Posted in

A year later, a passenger from the F train where Jordan Neely died is still staggering

A year after Johnny Grima witnessed Jordan Neely’s body on the floor of an uptown F train, he still feels guilty for running away.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do anything to save his life,” said Grima, who was formerly homeless and has been a longtime advocate for those living on the streets and in the shelters of New York City.

On that day exactly a year ago, Grima didn’t know who Neely was. When the train stopped at the Broadway-Lafayette Street station, it was met with a commotion. Daniel Penny had Neely in a chokehold in another car on the train.

Neely, who was homeless and had a mental illness, came to symbolize different things to people in the city and country, according to his friends and family. On the one hand, his name became a rallying cry for better treatment of New York City’s homeless and mentally ill residents. On the other hand, advocates for more police and public order celebrated the man who kept him in a stranglehold. The case eventually led to protests that led to arrests.

Grima joined the public outcry over Neely’s death, along with hundreds of New Yorkers, even as he was called to testify before the grand jury in Penny’s criminal case. He said police arrested him during a demonstration and the stress took its toll. He started taking antidepressants for the first time in his life.

“It really excited me,” Grima said this week during an interview at the Broadway-Lafayette Street station, where he witnessed the moment of Neely’s death on May 1, 2023. “It really frustrated me for a moment.”

Neely was a famous Michael Jackson impersonator who danced on subways and platforms throughout the city. Police said he was arrested several times in the years before his death. Neely’s loved ones said his mental health gradually deteriorated after his mother was strangled at age 14, according to news reports.

Many details about what happened on the subway in the moments before Neely died are still unknown to the public. But the few witness statements that have emerged describe him boarding the train on the Lower East Side, throwing his coat on the ground, complaining that he was hungry and saying he was prepared to die or go to jail. Then, according to prosecutors, Penny approached Neely from behind, put him in a chokehold and pushed him to the ground.

The city medical examiner’s office ruled Neely died of neck compression after Penny, a former Marine, wrapped his arm around Neely’s neck for about six minutes, court records state. Attorneys for Neely’s family and Penny did not respond to requests for comment.

Grima said he checked on homeless people the morning of May 1, 2023, and headed to his supportive housing apartment in the Bronx that afternoon. He was transporting a small TV that a friend had given him and was mostly focused on getting home.

“If I could travel back in time, in a time machine, and be on the platform at the same arrival time now as last year, I would get into the train car and lie and say I am a doctor,” he said.

Grima is not a medical professional, but he said he has taken CPR classes in the past. “I remember enough of trying to bring the man back to life,” he said.

Video from the day of Neely’s death shows Grima entering the subway and telling Penny to put Neely on his side. The images show him walking back onto the platform a few seconds later. “I was intimidated by the man,” he told Gothamist.

Now Grima is preparing for Penny’s criminal trial, scheduled for October. He said he is willing to testify if prosecutors call him as a witness and hopes Penny will be convicted and receive the maximum sentence. Penny has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and negligent homicide charges.

As someone who has experienced homelessness on and off since childhood, Grima said he sees Neely’s fate as symptomatic of a much larger inability to care for New Yorkers’ most vulnerable. He said the protests over Neely’s death have brought some attention to the systemic problems that contributed to it — but only temporarily.

The city has deployed mental health workers in the city’s subways, and advocates continue to push lawmakers to pass state legislation that would make homeless people a protected class so crimes against them could be prosecuted as hate crimes. But Grima said the city still needs more mental health and substance abuse treatment, more affordable housing and better protections for people with nowhere to live. The migrant crisis has only exacerbated the shortage of support, he said.

“Someone like Jordan Neely didn’t have a chance,” he said.