She Was 92 and Loved Cats. An Attack Left Her Dead on the Street.

Andrea Salcedo
In 2018, 23 people who were 65 or older were murdered in the city, according to data provided by the police. (Getty Images)

NEW YORK — It was hard to miss Maria Fuertes in her neighborhood. She was 92 years old and could be seen at all hours of day, shoulders hunched, slowly pushing her black cart filled with bottles and cans through the streets of South Richmond Hill, Queens.

On Monday evening, while taking what neighbors described as one of her regular strolls, Fuertes was attacked just steps from her home by a 21-year-old man who approached her from behind and knocked her to the ground, police said.

Fuertes was found lying in the street and later pronounced dead. Investigators are now seeking to determine whether she was sexually assaulted, police said at a news conference Friday.

The suspect, Reeaz Khan, also a resident of South Richmond Hill, fled the scene and was later arrested and charged with murder and sex abuse.

The fatal attack has jolted the area and left residents mourning a beloved character. Across the street from her house, neighbors set out a memorial with burning candles, two small white crosses and fresh flower bouquets.

About a block away, another memorial with flowers and candles was outside of Deli & Grill, a bodega that Fuertes used to frequent, sometimes three times a day.

“I miss her coming to my store,” said Abdul Alamari, 30, the owner of the bodega.

Fuertes, who neighbors say was from the Dominican Republic and had lived in the area with her son for years, collected cans and plastic bottles for a living. She also used her cart to ferry food to her more than 10 cats, neighbors said.

This earned her the nickname “cat lady.” Neighbors also called her “abuelita,” grandma in Spanish.

“Everybody knew her,” said Shantie Ram, 57. “It’s sad the way it happened.”

Ram, who has lived in South Richmond Hill for nine years, said she would often advise Fuertes not to leave her house at night.

“She said she had to go for the cats,” Ram said.

Neighbors said they took it upon themselves to help care for her. If Fuertes needed help crossing the road, her neighbors would not hesitate to walk with her. They often gave her food and snacks.

A knock on Fuertes’ door went unanswered Friday.

Jean Hiralal, 76, another neighbor, was visibly shaken. “I am afraid,” she said. “The whole neighborhood loved her.”

As unsettled as Fuertes’ neighbors seemed, killings of older people in New York City are relatively rare.

In 2018, 23 people who were 65 or older were murdered in the city, according to data provided by the police. Last year, the figure was 20 New Yorkers for that age range.

There were roughly 320 murders in New York City in 2019, officials said.

Suraj Budhram, a flight coordinator at John F. Kennedy International Airport, would sometimes bump into Fuertes between 3 and 4 a.m. whenever he returned from work. The last times he saw her, Budhram said, Fuertes appeared sick, and her feet looked swollen.

“I have a grandmother — she’s 64,” said Budhram, 20. “She goes to work. It scares me.”

“It’s crazy that you could harm somebody like that.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


© 2020 The New York Times Company