Written by Michael Wilson
It was the kind of random, vicious attack that chills the city, leaving neighbours and detectives alike struggling Friday to detect any hint of motive: the broad-daylight stabbing of a decorated paramedic by a stranger in the quiet Astoria neighbourhood in Queens.
Shopkeepers, residents, deli workers, mechanics — to a person, they all described the man arrested in the Thursday slaying, Peter Zisopoulos, 34, as an odd, quiet loner who shuffled up and down the block every day, ignoring passersby. Peculiar but, it seemed, harmless.
“We try to be friendly, but he always seemed very out of it,” said Brennan Rogan, 23, a manager nearby at Kate’s Corner Cafe. No one detected the potential for such violence. Police responded to a call to Zisopoulos’ home four years ago, and his mother told officers her son took medication for schizophrenia, a senior law enforcement official said.
By contrast, Lt. Alison Russo-Elling, the victim, had spent her working life enmeshed in the city, rescuing New Yorkers as a paramedic. At 61, she was a 24-year veteran of the New York City Emergency Medical Service, and early in her career, she responded to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Now, she was a warm and friendly mother and grandmother in Huntington on Long Island whose retirement was near.
“She loved being a paramedic,” Deputy Chief Gregg Brady said. “She was there for me when I was at my most vulnerable — she put her arm around me and said, ‘Everything is going to be OK.’ Unfortunately, I didn’t have that capability yesterday.”
Thursday’s attack bore the familiar hallmarks of other recent crimes in the city that have shocked and frightened residents — the January death of a woman shoved in front of a subway in Times Square, a mass shooting on an N train in April that left at least 23 people injured, an unprovoked killing on a Q train a month later.
“This deadly, senseless, broad-daylight attack on an EMT member is a direct assault on our society,” said Keechant Sewell, the New York City police commissioner.
“Our hearts are with her family, her fellow EMS members and with all New Yorkers who lost a truly amazing woman to a senseless act of violence,” Mayor Eric Adams said Thursday.
“This senseless, brutal attack against a dedicated public servant is horrific, infuriating and devastating,” state Attorney General Letitia James said.
Police said Zisopoulos did not have an arrest record. Officers responded to a call to his apartment in 2018 that led to Zisopoulos being taken to a hospital for observation after he sent a disturbing text to a friend, the senior law enforcement official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.
A surveillance video from the block Friday showed new details of the attack.
It depicts the lieutenant walking toward her station after lunch around 2:15 p.m., and pausing at the corner of 41st Street and 20th Avenue, when a husky man leaps at her from out of the frame. He knocks her down and, kneeling over her, stabs her more than 20 times in seconds.
A man on a motorbike notices and slows. The attacker runs toward him with the knife, but then circles back and walks calmly past the fallen victim without a glance, turning back to where he came from on 41st Street.
Russo-Elling does not move.
Peppy Oomraw, the owner of an auto repair shop up the block from the attack, watched as the man stabbed Russo-Elling.
“I saw her on the floor; I knew I couldn’t help her,” Oomraw said. “It did not look good.”
When the attacker fled, and then turned back toward the victim, Oomraw followed him to a squat apartment building on 41st Street.
“He ran into the building, and I went after him,” Oomraw said. “He ran upstairs.”
Witnesses flagged down police officers responding to calls for help and directed them to the apartment, where Zisopoulos lives with his parents and a sister. Zisopoulos barricaded himself, but after hostage negotiators arrived, he emerged and was arrested.
Russo-Elling was pronounced dead at Mount Sinai Queens, and Zisopoulos was charged with murder and criminal possession of a weapon.
On Friday afternoon, the lieutenant’s body was taken to the Office of Chief Medical Examiner. Her body was released and carried, draped in a flag, out a side door, flanked by colleagues and doctors and nurses from nearby hospitals. It was carefully loaded into an ambulance and driven slowly up First Avenue with a police escort, past hundreds of emergency responders standing in silent salute.
Near the place where she died, neighbors gathered as the familiar block with its deli and its auto garage remained blocked off as a crime scene, and they were asked about the man who was a fixture there, walking back and forth.
“He never had a specific destination — he would just walk,” Rogan from the deli said. “All hours of the day. All seasons. He was a loner, isolated.”
At the Queens County Courthouse, where Zisopoulos’ arraignment was scheduled, a couple of dozen Fire Department officers filled the courtroom Friday. Toward day’s end, they were told that the defendant had been taken to a hospital for evaluation, and the arraignment would be postponed.
“It could have been any one of us,” said Patrick Creeden, 52, an EMT with Station 32 in Brooklyn.