Woman is Burned Alive in an Elevator in Brooklyn

NY Times - December 18, 2011

by SARAH MASLIN NIR and AL BAKER

The surveillance video, its images disturbingly clear, ends with a woman being burned alive in the elevator of a Brooklyn apartment building on Saturday.

But in the beginning, it seemed routine: a man dressed as an exterminator, wearing gloves, with a protective mask perched atop his head and carrying a container on his back, takes the elevator to the fifth floor.

Sometime later, an older woman carrying groceries took the same ride to the fifth floor.

Two cameras recording from different positions, one inside the small tiled elevator and another in a hallway, show the doors open and the man with the container approach. The man, who appeared to be in his 40s, first sprays the woman in the face, then douses her methodically from head to toe with what a city official said was an accelerant as she turned and cowered, raising her hands, the grocery bags hanging from her wrists.

Having cornered the woman in the elevator, the man struggles to light a barbecue lighter. He then ignites a Molotov cocktail -- a wine or Champagne bottle filled with accelerant with a rag stuffed in its neck. He retreats and comes back again, spraying more liquid on his victim. And suddenly the silent video goes white with a conflagration in the small space: the woman, on fire.

Investigators are poring over the footage, a disturbing silent film capturing what is perhaps a singular act of violence: a woman being burned to death.

The crime took place Saturday afternoon at 203 Underhill Avenue in Prospect Heights. Detectives and fire marshals were reviewing the footage and interviewing neighbors.

The police identified the victim as Doris Gillespie, 64, and pronounced her dead at the scene. One neighbor said that Ms. Gillespie was a postal worker.

As of early Sunday morning, there had been no arrests, but investigators were already following a major lead: the man appeared to have been burned on his face and hands. Investigators immediately began looking for him at local hospitals.

The Police Department released photographs of the suspect, taken from the video, late Saturday night.

Firefighters and the police arrived about 4 p.m. after callers to 911 reported fire and smoke in the building, unaware of what had happened in the elevator.

A resident of the fifth floor, John, 29, who would not give his last name, said he had heard screaming and saw smoke coming from the elevator. "I thought it was kids because the screaming was high-pitched," he said. "I looked out the door and saw smoke coming out of the elevator."

Residents were evacuated from the building after the fire. Hours later, some, like Maria Daley, wept while sitting on a city bus that had been provided for the displaced tenants. "She was my friend," Ms. Daley said. "I just spoke to her yesterday."

Another neighbor, Heidi Matthews, 46, said Ms. Gillespie had given her a plant on Mother's Day. "It's hard to believe somebody would do that to her," she said.

"We all loved her," Ms. Matthews said. "She was a part of this neighborhood for years."

Tim Stelloh contributed reporting.