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Tale of brutality sours life in the Big Apple

Few places come more hard-boiled about violent crime than New York. Even today, when the New York Police Department (NYPD) is being feted for bringing down crime rates steeply, a day rarely passes when a bullet, knife or metal bar does not rob the life from at least one of its citizens.

Some of the murders make it into the newspapers - especially if the victim is a police officer, a child or white - but many do not. Once in a while, however, some evil is committed that strikes this city deep in its gut. And, boy, does it then pay attention.

With a spree of brutal attacks against four women over eight days this month, John Royster found Gotham City's weak spot. As the story unfolded each day in the tabloids and on the television news, the story of Royster hurt because it had not just happened in New York but because it was also so obviously of New York.

He struck first in Central Park. He seized a lone woman in the afternoon as she walked along a path close to a children's playground, beat her head against a rock and sexually assaulted her. The 32-year-old victim, whose name has been withheld by police, is still in hospital in a deep coma.

The next day, he smashed the face of Shelby Evans, 51, against the tarmac as she was walking on the East Side. She escaped with bad bruises. Two days later he surfaced in Yonkers at the northern edge of New York, beating a woman on a highway footbridge. She remains in a critical condition. Then he beat and killed a woman as she opened a dry-cleaning store at 5am on one of the posher stretches of Park Avenue.

Even Royster himself cuts a sadly familiar profile. A 22-year-old black from the Bronx, he was snared by police because of fingerprints he left at the scene of the Park Avenue killing that matched with prints taken from him after he was stopped for turnstile-jumping on the subway in March.

His parents split after his birth and his father, with whom he has had no contact for a decade, is in prison for the murder of his girlfriend at Grand Central Station. Royster is the object of this common question: did he lose his mind or is he, pure and simple, a vile being?

If New Yorkers, and, more accurately, a grand jury sworn in yesterday, conclude that he is the latter, he will more than likely face the death penalty when he is brought to trial.

But just as typical of this city are his victims. The Central Park woman was born to Armenian immigrants and, like so many other young people in New York, dreamt that her talent as a pianist would eventually lead to professional fame. She wanted to play at Carnegie Hall. Instead, she used to play to customers at the nearby showroom of Steinway & Sons and teach in her West Side apartment. With each day, hopes that she will awake from her coma grow slimmer.

Evelyn Alvarez, 65, murdered as she arrived from her home in Queens to open her Park Avenue dry cleaners, was also part of the essence of New York.

She was known as the "Lollipop Lady" because of the kindness she showed to the children who came into her shop, often accompanied by nannies rather than parents. Born in South China and married to a Colombian, she was one of thousands of immigrants who have come here in search of freedom and even riches - the American Dream.

The funeral for Mrs Alvarez, attended by family, locals and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was in Woodside on Monday.

"New York is the greatest city of the face of the earth, not because of the rich and famous who live in Manhattan, but because of the contributions of thousands of immigrants who have made this city what it is today," Monsignor Joseph Finnerty told mourners.

"They built our churches and our cathedrals, and today their services and their hard work and their sweat keep this city alive and healthy."

Probably, however, Royster grabbed the attention of this metropolis because he chose to strike first in Central Park.

One of the park's first commissioners wrote in 1867 that the point of this 867 acres of glades, meadows and pathways was to "dispel from the mind of the visitors, once within its enclosure, thoughts of business and memories calculated to sadden or depress".

A commissioner serving today suggested that Central Park was the "front yard" of every New Yorker. A writer in the New York Times went further, arguing that the park was actually the city's cathedral.

New Yorkers always react when the park, their shared sacred place, is defiled. What Royster did has already been added to that compendium of infamous Central Park outrages.

They include the case of the "preppie murderer", Robert Chambers, who strangled Jennifer Levin in the shadow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 10 years ago; the brutal rape and beating of a jogger in April 1989 by a group of young men on a "wilding" spree; and, finally, the murder last September of a 44-year-old Brazilian woman out for a run.

The Royster story has been huge, partly because the tabloid newspaper editors have chosen to make it so. But this has been a story with legs because the people of this city are not as inured to violent crime as the cliches about it might suggest.

Sometimes a crime arises with which everyone can connect; and they are fascinated and appalled.