For the mother and her three children, the three-block walk to the Coney Island beach was a familiar one.
It meant leaving their austere apartment complex on Neptune Avenue for a boardwalk stroll to the neighborhood’s famous amusements, or a beach day in the shadow of its towering Parachute Jump and Wonder Wheel.
But at nearly 1 a.m. last Monday morning, the streets and boardwalk were rainy and desolate. Still, the mother was intent.
Draped in a bathrobe, Erin Merdy carried her 3-month-old son. Her 7-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl walked alongside.
She trudged across the sand, down to the dark water.
Ms. Merdy, the 30-year-old mother of Zachary, Liliana and baby Oliver, hailed from a section of Coney Island known for tough streets. But she did not seem destined to be defined by them.
A decade ago, she aspired to a career in health care. On her résumé, she described herself as an enthusiastic student at nearby Kingsborough Community College, with interests in astronomy and urban farming. She listed taking phlebotomy classes at a vocational health care school in Manhattan and completing a physical therapy internship. There were brief sales gigs at Brooklyn stores including a GameStop, Victoria’s Secret PINK and RadioShack.
But then there was her personal life, plagued by a series of ill-fated relationships that left her with three children from three fathers.
She was overcome by mental health problems, custody battles, unpaid bills and legal and financial troubles. A pending eviction could have landed her and the children back in the homeless shelter system they had escaped last year. Standing at the shoreline, Ms. Merdy had fallen far short of becoming the stable, productive woman she had once envisioned.
And there, according to the charges against her, Ms. Merdy set herself on a new and irreversible course: Prosecutors say she ended her children’s lives by drowning each in those dark, lapping late-summer waters.
Prayer cards on the boardwalk near where Zachary, 7, Liliana, 4, and Oliver, 3 months, died this past week.Credit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times
On Friday, Ms. Merdy was arraigned by videoconference while still confined to a psychiatric unit at NYU Langone Hospital-Brooklyn. From her bed, wearing a yellow gown, close-cropped hair and a blank stare, she murmured “yes” to indicate she understood the counts of first- and second-degree murder being read to her.
None of her numerous family members in the borough showed up at the Brooklyn Courthouse for the hearing.
Ms. Merdy’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. Ms. Merdy herself could not be contacted, and relatives were either unreachable or reluctant to comment.
The charges against her detail one of the most horrific crimes against children in the city’s recent memory, a case that recalls that of Susan Smith, who sent her car rolling into a South Carolina lake with her two sons strapped inside, and Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in a bathtub in a Houston suburb.
In a typical year in New York City, about a dozen children younger than 10 are killed in situations that the Police Department classifies as domestic. Killings of multiple children are extremely rare. Last year, a Queens woman was charged with murdering infant twins.
In 2020, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services found evidence to support a claim of neglect or abuse against Ms. Merdy, but the agency would not elaborate on her case, citing the pending drowning investigation.
Early Monday morning, Ms. Merdy called relatives hinting that she had done a heinous thing. One person told investigators that Ms. Merdy had said “she had hurt her children and that they are gone.”
Loved ones dialed 911. By 2 a.m. a relative called to ask the police to check Ms. Merdy’s apartment. Officers found it empty, its door unlocked.
Ms. Merdy left her children on the shoreline, the authorities said. Then, barefoot and in her wet bathrobe, she trudged roughly two miles, passing the Steeplechase Pier, the Cyclone roller coaster and the New York Aquarium.
Officers from the 60th Precinct spotted Ms. Merdy at 3:17 a.m. just east of those attractions. She was on the boardwalk near Brighton Sixth Street, still without shoes and soaking. She was not answering questions.
Investigators scoured water, beach and boardwalk until, at 4:20 a.m., an officer found the two older children “lying on the shoreline unresponsive, wet and with sand on their bodies,” prosecutors said. A minute later, another officer spotted the baby.
In the flashing lights of their vehicles, officers tried resuscitating one of the children, but it was too late.
The children were pronounced dead at Coney Island Hospital.
Ms. Merdy was taken to the 60th Precinct station house for questioning, and then to a Brooklyn hospital for psychiatric evaluation.
Some acquaintances described Ms. Merdy as increasingly unstable in recent years and attributed her behavior to postpartum depression or bipolar disorder. An aunt in North Carolina said simply that she was “struggling.”
