The Case of the Serial Killer at the Senior Center

The Carter G. Woodson Houses in Brooklyn, New York, were considered a lovely, peaceful place to live back in the day. The apartment complex is a public-housing development explicitly reserved for senior citizens, which used to be so popular that the waiting list for a small apartment could take years.

Kevin Gavin / The Woodson Housing / Apartment / Myrtle McKinney, Jacolia James, Juanita Caballero.
Source: YouTube

However, in 2015, a wave of horrifying deaths descended upon the development and shocked the residents to their core. Within a few years, four elderly Woodson tenants were discovered brutally murdered in their homes. Who was responsible, and why would anyone want to hurt these innocent grandmas and grandpas?

Finally Accepted to Woodson

Myrtle McKinney, a seventy-something-year-old mother of seven, moved to Woodson in 2004. Myrtle was originally from Jamaica and had spent most of her life in Florida and the Bahamas, working as a house cleaner. After migrating to Brooklyn, New York, with her daughter, she’d applied for public housing.

A portrait of Myrtle.
Source: Pinterest

McKinney had been on the waiting list for the Woodson Houses for years, and when her application was finally accepted, she was ecstatic. She happily moved into apartment 6M and soon became acquainted with her 450 fellow senior neighbors. Myrtle even joined the tenant-run knitting club, hoping to make some friends.

The Music Man

Myrtle soon learned that residents at the Woodson public-housing development had lively social lives. Most of them were a part of clubs and circles at the senior center on the first floor, while others preferred to spend the twilight of their lives outside relaxing in the shade of the courtyard.

An exterior photo of Myrtle’s apartment / A close-up on Myrtle’s locked door.
Source: YouTube

The evenings were lots of fun, and the tenants often held outdoor dance parties. Myrtle’s neighbor Leon Gavin liked to DJ the dances, earning him the nickname “Music Man.” The elderly dancers acted like middle schoolers, with the ladies bashfully staying to one side as the gentlemen stood on the other.

A Bad Neighborhood

One would think that the Woodson Houses would be less peaceful, considering their location. Set in the heart of East Brooklyn, the complex is in a bad neighborhood. Nevertheless, it was “a place of peace” over the years for many residents in need. But sadly, this peaceful feeling wasn’t fated to last.

An exterior shot of the Woodson Houses.
Photo by Gregory P. Mango

In 2013, tons of new tenants moved in, and the senior residency started feeling less safe. Dangerous people began coming in off the streets to prey on the vulnerable and elderly at Woodson. It became common to be harassed in the corridors by strangers in need of money.

No Longer a Safe Haven

Homeless people and drug addicts started taking refuge in the development’s walls. They smoked drugs in the stairwells and set up camp on the roof. Some of the residents actually tried taking advantage of the situation and began renting out their spare beds and couches to the homeless.

A photo of the neighborhood.
Source: Google Maps

This greatly worried many tenants, who suddenly felt threatened in what had previously been their safe haven. Things escalated, and some drug addicts turned one senior’s tiny two-bedroom into a crack den. The blameless occupants were at a loss and filed a complaint to the NYC Housing Authority, who managed the Woodson Houses.

Lack of Funding

Unfortunately, their plea to the NYCHA didn’t help, and the corporation explained that there was nothing they could do. Most public housing developments face similar issues, like mold and lead poisoning or unsafe drinking water caused by a lack of funding.

An exterior shot of The Woodson Houses.
Source: ABC7 News

The Woodson Houses didn’t have CCTV cameras, and the city didn’t have the money to install any. Likewise, the security guards who watched the building between 5 p.m. to midnight worked for a private company and were too expensive to maintain around the clock.

The Tenant Patrol

Myrtle McKinney no longer felt lucky to be a resident of Woodson. The grandmother instead began secluding herself in her apartment, scared to leave the house. In an attempt to make their home safe again, the residents reorganized a neighborhood watch, called the Tenant Patrol, that had operated at Woodson in the past.

An image of a tenant patroller speaking on the radio.
Photo by Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Getty Images

The NYCHA was supportive of their efforts and even supplied the good Samaritans with snacks at first to help them gain incentive. Unfortunately, the neighborhood watch didn’t last long, and things became worse and worse.

