By Sharif Paget, Aya Elamroussi and Ray Sanchez, CNN
Before Jordan Neely was killed on a New York City subway car this week, he was known for his swift Michael Jackson dance moves that entertained many — yet he struggled with the trauma his mother’s murder had left him with at an early age.
“He told me about how much his mother’s passing impacted him. He disclosed that she was murdered, and her body was put in a suitcase,” Moses Harper, an artist who knew Neely, told CNN.
Harper and Neely became friends quickly after they met in 2009. When she took him under her wing, Neely opened up to her about how hard it was losing his mother as a young teenager.
“It traumatized him. He was not expecting that, the brutal way she was taken. That had a big impact on him. The brutality behind that, that traumatized him,” Harper told CNN. “This kid has cried in front of me. That hurt him in his heart.”
Neely’s death triggers protests
On Monday afternoon, Neely was killed after being held in a chokehold by a Marine veteran on a subway after Neely got on the train and shouted at passengers that he was hungry, thirsty and fed up with having nothing. A witness told CNN Neely — who was experiencing homelessness, according to a source familiar with his case — did not harm anyone nor did they see him armed with any weapon.
An attorney for the veteran on Friday identified him as Daniel Penny, 24.
“Daniel never intended to harm Mr. Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death,” the law firm of Raiser and Kenniff, P.C. said in a statement. “We hope that out of this awful tragedy will come a new commitment by our elected officials to address the mental health crisis on our streets and subways.”
A law enforcement source also confirmed the identity to CNN.
The 30-year-old’s death was ruled a homicide, but it does not mean there was intent or culpability, which is a matter for the criminal justice system to consider, a spokesperson for the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said.
The last time Harper saw Neely was in 2016 when she bumped into him on the subway and saw he was experiencing homelessness when he asked passengers for food. “I had never seen him like that before,” she said.
Harper, who described Neely as a kind and sweet soul, said people from around the world have been reaching out to her about his death.
“It’s crushing people. Members of our circle are texting me. They’re just finding out, and they’re crying, they don’t know what to think,” Harper said.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is investigating Neely’s death, which has triggered protests in New York City demanding justice in the case, in which no charges have been filed days after the killing.
“As part of our rigorous ongoing investigation, we will review the Medical Examiner’s report, assess all available video and photo footage, identify and interview as many witnesses as possible, and obtain additional medical records,” Manhattan District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Doug Cohen said in a statement.
Prosecutors are expected to continue discussions on the investigation through the weekend, reviewing evidence and witness statements, a law enforcement source told CNN.
Four passengers who were in the train car have been interviewed by police, but authorities are still seeking to speak with several others.
The Marine veteran who held Neely in a chokehold, meanwhile, has hired a former Republican Manhattan District Attorney candidate to represent him, the attorney’s law firm confirmed on Friday.
Attorney Thomas Kenniff, who ran against now Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in 2021, is an Iraq War veteran and major in the Army National Guard whose bid for DA focused on reducing crime and opposing criminal justice reform.
Neely’s family has retained the law firm Mills & Edwards LLP to represent them.
“Passengers are not supposed to die on the floor of our subways,” attorney Lennon Edwards said in a statement, adding that Neely had to wait “too long to go without help, intervention and without air.”
Attorney Donte Mills said, “We have people being killed for ringing the wrong doorbell, pulling in the wrong driveway and screaming out in desperation on the subway. We cannot let that stand.”
‘I don’t care if I die. … I don’t have any food’
In the minutes leading up to the deadly chokehold, Neely had been “acting erratically,” but he did not attack anyone on the train, according to Juan Alberto Vazquez, a witness who recorded the altercation on video.
As soon as Neely got on the train, he started yelling about being “fed up and hungry” and “tired of having nothing,” Vazquez told CNN.
Before he was killed, Neely said, “I don’t care if I die. I don’t care if I go to jail. I don’t have any food … I’m done,” according to Vazquez.
At some point, Neely took off his coat and threw it on the train’s floor, repeating he was ready to go to jail and get a life sentence, Vazquez said.
As the yelling continued, many passengers became visibly uncomfortable and moved to other parts of the train car. Neely did not appear to be armed or looking to attack anyone, Vazquez told CNN.
