UPDATE: Young, Homeless Man “Stephen” Who Died in Riverside Park Identified; Family Found by Local Journalist

A family photo of Neil Harris, Jr., from 2010

By Joy Bergmann

Back in April of 2017, we wrote about a young homeless man who was found dead under the West Side Highway near 71st Street in Riverside Park.

Many community members mourned the quiet man in the maroon hoodie, a park fixture known to some as “Stephen.” A memorial plaque soon appeared on “Stephen’s bench” near 75th and Riverside. But his identity remained a mystery, a John Doe, buried months later on Hart Island – the city  potter’s field – plot 383, section I, grave 35.

Pier-1 bench
The man spent most days at 75th & Riverside and near Pier I, pictured.

Now, thanks to two determined women, we know who he was.

His name was Neil Harris, Jr., 32. He loved animals, cooking, video games, horror movies and reggae music. He hated crowds and feared change. He had learning disabilities, severe social anxiety and bouts of paranoia. He also had a mother, Susan Hurlburt, and a huge extended family who’d been worrying about and looking for him since he disappeared from the Inwood, Long Island, train station on December 12, 2014.

“He knew my number by heart.” Hulburt told WSR. “I thought if it got bad, he’d call me and I’d come pick him up. But I never heard from him.”

Hurlburt finally learned of her son’s fate thanks to recent efforts by Jessica Brockington, a journalist who lives on the Upper West Side (and has written for West Side Rag).

Brockington, like many locals, felt a connection to the man she’d often see while walking her dogs. She’d once offered him coffee and tomato soup on a frigid day. Upon reading of his death, she wondered how his family would ever find out – if he even had a family. She said a prayer and left the question unanswered.

Until this past August.

Brockington was busy reviewing several government databases, looking for information to use in a data journalism class she was taking through the Knight Foundation. On NamUs.gov – a Justice Department site to help resolve missing and unidentified persons cases – she stumbled upon a missing person photo for a Neil Harris, Jr. “He looked just like the guy we knew in the park as Stephen,” she says.

That discovery set in motion six weeks of frenzied – often frustrating – detective work by Brockington.

She shared the photo with multiple Riverside Park denizens who also immediately recognized the man as “Stephen.”

She contacted NYPD’s 20th Precinct with her findings. Officers sent her to the Missing Persons division, where “Stephen’s” case had been transferred. Detectives there didn’t think she’d made a match, based on the medical examiner’s photos and a description of the body.

She persisted.

By this point, Brockington had already scoured Facebook and discovered Neil Harris, Jr. had a mother who’d been posting about him, requesting prayers for him, asking him to be safe. “There was a loving family besides themselves with worry,” she says. But Brockington felt she couldn’t contact them until authorities confirmed the ID. And they weren’t moving fast. 

His mother regularly posted on Facebook about her missing son

Brockington says detectives in Nassau County – where Neil grew up and the missing person’s report had been filed – were more amenable. One detective decided to contact Hurlburt and ask her to get a DNA test done. But, not wanting to upset a mother needlessly if it wasn’t a match, he did not tell her a body had been found.

“There was no rush,” Hurlburt ruefully recalls. Now living in North Carolina on a fixed income, she says she didn’t have a spare $99 for the test and had no clue what the stakes really were.

Meanwhile, Brockington was getting impatient. She wanted Hurlburt to know the urgency of the matter. So she called Kenny Jarels, founder of the AWARE Foundation, a nonprofit that supports families of missing people, to serve as an intermediary. “On Facebook, I’d seen AWARE interfacing with Susan about Neil. AWARE had had posters made and she was sharing those posters on Facebook weekly,” she says.  “Kenny decided Susan needed to know that there was a possible match. So Kenny called Susan that night. And the next day I spoke with her.”

Once the two women connected, they were unstoppable.

Hurlburt immediately went on NamUs to inspect a tiny thumbnail photo of the unidentified man’s face taken at the medical examiner’s office. “I knew it right away. That was my son,” she says. “I’ve known him at 300 pounds and at 150 pounds. With dreadlocks and with a shaved head. That was my son.”

