By Brynn Gingras, Laura Ly, Maria Santana and Ray Sanchez, CNN
After his mother was murdered in 2007, Jordan Neely eked out a living as a well-known Michael Jackson impersonator in Times Square and on New York’s subways.
But he apparently fell on hard times in recent years, according to a friend and a relative, finding himself living on the street and struggling with the trauma of losing his mother.
On Monday, after yelling at passengers on a New York subway train that he was hungry and thirsty and tired of having nothing, Neely was held in a chokehold by another rider and later died.
Manhattan prosecutors were conducting a “rigorous ongoing investigation” into the death of the 30-year-old man seen in a video being held in a chokehold and his arms restrained by another passenger.
Neely died Monday due to “compression of neck (chokehold),” a spokesperson for the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said. The manner of death was ruled a homicide, but that determination is not a ruling on intent or culpability, which is for the criminal justice system to consider, the spokesperson said.
“This is a solemn and serious matter that ended in the tragic loss of Jordan Neely’s life,” Manhattan District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Doug Cohen said in a statement. “As part of our rigorous ongoing investigation, we will review the Medical Examiner’s report, assess all available video and photo footage, identify and interview as many witnesses as possible, and obtain additional medical records.”
Witnesses told police Neely and another man were riding a northbound train Monday when the other man put Neely in a chokehold, causing him to lose consciousness, a law enforcement source said.
Neely’s comes as the city copes with rising homelessness and growing numbers of people with mental illness on the streets and subways. Friends, relatives and some local elected officials are demanding justice for Neely’s death.
Neely had been “acting erratically” before the incident but had not attacked anyone on the train prior to being put in the chokehold, a witness who recorded the encounter told CNN.
Juan Alberto Vazquez said he was riding the subway when he saw a man, later identified as Neely, enter the car just as the doors were closing. Neely immediately launched into an aggressive rant about being “fed up and hungry” and “tired of having nothing,” Vazquez said.
Vazquez quoted Neely as saying: “I don’t care if I die. I don’t care if I go to jail. I don’t have any food … I’m done.”
Neely then took off his coat and threw it on the floor and said he was ready to go to jail and get a life sentence, Vazquez said.
Many passengers became visibly uncomfortable and moved to other parts of the train car, but Vazquez told CNN it didn’t seem like Neely was armed or looking to attack anyone.
Another rider then approached Neely from behind and put him in a chokehold, Vazquez said.
Vazquez said Neely did not argue or have any interaction with the man who put him into a chokehold. He said he saw the man come up to Neely from behind and heard the sound when both men fell to the ground.
Two other passengers approached, with one seemingly trying to mediate, while the other seemed to be helping the man restrain Neely, Vazquez said, adding that he started recording the incident about three or four minutes after the chokehold began.
In the video, Neely and the other man are seen on the floor of a subway car with the man’s arm wrapped around Neely’s neck. Vazquez said the two men were on the floor for about seven minutes.
Vazquez told CNN that Neely did not try to attack anyone. He said he did not see Neely with a weapon, despite someone else being heard on his video claiming that Neely had a knife. He said he saw Neely’s frustration but not “any intent to attack any person.”
CNN has not been able to independently confirm what happened leading up to the incident and doesn’t know how long Neely was restrained or whether he was armed.
After a while, Vazquez noticed that Neely stopped talking and moving, he said.
NYPD officers responded to a subway station in downtown Manhattan just before 2:30 p.m. and found Neely unconscious. First aid was rendered and he was taken to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead later that afternoon, the law enforcement source and an NYPD spokesperson said.
Vazquez said he gave his video to police after learning Neely had died.
Neely was deeply impacted by his mother’s murder
Carolyn Neely set up a GoFundMe page for her nephew, describing him as “a very talented Black man who loves to dance.”
“Performance was his thing,” she wrote. “His mother is Christie Neely and she was murdered in April 2007. It’s been rough for him and all of us. We just want justice for him.”
Moses Harper, a friend and fellow Michael Jackson tribute performer, told CNN that Neely was greatly affected by the murder of his mother.
“He disclosed that she was murdered and her body was put in a suitcase,” Harper recalled Neely telling her. “It traumatized him. He was not expecting that, the brutal way she was taken. That had a big impact on him. The brutality behind that.”
Harper said she first met Neely in 2009 and once had an impromptu dance session with him in Times Square in front of tourists.
“He was very kind and had a sweet soul and personality,” said Harper, who also works in homeless/youth outreach.
