The Fresh Meadows apartment complex, which is, not coincidentally, in Fresh Meadows, Queens, is a series of low-slung rental buildings interspersed with grassy knolls and cul-de-sacs, and sort of feels like a smaller, homier Stuyvesant Town, except everyone has cars and it’s a good 10-minute drive through fancy Jamaica Estates to the nearest subway station, which happens to be the last stop on the F—an hour ride into midtown (more if someone happened to have jumped onto the tracks at the 36th Street stop on the way back into the city, thereby slowing down train traffic for everyone else). On a recent Friday afternoon, things were quiet; most residents seemed to be at work or at school (St. John’s University is nearby). It seems a very unlikely setting for the incidents that occurred the night of April 15—tax day!—when, according to several neighbors, they heard some odd noises coming from Matt Tratner’s second-floor apartment.
What few people knew, and what the police weren’t aware of when they showed up, and what the SWAT team didn’t know when they showed up, and what the guys with the inflatable-mattress contraption (in case he jumped) didn’t know, either, was that Mr. Tratner was in London, visiting his brother, and he had entrusted care of his two-bedroom apartment, and his five-year-old golden retriever, Kita, to a friend who had fallen on some hard times, and who for this piece we will call “John.”
“One of my friends called and said, ‘It sounds like glass is shattering,’” one of Mr. Tratner’s neighbors, a student named Melanie Gilmore, recalled. She had taken Kita into her apartment when it seemed as though the police were going to take her to animal control. “I saw SWAT trucks and people in helmets. Then I saw him standing in front of Matt’s kitchen window, totally naked. He was bending weirdly—he turned around and he had blood all over his forearms.” The police were calling for “Matt” to come out of the apartment, though it was John standing there.
“I saw him from the window. When I saw him, he was butt naked and full of blood,” said Mr. Tratner’s upstairs neighbor Nestor Cruz.
“I heard boom, boom, boom, from 9:30 p.m.,” said another of Mr. Tratner’s neighbors, Hyo-jin Lim, who came to the door carrying one of her three small children. “Later the police came and said, ‘You have to get out.’ The police didn’t give us time to get jackets. We have to go out right away.” (When contacted by The Observer, a spokesperson for the New York City Police Department said there was no record of this incident.)
“I had known him for 14 years,” said Mr. Tratner, who teaches graphic design and studio art at a nearby high school and promotes events at gay bars and clubs at night. He is 33, handsome and deeply tanned, with a shiny white smile, and drives a silver Chevy SUV, and he has lived in this neighborhood in Queens his entire life; his parents recently retired to Boca. “I had been to his home. He owned his own apartment in Chelsea. He used to have a line of yoga wear that was sold at Barneys and Bergdorf’s. He moved to California and we touched base now and then.”
Then John’s company went under and he moved to Florida with his parents, who are facing down foreclosure and bankruptcy, said Mr. Tratner. “He always kept an immaculate home and took wonderful care of his dog. He was big into Buddhism and yoga.” And there was a glimmer of hope: He had job interviews lined up in New York. “This past year has been very hard for him.”
On John’s Facebook page, there’s no sign of the turbulence. His photos show a tall, handsome man with a cute dog. He has over 500 friends. He was excited, it seemed, about returning to New York; he had even gotten a new phone number with a New York area code.
For the first few days that John was in New York, Mr. Tratner was in the apartment with him. When Mr. Tratner left for London, though, John seemed to lose it. “Once he was alone, he got more and more depressed. The demons started getting to him,” said Mr. Tratner. A neighbor later told Mr. Tratner that he saw him in the hallway playing the guitar and telling people that Kita was his dog. Another neighbor introduced himself, and John identified himself as Matt. A friend of Mr. Tratner’s came by to say hello, not knowing that Mr. Tratner was in London; John opened the door wearing a ski jacket and said the friend could come inside, but he wasn’t allowed inside Mr. Tratner’s bedroom.
“My wife said that the guy downstairs was acting a little funny,” Mr. Cruz recalled of the morning of the incident. “He was bugging out, ringing everybody’s bell. In the afternoon, my wife said he was in the hallway, playing guitar, singing that the dog was his daughter.”
On April 16, Mr. Tratner’s mother instant-messaged him and told him to call his other brother in New York. There had been an emergency.
“We tried to clean the blood in the bathroom,” said Ms. Gilmore. “We got the majority of the stuff cleared with a shovel.”
When Mr. Tratner returned to his apartment—he wasn’t able to get a flight out of London for 14 hours—he found a scene of utter destruction. Nearly all the contents of the apartment had been thrown to the floor. An antique marble gas lamp that had been in his family for generations had been broken into pieces, an antique clock destroyed. The living room sofa was in the bathtub. All the windows had been broken. The insides of the toilet had been ripped out and the apartment had flooded; the shower fixtures had also been yanked from the wall. Mr. Tratner’s computer had been destroyed. There was a metal antenna that had been driven into the hardwood floor, and the electrical outlets had been torn out. The gas stove had been dislodged. All the light fixtures had been shattered. And there was blood, tons of it, everywhere—smeared on the kitchen cabinets, the walls, the doors, the mattresses.
“He put his head through the medicine cabinet mirror,” said Mr. Tratner. There was blood on Mr. Tratner’s dumbbells from where John had used them to try to shatter the windows.
By the time The Observer came to Mr. Tratner’s apartment, a hazmat team had already been through to clean up most of the blood, and Mr. Tratner had gotten the windows replaced and cleaned up the debris. “I had renter’s insurance that was attached to my car insurance, but then I switched car insurance and I didn’t realize my renter’s insurance didn’t transfer,” Mr. Tratner said. So he’s on the hook for, he estimates, $10,000 to $15,000 worth of damages to the apartment, plus his personal effects.
But there were some things John didn’t touch. There was blood on the TV in the living room, but it was left intact, as was a table of Mr. Tratner’s framed photographs. And John’s clothes and Prada shoes are still in the closet in Mr. Tratner’s second bedroom.
“At 2:45 [a.m.], the police said they saw a rifle inside the apartment,” said Ms. Gilmore, the neighbor. “The cop told me I’d get shot if I went inside. But he never had a rifle. They brought him out on a stretcher and he was in the ambulance for one and a half hours.” They took him to New York Hospital in Flushing, where he was intubated and handcuffed and foot-cuffed to the bed. The cops still thought he was Mr. Tratner.
“I’m glad it didn’t make the media because people would have thought it was me,” said Mr. Tratner. Eventually he was able to clear everything up; John has since been transferred to a city-run psychiatric hospital. “He’s all by himself and very afraid. The first thing I said to him was, ‘Are you okay?’”
Mr. Tratner is not going to press charges. Kita is still scared to go in the kitchen.