BROOKLYN, N.Y. — A handyman who lived in a Brooklyn public housing development for seniors was indicted Tuesday in the stabbing and strangling deaths of three of his elderly neighbors, who he is accused of killing over a six-year span.
Serial killer suspect Kevin Gavin, 66, of the Brownsville neighborhood, is charged with one count of first-degree murder and three counts of second-degree murder, according to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. Gavin, who faces life without the possibility of parole if convicted, is being held without bail.
The women he is accused of killing are Myrtle McKenny, 82, Jacolia “Jackie” James, 83, and Juanita Caballero, 78, according to police. Gavin reportedly performed odd jobs for the victims and other tenants in the New York City Housing Authority’s Carter G. Woodson Houses.
“Mr. Gavin was familiar with many of the residents in the building and ran errands for some of the elderly tenants who resided at that location,” NYPD Chief of Detectives Rodney Harrison said during a Jan. 21 news conference following Gavin’s arrest.
Forensic evidence and credible witnesses led to investigators zeroing in on Gavin as a suspect, Harrison said. Following his Jan. 20 arrest, Gavin allegedly confessed that he’d killed the women over money he said they owed him.
“This defendant is an alleged serial killer who murdered three of his elderly neighbors who trusted him and welcomed him into their homes, only to have that trust violated in the worst way imaginable,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “These victims were mothers, grandmothers and beloved friends whose violent deaths have had a chilling effect inside their housing complex, and on the Brownsville community.
“We will do everything we can to seek justice for the victims and the many family members and friends who were left without their loved ones.”
A fourth death, that of Henry Higgins in 2019, has not been linked to Gavin, but New York City Councilwoman Inez Barron and her husband, state Assemblyman Charles Barron, said in January that Higgins’ death was also suspicious.
At a news conference with the victims’ families, the Barrons blamed the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio for not doing enough to protect the elderly residents of the building.
“If these were white senior citizens, you would have taken this case more seriously the first time around,” Charles Barron said, according to ABC New York. “This is unconscionable and unacceptable. We demand respect for our senior citizens.”
Myrtle McKenny, 82
Gavin’s alleged crimes began on Nov. 8, 2015, when he is accused of stabbing McKenny in the neck with a steak knife inside her sixth-floor apartment. The elderly woman’s body was found on her kitchen floor the following day by her home health aide, Harrison said.
In a criminal complaint obtained by the New York Daily News, Gavin admitted that he did attack McKenny, but said that he pushed her “into a table where a steak knife was located, and it punctured her.”
Attempts to downplay his culpability would pepper his admissions in each crime, the document shows.
“Initially, it was believed that Ms. McKenny died from natural causes,” Harrison said following Gavin’s arrest. “While being examined, a stab wound was discovered at the left rear of her neck, which changed the classification of this incident to a homicide.”
The Daily News reported that McKenny’s family was suspicious of her death from the start. They called her family doctor, Dr. Martin Bandler, and told him they suspected foul play.
They cited her body’s position under a table, saying she was too far under to have fallen on her own, the Daily News reported. They also learned that she had withdrawn an unusual amount of cash from her bank account days before her death.
A neighbor, Leon Gavin, told the newspaper that he had helped McKenny withdraw $800 two days before she died.
The New York Times in January identified Leon Gavin, who was 74 in 2015, as the older brother of McKenny’s suspected killer.
Leon Gavin also spoke to the Times following his neighbor’s brutal death.
“Who would do something like that?” Leon Gavin pondered in his Times interview.
Leon Gavin died in April 2020, at which point Kevin Gavin took over his apartment on the sixth floor, the newspaper reported.
It was ultimately an embalmer at the Caribbean Funeral Home who found the stab wound on McKenny’s neck as her body was prepared for burial, according to the Daily News. Along with the neck wound, the worker noted additional stab wounds, broken ribs and bruising on her neck and face.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner confirmed the wounds found by the mortuary and ruled McKenny’s death a homicide, the paper reported. More than a month had passed since her death.
“The cause of death is stab wound of neck and incised wounds of right upper extremity, with blunt impact injuries of head, torso and right upper extremity, with contributing condition of hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease,” ME spokeswoman Julie Bolcer said.
