The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail
In the dark of an early December morning, two weary travelers shuffled through the multicultural scrum of Kennedy Airport. One was a tall, reedy man named Song Hai; the other, a slight, older woman named Shi Yumei, whose protracted weeping on the long flight from Beijing had concerned an attendant.
Song Yang’s mother and brother had traveled 7,000 miles to better understand the how and the why of her death.
A telephone call from her husband several nights earlier had disrupted everything. Song Yang is dead, he had said. Police say she jumped from a building.
Her distraught parents had telephoned their other child, Song Hai, to deliver words so heavy that he dropped his smartphone, cracking its glass. Not accepting what he heard, he sent a WeChat message to his sister that depicted a pair of clinking coffee mugs, along with a gentle request to please call home.
The lack of an answer was the answer.
The mother and brother spent their first two weeks in Flushing tending to the affairs of death. Then, on a dismal day of late December rain, they made their way to the Chun Fook funeral home, a few blocks from 40th Road. Though some had recommended a modest ceremony, the family had insisted on a more elaborate service, in a spacious room with a chandelier.
The dark wood coffin sat at the front before rows of chairs that would remain empty. No women from 40th Road. No Lao Li. A pair of vertical scrolls with parallel aphorisms written in Chinese calligraphy — “Put Down Your Burdens and Return to the Lord” and “Take Up Tranquillity and Celebrate Everlasting Life” — hung on either side.
One minister delivered prayers in English, while another repeated those prayers in Mandarin. The few mourners included Song Yang’s close friend Paul Hayes; the community advocate Michael Chu; Chen Mingli, the lawyer who had tried to help her seek permanent residency; her husband, Chau Chuong, now 78, who had come from California, where he had been living for his health; and her mother and brother, their heads bowed and hands folded.
The ceremony ended with the reading from the Book of Common Prayer that we are all from dust, and to dust we shall return. Alleluia, the mourners mumbled. Alleluia.
Then it was a short drive along the Grand Central Parkway to the All Souls Chapel and Crematory at St. Michael’s Cemetery. This is where Song Yang’s battered body was returned to dust, and where, in his frustration and grief, her brother vowed justice and punched a wall.
The official explanation for his only sibling’s death made no sense to Mr. Song. After all, she had already paid for her flight home to celebrate their mother’s upcoming birthday and to meet, for the first time, his 5-year-old son. Suicide was not possible, he reasoned. Darker forces might be at play. He had already begun his own investigation.
One snowy night soon after arriving from China, Mr. Song appeared at his sister’s 40th Road building with Mr. Hayes. Their plan was to break into her apartment, collect her belongings — and, if possible, retrieve any surveillance video.
Mr. Song, a learning specialist by trade, and Mr. Hayes, a computer consultant, crept up the 50 tiled steps to the fourth-floor door, which was secured with a locked chain. Fearing the noise of the hammer and small acetylene torch they had planned to use, Mr. Hayes hustled to a Home Depot a mile away and returned with a hacksaw.
After a few minutes of sawing, the chain gave way, and the two men pushed open the dull-gray door to enter the setting of a life interrupted. The police had taken the surveillance equipment, but everything else made it seem as if Song Yang might return at any minute.
In the two bedrooms, rumpled sheets. In the kitchen, a Pepsi and a half-empty bottle of Bacardi, sliced carrots and apples, and the black chair that Mr. Song recognized as the one his sister sat in while video-chatting with her family. In the living room, a raised table with a red curtained skirt, on which sat a CD player, a pair of sunglasses and a lucky cat figurine. Placed neatly on the floor, a pair of pink shoes.
On the snow-dusted front balcony, a broom, an upside-down bucket, a stool, a few plastic bags containing fruit and eggs. And, just beyond, the beckoning lights and shadows of the street below.
Song Hai returned often to 40th Road, a spectral presence in his dark hooded coat and black cap, a cigarette cupped in his hand. He cajoled and confronted the sidewalk’s denizens, asking questions, taking photographs, recording conversations. He saw himself as a lone-wolf investigator, working to prove that corrupt officers of this strange city had thrown Song Yang over the railing.
His ever-evolving theory:
That his sister had been sexually assaulted by a police officer. That she had filed a complaint. That the subsequent police lineup was fixed to protect the assailant. Then it was payback, which explained why, of all the women along 40th Road, only Song Yang was arrested in September, and was about to be arrested again in late November.
As is standard when a death occurs during a police action, the Queens district attorney and the police department’s Force Investigation Division were investigating. But Mr. Song was already beginning to believe that nearly every corner of the American criminal justice system — from the police to the medical examiner — was colluding to hide the truth.
