Wednesday night, police were still trying to unravel why a woman tried to club a neighbor to death with a hammer in a prominent Greenwich Village apartment building.
The victim and the perpetrator, who are at least acquaintances, and possibly friends, are both lesbians. Adding to peoples’ disbelief and shock at the crime, both are in their 60s.
The victim, Miriam Sarzin, 67, a freelance copyeditor, is treasurer of the Jane St. Association, a block association.
The assailant, Barbara Zellman, 62, is a psychotherapist and former public school teacher.
On the morning of April 14, Zellman, who lives on the fourth floor of 61 Jane St., went up to the apartment of Sarzin on the 19th floor. Det. Mike Singer, Sixth Precinct community affairs officer, said, according to the preliminary investigation, the reason for the visit was to discuss plans for an upcoming birthday for a mutual friend. Police said Zellman brought the hammer and a bottle of vodka with her in a plastic bag.
Zellman could well have beaten Sarzin to death, if not for the help of a neighbor and two of the building’s staff.
Jane Klein, 33, who lives next door to Sarzin — whom she said rarely has visitors —heard Zellman attacking Sarzin through the wall.
“I heard Miriam moaning and saying, ‘Get off me,’ ‘Please stop,’ ‘Help,’ ‘Why are you doing this to me?’” Klein said.
Klein called down to the lobby at 9:12 a.m. and within five minutes Robert Clark, the night doorman who was just getting off his shift, and handyman Frank Steakin came up.
Standing outside the door they could hear the attack inside, which was happening in the living room of the one-bedroom apartment.
“When we tried to get in the apartment, [Zellman] said, ‘We’re having a fight, go away,’ ” Klein said. “Miriam said, ‘Please don’t go away.’”
“We heard the lady scream, ‘She’s beating me!’ ‘She’s beating me!’ ” Clark recalled. “We said, ‘Who’s in there with you?’ She said, ‘It’s Barbara Zellman!’ It sounded like she was being hit.”
Clark stayed at the front door while Klein told Steakin to go through her apartment to a narrow terrace she shares with Sarzin’s apartment behind their living rooms.
At this point — Klein and Clark think it was because Zellman heard them say they were going around to the terrace — Zellman went out the bedroom window, possibly first hanging from the sill, before dropping two stories down to a 17th-floor balcony.
Zellman lay motionless on her back as Les Dickert, that apartment’s tenant, called police on his cell phone and tried to offer assistance.
“If she had jumped out the living room window, she would have been on Hudson St.,” noted John Herrera, the building’s superintendent.
Covered with blood, Sarzin — who was already recovering from knee surgery and had recently started using a cane––managed to drag herself 20 feet to the front door and opened it.
“Not an inch of her wasn’t bloody,” said Clark. “She looked like she’d been hit ten times in the skull — maybe with the sharp part of the hammer. The hammer was there on the table on top of a newspaper.”
Klein and Clark said they saw blood splattered everywhere, a broken cane, and a broken bottle.
Both women were removed to St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sarzin with numerous contusions to the head and face and Zellman with injuries to her arms, shoulders, and ribs, and a broken collarbone.
Singer said Zellman was charged with first-degree assault. The district attorney could change the charge, if, for example, Zellman is found to be mentally ill. A detective at the Sixth Precinct said Zellman will undergo a psychological evaluation.
Klein said that when she visited Sarzin at the hospital, Sarzin told her that during the attack Zellman had told her, “I’m going to kill you.”
Klein said, according to a doctor, despite Sarzin’s having suffered multiple skull fractures, an MRI and CAT scan showed no permanent damage. Klein said Sarzin actually seemed to be holding up pretty well considering the ordeal.
It’s not the first time tragedy has struck the 19th floor of the 20-story, 261-apartment, red-brick building. In October, novelist Pat Mullen, author of “The Stone Movers,” despondent over her ongoing battle with bone cancer, jumped to her death onto Horatio St.
Mullen, who was also lesbian, had reportedly never gotten over the death six years earlier of her partner and roommate, who was killed when she was on her bike and hit by a turning truck at the corner of West 12th Street.
Sarzin and Mullen were friends — they regularly ate breakfast at the nearby Bus Stop Café — and one theory mentioned by several people is that Zellman blamed Sarzin for somehow causing Mullen’s death.
“From hearsay, these two women were upset at the death of a close friend [Mullen],” said Herrera, the superintendent.
Another theory is that Zellman, who has MS, had an adverse reaction to her medication.
However, Mort La Brecque, a friend of Zellman’s in the building, said he knew nothing about her having had hard feelings with Sarzin over Mullen’s death and that he didn’t know Zellman to have even been that close to Mullen. La Brecque said Zellman has had MS for some time and that she takes Elan, a medication from a company in Ireland. But he wasn’t aware of any side effects from the medication that could have caused her to snap.
“She has a very short fuse,” he said. “She can explode easily — more easily than normal people could. I know she has a bad temper —at the same time, I’ve never heard of her being violent with people.”
La Brecque said Zellman also traded antique watches on e-Bay.
Some noted that Sarzin can be curmudgeonly, as well.
“Miriam gets on people’s nerves a bit,” said Klein. “Certainly, she didn’t deserve this. I don’t know how it escalated to this.”
Said doorman Clark, “They’re both very testy, tough, macho, so I guess it could easily go on to the next level. If they didn’t like something, they’d let you know it, Miriam especially.”
He said Sarzin was a stickler about quality of life issues and would scold stores to take in their benches, so they wouldn’t be used by prostitutes at night.
Ray Black, the building’s garage attendant, said he noticed Zellman had been “acting strange” the past few weeks when coming in to get her car.
Jo Hamilton, former chairperson of the Jane St. Association, praised Sarzin’s community activism.
“I re-formed the Jane St. Association in 1997, and Miriam’s been treasurer ever since,” she said. “She’s a wonderful lady and has been so dedicated to this neighborhood. She’s always the voice of reason.”
Paula Federson, Sarzin’s former partner (the two are now close friends) is chair of the Jane St. Association. Zellman’s partner is Sandy Leaderman.
“It’s just a terrible tragedy,” said building resident Susan Brownmiller, author of “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape,” the seminal feminist text, who knows Sarzin. “I just sent her $40 for the Jane St. Fair.”