Drinking, And Death, After Dark

Did two teens take to killing in Central Park?

DAPHNE ABDELA LIVED WITH HER wealthy parents in a co-op on Central Park West, one of Manhattan's prime strips of real estate. Christopher Vasquez's home was a brownstone on the other side of the park, in a working-class neighborhood on the border of Spanish Harlem. At night, the two 15-year-olds liked to disappear among the park's sprawling fields and pathways, descending on inline skates into a shadowy world of drunks and stragglers. It's a strange scene: disaffected kids who would rather sit around and drink with the park's transient crowd than watch TV in their living rooms. That's where they apparently met up with Michael McMorrow, a single, 44-year-old real-estate agent with a history of alcoholism. They shared some beers - and something went wrong. The way police described it, Vasquez slit the man's throat with a four-inch folding knife and, while Abdela urged him on, hacked off his nose and most of one wrist. Then, after they cleaned out the dead man's wallet and burned his identification, they tried to gut the body and dumped it into a lake, hoping it would sink. Instead, cops found the corpse bobbing peacefully, under a full moon.

To some people outside New York, Central Park is a place where you don't want to get lost alone. To most New Yorkers, however, the 800-acre park is a leafy oasis of ball fields, streams and gardens. Even jaded city dwellers were shaken to learn that McMorrow's body had turned up in one of the most widely traveled parts of the park. What horrified the rest of the nation was the age and ferocity of the alleged killers - the latest in a string of teens arrested for unimaginable crimes. ""The new thing is that kids will kill for almost any reason,'' says Jack Levin of Northeastern University's Program for the Study of Violence.

No one who knew Abdela and Vasquez by day would have expected this from them. Abdela is the adopted daughter of a millionaire food-service executive; until recently she attended a Jesuit high school on the Upper East Side. But students at the school say she was defiant and aloof, and she was ultimately expelled. She reportedly has a drinking problem and told police she originally met the murder victim at an AA meeting. Vasquez, whose parents are separated, also went to private school, where he was considered shy and harmless. Police say they aren't sure what prompted the altercation with the burly McMorrow. They do know that Abdela and Vasquez returned to her apartment and washed the blood off their hands. Later, shortly before 2 a.m., Abdela called 911 and reported anonymously that a friend had jumped into the lake and hadn't come out. After police found McMorrow's body - it had been stabbed more than 50 times - they traced the tip to Abdela and found blood in her bedroom. She led them to the murder scene, saying she had instructed her boyfriend to mangle the body so that it would be harder to identify.

The kids' families weren't talking, but they were quick to hire high-caliber defense lawyers. (Vasquez's lawyer wouldn't comment; Abdela's attorney said she didn't assist in the murder.) Groping for explanations, cops guessed McMorrow might have wanted sex from Abdela. Others blamed the alcohol, or maybe drugs. In fact, experts say the killings are part of a more elusive trend. Only last month, two New Jersey boys allegedly gunned down two pizza-delivery men just to see how it felt. But teen murders are up mostly in rural areas; what stands out about the alleged Central Park killers is how they passed their nights in a vibrant city where there should have been plenty to do, and where someone should have been looking out for them. Instead, they moved unsupervised through a dimly lit maze of trees and tunnels. Somewhere in there, they must have lost their way.