He patrolled downtown Flushing. He interrogated women and shopkeepers. He plastered the streets with leaflets featuring photographs of his sister and promising a “Big Reward!” The plea appeared in Chinese and in fractured English:
Hello! When you saw the photo, SiSi (Song Yang) was no longer alive. She fell from and died on 11/25/2017 at 135-32 4FL in Flushing. Families as well as the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau are eager to find out the truth of her death. If you have ANY CLUES, please contact me ASAP. Absolutely Confidential … (Her brother Song Hai)
The dozens of responses yielded little. One man called to say that Song Hai’s sister was a whore — a word he did not quite understand, and so he continued the conversation: Yes, yes. And do you have information?
His sleuthing occasionally paid off. One evening, amid the Main Street crush, Mr. Song spotted a man he recognized from his sister’s WeChat photographs: short, solidly built, and with a distinctive, block-shaped head.
Excited, Mr. Song crossed the street and, right at the Roosevelt Avenue intersection, near the subway entrance, grabbed the man by the arm. Mr. Song recalled what happened next:
Are you Li? he asked.
You’re mistaken, replied the startled Lao Li, the boss who controlled Song Yang’s apartment. My name is not Li.
Mr. Song waved down a passing police car, as a crowd gathered and the agitated man in his grip implored him not to involve the authorities. Let’s resolve this ourselves.
The two officers understood Mr. Song’s intentions, he later recalled, but they explained that this was America, not China, and that he was unlawfully detaining a man who wasn’t present when his sister’s fall took place. They separated the men, and Lao Li floated away in the rush-hour stream.
Later that evening, an angry Lao Li telephoned Mr. Song. In the conversation that Mr. Song duly recorded on his phone, Lao Li vented about the audacity of summoning the police — “If you don’t have evidence, how could you say I’m the boss?” — before giving his version of the realities on 40th Road.
He said that he rented the apartment to Song Yang for $3,100 a month — hardly the $12,000 that was rumored on the street. “She and I really didn’t have any employment relationship,” he said. “Just that at the start of the month, I would take the rent.”
Lao Li said she called him her “boss” so that others wouldn’t bully her, but he insisted that she was her own boss: prone to arrest, sure, but also smart, tenacious and tough.
Throughout the conversation, Lao Li characteristically remained at a distance — even when describing that fateful night. He rushed to 40th Road after receiving a call that “SiSi had jumped from the building,” he said, but by the time he got there, “your sister had already been taken away.”
As Mr. Song conducted his frustrating investigation, his mother spent her days in the numbing cocoon of grief. Once so proud of her entrepreneurial children, Shi Yumei was now a sorrowful woman in a foreign world, gingerly navigating a small cart down crowded Main Street, her pale gray knit cap pulled low, her mind occupied with worry. How, for example, would she and her son, here on temporary visas, survive on the little money they had brought with them?
An encounter with a bellowing street evangelist eventually led her to St. George’s, the old Episcopal church on Main Street whose steeple has long been a Flushing landmark. Its congregation embraced her, smothering her with food, clothing and compassion. Locking hands and forming a prayer circle one day, strangers asked God to grant peace to this new person among them, who felt so blessed that she began to volunteer at the church’s food pantry as a way of giving back.
One cool April morning, she donned an orange apron and joined 40 other volunteers, nearly all of them immigrants, as they prepared for the ritual that unfolds every Wednesday along the old church’s north side, opposite a Lucille Roberts fitness center. They unloaded the crates from trucks, bagged the fruit and vegetables, and established an assembly line of food down the sidewalk: turnips and fennel, lettuce and apples, onions and melons.
The decade-old operation had gradually adapted to the ways of Flushing, with organizers taking note of the tensions caused by different understandings of personal space among ethnic groups. The solution: two alternating lines — one that was entirely Asian, and the other a mix of black, white and Latino.
On this morning, the Asian line ran alongside the church’s cemetery wall, and the other line stretched down to a firehouse. But things moved apace, thanks in large part to the high-spirited efficiency of the volunteers — including Shi Yumei, who smiled at her sense of belonging as she proffered bags of onions.
Each evening, after long days of volunteering and investigating, mother and son returned to a worn apartment catering to transients, not far from 40th Road. Some lodgers paid $20 a night for a narrow bed in the living room. But with some financial help from the church and a few nonprofit organizations, Mr. Song and Ms. Shi managed to pay $1,000 a month for a cramped bedroom and first dibs on a shared kitchen.
They slept beside a closet packed with clothes and accessories that Song Yang left behind. Tears were shed over a single strand of black hair found on a coat. They lived in the presence of her absence.
To find sleep, the mother would hold a small audio device close to her ear and listen to lively recorded stories about historical Chinese triumphs, cuddled beside one of her daughter’s plush teddy bears. This way, Ms. Shi said in Mandarin, “I know my daughter is here with me.”
