The killer first struck just before 2 a.m. on Saturday on a quiet spot on East Broadway in Chinatown, sneaking up on three homeless men as they slept on a sidewalk and bludgeoning them to death with a rusty, three-foot metal bar, the police said.
Clad in all black, he then ran a block north and attacked two more men sleeping on a sidewalk, killing one. The second man barely staggered away with his life.
The rampage ended a few minutes later with the arrest of a suspect whom the police also described as homeless, but it was one of the most harrowing events in recent memory for New York City’s homeless population, which has been steadily rising even as the city has maintained solid economic growth. One of the four men killed was 83-years-old, the police said, and the surviving victim was in critical condition.
Advocates say it is difficult to determine the exact number of homeless people living on the city’s streets, in the subways and in other public spaces, but an annual count last January put the number at 3,588. A far larger number — about 62,000 people — live in the shelter system.
The attacks spread new anxiety among the city’s homeless people, many of whom are already grappling with mental illness, drug addiction and other maladies. The area where the attacks occurred centers on the Bowery, which has a long history of sheltering — both on the streets and in flophouses — people who are down on their luck. The five men were set upon just south of the Bowery Mission, one of the city’s oldest aid organizations.
Early Saturday morning, blocks away from the scenes of the killings, police officers spotted a 24-year-old man, who fit the descriptions of the killer given by the survivor and other witnesses.
He was holding a metal bar dripping with blood, and was taken into custody without incident, the police said.
“The motive appears to be, right now, just random attacks,” said Michael Baldassano, the chief of Manhattan South Detectives. “No one was targeted by race, age, anything of that nature.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, which has struggled to address the rise in homelessness, said in a statement that it will “dedicate more resources to prevent similar tragedies in the future,” including increased police presence.
The suspect was identified as Rudy Rodriguez Santos, and he was expected to be charged on Saturday afternoon with murder, according to a law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an open investigation.
Mr. Santos was captured on surveillance video approaching the locations where the attacks had occurred carrying a metal bar, the official said. At least one of the attacks was also recorded by a security camera.
When investigators showed him the video, Mr. Santos identified himself in the images, but did not explicitly admit he had killed the men, the official said. Investigators repeatedly asked him why he had attacked the victims, but he refused to answer and then asked for a lawyer, the official said.
Tang Wu, the manager of the Forever Health Pharmacy at 2 East Broadway, said the security camera at his store captured one of the attacks. He said the footage shows a man with a metal bar repeatedly hitting two men who were sleeping on a piece of cardboard outside the pharmacy at 1:38 a.m. The attacker struck the men about five times, then ran off, only to return a few minutes later and continue the assault.
“They have nowhere to live and you beat them to death,” said Mr. Wu, as he washed the blood from the pavement in front of his store with a mixture of bleach and water. “How terrible.”
The attacks took place near Chatham Square, where the statue of the 19th-century Chinese scholar Lin Zexu stands on a red granite pedestal overlooking East Broadway, a street that runs along the newer part of Chinatown, and the Bowery, the edge of the old Chinatown. The neighborhood is a bustling traffic hub where commuter vans and long-distance buses vie for curb space. Signs for Chinese family and village associations dot the area.
But the area has been changing rapidly in recent years, as Chinatown has expanded and young professionals, many pushed out by higher rents in the East Village, have begun to move in. And at night, it becomes a neighborhood where a growing number of homeless people look for a place to lie down for a night’s sleep on its quiet sidewalks and park benches.
Chinatown and its surrounding neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan have one of the highest concentrations of homeless shelters in the city, and most of them serve single adults. In recent months, residents have raised concerns with city officials about mentally ill people living on the street in the area and have asked outreach workers to step up efforts to help them.
Advocates for the homeless said Saturday morning’s attacks rattled the already struggling community of homeless people downtown.
“It’s absolutely horrifying,” Giselle Routhier, policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless, said. “We’re not sure what the motive was in this case, but it’s certainly very disturbing.”
The fifth victim, who is 49-years-old, was transported to the hospital with critical injuries, the police said. The police did not immediately release the names of the victims, which aside from the 49-year-old and 83-year-old men also included a 54-year-old man.
Mr. Santos was a well-known figure at the Bowery Mission, frequently coming in to have a free breakfast or lunch, an employee there said.
Diego Ramos, a 48-year-old homeless man who goes to the mission regularly, said he had never noticed any sign that Mr. Santos was violent. He described him as “some guy I’d go have coffee with and not even think twice he’d kill me.”
Hours after the quadruple homicide, passers-by stared and winced at the evidence left behind at the scenes of the attacks. Behind a police tape on the south side of East Broadway, blood coated the storefront of the Forever Health Pharmacy.
The scene on the corner of Doyers and Bowery looked grislier. Behind a row of police officers, an empty forefront was splattered with blood going in multiple directions.
“It’s pretty shocking to see it in Chinatown,” said Kevin Pan, 36, a visitor from Washington, D.C. Amy Dee, 34, added, “To be honest, I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
Neighborhood residents said they had seen a growing number of people sleeping around the small park in Chatham Square, in the vestibule of a local HSBC bank or on the street. Some said the homeless in the neighborhood had often complained that the closest shelter, on Catherine Street, was unsafe.
“Things get stolen,” said Huibing He, 64, a retired pastor at a nearby United Methodist Church, who said she had heard some of those concerns firsthand from the homeless. “They are beaten, bullied. When they come to our church, I see they are very broken.”
Louis Camacho, the superintendent at 2 East Broadway, started working at the building in 2016. He said there had been a marked increase in homelessness in the neighborhood.
“If you’re from New York, we sometimes have blinders on,” he said, “but if you look around, especially around here at night, you’ll see where they are: on Madison over there, on Henry, over there in Chatham Square.”
A few steps away, two men who described themselves as homeless and regulars of the neighborhood, said the killings unnerved them because they knew one of the victims. The two men often shared a sleeping spot outside an area bakery. Their friend, they said, slept by a doorway with his cane by his side.
“That’s his bed. Nobody else sleeps there,” said one of the men.
Andy Wang, 45, a manager at the Taiwan Pork Chop House, said one of the victims was a neighborhood fixture who liked to sit in the same table by the kitchen on many days and order the same meal: pork chop over rice for $5.75.
The victim, who spoke both Mandarin and Cantonese, would simply sit there and savor his meal. “He would come in and we would get the same order, and he wouldn’t say anything,” Mr. Wang said in Mandarin. “He wouldn’t need to say anything.”
Andrew Harris, 28, who has been homeless for about four years, said he was stunned that this would happen in an area he described as “usually safe.”
“I’m angry,” Mr. Harris added, looking at the blood splatters and patches of matted hair inside the doorway. “Someone tried to send homeless people a message — people from our community — and that makes me angry.”
Derrick Bryson Taylor, Alex Traub, Jeff Singer, Yonette Joseph and Aimee Ortiz contributed reporting.