I’m Not Much for Crowds

Myrtle told her friends, “I’m not much for crowds,” before she quit the knitting club and stopped coming to dance parties. According to Patricia Goodman, McKinney’s home health aide, the older woman (by then in her 80s) spent her days watching television and cooking.

A photo of Myrtle.
Source: ABC7 News

Despite spending most of her time alone at home, Myrtle still woke up early, dressed up, did her makeup, and curled her hair. Myrtle’s kids hired Patricia to spend time with her in the mornings and ensure that she was doing alright.

Something Wasn’t Right

On the morning of November 9th, 2015, Patricia came to pick up Myrtle for a doctor’s checkup, but the senior citizen wasn’t answering her door. Goodman had a feeling that something wasn’t right, especially when McKinney didn’t answer her phone either.

A shot of the corridor at The Woodson Houses.
Photo by Corinne Might Botz

Patricia checked if Mrs. McKinney was down at 6E, visiting her friend the Music Man and his brother Kevin, who lived in Leon’s spare room. Patricia couldn’t find her anywhere and asked around with all the neighbors and the maintenance people, but Myrtle was nowhere to be found.

Why Was Goodman Worried?

When her search proved fruitless, Patricia called the police, and two officers from PSA 2, the police division responsible for Brooklyn’s Housing Authority developments, came to her aid. They didn’t understand why Goodman was worried but nevertheless asked the superintendent to open the door of 6M.

A photo of the safety desk at The Woodson Houses.
Photo by Corinne Might Botz

To everyone’s horror, Myrtle McKinney was sprawled on her back underneath the table. She had purple bruises around her eyes, dried blood on her face, and blood puddled on the floor. The police believed that she must have fallen and hit her head.

No Signs of a Break-In

Myrtle’s death was ruled an accident. No doctor came to check her body and no forensic team reviewed the scene where her body was found. The police concluded that, as there weren’t any signs of a break-in, and nothing seemed to be missing from her apartment, it could’ve only been a natural death.

A picture of Myrtle’s apartment door.
Source: YouTube

McKinney’s general physician signed her death certificate without even seeing the body and confirmed to the officers that his patient had experienced high blood pressure and diabetes. But Myrtle’s family wasn’t satisfied.

It Wasn’t That Simple

One of Myrtle’s daughters, Donna Meeks, quickly arrived on the scene and could plainly see that the case wasn’t as simple as the police had made it seem. Myrtle’s body was way too far under the table to have fallen there naturally. It was evident that she’d been dragged there.

A general view of the neighborhood.
Source: Google Maps

After investigating independently, Meeks discovered that her mom’s keys and photo ID were nowhere to be found. Furthermore, $800 was missing from Myrtle’s bank account, and Meeks couldn’t find it anywhere around the house.

They Begged for Help

Meeks and her brother, Mark Lewis, begged the NYPD for help. They desperately wanted the case reopened and asked the officers to take fingerprints and check the scene. The cops were still sure it was an accident and continued to disregard the family’s pleas.

A screengrab of Meeks brother speaking to the camera.
Source: ABC7 News

Desperate, Donna filed a complaint about the $800 she believed was missing but was never contacted. She pleaded with the medical examiner to do an autopsy but was turned down and told that if she wanted an autopsy, she’d have to pay $20,000 out of pocket.

The Actual Cause of Death

In December 2015, Myrtle’s children had her body transferred to a funeral home. After being disregarded by the authorities, they had pretty much given up on their investigation and were preparing to say goodbye to their mother.

An exterior shot of the funeral service.

But as the funeral home staff clothed Myrtle in the suit her children had picked out, they felt something odd on the back of her neck. There was a long, thin wound on her back left side. Shocked, the funeral director contacted the medical examiner, and the body was picked up immediately.

They’d Been Right All Along

The autopsy results proved what McKinney’s family had been telling the police from the beginning, that their mother had been murdered. She died of a stab wound to the neck. Myrtle also had three broken ribs and blunt-force trauma to the head and upper body.

A portrait of McKinney.
Source: Pinterest

Soon the news that their beloved neighbor Myrtle McKinney’s death hadn’t been an accident spread throughout the housing development. Woodson’s residents were shocked; they couldn’t believe that someone would do something so horrible to an innocent little old lady.

