By MICHAEL WILSON and JENNIFER 8. LEE
While a Chinese-food deliveryman sat in a stuck elevator for more than three days in a Bronx apartment tower, the police searched the building with such fervor that one resident and his two friends were locked up and even questioned over a barbecue stain on one of their shirts that looked like blood, the resident and the police said yesterday.
The deliveryman, Ming Kuang Chen, 35, disappeared on Friday night after delivering three dinners to 40 West Mosholu Parkway. His bicycle was found locked outside the building.
What followed was an intense police search, which included Emergency Service Unit officers breaking down apartment doors in circumstances that required immediate action, Deputy Chief Michael Collins, a police spokesman, said yesterday.
One such circumstance arose on Saturday afternoon on the 34th floor, where all but one apartment had been searched, and no one was home in that unit, Chief Collins said. A neighbor had told the police that she heard screaming earlier in the hallway, so the officers broke the door down, he said.
Troy Smith, 21, arrived home with a friend and was shocked to find officers wearing helmets and flak jackets in his apartment.
“They cuffed me right there,” he said. “I walked in, and detectives were guarding my door. The door was kicked in.” They took him to a precinct and took his stained shirt, he said.
“I had sauce on my shirt from three days ago. They made me write, ‘I’m Troy Smith. You can have my shirt for testing,'” he said, an account confirmed by Chief Collins. “They kept on coming back and saying, ‘Where is the Chinese man and what did you do with him?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
And yet, the whole time, a small camera in a rear corner of the elevator car that held Mr. Chen, Car No. 2, relayed live signals to a functioning – albeit small and dim – monitor in the Tracey Towers security office, where security officers are always present and the police were a frequent presence during the search. No one could recall seeing Mr. Chen on the tiny screen.
He was found on Tuesday after he called for help over the elevator car’s intercom shortly after 4 a.m. Firefighters lowered the car from where it had been stuck between the third and fourth floor of the 38-story building, and Mr. Chen faced a day of rehydration and reporters asking how he had survived for 81 hours in a 4-foot-by-61/2-foot box.
Mr. Chen has said that he called repeatedly on the intercom over the weekend, even speaking to security personnel on five or six occasions. A spokesman for the building’s manager, Don Miller, said the first anyone was aware of him was on Tuesday morning.
New questions over the state of the elevator surveillance arose yesterday. For instance, even after Mr. Chen call for help was heard Monday morning, security personnel looking for him on the monitor could not see him, Mr. Miller said.
The video quality is far from superior, according to a reporter’s brief examination of the monitors yesterday. There are three monitors in the security room, two of which are divided into 16 images apiece. One of those images, slightly smaller than a playing card, shows Car No. 2 in a dimly lit feed.
There is a blind spot of one or two feet in the corner under the camera, said Jennifer Givner, a spokeswoman for the city’s Buildings Department.
When Mr. Chen sounded the intercom on Tuesday morning, a red light on a control panel indicated he was in Car No. 2, and yet, security personnel could not see him, Mr. Miller said.
Security for the complex is provided by Copstat Security LLC, a company based in the Bronx. A man at the Copstat headquarters who refused to give his name said that the company declined to comment on the events at Tracey Towers.
Whether Mr. Chen was ever visible on a monitor may never be known. While Mr. Miller said the footage was taped, and those tapes had been given to detectives, the police said no such tapes were made because the cameras are not designed to record, only offer live feeds. Tapes from other cameras in the building were given to officers.
Meanwhile, Mr. Smith’s weekend went from bad to worse. After about two hours of questions about Mr. Chen’s whereabouts, Mr. Smith was arrested on an unrelated disorderly conduct summons, and spent most of the next two days in a holding cell, awaiting processing. His two friends, a man and a woman, were released after five hours of questioning, Chief Collins said. The forensic test for blood on the seized shirt came back negative.
Mr. Smith knows Mr. Chen from his many delivery orders from the restaurant, Happy Dragon. “He’s my friend,” he said. “He’s cool.”
As for Mr. Chen, who spoke with reporters after his rescue on Tuesday, he was out of the public eye on Wednesday. He was convalescing at a friend’s home, said City Councilman John C. Liu. Mr. Chen is an illegal immigrant, a fact that his family shared with the police and that was publicized during the manhunt.
“Is he worried? Yes. He’s very worried. He has a family to support,” Councilman Liu said yesterday, criticizing the police for effectively notifying immigration officials of Mr. Chen’s illegal status.
Paul J. Browne, a police spokesman, said the police do not share immigration information of crime victims or witnesses with federal authorities. A spokesman for United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement said no contact had been made with Mr. Chen, and said it was unknown whether any would be.
“Anybody who is here illegally shouldn’t be surprised if they’re arrested by ICE and placed into removal proceedings. That’s just common sense,” said the spokesman, Marc A. Raimondi. “ICE prioritizes our enforcement efforts to target those who pose the most significant threat to national security and public safety.”
But he added, “Being locked in an elevator doesn’t give you a free pass to break the law.”
Robin Stein contributed reporting for this article.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company