Hurlburt quickly arranged to take a DNA test at a local police station. But, unwilling to wait on results, she also contacted NYC’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner [OCME] to try to speed up the identification process. “After the third phone call, I got to a woman there who said we might be able to do it through Neil’s medical records. Had he had any broken bones?”  Neil had broken his arm as an adult; an injury that never fully healed. Hurlburt requested the hospital send his file to OCME for comparison with X-rays taken during the man’s autopsy.

About a week later, on September 21st, Hurlburt got the call from OCME. “They told me, ‘we can positively ID that this is Neil.’” According to OCME, he died on March 9, 2017, of an acute intestinal hemorrhage due to a perforated chronic peptic ulcer.

Hurlburt says she wants people to know her son had a kind heart, and a big Italian family who loved him. But Neil was also “a lost soul” who had run away once before. He told her he wanted to live on the streets. In addition to mental illness challenges, he had long struggled with his biracial background, often asking his mother, “What am I?”  His African-American father, Neil Harris, Sr., had had his own struggles and is also buried on Hart Island.

Hurlburt also wants her experience to help others avoid the “torture” of not knowing what’s happened to their missing loved ones. She says law enforcement and other authorities need to better respect families by treating these cases with greater urgency. “Homeless people are still people. If you have one lead on who these people are, you should follow up. Immediately.”

How Neil ended up in Riverside Park remains a mystery. He had no previous connection to the Upper West Side, says Hurlburt. He’d only been to Manhattan once in his life – to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree – and hated it. She has no idea how Neil managed to survive for over three years on his own. He could barely read or write and had no access to funds. “He didn’t know what to do with himself. So he just sat and stared.”

She suspects the kindnesses of Upper West Siders, “angels”, sustained him. “God sent all of you there then,” Hurlburt says. “And sent you now to make sure he rests in peace with his identity. That was the most important thing to Neil. I want to make sure he has a name, and isn’t just some number.”

Hurlburt is especially grateful to Brockington and hopes to meet her and others when the family comes to New York to collect Neil’s death certificate and personal effects. “She never stopped. This was a stranger. She didn’t have to go this far. And she did,” says Hurlburt. “This has changed my view on the world. There’s good people in this world. There are.”

“Connecting Neil’s family with the community of people who mourned his death has been really emotional but deeply satisfying,” says Brockington. “It’s one little piece of good, you know? I just wish it happened earlier.”

NEWS, OUTDOORS | 35 comments | permalink
    1. AC says:

      Jessica Brockington gets my vote for not only Upper West Sider of the Year, but of all New York City as well!

    2. NotImpressed says:

      Thank you for this article.
      I can still picture him sitting on his bench.
      Seeing the photo here is very powerful.

      • Pcnyc says:

        I still think about Neil on my walks by the bench where he always sat by the Hudson. He would sit there, bemusedly with his half smile, and seemed at peace, looking out at the water every time I saw him.
        Thank you to Jessica, Joy and Neil’s family for working diligently to identify him. Rest in peace, Neil.

    3. MAG says:

      I’m teary and so moved by this account. What an effort by Jessica and Joy. We need more goodness like this. The minute I saw the photo I new it was him as I saw him daily for many days. And then he was gone. Goodbye Stephen, Goodbye Neil. My heart goes out to his family.

    4. Brittany butler says:

      From reading the first story & knowing it was my uncle to reading this and finally knowing the truth we loved him so much regardless how far away he was or knowing weather he was alive or not we cherish every moment we had with him!& our love is still just as strong for him may he rest in peace we will always love you uncle Neil ♡

      • J says:

        Though none of us were able to get to know Stephen/Neil, he was part of our everyday lives. Those of us who walked our dogs would bring him food – if he would take it – and gloves and a sweatshirt during the winter. We worried when we didn’t see him on his bench. He was quiet but his presence was felt and he was part of the framework of our neighborhood. Thank you to those who worked so diligently to find his name and his family. Rest in peace Neil.

    5. NR says:

      I was just thinking about him last week. I tried to give him food and water, but he politely refused. Thank you so much for this story and for jessica’s persistence .

