dec. 16, 2018, killing in Queens and a 14-year-old in the fatal Sept. 21, 2018, shooting of a 16-year-old boy in Brooklyn. Police suspect both killings were gang related.
In the early 1990s, when the city averaged nearly 2,000 homicides a year, several dozen 13-year-olds faced murder charges.
Majors was killed just as the semester at all-women's Barnard College was winding down, with final exams set to begin Friday followed by a month break.
She sang and played bass guitar in the rock band Patient 0. After her first New York show in October, Majors wrote on Instagram: “Safe to say the first NYC show went well ;)”
Her Instagram account also offered glimpses into Majors' personality and her move from Virginia to the big city, from farewells to the “ville” to posts about college life.
Majors graduated high school in May from the private St. Anne's-Belfield School in Charlottesville, where Head of School David Lourie said she was "a shining light in our community, a good friend, respected classmate, trusted teammate, and creative and passionate musician.”
Her father, Inman Majors, is the author of six novels and an English professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
“We are thankful for the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from across the country," the family statement said. "We would also like to express our appreciation for the efforts of the men and women of the NYPD, who continue to work diligently on this case.”
___ Follow Sisak on Twitter at twitter.com/mikesisak