It Was Too Late

Myrtle’s family may have successfully gotten her case to be reopened, but the timing wasn’t very fortunate. It was too late to find any viable evidence. The crime scene had been completely cleared, and Myrtle’s apartment had been emptied of her belongings.

A picture of McKinney’s apartment door.
Source: ABC7 News

The homicide detective assigned to Myrtle’s case, Al Brust, was at a loss at how to begin investigating the murder. He arrived at an empty apartment with no leads. Nevertheless, Al started looking into the building’s residents, grabbing at straws to find possible suspects.

The Unofficial Handyman

Brust first looked into the complex’s unofficial handyman, Peebles. He had helped remove Myrtle’s AC on the week she died but had an alibi. After him, the detective questioned the Music Man, Leon Gavin, a close friend of the victims who had been seen on CCTV with her at the bank.

An exterior shot of the building.
Source: YouTube

Gavin shared with the detective that Myrtle was worried someone from her family was stealing from her account and had asked for his help to look over her bank statements. While there, she’d withdrawn the missing $800.

The Other Handyman

The Music Man was cleared as well. He was devastated by his friend’s death and very helpful to the investigation. On the other hand, his brother Kevin Gavin started looking suspicious. He was in his early sixties and the other unofficial handyman at Woodson.

A photo of Kevin Gavin’s arrest.
Source: YouTube

Most people called him Point because he carried around a pointy icepick type tool and was known for his help fixing electronics, helping ladies carry their groceries and more. Kevin had a glass eye and a heavy build and was around 5 foot 8.

A Criminal Record

What made Point Brust’s primary suspect was that he had a criminal record. It was mainly for nonviolent crimes and drug-related offenses. But according to the tenants at Woodson, Kevin was still a drug addict and was constantly asking neighbors for money.

Two officers escort Kevin Gavin.
Photo by Lloyd Mitchell

More and more of Myrtle’s neighbors suggested to Al that he look into the man who used to help her, and they meant Leon’s brother. However, when the detective called Kevin, the handyman claimed to be on an extended vacation and didn’t know when he’d be back.

No Concrete Evidence

With no concrete evidence against Kevin, the detectives couldn’t pursue him. So, they had no choice but to wait. At one point, he agreed to come in and take a polygraph but never followed through.

A looks inside the Woodson housing.
Photo by Corinne Might Botz

Brust was at a loss. He couldn’t arrest Point with no evidence. All he could do was put a note on Kevin’s criminal record asking police to refer the suspect to him if he was arrested. Slowly, Brust and his team moved on from Myrtle’s seemingly unsolvable case, and it was forgotten.

The Gorilla Tenant Patrol

After the murder case went cold, the residents at Woodson felt neglected. The police had abandoned them with a murderer in their midst, and they were angry. In an attempt to take charge of their own safety, a group of residents reinstated the tenant patrol, becoming a gorilla community watch.

A shot of the security desk at Woodson.
Photo by Corinne Might Botz

They would patrol the buildings in two-hour shifts, forcing all visitors to sign in. They also checked up on any residents who hadn’t been seen or heard from for several days and refused to let anyone they didn’t recognize inside.

No Help at All

The community watch didn’t last. The patrol members were often accosted by angry visitors who were denied entry, and soon most of them quit out of fear. Meanwhile, Woodson’s tenant-association president, Diane Johnson, approached the NYCHA again to ask that they install CCTV, but was refused.

A picture of Diane Johnson.
Photo by Ben Fractenberg

The paid security guards were no help either. They worked only a few hours a day and were scared of the dangerous types who invaded the complex. The security guards let basically anyone in and didn’t even call the police when residents were attacked.

It Was No Use

Diane Johnson didn’t give up right away, she turned to the City Council, she contacted the governor’s office, and she even reached out to individual City Council members, imploring them to allocate funds to Woodson’s security. But it was no use.

An interior shot of the corridors at Woodson.
Photo by Corinne Might Botz

The Woodson residents’ concerns were ignored for years. Only in 2019, twelve members of the NYCHA safety-and-security office came to check the complex. The assessment wasn’t very comprehensive, and they only reported on several broken stair rail’s, doors, and light fixtures. Diane’s request for security cameras was overlooked again.

