Stabbing Murder in Prospect Park

Brooklyn man, 61, found dead in gay cruising area on Saturday

The body of a 61-year-old Brooklyn man, who had been stabbed to death in the chest, was found late in the afternoon on Saturday, April 22, amidst heavy rains in the Vale of Cashmere section of Prospect Park.

The Vale, a heavily wooded, hilly area adjacent to Flatbush Avenue running from the park’s Grand Army Plaza entrance to the zoo, has for years been a popular gay cruising area, especially among young African-American men.

Shortly after 4:30 on Saturday, a bird watcher came upon the body of William Oliver and called out to another passerby to help him check whether the man could be roused, according to a police department spokesman. Determining that Oliver was likely dead, the bird watcher called 911 on his cell phone. When police arrived, Oliver was pronounced dead.

According to a report in The New York Times, Oliver had recently worked as an itinerant housecleaner for wealthy Manhattan residents, and, not having an apartment of his own, had alternately stayed with his brother, Wilson Oliver, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and his sister, Shirley Puryear, in Flatbush. The Times noted that the deceased man was a famous long-distance walker and that Prospect Park was along the three-and-a-half mile route between his two siblings’ homes.

Sources have confirmed to Gay City News something else first reported in The Times, that Puryear and Wilson Oliver told police that they did not know whether their brother was gay. Though he was always at the ready to help his siblings out with repairs and improvements in their homes, Oliver kept to himself about his private life.

The police spokesman said that the investigation into Oliver’s death was being led by detectives in the 78th Precinct, with the assistance of Brooklyn South Homicide.

“Hate Crimes is following the investigation,” the spokesman said, referring to the police department unit that is weighing evidence that the murderer may have been motivated by anti-gay bias, whether or not Oliver himself was gay. “We don’t know if that’s a factor. We’ll see if that develops.”

The police said they have conducted at least two sets of interviews with the bird watcher and the other passerby and are continuing to canvass other park users about whether they saw anything Saturday or at any other time that could shed light on the murder.

This weekend’s crime was not the first time the Vale of Cashmere has attracted law enforcement attention.

Last fall, police investigated a shooting there that wounded two men. More famously, in 2000, there was a string of knife slashings of gay men that were dubbed the “ninja attacks” for the dress of the attacker. Police emphasized that there is “absolutely no evidence” to tie those crimes—which resulted in injuries, some of them serious, for five men—with this past weekend’s murder. The ninja attacks happened between midnight and 4 a.m. on weeknights—rather than on a weekend afternoon—and the outcome of the knife slashings were disfiguring scars, of the face, legs, and back, rather than deep wounds as in Saturday’s stabbing.

According to Clarence Patton, the executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, his group has not received any recent reports of serious violence, threats, or suspicious individuals in Prospect Park, and in a flyer the group is circulating in and near the park it states, “There are no indications that Mr. Oliver’s murder was anything other than an isolated incident.”

Even as they are sometimes the targets of criminals, gay men in the Vale of Cashmere are also on occasion the subjects of law enforcement efforts themselves. Patton confirmed what is commonly known in gay circles in Park Slope and other surrounding neighborhoods—that police periodically sweep the area, on bikes and in squad cars, to discourage men from engaging in public sex in the tucked-away corners of the Vale. The AVP flyer alerts park-goers not only to be on their guard against possible attack—warning against going there intoxicated or high and advising that well-lit areas are the safest—but also that there will be added police presence in the Vale as the Oliver murder investigation proceeds.

The flyer, in particular, makes note of one trend that has been ongoing since the last years of the Giuliani administration—the strict enforcement of the park’s 1 a.m. closing time.

“If you are found in the park after the 1 a.m. curfew, you may be handcuffed, taken to the precinct, questioned, put through the system to determine whether you have a prior record (fingerprinted, rap sheet run), and at the very least, issued a summons for trespassing in the park,” the flyer reads.

Anyone with any information that could be relevant to the Oliver murder investigation is urged to call AVP’s bilingual, 24-hour hotline at 212-714-1141, Detective DeJesus at the 78th Precinct at 718-636-6485, or Crime Stoppers at 800-577-TIPS.

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