Police Eye Domestic Violence in Upper East Side Killing of Mother

Azsia Johnson loved children, especially babies. Growing up in Crown Heights, she hoped to become a pediatric nurse, and doted on her own two children — a toddler and a three-month-old baby girl.

On Wednesday night, Ms. Johnson was out walking the baby in a stroller when a hooded gunman approached her from behind and fired a single shot into her head. She was pronounced dead at Metropolitan Hospital Center not long after.

The killing of Ms. Johnson, 20, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was the latest in a string of gruesome episodes of gun violence, part of a rising tide that has swept New York City since the start of the pandemic.

“He put her light out, that’s what he did. He put her light out,” Lisa DeSort, Ms. Johnson’s mother, said of the gunman. “This city failed my daughter.”

Ms. Johnson was on East 95th Street near Lexington Avenue around 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday night, the police said, when a hooded assailant came up behind her and shot her once in the head.

The man, who was dressed in black, ran off after firing, officials said, and headed east down a tree-lined block with brownstone buildings on one side and a park and public school on the other.

The gunman’s identity has not been released. The baby girl was unhurt, the police said, and was being evaluated by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, according to Ms. DeSort and a law enforcement official.

“We strongly believe it was not a random shooting. The victim was targeted,” Mayor Eric Adams said on Thursday. “We will bring this person to justice.”

Two law enforcement officials confirmed that the police were looking at the killing as a potential incident of domestic violence.

Ms. DeSort said her daughter was a victim of domestic violence who had endured a partner’s physical abuse during her pregnancy.

On one occasion, in January, Ms. Johnson phoned her mother in the middle of a violent episode. “She called me crying, saying, ‘Mommy, he’s hitting me.’ And she was hysterical,” said Ms. DeSort.

Ms. DeSort said she reported the incident to the police, but the man continued to threaten Ms. Johnson and her family. “He said, ‘I’m going to kill you and all of the birds that go along with you,’” Ms. DeSort recalled.

Ms. Johnson had been living at a family shelter that also houses victims of domestic violence on a leafy residential block in East Harlem, a law enforcement official said.

Several women entered and left the shelter on Thursday, headed to work or on afternoon walks with children in strollers in tow. They were shocked to learn that the victim had lived among them.

“Horrible,” Jukyeia Parker said as she pushed her son down the steps in a stroller. Ms. Parker said she had lived in the shelter for about a year. The killing, she said, made her fearful.

“I’m scared,” she said. “I’m obviously a mom. You’re just walking in the street and you get shot.”

On Thursday morning, steps from where Ms. Johnson was killed, Julio Cruz discovered the police towing his car. He said officers had told him a bullet from the shooting might still be inside the vehicle, and that they needed to conduct a search.

“The time they need is the time they need,” said Mr. Cruz, 62. “I hope they find something about this case.”

A single police car guarded the small, roped-off scene, which was next to a playground and a leafy green patch of hillside. A dark red streak of blood could be seen on the sidewalk.

After surging earlier in the pandemic, shooting rates in New York have begun to abate, but they remain above their prepandemic levels. As of Sunday, there had been 624 shootings in the city this year, compared with 710 in the same period in 2021. That is a 12 percent drop, but still about 28 percent more than at the same point in 2019.

Even amid the recent declines, the persistence of gun violence — particularly in poor and working-class neighborhoods with large Black and Latino populations — has increased pressure on Mr. Adams to act.

Rates of domestic violence in the city have also risen since the pandemic began. The numbers track with a concerning national trend, when the early days of Covid forced people to stay at home, a phenomenon that some experts suggest made it more difficult for women to report or escape abusers.

In 2019, the Police Department fielded 87,512 reports of domestic violence; in 2021, there were 89,032. In the 19th Precinct, where the killing took place, rates have dropped slightly in the same time frame, by around 3 percent. In New York, the impact of domestic violence has historically fallen disproportionately on Black and Hispanic residents.

Emma G. Fitzsimmons, Sean Piccoli, Matthew Sedacca and Téa Kvetenadze contributed reporting. Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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