Man's threats before fatally shooting delivery worker were missed red flags, advocates say

Courtesy Eva Zhao
·9 min read

Eva Zhao met her husband, Zhiwen Yan, a fellow immigrant from China, when she moved to the U.S. and began working at the same Chinese restaurant in Queens. She said she fell for him easily, drawn to the way he made everyone feel safe and secure — a quality he later brought to raising their three kids.

But that security was shattered when Yan, 40, was fatally shot in April outside his workplace in Queens. News reports largely portrayed the shooting as a dispute over a takeout order, but experts say the issues driving such attacks are more far-reaching.

One gun-violence prevention scholar pointed to a lack of using red flag laws and police accountability over signs of stalking and violence. And others said there’s a need for greater citywide protection for delivery workers and outreach to immigrant communities.

“He gave everyone around him a sense of safety,” Zhao, 40, told NBC Asian America, speaking in Mandarin. “He was always taking care of the people around him. He was just a wonderful person.”

Earlier this month, authorities arrested a suspect, Glenn Hirsch, charging him with murder, in addition to criminal possession of a weapon, criminal mischief, menacing and stalking. Prosecutors say that for months, Hirsch, 51, from Queens, had allegedly “routinely threatened” the staff of Great Wall Chinese Restaurant, where Yan worked, after an argument about duck sauce last year, according to the district attorney’s office. It came to a head when Hirsch, who had circled the restaurant seven times that night, allegedly followed Yan and fatally shot him in late April, according to the charges.

Given that Hirsch’s alleged repeated attacks on restaurant staff were at times violent, according to the charges, experts say that the case reveals a glaring lack of action from authorities to prevent gun violence, including the failure to use existing gun laws.

“This is a case where early intervention would have really helped,” Kerri Raissian, director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Advancing, Research, Methods and Scholarship in Gun Injury Prevention, said of the alleged attacks leading up to the shooting. “We do need more gun laws. … But we also need to enforce the ones we already have.”

She added: “By enforcing the laws we already have, I don’t know that this man’s specific murder would have been prevented. But what I can say with confidence is that murders like this one would go down.”

The New York Police Department did not return NBC News’ request for comment. But Hirsch’s attorney, Michael Horn, denied the allegations, writing in an email to NBC Asian America that his client, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, “did not harass, assault or murder Zhiwen Yan.” Horn said his office is conducting a comprehensive investigation.

“Glenn Hirsch is a long time member of the Queens Community who continues to follow the law and is simply asking his fellow citizens to reserve their judgment until the justice system has time to work,” Horn wrote. “I expect that the truth will come out at trial.”

Months of stalking and violent attacks

Zhao said that on the night Yan was shot, she tried contacting him, calling over and over to no response. As night fell, Zhao said she was told that something had happened to her husband, but the information was still vague. Yet she felt certain he was alive.

“I kept thinking he was in a car accident,” Zhao said, getting quiet. “I thought maybe he had only been injured.”

The fatal shooting wasn’t the first time Yan had interacted with Hirsch, according to a statement from the district attorney. The alleged attacks began in November after Hirsch asked for extra duck sauce with his order — a request restaurant staff honored at the time, according to the charges. Regardless, an argument allegedly ensued and Hirsch “became irate,” demanding a refund and calling the police. But after the restaurant explained to law enforcement that they would not take back food because of Covid precautions, Hirsch “stormed out.”

Over the next few months, the charges read, Hirsch allegedly slashed staff members' cars, threatened their lives and pointed a firearm at a worker. During one such incident, Yan spotted Hirsch damaging a car outside the restaurant while wearing a black surgical mask. Hirsch allegedly threatened Yan and other workers, before they pulled down his mask, took photos of his face and documented his license plate.

“The defendant allegedly said in sum and substance, ‘I have a gun’ and added ‘be careful, this is the last time I’m going to tell you,’” the DA said in a statement.

Police were contacted during another alleged car slashing incident but Hirsch disappeared soon after the call was made, according to the district attorney.

