Family Clings to Hope in Decades-Old Unsolved Homicide
PARK SLOPE — On a recent Saturday morning, as brunch crowds thronged neighborhood restaurants, two women stood on the windy corner of President Street and Fourth Avenue and tied orange plastic flowers, rosary beads and a laminated photo of a handsome man captioned "forever in our hearts" to a street sign.
It took just a few minutes for Catherine McAvoy, 82, and her daughter Jo Ann McAvoy-Delahunt, 62, to make the homemade memorial.
They've had plenty of practice.
The ritual has been performed more times than they can remember, driving in from Staten Island every few months to return to their old neighborhood and revisit a snowy evening in 1976 when Thomas F. McAvoy, a 49-year-old father of two, was shot in the head and left to die on the sidewalk.
The killing has never been solved.
But nearly 40 years later, McAvoy's daughter, Jo Ann, and his wife, Catherine, maintain the memorial at the spot where he died as a mark of respect for the man they loved, and in the hope, however slim, that the case will be cracked.
"In the bottom of my heart I always think…a lot of people still live in the neighborhood," McAvoy-Delahunt said. "Maybe somebody will say, 'You know what, let me give this family closure. Let me tell me what I know.'"
Thomas F. McAvoy was found dead of a head wound about 5:20 p.m. during a ferocious snowstorm on March 9. At first it appeared he had slipped and fallen on the icy sidewalk, but an autopsy the next day revealed to his horrified family that he had been shot in the head at close range. No gun was found at the scene, and the blustery conditions made collecting evidence nearly impossible.
There weren't even footprints visible in the snow, the McAvoys said.
The shooting happened outside what's now the Brooklyn Lyceum, an event space that hosts theater productions and Zumba classes. The 1910 building was once a city-run public bath house, where Catherine McAvoy remembers taking a weekly shower as a girl growing up in Park Slope. By the 1970s, the building was abandoned, with blown out windows and unlocked entrances that made it an easy hangout for squatters and junkies.
Thomas McAvoy was walking past the building on his way to a night class in Manhattan. Both his wife and daughter had tried to convince him to skip class that night because of the bad weather. But he went, intending to take the R train at Union Street and Fourth Avenue.
To this day, Jo Ann McAvoy-Delahunt is haunted by what might have been.
"I always think...why did Dad have to go [to class]? What if he took a different route?" she said. "You always have these 'what ifs' in your mind. How did he meet someone at that precise moment? Your life can change in a second."
Park Slope in those days had plenty of crime — Catherine McAvoy even remembers people getting mugged on their way back from Mass at St. Francis Xavier on Sixth Avenue — but the McAvoys felt safe in their close-knit community of Italian and Irish families on Garfield Place. Thomas McAvoy liked to walk to his job at the post office, where he worked in the parcel post department and received several commendations for inventing more efficient ways to sort packages.
At home, he was known for his kind heart, Catherine McAvoy remembers.
"Everybody loved him," she said. "He didn't have a bad word for anybody."
She had married her husband when she was just 18, and he was 20, after he spotted her on a Seventh Avenue bus and vowed to meet her. They had two children, Jo Ann and her brother, Steven, who now lives in Florida. The couple liked to spend Saturday nights chatting for hours at a Seventh Avenue bar where they knew the bartender.
"My sister said, 'How could you just sit and talk and talk? I said, 'I get along with Tom,'" Catherine McAvoy remembered.
She made a point of visiting the spot where her husband was found the day after the homicide — there was still a patch of blood on the sidewalk, surrounded by scarlet snow.
"I said, I don't want to forget. I want to see where his blood was spilled. If I don't go and see, it won't be in my brain as deep," Catherine McAvoy said.
Jo Ann McAvoy-Delahunt, who intentionally kept her father's name when she got married, remembers him as the sort of dad who would take "all the kids in the neighborhood," not just her and her brother, on fishing expeditions in Prospect Park. Thomas McAvoy also liked chess, and loved entering contests to win small prizes, like a bonsai tree the family kept on a coffee table.
Detectives quizzed the family about whether McAvoy had any enemies (he didn't). They interviewed his co-workers and classmates from the night class to find out if he had been involved in any altercations (he hadn't been). They searched the abandoned bath house, but found nothing. If robbery was the motive, the thief would have been disappointed — McAvoy had at most $5 in his pocket, his daughter said.
After the crime, McAvoy-Delahunt called detectives regularly for updates, and always got the same response: we'll let you know. The family tried their own methods, papering the neighborhood with fliers offering a $5,000 reward.
After a while, police seemed to stop pursuing the case, McAvoy-Delahunt said.
"You see these TV shows now and the detective keeps close contact with the family," she said. "It was nothing like that. I'm sure [the detective] was busy with what he had to do, and he was getting new cases. Once a year passed, that was it. We never heard from them anymore."
NYPD detective Ralph Gorman told the New York Daily News in 2006 that the case was "tough."
"There was no gun, no suspects and no witnesses. Nothing," Gorman told the newspaper.
Gorman has since passed away, and the case has been assigned to another detective, an NYPD spokesman said Tuesday.
"It's still an active investigation," the spokesman said.
Nearly four decades later, McAvoy-Delahunt isn't ready to give up hope that the case will one day be solved. She was close to her father, who died three days before her 26th birthday. On the day of his wake, she received the birthday card he sent her; mailing it was probably one of the last things he did before he was killed, she believes.
McAvoy-Delahunt still thinks about her dad every day. She and her mom will be back around Christmas to freshen up their sidewalk memorial on President Street and Fourth Avenue yet again.
"We loved him so much, and we just don't want him to be a forgotten person," McAvoy-Delahunt said.