Jordan Neely, the man killed in a NYC subway chokehold

Skilled Michael Jackson impersonator died after being held in chokehold by member of the public on a train carriage floor, sparking angry protests and mass outrage

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 15 June 2023 00:10 BST
Protesters chant on NYC subway to demand charges over killing of homeless man

Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old homeless man, was killed in a New York City subway train on the afternoon of Monday 1 May 2023 after he apparently suffered a mental health episode and a fellow passenger wrestled him to the floor with the help of two others, holding him in a chokehold.

The shocking incident was captured on phone video at the scene, sparking debate among New Yorkers about the rights and wrongs of the vigilante’s actions and the extent to which Neely’s behaviour could have been interpreted as a threat to the safety of his fellow passengers.

Eyewitness Juan Alberto Vazquez, a freelance journalist, told The New York Post precisely what happened after Neely boarded the northbound F train at Second Avenue station.

“He starts to make a speech. He started screaming in an aggressive manner,” Mr Vazquez said.

“He said he had no food, he had no drink, that he was tired and doesn’t care if he goes to jail. He started screaming all these things, took off his jacket, a black jacket that he had, and threw it on the ground.”

It was at this point that the stranger, 24-year-old Marine veteran Daniel Penny, stepped in to tackle Neely, whose death has already inspired angry protests denouncing the injustice.

Manhattan prosecutors announced on 11 May Mr Penny would be charged with manslaughter, and on 14 June, a New York grand jury voted to indict the former Marine.

“While we respect the decision of the grand jury to move this case forward to trial, it should be noted that the standard of proof in a grand jury is very low and there has been no finding of wrongdoing. We’re confident that when a trial jury is tasked with weighing the evidence, they will find Daniel Penny’s actions on that train were fully justified,” Steven Raiser and Thomas Kenniff, attorneys for Mr Penny, told The Independent in a statement.

Responding strongly via Mills and Edwards, their own legal representatives, Neely’s family called Mr Penny’s public statements “not an apology nor an expression of regret”, branding it “a character assassination” and adding that Mr Penny’s “actions on the train, and now his words, show why he needs to be in prison”.

Andre Zachery, the victim’s father has meanwhile given an interview to The New York Daily News in which he said that he had not seen his son for four years but that Neely had experienced tragedy as a teenager when his mother, Christine Neely, 36, with whom he had lived in Bayonne, New Jersey, was murdered by her boyfriend Shawn Southerland.

Her body was found in a suitcase by the side of the Henry Hudson Parkway in the Bronx in 2007 and Jordan Neely had testified at Southerland’s trial aged 19, telling the court: “The relationship had been crazy. A fight every day.” Southerland was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 30 years in jail in 2012.

“His mother perished; she also got killed. And him now? Her boyfriend fatally shot her. And he now? By another person?” Mr Zachery said.

Carolyn Neely, the deceased’s aunt, told The Post: “My sister Christie was murdered in 2007 and after that, he has never been the same.

“It had a big impact on him. He developed depression and it grew and became more serious. He was schizophrenic, PTSD. Doctors knew his condition and he needed to be treated for that.

“The whole system just failed him. He fell through the cracks of the system.”

But Jordan Neely had grown up to be known as an expert Michael Jackson impersonator, honing his act at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan before performing on the subway and in Times Square, his skills evident in a number of videos widely shared on social media in the wake of his death.

A neighbour of Mr Zachery’s told The Daily News that dancing had enabled Neely to deal with the mental health issues he had suffered in the wake of his mother’s murder.

“He used to get tough,” they said. “He knew how to move. A moonwalk. He was always pleased doing it. He would do it while he was getting ready to go to work. He used to be fantastic.”

A school friend, Wilson Leon, now 30, told The New York Times: “Everyone called him Michael Jackson. The Michael Jackson of Washington Irving. He would be very passionate about dancing. Very good behavior with the teachers.”

Mr Leon said he would continue to run into Neely after the latter dropped out of school: “Sometimes 42nd Street, sometimes the L train... We would say hi to each other.”

Neely would also become well known to social work teams involved in outreach to New York’s homeless community, an employee of the Bowery Residents’ Committee told The NYT, adding that the dancer was included on a “Top 50” list of personalities thought to be most in need of care.

Neely was reportedly arrested more than three dozen times, often for minor offences like turnstyle-jumping, but also for violent assaults on four occasions. Care workers also told the newspaper he had become dependent on K2, a synthetic marijuana, and begun to lose weight around summer 2019.

He was taken to Bellevue Hospital for a week in March 2020, as the pandemic began to take hold, before reaching crisis point when he was arrested in November 2021 for punching a 67-year-old woman on the street in the Lower East Side, for which he was charged with assault and spent 15 months in jail, pleading guilty in February this year in the hope of securing treatment.

However, he appears to have abandoned the facilty to which he was assigned in the Bronx after just 13 days, entering a spiral of erratic behaviour that would ultimately end in tragedy.

Ray Tarvin, a minister who knew Neely, told The Guardian: “He was a nice person, not aggressive or violent. Everyone who knew him knows that.

“He’d accept anything you had – many of the homeless down here are sober. They’re needing food or shelter or clothing, not strung out and shooting up dope.”

Jason Williams, a fellow New Yorker, recalled enjoying Jordan Neely’s Michael Jackson act on the streets and told The Daily Mail: “He embodied the hustle spirit of New York. He was a great performer and it’s a real tragedy that he [died] so senselessly.”

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