Four Years Later

By April 2019, four years had passed since Myrtle’s shocking murder, and the residents of Woodson started to relax again. They comforted themselves with the belief that it’d been a one-time thing and must have been committed by a visitor and not a tenant. Just as everyone was getting comfortable, the murderer struck again.

A portrait of Jacolia James at home.
Source: Pinterest

This time, an eighty-three-year-old named Jacolia James, from apartment 11C, was the victim. Jacolia had inherited the apartment from her mother and was the matriarch of the James clan. She had more than twenty great-grandchildren.

Facedown on the Floor

Darrin, Jacolia James’s grandson, was visiting his grandmother and planned to sleep over on her couch. That evening he went out to meet friends and came back to Woodson a little after eleven p.m., scared that grandma would be mad that he was home so late.

A picture of Jacolia James.
Source: Tumblr

But instead of being scolded by Jacolia when he pushed open the door, he discovered her on the living room floor, facedown. James was unresponsive and had purple bruises all over her face and neck. Poor Darrin was horrified and quickly called 911.

Another Murder in the Building

By the time the police, paramedics, and medical examiner arrived, it was clear that there had been another murder in the building. Darrin’s aunt Lynda came to support him and ensure that the police ruled Jacolia’s death a homicide.

Police are still looking
Photo by Ben Fractenberg

She wasn’t about to let them fumble it the way they had with Myrtle McKinney’s murder. She begged the coroner to check thoroughly, and it helped. An autopsy was ordered, and it revealed that Jacolia James had died of strangulation. So, an investigation into the beloved grandmother’s murder began.

A Knock on the Door

Darrin was sure that he knew who the murderer was. Earlier that day, he and Jacolia had been in the living room when they heard a knock on the door. It wasn’t unusual for Mrs. James to have visitors; she had many friends in the complex and was very popular.

A photo of the door to Jacolia James’ apartment.
Source: ABC7 News

But Darrin remembered the man who came to the door as extremely odd. When he made eye contact with his grandma’s visitor, Darrin got the chills. The strange man didn’t come inside, and Jacolia said he was just a friend.

None Other Than Kevin Gavin

At the time, Darrin hadn’t been too worried because he knew that his grandma always stayed safe. She didn’t let strangers into her apartment, always made sure her family members were accompanied in and out of the building. She was even a former member of the tenant patrol herself.

A photo of Kevin Gavin’s arrest.
Source: YouTube

Soon it became clear that the mysterious man who’d knocked on Jacolia’s door was none other than Kevin Gavin, the main suspect in Myrtle’s murder. Darrin described him to a T: “The potbelly, the glasses, the cap, the blue-and-white bandanna.”

Fear Gripped the Residents

The residents were again gripped by fear. Especially since the murder had been so brutal and it was clear that James knew her assailant, as there were no signs of a break-in. Rumors spread around the complex, but Dianne Johnson was sure that it was Kevin.

An exterior shot of Woodson.
Source: YouTube

She alerted the police to the fact that Darrin had seen Gavin visiting the victim earlier during the day and asked them to look into him. But she was brushed off because visiting a murder victim is no proof of a crime.

Sheep Surrounded by Wolves

Kevin was constantly offering to do odd jobs for his brother’s neighbors and asking them for money in return. So, it wasn’t at all suspicious that he’d stopped by James’s place that day. Because of this, the police never even questioned Kevin. At a loss again, Johnson went back to fighting for better security.

An interior shot of Woodson.
Photo by Corinne Might Botz

This time she was joined by Lynda, Jacolia’s daughter. Lynda couldn’t believe that the development’s management hadn’t immediately installed security cameras after her mom’s murder. She described the tenants at Woodson as “sheep surrounded by wolves.”

Good Intentions Are Not Enough

The two women worked hard lobbying government officials and community leaders for better security at the senior citizen housing development. At one point, they thought they might have succeeded when City Council member Alicka Ampry-Samuel spoke to the NYCHA for them.

An exterior view of the Woodson housing.
Source: YouTube

However, despite the NYCHA’s good intentions and plans to implement a security system, they couldn’t allocate the funds. If more than one murder wasn’t enough to convince the city to protect its most vulnerable citizens, what was? Unfortunately, the residents of Woodson would soon find out.

Another Mysterious Death

After just a few months, another resident was found unresponsive on the floor of his apartment. This time it was a man named Hector Higgins who lived on the fourth floor. Hector was in his early eighties and known for his fabulous dance moves and talented pool playing.