Harper said she would run into him occasionally and see his performances on YouTube. She last saw him on the subway in 2016 and could tell Neely was homeless.
“I had never seen him like that before,” she said. “I can tell he was in the street. He was asking for money, for food and drink.”
Harper recalled that Neely’s face lit up when he looked at her but he kept walking, apparently ashamed to be seen in such a dire state. She got up and took Neely off the train at the next station.
“I hugged him and wrapped him up like he was my little brother. And I told him, ‘Don’t ever be ashamed,'” she said.
Neely walked with Harper to her building but refused to come up, she said. He told her about “his struggles and challenges” and she gave him her number.
It was cold that day, Harper said, and she gave him one of her favorite shirts. They exchanged “another big hug,” she recalled, and she “never saw him again.”
Fans of his performances have been contacting her and asking about him since reports of his death started to circulate.
“They’re just finding out and they’re crying. They don’t know what to think,” said Harper, adding that she wants accountability for his death.
“That’s someone’s child,” she said. “That’s someone’s friend.”
Neely’s father told the New York Daily News that his son’s mother had been murdered by her boyfriend.
“His moms died — she got killed too. And now him?! She got killed (by) her boyfriend. And now him? By somebody else?” Andre Zachery told the newspaper. “I don’t know what to say.”
In 2012, a New Jersey man was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the 2007 murder of Christie Neely in their home and “dumping her body in a suitcase in the Bronx,” according to the Jersey Journal.
Zachery told the Daily News he hadn’t seen his son for four years, and said Neely was “very good” at impersonating Michael Jackson.
“I sat him in front of the TV and showed him the Jackson 5 … He took on the Michael Jackson thing and he really formed it very well.”
Neely was homeless, according to a source familiar with his case. He had a history of encounters with the NYPD, a law enforcement source told CNN’s John Miller, including 42 arrests on charges including petit larceny, jumping subway turnstiles, theft, and three unprovoked assaults on women in the subway between 2019 and 2021.
The man who put Neely in the chokehold has been identified as a 24-year-old from Queens, a law enforcement source told CNN’s Brynn Gingras. He was interviewed by detectives and released, another law enforcement source told Miller, noting the man doesn’t have a criminal record.
He is a veteran who served in the US Marines, according to law enforcement and military records. He was a sergeant and served from 2017 to 2021, and his last duty assignment was at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, military records show.
“This investigation is being handled by senior, experienced prosecutors and we will provide an update when there is additional public information to share,” Cohen, the district attorney’s office spokesperson, said. “The Manhattan D.A.’s Office encourages anyone who witnessed or has information about this incident to call 212-335-9040.”
New York governor says Neely’s family ‘deserves justice’
Neely’s death comes more than a year after New York City Mayor Eric Adams launched an initiative to combat crime and address homelessness in the city’s subway system, including a plan to add more behavioral health emergency assistance teams.
When asked about Neely’s case and the issue of vigilantism during an interview on CNN Primetime Wednesday, Adams said, “Each situation is different. … We have so many cases where passengers assist other riders. We don’t know exactly what happened here until the investigation is thorough.”
Adams said officers were on the scene in six minutes. He referenced his time as a transit officer in New York and said he responded to many calls where passengers assisted others.
“We cannot just blanketedly say what a passenger should or should not do in a situation like that,” Adams said.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday said Neely’s family “deserves justice” and that there have to be consequences after his death.
“I do want to acknowledge how horrific it was to view a video of Jordan Neely being killed for being a passenger on the subway trains,” Hochul said at a news conference.
Hochul called the response of the passengers who held down Neely “very extreme” and said the video “was very disturbing to witness.”
New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams called for accountability in Neely’s death, saying in a statement, “Let’s be clear: any possible mental health challenges that Jordan may have been experiencing were no reason for his life to be taken.”
“My heart and condolences are with his loved ones during this difficult time,” the council speaker said. “His killing at the hands of a fellow passenger and the responses to this violence that took his life have been not only tragic but difficult to absorb.”
On Thursday, Adams defended his earlier statements about the death.
“I have a responsibility for this entire city and I have faith in the criminal justice system, and I’m going to let the process take its place. And those who believe I should do something differently, I respect that, but I have to make the right decision for the city of New York,” Adams said.
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CNN’s Sharif Paget, Elizabeth Hartfield, Artemis Moshtaghian and Kristina Sgueglia contributed to this report.