Several described her as a good mother who worked hard to keep her children on track. Others said Ms. Merdy presided over a tumultuous household, with boyfriends cycling through, once being ousted from an apartment because of disruptions and altercations with neighbors.
Allen McFarland, 34, who coached Zachary in a football program at Kaiser Park, a few blocks from the family’s building on Neptune Avenue, said Ms. Merdy came off as “a very quiet young lady” who seemed incapable of hurting her children.
But when he tried to engage Ms. Merdy, “the conversations didn’t go too far.” He said “her actions seemed as if she was juggling a lot.”
Zachary was an enthusiastic wide receiver and linebacker for the Silverbacks, a team of 6- and 7-year-olds in the Coney Island Training Youth program. But Ms. Merdy rarely attended games or practices and often seemed to be in a rush, Mr. McFarland said.
“She needed support,” he said. “She needed help.”
It often fell to coaches to bring Zachary to and from the field and even feed him. Ever-hungry, the boy would devour the program’s free snacks and meals and often ask for more, Mr. McFarland said.
Zachary’s father, Derrick Merdy, was locked in a bitter divorce battle with Ms. Merdy and said Zachary gave him disturbing reports about life with his mother.
For mandated visits, Ms. Merdy would hand Zachary over dirty and hungry, he said in an interview this past week. He said his son spoke of going hungry at home and having to relieve himself in a bowl while living in homeless shelters with his mother.
Mr. Merdy, a Navy veteran who now lives in Norfolk, Va., shared an audio clip of an April conversation with Zachary that he preserved to help his bid for sole custody.
“She makes me starve,” the child told his father in the clip. Mr. Merdy’s reports to authorities did not result in action.
In text exchanges this year, Ms. Merdy seemed willing to grant him custody.
“I am thinking of letting Zachary live with you and possibly giving up my rights,” she wrote. “This back and forth is not good for Zach. He needs to stay in one household.
“I love him enough to let him stay with you or your mom because I want the best for him,” she continued. “I want him to excel. I want him to have everything and grow up having the best life.”
She never followed through.
Shamir Small, Liliana’s father, also had a short-lived romance with Ms. Merdy. The pair had their differences, but Mr. Small, 35, never fathomed Ms. Merdy would harm their only child.
On Thursday, hours after a wake for Zachary and Liliana at a Brooklyn funeral home, Mr. Small stood on the boardwalk near where his daughter took her last breath.
“She was a regular 4-year-old girl with a big smile,” he said. “I’m never going to see that smile again.”
Mr. Merdy and Mr. Small were part of a pattern of relationships that yielded Ms. Merdy first a child and then discord.
According to court documents, she spent stretches as a single mother huddling with her children in shelters such as the Saratoga Family Inn, a bunker-like facility near Kennedy International Airport’s cargo area.
Beginning in 2017, Ms. Merdy spent several years living in a well-manicured apartment complex in South Hadley, a rural town in western Massachusetts.
It is unclear why Ms. Merdy moved to the area, or why she suddenly left, leaving no forwarding address. One thing is certain: The complex — a secluded circle of buildings alongside the Connecticut River, near rolling hills and sprawling farmland — was a far cry from Coney Island.
But by this year, Ms. Merdy was living in the Neptune Avenue apartment on a hallway that smelled of cigarettes, the Manhattan skyline visible from the windows. She was more than $5,000 behind in rent at the end of last year.
Outside the building this week was a small memorial for the children: “Paw Patrol” and Minnie Mouse balloons and a small cardboard box packed with stuffed animals.
There was also a small football for Zachary. Mr. McFarland told his young players about the tragedy at practice; they later released green balloons with Zachary’s jersey number, 15, and vowed to play the season in the boy’s honor.
Zachary’s team won the championship last year but Ms. Merdy did not respond to numerous pleas to re-enroll him.
Maybe the new child was just too much, Mr. McFarland speculated.
“A year later, bills don’t go away, the stress doesn’t go away, and then you add a newborn baby to the picture …” he said, trailing off.
Mr. McFarland noted that his league, a youth mentorship program, was geared to steer children away from street dangers, not domestic ones.
“The safest place you could think to be is with your protector and your provider,” he said. “Your mom.”
Reporting was contributed by Sean Piccoli, Kaya Laterman, Téa Kvetenadze, Andy Newman and Matthew Berg. Kitty Bennett, Kirsten Noyes and Alain Delaquérièrecontributed research.