A photo of a welcome sign to the Woodson housing.
Source: NBC News

Hector was discovered by his home health aide, who came in to check on him after the weekend. The police who arrived on the scene speculated that Higgins had fallen from the ladder leaning on the wall beside his body.

Nothing Suspicious or Funny

Dianne Johnson was automatically suspicious of Hector’s sudden death. He may have been in great shape- the best dancer in the complex, who never got winded in the middle of a song, but she found it hard to believe that he would attempt to climb a ladder.

A photograph of Hector Higgins.
Source: NBC News

However, when she asked the police, they told her that nothing looked “suspicious or funny,” maintaining that the death was accidental. Johnson and Higgins’ other friends were sure that the ladder had been placed there by the older man’s killer as a decoy.

A Third Murder?

Hector’s ribs were covered in bruises, and it looked as though he’d been beaten to death. The authorities ruled that his death had been from natural causes. The coroner claimed that the cause of death was a heart attack caused by the broken ribs Hector had sustained from his supposed fall.

A photo of Woodson housing from the street.
Source: Google Maps

Woodson’s residents weren’t satisfied by this explanation and were again scared to leave their apartments. They were sure that Hector’s death was the third murder in their building and were angry that the police continued to disregard their welfare.

They Were Terrified

The lousy atmosphere at Woodson Houses really escalated after Higgins’ death. Some residents refused to leave the building by themselves, while others stopped opening their doors to their neighbors altogether. The terrified seniors started keeping weapons by their doors and stopped taking out their trash.

The authorities speak during a press conference.
Photo by Dean Moses

Thankfully, it was then that Dianne Johnson finally convinced the mayor to commit to funding a CCTV system. Her hard work had paid off. Sadly, it would take a while before they actually installed the cameras. First, another danger would plague the halls of Woodson.

Further Social Distancing

In March 2020, Woodson Houses were struck by the same silent killer as the rest of the world. So, the already secluded and terrified residents took further lengths to social distance even more than before, hoping to escape the wrath of the pandemic.

An exterior view of the Woodson housing.
Source: ABC7 News

The development cafeteria delivered meals to the resident’s apartments, and no one went to dances anymore. But since Covid-19 disproportionately affects the elderly, there was nothing to be done, and in just a few weeks, more than five residents had fallen prey to the disease.

The Music Man

The jovial Music Man, Leon Gavin, everyone’s favorite DJ at Woodson, was among the victims who passed away in April 2020. Dianne Johnson wanted to use Leon’s death as an opportunity to evict his brother Kevin, who she believed was Woodson’s own serial murderer.

A photo of the victims.
Source: NBC News

Johnson shared her suspicions with her friends and neighbors, hoping that they would stop hiring him as a handyman. But not everyone was convinced. They reminded Dianne that Kevin had a soft side and how much of a gentleman he was, always respectful and helpful.

They Ended Up Dead

But despite his tender respect towards the ladies and the fact that he’d helped install her very own washing machine, Diane reminded her friends one trivial thing: “The same people that we seen him with or around, they ended up dead.”

A photo of Kevin’s arrest.
Source: YouTube

Myrtle had often seen Kevin when she visited his brother and frequently asked the younger senior for help. He had visited Jacolia the morning of her murder, and Higgins had agreed to have Kevin clean his apartment and even given him money for supplies the night before his death.

He Took Over the Apartment

Dianne knew she had actual proof of Kevin’s guilt, so instead, she tried to get him evicted from the building on the grounds that with Leon gone, Kevin had no right to the apartment. He wasn’t listed on Leon’s lease and hadn’t been accepted to the complex because of his criminal record.

A photo of a door to one of the victims’ apartments.
Source: ABC7 News

When the month was up, the management requested that Kevin relinquish his keys, but he never did, and they didn’t come to evict him, so he took over. Under usual circumstances, this couldn’t have happened.

A Menacing Look

Due to the pandemic, NYC had implemented an eviction moratorium. Since Kevin claimed he had nowhere to go and would end up on the street, he was allowed to stay. Dianne became scared that Kevin would target her next for trying to evict him.

