‘I Grabbed the Knife and Wouldn’t Let Go:’ Mother Describes Domestic Violence in NYC Shelter

The shelter operator says the city didn't warn them about a lengthy rap sheet for the woman's boyfriend

A 36-year-old mother of three endured a brutal attack inside an East Harlem homeless shelter when her troubled boyfriend allegedly took a steak knife and "went to work" on her face, carving her cheeks and forehead like a jigsaw puzzle in a middle-of-the-night attack last week, she told News 4 in an exclusive interivew.

The woman who asked to be identified only as “LaToya” said her alleged attacker, 43-year-old Demel Jennings, flew into a rage around 2 a.m. Thursday after LaToya moved to the other side of the bed because he was snoring too loud.

LaToya claims shelter security was slow to respond as she fought for her life, screaming for help, banging on walls and doors, and waving at security cameras outside her room after her boyfriend eventually fled.

“I was waving at the camera but I was out of it and I was waving and screaming at the top of my lungs,” LaToya said.

She says her 12-year-old son saved her life.

"He was like ‘Ma, what do you want me to do?' And I told him to go and get help," LaToya said. "If he wasn’t there I probably wouldn’t be here right now." 

Christine Quinn, the former NYC Council Speaker and president of WIN shelters, which operates the Jennie Clarke residence on East 100th Street, tells the I-Team shelter guards responded quickly, within 3 minutes after Latoya’s son ran outside in his underwear to get help at the security office several doors down the street. Neighbors had also called police after hearing her screaming.

Quinn says Latoya’s recollection of events isn’t accurate.

“It doesn’t necessarily line up with various videotapes we have but I respect what she is saying, where she is at in her process of healing and she is a hero,” she said.

Quinn says the shelter, housed in five adjacent tenement buildings, had three security guards on duty at the time, which she claims is three times the number the city requires. But the guards were stationed in an office four buildings away. Quinn added that the guards are unable to monitor all of the shelter’s security cameras 24-7. The attack took place inside Latoya’s third-floor unit where there are no security cameras.

Quinn accused the NYC Department of Homeless Services of “bureaucratic bungling” for failing to notify shelter staff when the family moved in two weeks ago that Jennings is a level 3 sex offender. Quinn says that had her staff been aware, they would have done more, perhaps offering the family more social work support or housing them closer to the security office, but she acknowledged such hypothetical steps might not have prevented this attack.

The Department of Homeless Services said it is investigating the incident, but declined to comment on this particular case, citing confidentiality rules.

Police arrested Jennings on Park Avenue, covered in scratches and blood, later Thursday morning. He is charged with attempted murder and endangering the welfare of a child. He has not yet entered a plea but a police report obtained by the I-Team says he acknowledged stabbing his girlfriend. Attorney information for him wasn't immediately available. 

Quinn describes visiting the crime scene at the shelter a day after the attack, on Friday, as other families had to walk past deep pools of blood to exit the building.

“The crib was covered in blood. We struggled to find onesies for the baby that were not covered in blood,” Quinn said. 

LaToya tells the I-Team that Jennings had been violent in the past but she never thought he would hurt her this badly. As she was preparing to give birth to Jennings’ baby 17 days ago, LaToya requested a transfer so that Jennings could move in with her. She says that after they started arguing Thursday, Jennings grew furious that she was going to “wake the baby,” then went to get a dull steak knife from the kitchen.

Surgeons worked Monday to save LaToya’s fingers, which were badly damaged as she allegedly tried to block Jennings’ attempts to slit her throat.

“I had to live for my children,” she said.

Domestic violence is now listed as the leading cause of homelessness for families in New York City.

Mayor de Blasio vowed to upgrade security at shelters in 2016 following a series of violent crimes. 

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