Then a rider came up behind Neely and put him in a chokehold, with the two eventually falling to the floor, said Vazquez. Neely did not interact with that passenger at all prior to the attack, Vazquez continued.
In the video recorded by Vazquez, Neely and the other man are seen on the floor of a subway car with the man’s arm wrapped around Neely’s neck. The two men were on the floor for about seven minutes, Vazquez said, adding he started recording about three or four minutes after the chokehold began.
At some point, two other passengers approached Neely and the man holding him down. One appeared to be mediating the situation while the other seemed to help the man restrain Neely, according to Vazquez.
After a while, Vazquez noticed Neely stopped moving and talking, he said.
When police officers arrived at the subway station in Lower Manhattan before 2:30 p.m. Monday, they administered first aid to an unconscious Neely. He was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead later in the afternoon, according to a law enforcement source and an NYPD spokesperson.
CNN has not been able to independently confirm what happened leading up to the incident or how long Neely was restrained.
‘Always a dancer’
Neely lost his mother in 2007, when she was killed by her boyfriend in a northern New Jersey residence. The man was sentenced to 30 years behind bars for Christie Neely’s murder at their home and “dumping her body in a suitcase in the Bronx,” according to the Jersey Journal.
In the years after, Neely began experiencing “some hard times” before high school ended, Melyssa Votta, a high school friend of Neely’s, said.
“He was jumping from house to house,” she told CNN.
Through it all, Neely was “always a dancer” who was “a really good kid,” she said.
“He’s very well known on the Internet,” Votta said. “Internationally, people have reached out to me looking for him.”
Neely also had a series of run-ins with New York police, a law enforcement source told CNN’s John Miller, including 42 arrests on charges including petty larceny, jumping subway turnstiles, theft, and three unprovoked assaults on women in the subway between 2019 and 2021.
Andre Zachery, Neely’s father, noted the painful parallel in his son being killed like his mother, the New York Daily News reported. And although he hadn’t seen his son in four years, he praised how well Neely impersonated Michael Jackson.
“I sat him in front of the TV and showed him the Jackson 5. … He took on the Michael Jackson thing and he really formed it very well,” Zachery told the newspaper.
Some officials decry Neely’s death
As of Thursday evening, no charges have been filed in Neely’s killing, a move which has increased demands by officials and the community for legal action.
Penny was earlier identified as a 24-year-old from Queens who served in the Marines, according to law enforcement and military records. He was a sergeant and served from 2017 to 2021, and his last duty assignment was at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, military records show.
Detectives interviewed and released him, a law enforcement source told CNN.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said Neely’s family “deserves justice.”
“I do want to acknowledge how horrific it was to view a video of Jordan Neely being killed for being a passenger on the subway trains,” Hochul said Thursday during a news conference. “There had to be consequences, and so we’ll see how this unfolds. But his family deserves justice.”
The governor added Neely was held down “until the last breath was snuffed out of him,” describing the passengers’ response as “very extreme.”
Jumaane Williams, New York City’s public advocate, echoed the governor’s calls for justice, demanding charges be filed “immediately” against the Penny. The public advocate office helps with complaints involving government-related services and regulations.
“To say anything else is an equivocation that will only further a narrative that devalues the life of a Black, homeless man with mental health challenges and encourages an attitude of dehumanization of New Yorkers in greatest need,” he said.
On Friday, Williams told CNN charges have not been filed because the victim was homeless and the mayor and other elected officials have not condemned what Williams described as an act of vigilantism.
“I’m concerned that our executives are creating an environment where these things can continue,” he said.
“I do want to make clear that you can say vigilantism shouldn’t be happening while saying you’re not sure what happened,” Williams added. “Both of those things can happen at the same time. And we need to hear that.”
Williams added, “What if it was the Black homeless man who had choked to death a White Marine because he was scared? We’d probably be having this conversation with him with charges sitting on Rikers Island.”
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CNN’s Jason Carroll, Brynn Gingras, Laura Ly, Maria Santana, Omar Jimenez, Nicole Grether, Elizabeth Hartfield, Gloria Pazmino and Zenebou Sylla contributed to this report.