Two feet away, her son would lie in his twin bed near the window, cigarettes on the nightstand, spent beer cans under the bed, another Long Island Rail Road train clattering in the distance. Here he would try to piece together the stray bits of his investigation.
He had found a grainy photograph from his sister’s WeChat feed of the stocky, bald man who had supposedly sexually assaulted her, and convinced himself that a bald police detective, appearing in cellphone videos taken on the sidewalk after his sister’s fall, was the same man.
He had also obtained photographs and forensic notes from the autopsy. Poring over the graphic images, he decided that the discoloration around his sister’s face came from a beating, and that her broken fingernails suggested some kind of struggle — and, therefore, a cover-up.
This was America. Not China. Exactly.
On a sunny spring day, those invested in the proceedings of the human trafficking court filed into the basement courtroom in Kew Gardens. Among them were Song Hai, in a black blazer and brown work boots, and Shi Yumei, her blue-and-orange scarf recalling the colors seen on the Staten Island Ferry, on Knicks uniforms, on Mets baseball caps — the colors of New York.
They took their seats among the defendants, including a woman in glasses often seen calling out to men on 40th Road. Mr. Song sat with his hands clasped and back erect; his mother was bent forward, as if in prayer. They waited.
他们坐在一群被告人当中，被告人里有个戴眼镜的女人，经常在40路上招徕男人。 宋海紧握双手挺直背坐着；他母亲向前躬着身，像在祈祷。 他们等待着。
An air of empathy defines the court, which is intended to encourage women engaged in the commercial sex trade to avail themselves of counseling and other diversionary programs. On most Fridays, the judge, the prosecutor and the defense lawyer are women, and the lanky head court officer is determined to make the defendants feel safe and respected. He does his best to dissuade any pimps or bosses from taking a seat.
这个法庭的特点是一种共情气息，它旨在鼓励从事性交易的女性充分利用辅导和其他司法之外的程序。 法庭大多在星期五开庭，法官、检察官和辩护律师都是女性，一位瘦长头型的法警一心想让被告人感到安全和受尊重。 他尽最大努力不让皮条客或老板入座。
Prominent in the dozen pews are Chinese women facing the usual massage-parlor-related charges of prostitution or unlicensed massage. Court-appointed lawyers from the Legal Aid Society or Queens Law Associates usually guide them through the process, along with a Mandarin-speaking interpreter and advocates from one of the nonprofit groups specializing in sex-trafficking outreach and immigration services.
十几张长凳上中国女人占多数，她们面临按摩店相关的常见指控：卖淫或无照按摩。由法庭指定的来自法律援助协会(Legal Aid Society)或皇后区法律协会(Queens Law Associates)的律师，辅以普通话翻译，以及一家专长非法性交易救助与移民服务的非营利机构的工作人员，引导她们完成法庭流程。
Defenders of the program maintain that until a better approach is developed, arrests — followed by appearances in trafficking court — provide the best chance for intervention. Even if a woman returns to 40th Road, they say, she will at least have the names of people to contact if she needs help.
Others, though, counter that for many women caught in the commercial sex trade, an arrest only exacerbates their trauma. Besides, they say, one doesn’t need to be arrested in order to receive helpful contact information.
Judge Toko Serita, who has presided over the trafficking court for a decade, summons the defendants, one by one, to stand before her, as a court officer calls out, “Mandarin interpreter required, and present.” The judge has short black hair, glasses and a welcoming, even reassuring demeanor, whether it’s the defendant’s first appearance or her last.
How are you today? … Are you studying English? … This is a really good streak … I want to congratulate you for completing all your sessions with Garden of Hope … Stay out of trouble, lead a law-abiding life for the next six months, and the record will be expunged … Good luck to you.
On this morning, several cases were heard before a court officer finally called out: “03585 dash 17. Yang Song!”
Even though she was five months dead, Song Yang still had an open criminal case: the arrest on a prostitution charge two months before her fatal fall. The sprawling New York City judicial system may seem overwhelmed, even chaotic, but in the end its books must be balanced. This meant that a formality known as an “abatement by death” — a dismissal, in effect — was required to close the short chapter on Song Yang, or Yang Song, as the system sometimes rendered her name.
Judge Serita was informed that the deceased defendant’s mother and son were present and would like to thank the court. The request stilled the courtroom. The judge sighed in sympathy.
“Thank you,” she said. “Um. All right. This case is now going to be abated by death.”
She went on to tell Song Yang’s mother and brother that everyone involved in the trafficking court was deeply saddened by their loved one’s “tragic and untimely death.” She expressed hope that they “somehow find peace with these unfortunate circumstances.”