Bandler had not viewed McKenny’s body before she was taken to the funeral home. He told the Daily News that he passed her family’s concerns to low-level workers in the medical examiner’s office, and that his efforts to contact the funeral home were unsuccessful.
Eventually, he signed her death certificate so her family could bury her.
Neighbors of the slain woman were stunned when they learned she’d been killed.
“I can’t believe it. Everyone is in shock,” Alana Garcia told CBS New York. “I’ve been here 25 years. This is disgusting.”
Eliana Garcia, another neighbor in the building, agreed.
“That lady don’t bother nobody,” she said. “She was a good lady.”
Few leads came in following the homicide, and McKenny’s case went cold.
Jacolia James, 83
Nearly four years later, on April 30, 2019, James was strangled to death inside her 11th-floor unit. Her grandson found her lying facedown in the apartment, Harrison said.
“Her grandson had last seen her earlier that night at approximately 7 p.m.,” he said at the news conference. “When he returned to her home almost four hours later, she was deceased.”
Like that of McKenny, James’ homicide was not immediately obvious. She had injuries to her face and neck, however, that raised investigators’ suspicions, and her cause of death was determined to be strangulation.
In his eventual statement to police, Gavin said he choked James and “stomped on her neck three times,” the Daily News reported.
DNA evidence collected from the scene in the elderly woman’s apartment would eventually link Gavin to her death. ABC News reported that Gavin was identified as a suspect in after James’ killing, but that police could not definitively link him to the crimes until this year — after a third woman was slain.
James’ killing, coming three years after McKenny’s, left the building’s 450 residents on edge.
“It’s getting out of hand,” Carmen Feliciano, one of James’ friends in the building, told PIX11 in New York. “This is the second time this has happened already.”
“They need some cameras in here,” resident Elizabeth Dixon added, pointing out that the building’s only surveillance camera at the time was above the delivery door to the kitchen.
Diana Johnson, the president of the residents’ association, told the news station one camera was not nearly enough.
Edward James, the victim’s son, agreed.
“I seen security today in the building,” James told PIX11. “I seen people ask, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘What apartment are you going to?’
“If that was happening before she passed, she might not have passed.”
Lynda James, Jackie James’ daughter, filed a $15 million lawsuit in November against the city’s housing authority, arguing that security cameras or guards in the building, particularly after McKenny’s 2015 murder, could have prevented her mother’s death.
It would not be until the third killing earlier this year that people learned the alleged killer was a resident.
Juanita Caballero, 78
On Jan. 15, Caballero was found strangled to death inside her apartment, authorities said. She is believed to have been killed the day before.
“Her son came to spend the weekend with her and instead found her inside her apartment, lying on the floor with a telephone cord wrapped around her neck,” Harrison said.
Like McKenny and Gavin, Caballero lived on the sixth floor. She, like each of the other victims, also relied on Gavin for help.
The handyman told police in his statement about Caballero’s death that they got into an argument and “during a struggle, a phone cord wrapped around her neck,” according to the criminal complaint.
Caballero’s children have told the Daily News they plan to follow in the James family’s steps and sue the housing authority.
“NYCHA was negligent and reckless in that they failed to provide adequate security to the premises, despite prior notice of at least two prior murders,” court documents allege.
The Caballero family filed an intent to sue the day after Gavin’s arrest was announced.
It was evidence in Caballero’s killing that bolstered the case against Gavin in James’ killing, Gonzalez said during the January news conference.
“Prior to that, the pattern of deaths in those houses could not be clearly linked to an individual,” the prosecutor said. “After this unfortunate last killing, we were able to make a pretty definitive link to (Gavin).”
NBC News reported Tuesday that Gavin was reportedly seen on surveillance footage using stolen debit and benefit cards that belonged to Caballero.
That information was little solace to the families of the victims, particularly the Caballero family.
“NYCHA failed our families. They failed the McKenny family. They failed the James family. They failed my mother,” said Steven Caballero, who found his mother’s lifeless body after her homicide. “They had time to do something, they just won’t do nothing. I don’t know what it’s going to take for them to just put these cameras in the building.”
“There is no reasons or excuses that is enough for our family,” Lamarr Crafton, James’ oldest grandson, said at a January news conference held by the families. “This community needs public safety. It needs consistency.
“It needs to trust the good guys to be here.”