By the time Rigoberto Lopez boarded an A train on a recent Friday, he was years into a downward spiral. He had hit his father. He had punched a police officer. He had been caught with cocaine that the police said he intended to sell.
In each instance he was arrested, and his family tried unsuccessfully to help him.
“He was unraveling,” his brother, William Astwood, said. Mental health problems that surfaced when he was a teenager had worsened with drug addiction, Mr. Astwood said.
But Mr. Astwood had not expected what the New York Police Department said happened next: Mr. Lopez went on a deadly rampage in the cars and stations along the A subway line. Starting the morning of Feb. 12, he plunged the same knife into four victims, killing two, the police said.
The horrific streak of violence reflected a convergence of intertwined crises — homelessness and mental illness — that the pandemic has exacerbated and made more difficult to address. Mr. Lopez, 21, and all his victims were homeless, and one victim had recently been hospitalized in a psychiatric ward.
For years, homeless shelters and Rikers Island have served as de facto mental health hospitals. But many people are wary of living in shelters, and a new bail law has meant that people who might have once been held behind bars are being released. The pandemic has complicated efforts to provide follow-up treatment and housing to homeless people and people who have been released from jail, since social service providers have dramatically scaled back in-person contact and police outreach teams have been disbanded.
Winston Alexander Roberts, whose daughter, Claudine Roberts, was killed, wonders if she would be alive had she been in a shelter. “She didn’t have to be sleeping on the trains and die the way she did,” he said.
The stabbing spree and the daylong manhunt for Mr. Lopez intensified the unsettling perception that the subway, emptier in the pandemic, has become more dangerous. The police immediately boosted their presence in the subway system with almost 650 additional officers.
But activists and some public officials renewed calls that law enforcement should be supplemented, or altogether replaced, by social workers trained to help people who are homeless or have mental illness.
Mr. Lopez’s trajectory illustrates the city’s threadbare safety net for people with mental illness. He moved to New York from the Dominican Republic as an adolescent. As he got older, he became what the family believed was a typically rebellious teenager until he turned increasingly aggressive.
By the time he was 19, Mr. Lopez was essentially homeless, staying temporarily with different relatives. Officers took him to an intake center for people entering the shelters in May 2019, the police said.
Within months, according to the police, he had a string of arrests: When his father refused to give him money, he hit him in the knee with a wooden stick. Days later, he showed up at his father’s job threatening him with a stick.
Little more than a month later, when the police were handcuffing him in November 2019, he punched one of the officers in the face, the police said. That time, a judge ordered him held on bail, which his worried father paid in March 2020.
Mr. Lopez was arrested again in October by officers who said they found 48 glassine envelopes of cocaine on him that he planned to sell. At arraignment, a judge ordered Mr. Lopez released under one of the most intensive levels of supervision.
Mr. Astwood said his brother had received a diagnosis of mental illness when the police brought him to the hospital during his series of arrests.
“From the first time he was arrested, he should have received help,” Mr. Astwood said. “He stayed at a hospital two or three days at a time and they let him go each time.”
The city’s jails have taken on a primary role in providing mental health services over the last few decades as incarceration rose and the number of hospital psychiatric beds shrank. Last year, about half the daily inmate population in the city’s jails required mental health services, according to a spokeswoman for the city hospitals’ correctional services.
Social service experts said well over half of single adults in shelters have some kind of undiagnosed mental health problem, and that estimate rises among people staying on streets and subways. To address their needs, the city deploys licensed clinicians and psychiatrists, but they can intervene only if homeless people agree or are in a life-threatening situation.
Even then, the care they receive often focuses on the immediate crisis and ignores the underlying mental health issues that led to the emergency or can cause another incident.
“A lot of people in our shelter facilities, especially people who are resistant to services, don’t receive the appropriate care and then can become a risk to themselves or others,” said Scott Auwarter, assistant executive director at BronxWorks, a social services agency. “People like this fall through the cracks all the time, every day.”
Shortly after the stabbings, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Mr. Lopez showed no troubling mental health issues after he entered the shelter system in 2019 up until the day of the attacks.
But Mr. Lopez skipped his court dates and had missed more than a dozen mandatory check-ins since October. CASES, a nonprofit that was responsible for supervising him, reported his noncompliance to the court three times.
The judge handling the case could not set bail or send him back to jail because the offense did not qualify under the state’s year-old bail reform law, said Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration. The law eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and some nonviolent felony offenses.
Eventually, he wound up in the subway. In 2020, police responded to nearly 6,000 911 calls requesting officers’ help with people having a mental or emotional crisis on the subway.
“There is clearly a mental health crisis playing out on the streets of New York, and it is absolutely playing out underground as well,” Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit, said in an interview.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo suggested at a news conference on Friday that state lawmakers should revisit Kendra’s Law, which allows courts to compel those arrested to undergo psychiatric treatment when they are believed to be dangerous. He said “a homeless person” recently had hit a woman on his staff with a brick.
“We do no one a favor leaving them on the street if they’re a danger to themselves or others,” Mr. Cuomo said. “That’s not compassion.”
In Mr. Lopez’s case, people who were living on the street and staying on the subway were left in the path of his rage.
His first victim, a 67-year-old man, was sitting on his walker on the subway platform at the 181st Street stop in Washington Heights in the late morning on Feb. 12, police said.
He was stabbed in the knees and buttocks and survived, recalling that his attacker had yelled, “I’m going to kill you,” police said.
Twelve hours later, police found Dwayne Dixon, an addict for much of his life who was approaching his 58th birthday. Stabbed in his neck and torso, he was pronounced dead on the bench where he sat in the Mott Avenue-Far Rockaway station in Queens. Then, Ms. Roberts, 44, who had severe mental illness, was found dead by a transit worker on a train at 207th Street in Inwood.
Minutes later, police responded to a 43-year-old man who had dragged himself to a bank, where he collapsed and was found by a security guard. The man, who survived, told police he was stabbed while he was sleeping in a stairwell at the 181st Street station.
Police found Mr. Lopez on West 186th Street carrying a bloody knife and wearing crimson-stained white shoes.
He later admitted to the crimes, the police said, and he was charged with murder and attempted murder. The Neighborhood Defender Service, which is representing him, did not comment on his case directly, but Alice Fontier, managing director, cautioned against drawing quick conclusions.
People who stay in the subway were shaken, and Mr. Roberts grieved in his living room decorated with dozens of family photos celebrating graduations, reunions and other milestones.
He has just one photo of Ms. Roberts, his youngest child. He keeps it in a white envelope and pulls it out only when asked about her. “I can’t keep looking at it,” Mr. Roberts said, placing it on his lap.
His daughter spent years in and out of shelters. Her illness prevented her from caring for her son, now a teenager being raised by an older sister in Indiana, he said.
Some days Ms. Roberts called from a shelter. Other times the police would call him to say she had been found sleeping in a terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
She had spent several weeks from December to early January at Bellevue Hospital under psychiatric care. Discharged, she stopped by her father’s home two days before the subway rampage and said to him, “I love you, Daddy” in her soft-spoken voice, he said.
“I told her, ‘Stay. You don’t have to leave,’” Mr. Roberts recalled. “‘This is your house.’”
He briefly went into another room. When he returned, she was gone.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.