Mr. Song and Ms. Shi acknowledged her words with nods. They walked out of the courtroom, past an “Exit Only — No Re-Entry” sign, and into the late-morning brightness. He lit a cigarette. She adjusted her backpack. They continued on in silence.
Two weeks later, the mother and brother returned to Kew Gardens for a long-awaited meeting with investigators from the Homicide Investigations Bureau of the Queens district attorney’s office. With everyone seated around a dark-wood conference table in a windowless room, the investigators shared the results of their monthslong inquiry, including 22 minutes of video culled from cameras positioned both inside and outside the building at 135-32 40th Road.
In these images, their beloved daughter and sister appears in the fullness of life. Here is Song Yang, leading the undercover officer up the stairs. Here she is, kicking him out of the apartment, watching the officers ascend the stairs — rushing in alarm toward the balcony.
Here, from street level, something falling, and then a beloved daughter and sister, crumpled on the pavement. Watching the video again a few days later, Ms. Shi noticed the headband that flies off her daughter’s head.
“She especially loved butterflies,” the mother said.
The video over, the investigators laid out their sober findings: The police involved in a bust-and-buy sting on 40th Road the night of Nov. 25, 2017, did not cause the death of Song Yang. To begin with, no officer was even in the fourth-floor apartment when she jumped or fell.
Her brother scoffed at this conclusion. He said something rude in Mandarin. Meeting over.
Night comes to 40th Road.
The fruit and vegetable peddlers have boxed up and boarded up, and the last patrons of air-conditioned restaurants have stepped out to evaporate in the late June warmth. But the women are here, as always, calling out an invitation that sounds almost like a plea.
They stand outside the same doorways, including the one for 135-32, where Song Yang once lingered. Very soon after she died, her fourth-floor apartment became the address for a new massage business. Its name: Heaven on Fourth.
她们还是站在那些楼门外边，包括135-32号，宋扬曾在这里踟蹰。她死后没多久，四楼她那套公寓房间就成了一家新按摩店的地址。名字叫“四楼天堂”(Heaven on Fourth)。
A few steps away, at the entrance to another of the gloomy buildings owned and operated by prominent Flushing businessmen, a thin woman in a brown dress sits in a metal chair with a square of Styrofoam for padding, studying her cellphone through the smoke of her cigarette. Then she pulls out a bag of overripe cherries from the building’s broken mailbox and, between the repeated offerings of her services, spits out the pits and tosses them into the street, not far from a lamppost adorned with a poster bearing the face of Song Yang (“Big Reward!”).
To the woman’s right, roasted duck carcasses hang in the window of the Corner 28 restaurant, where a man is mop-swabbing the sticky floor. To her left, sorrowful creatures loll in a seafood restaurant’s murky tank. Above her head, scaffolding provides protection from the stucco that city officials say has been coming loose from the buildings. Rain begins to fall.
A nearby tanker truck groans as it sucks away a restaurant’s used cooking oil through a large hose that snakes across the sidewalk and into the bowels of a building. The women adapt: They step over the hose, ignore the smell, raise their voices.
One of the women leads a potential client to a building’s threshold, but he keeps walking; she mutters an epithet in Mandarin. Then a buzz-cut junkie, who just hours before was asleep on the pavement, begins to harass the women, disrupting their business by hovering. He enters one of their buildings and urinates in the hall.
The rain hardens. The whoosh of a shuttered metal gate resounds. A kitchen worker emerges at the end of his shift and wishes the women a good night. They wish him the same.
It is all ephemeral, of course, a realization reinforced daily by the laborers trudging down this street to the subway, bone-weary from working another of the construction projects that are redefining Flushing. Few today remember the Old Roma restaurant that once thrived on 40th Road, just as few tomorrow will remember a Chinese immigrant who once died on 40th Road.
For now, at least, if you linger on the street, you will encounter those who remember her — including, occasionally, clients still looking for SiSi.
You might see Lala, and Kiki, and Yoyo, along with other women who competed with Song Yang. You might see her lanky brother, Song Hai, who still struggles to understand why no one will be brought to justice for all that his sister went through in her adopted country. His grief smolders, as does his distrust of America.
Lastly, you might see Song Yang’s mother, Shi Yumei.
One evening, Ms. Shi paused outside a building where some women were offering massages to passing men. Raising the drooping bags held in her hands, she explained that she had just left the food pantry at the Episcopal church on Main Street, where she had recently been baptized. She said the pastor had emphasized the importance of sharing what you have.
The mother placed a bag of sweet potatoes in the doorway that had once been Song Yang’s domain. It was an offering of sorts, a gift to women like her daughter. Then she was gone, assumed into the Flushing blur.