A headshot of Kevin.
Source: YouTube

She claimed that Gavin blocked her way out of the elevator one day and stared at her with a menacing look while brandishing his icepick in her face. Luckily, Dianne had been with someone else, so he quickly fled. She was the one who got away.

A Feisty Lady

Unfortunately, the murders at Woodson Houses weren’t over yet. Not even a pandemic could stop them. On January 15th, 2021, Juanita Caballero, a seventy-eight-year-old mother of three, was found by her son Steven, motionless on her hallway floor.

A portrait of Juanita Caballero.
Source: Pinterest

Juanita had been a feisty lady, nicknamed Jenny by her neighbors and sometimes called Lucy because of her side hustle, selling cigarettes around the senior center. Jenny liked to drink beer and walk around Coney Island, and she always greeted her sons at the door with a pat on the cheek.

Better to Wait for the Police

Steven was worried when she didn’t come to the door of apartment 6A, but he had a key, so he let himself in and was shocked to find Jenny sprawled on the ground. He called 911 and ran to his mother’s side, sure that she must have fallen and needed help.

Police vehicles are parked on the street.
Source: YouTube

Steven was about to start performing CPR on his mother when he saw that she had a telephone cord around her neck. Then understood that she had been strangled and thought it’d be better to wait for the police.

Connections with the Department

It was impossible to deny that foul play had caused Jenny’s death. She had clearly been choked to death. Furthermore, Caballero had connections with the local police, so the department was under extreme pressure to find her killer from the get-go.

A picture of Juanita Caballero.
Source: Pinterest

The fourth death finally caught the attention of the City Council, who understood that it wasn’t a coincidence. This was the work of a serial killer. Someone was targeting the residents of Woodson Houses, who were just innocent senior citizens who had once called the development their safe haven.

A Suspect Was Arrested

Now that the authorities were finally convinced that the mysterious deaths were murders, the killer was found in no time. On January 21st, 2021, less than a week after Jenny’s death, Kevin Gavin was arrested for her murder.

A headshot of Juanita Caballero.
Source: Pinterest

The police discovered footage of someone using Caballero’s debit card at the grocery store, and Kevin was identified in the video. Later that day, while being questioned at the precinct, he admitted to strangling poor Jenny with a phone cord. But that wasn’t all he admitted to.

Arguments About Money

After the police finished asking Gavin about Jenny, he said to them, “Do you want me to tell you about Myrtle?” Everyone in the interrogation room was shocked when Kevin went on and admitted to murdering Myrtle McKinney and Jacolia James, as well as Juanita Caballero.

A still from Kevin’s arrest.
Source: YouTube

Kevin explained that he had killed all three women because of arguments about money. It’s unclear whether Kevin was mad after not being paid for work he’d done or if they caught him stealing and he killed them to avoid being turned in.

Two Botched Investigations

The worst part was that Kevin had been a suspect from the very first murder. He had been detective Al Brust’s main person of interest in Myrtle’s death. If Myrtle’s investigation hadn’t been so botched and disregarded, Point could have been caught in 2015, and the other women would have been saved.

A photo of the neighborhood.
Source: Pinterest

Looking back, the police understood that they had made a mistake letting Gavin avoid questioning for so long. It was revealed that his DNA had been found on Jacolia James’s coat, but no one had investigated the matter.

The Senior Serial Killer

Despite his previous admittance, the senior serial killer, Kevin Gavin, has pled not guilty to all three murders of the older adults at Woodson Houses. Gavin wasn’t charged for the murder of Hector Higgins, to which he didn’t admit guilt, and no incriminating evidence against him was found.

A photo of one of the victims.
Source: Pinterest

At present, the sixty-six-year-old killer faces a life sentence without parole for his crimes. And his neighbors back at Woodson are still appalled that the murderer had been amongst them all along. Many of them felt they could’ve been the ones murdered.

Feeling Safe Again

It has been an uphill battle for the rattled residents of the building complex to feel safe again. They still cannot believe that a serial murderer walked among them for years, and despite their suspicions, they were neglected by the authorities set in place to protect them.

An exterior shot of the Woodson housing.
Source: YouTube

Both Jenny Caballero’s and Jacolia James’s families are in the process of suing the NYCHA for millions of dollars for failing to protect their vulnerable grandmothers. As for the CCTV system, it’s currently being installed and should start working in a few months.