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'Easy targets': Expert says killer of homeless men in NYC, D.C. may be drawn to vulnerable groups

Authorities believe five men shot in the two cities since March 3 may be connected.
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A person who authorities say may be linked to a series of shootings including two slayings of homeless men in Washington, D.C., and New York City could be seeking out the vulnerable group because they are “easy targets,” a criminology expert said.

Five homeless men have been shot in the two cities since March 3, including a fatal shooting and a stabbing in the capital Wednesday and a deadly shooting of second homeless man Saturday in Manhattan, authorities said.

Former FBI agent Bryanna Fox, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said Monday that the killing of a stranger is a rare type of homicide. However, in cases in which perpetrators don’t know their victims, it isn’t uncommon for people to target susceptible groups.

“Vulnerable people are often the prime victims. And the reason for that is, No. 1, they are just frankly easy targets,” Fox said. “If you’re going to kill a stranger, would it be a mayor? A politician? A businessperson? …  Or would it be a person who is a homeless person? A sex worker? A runaway?”

The shooter may believe a homeless person might not be identified by authorities as quickly and that the case may not be investigated as thoroughly, Fox said.

In a joint statement Sunday, New York and Washington police announced they suspect the shootings of the five homeless men are connected.

“Given the similarity in the modus operandi of the perpetrator, common circumstances involved in each shooting, the circumstances of the victims, and information from ATF’s National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), we will move forward jointly investigating these homicides and shootings,” police said.

The shooter, a man, carries a semiautomatic handgun, police said.

Officials from the two cities held a joint news conference Monday evening in which they urged their homeless residents to seek shelter.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser called it "unconscionable" that anybody would target the homeless. Authorities offered up to a $70,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspect. New York City Mayor Eric Adams pointed to newly released images of the suspect, specifically a close-up of his face, and pleaded with the public to step forward.

"Someone knows this person. We are asking the public to find him," he said. "If he's watching, we are telling him to turn himself in. This is unacceptable."

Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee called the suspect "depraved" and said arresting him is a priority.

"We really need to get this case closed ... before anyone else in our community, in any community for that matter, is hurt or worse, murdered by this person."

The mention of federal authorities’ ballistic information network means evidence from shell casings “trace back to the same gun,” Fox said.

It's also possible that whoever is behind the shootings could be mad at the world and has scapegoated the homeless, she said.

"The motivation is anger toward society," Fox said. "If they had a person to take it out on, they would have."

The attacks on New York City’s homeless took place less than two hours apart Saturday, authorities said. The first shooting occurred about 4:30 a.m., when a 38-year-old man was shot while sleeping and woke up shouting, “What are you doing?” police said at a news conference.

The second shooting, which was fatal, is believed to have happened around 6 a.m., police said. But they weren’t notified that a dead man was in a sleeping bag with wounds to his head and his neck until about 11 hours later. The two shootings Saturday occurred about a mile apart, police said.

Adams said Saturday in the media briefing that one of the victims is lucky to be alive.

“It’s quite possible that one of our citizens is still alive merely because he woke up,” Adams said. “Two individuals were shot while sleeping on the streets. Not committing a crime, but sleeping on the streets."

Brian O’Hara, the public safety director for Newark, New Jersey, said that since Sunday, the city's police officers have been talking to homeless people and telling them to be vigilant given Newark's proximity to the attacks in New York City.

City police helped five homeless people into shelters overnight Sunday, O’Hara said.

He said the homeless are sometimes hesitant to talk to police because of past run-ins with the law or substance abuse problems. But he said police are telling them: “We are just trying to keep you safe, keep you alive and keep you off the streets."

The initiative will continue until the “threat is over,” O’Hara said.

Anyone with information is urged to call New York police Crime Stoppers at 1-800-577-TIPS or Washington police at 202-727-9099.