By Jon Schuppe
CHINATOWN — Massielle Abreu didn’t like to talk about her rocky marriage to a man she’d met as a teenager in the Dominican Republic. When things got really bad, she'd just show up unannounced at her mother's Chinatown apartment, three young children in tow, asking for a place to sleep.
Finally, Abreu, 29, found a place for herself and her kids in a Harlem housing project, her mother said. She seemed happy commuting downtown to work at an after-school program at PS 2, up the block from her mom's home.
That was in February. Three months later, in a May 27 confrontation outside her apartment in the St. Nicholas Houses, Abreu’s husband, Reynaldo Lebron, allegedly shot her as their children watched.
While Abreu lay dying in the hallway, Lebron allegedly turned to their 8-year-old daughter and said, "Shut up and close the door or I’ll kill you, too," according to a criminal complaint filed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
Abreu was Manhattan’s 29th murder victim of 2010. There have been eight more since then, bringing the total number of killings in the borough to 37, according to NYPD statistics through Aug. 8. That’s 15 percent more than the same period last year, an unusual uptick for a city accustomed to historic drops in violent crime.
Murders in Manhattan, and across New York City, remain far below the levels recorded 10 and 20 years ago. The NYPD’s chief spokesman, Paul Browne, pointed out that in 2009 citywide murders hit the lowest point since modern record keeping began in 1962.
"In a sense, we’re victims of our own success," he wrote in an e-mail.
The police department, which can react to subtle changes in crime patterns, has studied the recent murder jump and found most were shootings that occurred outside and after midnight. Earlier this summer, the department assigned more officers to areas where this violence was happening. That included several precincts in Harlem where gun violence has spiked.
In December, another 1,200 new officers will graduate from the police academy and will be available for such deployments.
The main point is to deter would-be killers with the sight of police on the street, Browne said.
To combat murders inside the home, the NYPD has a separate strategy that includes repeated, followup visits to the residences of domestic-violence victims where the abusive partner still lives, Browne said.
About 19 percent of this year's Manhattan murders occurred in homes, typically involving disputes between relatives and friends, according to DNAinfo's review of the 37 cases. That included the killing of Massielle Abreu.
Her death was the final act of a long, tumultuous relationship with her husband that began soon after they got married and started having children, according to the victim’s mother, Maria Abreu. Years before, Massielle Abreu had gotten a court order preventing Lebron from seeing her. He seemed to back off, and after a while, she felt comfortable enough to leave her mother’s apartment and move uptown.
In hindsight, Maria Abreu sees signs that her daughter had begun fearing for her safety again. She seemed nervous. She didn’t invite her mother to her new apartment. Maria Abreu wonders if she had started seeing Lebron again.
On the night of her death, Massielle had called police to report that Lebron, 34, had violated a restraining order against him, police sources said at the time. He was arrested soon after the killing and charged with murder, weapons possession and endangering the welfare of the children.
Maria Abreu wishes she had done more to save her daughter.
“I was so blind,” Maria Abreu, 60, said, bottles of heart medication and a half-empty box of tissues spread out on her coffee table. A stack of family photos lay nearby, but she couldn’t bear to look at them.
Adding to the grief, Maria Abreu said she is fighting her 38-year-old son for custody of Massielle Abreu’s three children — the 8-year-old daughter and two sons, 4 and 6. For the time being, they are living with their uncle, with supervision by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, Maria Abreu said.
The mother hopes her experience can serve as a lesson for other young parents to arrange for the care of their children in case they die.
“This shows how important it is to have documents showing your wishes for what happens to your children,” Marie Abreu said.
She added, “I did my best for them. Now, I suffer.”