Watertown resident mourns nephew killed in New York City subway incident

May 15—WATERTOWN — Six months ago, Carolyn Neely moved here from New York City to welcome the birth of her first child, wanting to give the baby a life away from the violence of a big city.

This week, she'll return to her former home to bury her nephew, Jordan, a homeless man whose death on a New York City subway on May 1 has sparked national outcry.

It should have been one of the happiest times in her life. She should be celebrating the birth of her son, Prince, on Tuesday at Samaritan Medical Center.

"We just wanted to be with our newborn," she said Saturday afternoon.

Instead, she's trying to deal with the way that her 30-year-old nephew died on a subway train in such a brutal and public way, and with the torment he lived with from years of mental health issues.

Jordan allegedly died from a chokehold at the hands of 24-year-old Marine veteran Daniel Penny after her nephew was acting erratically on the subway.

His death quickly spread on social media after a video surfaced showing the encounter, resulting in days of protests in New York and elsewhere. The Marine veteran now faces a second-degree manslaughter charge.

For years, Jordan was known as a Michael Jackson impersonator, performing in Times Square and various train stations along the city's subway system. He looked the part. He was tall and thin, she recalled.

Living on the streets, he begged for money for food. There also were numerous arrests that reportedly led to stays in mental health hospitals.

Homeless advocates accuse the system of failing him. More should have been done, they have said.

Jordan's tragic life and death were years in the making.

His mother, Christie Neely, 36, was strangled to death in 2007 by her boyfriend, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2012.

Jordan was just 14 when her body was found stuffed in a suitcase.

Since then, he's been in and out of mental health hospitals to deal with her violent death. There was an immediate change in him after his mother died, Carolyn Neely said.

Before she died, he was just a teen who loved basketball.

"It was devastating for him," she said. "He was never the same."

Carolyn Neely tried to get him help, she said. He'd stay in Bellevue Hospital of psychiatry, and other hospitals for a couple of weeks but then be released. He never got the long-term help he needed, she said.

At times, he lived with her, but there were other occasions when she would wake up and he was gone, disappearing for weeks.

She went searching for him but wouldn't find him, she said.

"He loved to dance, he loved to perform," she said. "The subway stations were his comfort space."

Living on the streets, he begged for money for food. On the day of his death, witnesses said Jordan was yelling for food and that he wanted to die.

But he wasn't violent during the encounter with the ex-Marine, his aunt said.

It was Mr. Penny who initiated the encounter and was the aggressor, she said in describing the video.

"He came from behind and choked him," she said.

It also was horrible how she found out about his death. A friend of Christie's sent a simple text message "Do you know what happened to Jordan?"

She watched the video and saw him take his last breath and die.

After days of protests, Mr. Penny was arrested. But Carolyn Neely and her family believe the charge should be stiffer.

"Justice for Jordan," his aunt said.

She moved to Watertown with her wife, Whitney, who grew up here, to get out of New York City. And to celebrate the birth of their first child, Whitney Neely said.

At her urging, they agreed they would live here for four years, wanting to live a quieter life in a small city for their son, Whitney Neely said.

They had high hopes for their future.

Prince was born Tuesday and they were going to bring him home two days later.

On the same the day he was getting out of the hospital, Carolyn and Whitney Neely's house caught fire shortly before 4 a.m. Thursday.

The smoke and water damage to their second-floor apartment of the five-unit building prevented them from bringing him home. And all of the baby's apparel and supplies, and their belongings also were damaged.

But they are now homeless, too.

"We don't even have time to be with our son," Whitney Neely said. "My wife can't grieve for her nephew. It's just becoming too much."

They have been staying with friends and it could take four weeks before they can get back home, she said, adding that they don't know what they will do next.

The fire displaced seven other tenants. Whitney Neely said she wonders what will happen to their neighbors who also face a long road over the next several weeks.

She hopes the community can come forward to help.

When the couple moved to Watertown, Jordan had no interest in joining them. He wouldn't be able to stay in one place, Carolyn Neely explained.

His aunt was his emergency contact if he needed help or something were to happened to him. That call never came because she changed phone numbers.

Carolyn Neely can't remember the last time she saw her nephew.

Her family is devastated. Her parents have health issues. The family is preparing for his funeral.

"He didn't ask to die," Carolyn Neely said.

With so many life changes happening so fast, Whitney Neely looked forward to Mother's Day on Sunday to be the first day for the three of them to be together as a family.