    6. Mary-Claire Barton says:

      Great article! Great women! Meanwhile: “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.'”…John Greenleaf Whittier

    7. SusanHurlburt says:

      I am ever so grateful for all the wonderful people who looked after this man, my son Neil! I believe that each & every one of you are Angels. I missed & worried about him so much, & although I am broken hearted to know that he is gone , it warms my heart to know that he felt safe right there in that park with all you wonderful people. From the bottom of my heart I say THANK YOU ALL 🙏💝. Hope to meet some of you soon.
      Susan Hurlburt

    8. L matisoff says:

      Ms Brockington is a real hero. So many of us want to help the homeless people we often see in the same place almost every day but do nothing out of caution or maybe fear of danger. I was so moved by the story… thank you.

    9. Kathleen says:

      Thank you for reminding us of the goodness in people.

    10. Gretchen says:

      What an amazing story and Brockington should get the Nobel Peace Prize for her tireless, selfless efforts. I’m gobsmacked. I was one of the people she contacted in the park because, like the other Riverside Park regulars, we knew our dear “Stephen” and had compassion for his situation, though none of us had a clue who he was or why he ended up here. Mystery solved. Can’t wait to meet his mom. I know I will cry with her, but at least now we have some closure and know there is still goodness in the world. Thank you WSR!!!

    11. Mary D says:

      A beautiful (though bittersweet) story, thank you WSR and everyone involved.

    12. Ms. Brockington is an angel. Many afternoons I used to see Neil sit by the river. He seemed good-hearted and didn’t bother anyone. I wondered what his story was. So sorry to hear of his lonely passing. Blessings and prayers to his family and loved ones.

    13. Bravo to Ms. Hurlbert for persisting; true journalism with heart. And thanks to Westsiderag for writing about this. So many newspapers, including online ones, have “died”, there are few, if any, places to turn to for serious investigative journalism. (the Metropolitan section of last Sunday’s NY Times wrote about the Village Voice’s demise.

    14. Jessica Brockington says:

      Lovely Upper West Siders. No hero here, or angel. This is journalism. All of us at West Side Rag are proud to be part of a remarkable tradition.

      You should know that Joy Bergmann has been a huge part of this story from the beginning. Over the course of the last six weeks, we conversed almost daily on every detail. She fact-checked, did her own line of digging, and crafted a beautiful narrative from a very messy process.

      Personally, I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to having Susan Hurlburt and her family held – even electronically – by the community that cared about her son. It’s as beautiful as I thought it would be.

      Warmest regards,
      Jessica Brockington

      • Jen says:

        Thank you, Jessica, Joy and WSR. There are no words to express my gratitude for your kindness and perseverance. If there were more of you the stories of Stephen would have had a happier ending. Rest In Peace, Stephen/Neil. Condolences to the family.

    15. Matt McClanahan says:

      Will the be any sort of memorial service?

      • B.B. says:

        Forgot to mention in my initial reply that if by “memorial” service you meant an actual funeral service, that can be done but is expensive.

        Unlike when Bobby Driscoll was buried at Hart Island, it is possible today for recently interred to be “dug up” (for lack of better word), and remains moved if family requests burial elsewhere.

        This however requires services of a funeral director and other costs which make it out of reach for many who wish to have their loved ones disinterred and buried elsewhere.

        Also time is of the essence. City uses plain wooden caskets, and bodies are not always embalmed. Thus between decomposition of remains and or of the casket itself removal may not be possible after prolonged period after burial.

    16. Karina Moruzan says:

      God Bless Brockington for finding his family. I remember him. He was a good looking guy! My heart hurts knowing he had such a hard time and obviously it was obvious to many of us Upper West Siders…God Bless all of you!
      Karina

    17. Cathy Blume says:

      Jessica, Ken is already asleep, but I plan to share this with him in the morning. What a bittersweet story, but your persistence shines, and really paid off. As sad as the outcome, it has to be better than wondering what happened to a loved one. This is just one of many reasons for both of us to be proud of you. Love, Aunt Cathy

    18. Michael DelNagro says:

      My hat’s off to you, Jessica Brockington.