Suspect’s alleged pattern of violence and the lack of red flag law use

Raissian said that Hirsch’s alleged actions prior to the shooting parallel patterns of domestic abuse in which individuals often exhibit several escalating examples of troubling behavior. The alleged initial disagreement involved a minor issue, and Hirsch’s alleged fixation on it should’ve been a red flag to law enforcement, she said. If authorities identified the similarities, she said, it’s possible they would’ve handled the issue differently and mitigated any further harm.

“I think the tactics of domestic violence really overlay lots of criminal elements. And we could do a lot with crime reduction if we learned across different kinds of violence, as opposed to trying to compartmentalize these strategies,” she said.

One existing gun violence prevention mechanism that officials should have considered filing against Hirsch was an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO), also known as a red flag law, Raissian said. The order, filed against individuals who pose a danger to others or themselves, prohibits a person from purchasing or possessing guns. If the order was granted, police could have been directed to search Hirsch, his premises or vehicle for guns and remove them. And in Raissian’s opinion, the allegations show that there were already several crimes for which Hirsch should have been arrested.

“A warning sign is when a high schooler draws a picture in class that startles their teacher. Pulling your gun on someone and telling them you’re going to kill them is a crime. It is well beyond a warning sign,” Raissian said. “We should not confuse the two because it minimizes criminal activity that has already taken place. And the victimization of Mr. Yan was already happening.”

And, Raissian said, an ERPO could potentially have cut Hirsch’s access to firearms, even if they weren’t directly in his home. According to the prosecutor’s statement, Hirsch allegedly drove away from the scene of the crime to his wife’s apartment. And after search warrants were executed at the home, police allegedly recovered eight firearms from a closet, which also contained some of Hirsch’s own belongings.

Alex Nguyen, research manager at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said that the environment in which the allegations took place should not be dismissed, either. He noted that amid the pandemic, Asian Americans have experienced an uptick in hate crimes, with the NYPD reporting a 361 percent increase in 2021, compared to the year before, in NYC alone. And strategies to mitigate such attacks need to be considered.

Not only were there “a lot of opportunities for law enforcement to step in” before Yan’s murder, but also there was “more than enough” reason for an ERPO to be requested, Raissian said.

Underscoring risks for city delivery workers and immigrant communities

Both Nguyen and Raissian pointed out that members of immigrant communities may often be hesitant to take formal action, out of fear of retaliation or concern over their immigration status. However Raissian said that in this case, particularly because police were involved in at least two incidents with Hirsch, there was an awareness of his behavior. And while victims may not have been aware that the ERPO process was available to them, the onus then falls on police to file the request.

“They could have seen a dangerous and escalating pattern,” Raissian said. “It seems like this is a case that is what ERPO laws are written for.”

Other solutions should also be presented when it comes to gun violence prevention, Nguyen said. Many community members have repeatedly reported a distrust in law enforcement, and Nguyen says it’s up to the gun-violence prevention movement to do further outreach to immigrant communities and alert them of resources readily available to them in dangerous situations, including more community-based solutions.

In addition to insufficient action from authorities, experts say that the case also highlights the regular harassment and danger that delivery workers, many of whom come from immigrant communities, face while on the job. Zhao said her husband had been robbed before, his delivery orders ripped from him and his scooter bike stolen several times. Though he had never encountered severe violence, he had sustained mild injuries in the past, she said.

While public education around Asian American history and studies, which have been popularly advocated by nonprofits, can be helpful in reducing the perpetuation of stereotypes, Pawan Dhingra, a professor of American studies at Amherst College, said these campaigns are insufficient when protecting workers in their immediate needs.

“The day-to-day lives of people depend as much if not more so on their work conditions. Are they unionized? Can they be unionized? What is their health care?” Dhingra said. “When you put it in class terms this starts to matter. Their lives really are shaped by the status of their jobs, and the racial and gender education that we need should be seen as part of an answer. But it’s not the full answer.”

Now, as the community mourns Yan’s death, Zhao said she hopes people will remember how loving and empathetic her husband was — how, while his safety was never guaranteed, he tried to ensure stability for others.

“He was so well-loved around the neighborhood, people would always talk about how great he was. Toward our kids, he was so selfless,” Zhao said.