    19. NYYgirl says:

      Mindblowing in the best sense of the word. Absolutely, there are good people in this world; how could this not prove it? After all of the sad news we are always hearing from seemingly every corner of the world, to read this incredible saga is practically life-affirming! Thank you all, especially to those who never gave up trying. You are the real definition of those everyday members of our community I always promise my kids are out there somewhere, no matter how bleak a situation appears to be. And, thank you WSR for telling this story!

    20. Lisa says:

      What a moving and tearful story. Thank you Jessica, Joy and WSR. I am so happy to know that Neil’s family now has closure, and knows that he was loved and cared for by his community. Susan, my deepest condolences and sending you a big virtual hug. My heart breaks for his struggles. May he rest in peace.

    21. Sarah says:

      Thank you to everyone who contributed to this effort to “place” Stephen. My condolences to his family.

      I hope the commenters on this site who so often say vicious things about the homeless stop to consider after reading this that every one of them has some story behind them and someone who loves them.

      • NYYgirl says:

        And hopefully they will also have warm feelings in their hearts as they read this story of true righteousness & love for a fellow human being!

    22. Anonymous says:

      This is good investigative journalism, to be sure.

      But some self-awareness is in order. “Angels?” “Caring community?”

      Some locals fed this man like they feed a pigeon… so they can feel good about themselves for a fleeting moment. But nobody cared enough to actually save this man when he was alive.

      I’m glad his family got a resolution, but before engaging in sanctimonious self-aggrandizement, perhaps some here should consider that we probably failed him as a community.

      • Jessica Brockington says:

        Have to disagree with you there. Neil refused homeless outreach services the first week he was in the park. People started reaching out to him immediately. Part of his renown, unfortunately, was how consistently he refused help. Legally, there is nothing anyone can do for someone making the decisions he made, except to be kind and offer him food and warm clothing. The hoodie he died in was a gift from a community member I spoke with.

        • B.B. says:

          First and foremost hearty congrats and thank you for excellent work done. No one should die alone much less be buried and “forgotten” as if they never existed. Everyone one of us is some mother’s worry and care.

          Two, yes you are correct. Right or wrong in light of modern laws and court rulings regarding mental health, absent clear danger to themselves or others people no longer can be *forced* to accept any sort of assistance. Nor can they be picked up and “put away” if you will merely for being homeless.

          Whatever inner demons were tormenting Neil Harris, Jr., are over, and he is resting in peace. Now thanks to Ms. Brockington and others Mrs. Hurlburt and rest of family can find measure of closure and peace as well.

      • Susan Hurlburt says:

        As his Mother, I have to disagree! Neil was very stubborn, if he wanted help it was offered to him many times before he choose to be homeless. His situation as much as it breaks my heart, was truly his choice.
        I believe that everyone in that community made him feel safe in their own way which is why he stayed! And for that I am grateful , at least now he is at peace, & I have nobody to thank but all of you wonderful people!
        I will be coming to NY & hope to meet as many of you as possible.

      • Sarah says:

        He seems to have fallen into that unfortunate zone of mental illness where you are too sick to accept help but not sick enough to justify forcing you into treatment, even though you may have a low quality of life. It’s actually an extremely difficult situation for anyone who cares about the sick person.

    23. Thomas Jimenez says:

      I don’t have much to say still doesn’t seem real… I would just like to thank the people of the Upper West Side who frequented the park that helped my cousin Neil, especially Jessica Brockington who without her he might have never found out what happened to Neil. Thank you! I love you Aunt Susan! I love you Brittany!!

    24. Eileen Reich says:

      We need more people like you, Ms. Brockington! and more mothers like Mrs. Hurlburt, who never give up on their children. At least there is closure for the family and the residents who saw him for those years.

    25. Barbara says:

      It is very heartwarming to know how many lives my brother Neil has touched! This has been a very difficult time for our family but all the kind words have helped! I can’t believe how many good people there still are out there in this world! Neil needed help and I wish somehow I could have helped him but he found a place on the Upper West Side that was peaceful for him. I hope to have the opportunity to meet all the kind people who have a the most beautiful things to say about my brother! Neil u will always be in my heart I love you always and forever RIP 💔