crime

The Nanny Murder Trial Is Impossible to Watch and Impossible to Look Away From

Marina Krim, left, the mother of the two children killed by nanny Yoselyn Ortega, testifying on March 1 in Manhattan.

Relief washed over a packed courtroom and exhausted jury when the people of New York rested their case against former nanny Yoselyn Ortega for the murders of Lucia and Leo Krim. The feeling was a little like at the end of a grueling movie, when the lights come up and everyone in the audience exhales simultaneously. “I didn’t cry until today,” a court reporter said, shaking her head and dabbing an eye. “What the hell—?” a man said, palms raised in disbelief, gesturing at Ortega and her defense lawyers.

The story of how 6-year-old Lucia and 2-year-old Leo died five years ago reads like a dark fairy tale for contemporary urban life: A happy family hires a nanny. She rarely speaks but performs her duties with quiet competence. She rarely complains. She never asks for a raise. She wears a uniform without being told to. But then, subtly, her behavior changes. The mother suspects resentment but cannot explain the shift. One day, the nanny fails to rendezvous with the mother. She’s never been late before. And as night falls on October 25, 2012, the mother, Marina Krim, searches her dark and empty Upper West Side home, calling her children’s names. “It was like a total horror movie,” Krim would later testify. At the end of a long hall, she sees a crack of light from the bathroom door. There, she finds her children and her nanny, transformed by unspeakable violence: “She’s all covered in blood, and her eyes are bugged out,” Krim would recall, in emotionally volatile testimony that culminated in her screaming, “You’re evil! You’re evil!” The nanny had stabbed two of her children to death with a kitchen knife and stacked their bodies in the tub.

Only after locking eyes with the mother and hearing the children’s third sibling begin to scream, Krim said, did the nanny turn a knife on herself, stabbing her neck and damaging her vocal cords. When she awoke two days later, she was mute — but, according to police and prosecutors, she managed to deliver an incriminating rant anyway. By mouthing words and pointing at an alphabet board, the nanny complained, “I had to do everything and take care of the kids.” She listed grievances about her schedule and her boss. In subsequent days, she would apologize for what she’d done, beg to be put out of her misery, and seem to blame the parents again. (The jury heard only the first alphabet-board rant. Judge Gregory Carro threw out much of the rest.)

The brutal story tapped into a host of New York anxieties. A city of working parents worries about the children when their parents are away. An affluent cohort wonders uneasily what becomes of their nannies’ children and their nannies’ lives while the nannies tend to theirs. The perpetually fraught question of what it means to be a good parent — and especially a good mother — comes up against an unimaginable worst-case scenario. And in a place where everyone lives cheek by jowl with strangers, the essential mysteries of civilization seem to expand. How can you build a life brushing past hundreds of people every day on the street, knowing that no matter how many friends, heroes, and good neighbors you encounter, you will also cross paths with those capable of inhumanity? Worse: What if your heroes and friends — or people who seem like them — are themselves capable of inhumanity? The fundamental horror of the case is so arresting that it’s already inspired a literary thriller called The Perfect Nanny, which arrived Stateside in January after a best-selling stint in France.

Dubbed the “killer nanny” in the tabloid press, Ortega is pleading not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect — she acknowledges she killed the children but says she was too sick to understand the consequences or morality of what she was doing. Ortega, 55, will likely spend the rest of her life locked up; the court will decide whether it’s in a mental hospital or a prison.

Over the course of two weeks, assistant district attorneys Stuart Silberg and Courtney Groves called 27 witnesses, all of whom had firsthand experience with the crime, the defendant, or both. First was Marina, who’d been holding middle child Nessie’s hand when she walked in on the nanny. Last was father Kevin Krim, who’d been on an airplane when the crime took place — landing to a cavalcade of texts and emails, he learned that two of his children had died, but didn’t know how or why. As a pair of NYPD officers escorted him to the hospital, he saw a voice message from Marina: When he hit play, he recalled, “I just heard this background noise of screaming.”

In between the parents’ testimonies, there was the sprawling network of people whose daily lives had in some way intersected with the crime. The apartment building’s superintendent, who lived in the unit below the Krims, heard Marina’s screams and ran upstairs; he was the second person to see Ortega standing over the children, covered in blood. (She had “the eyes of the Devil,” he said.) There were two doormen, one of whom said the first time he’d heard Ortega speak was on the day of the crime, when she asked, “Is Mom home?” (No, he had replied.)

The witness list included two of Marina’s friends from the Upper West Side, both of whom had hired Ortega for short stretches of child care and domestic help. After listening to each New Yorker explain how she’d balanced caution against trust in safeguarding her home, I thought about the strangers and near strangers I’ve let into mine. There are neighbors, friends of friends, guys I met at bars, locksmiths, a plumber, and door-knockers who want to tell me about green energy. There are delivery guys I buzz in without a second thought. Once, I invited two gun-carrying strangers into my home. They had police badges and were investigating a theft in my building. As a courtesy, they checked my locks — and informed me my deadbolt was broken.

The persistent mystery of strangers exists in the courtroom too. Most people attending the Ortega murder trial seem perfectly normal and pleasantly boring. There’s a rotating cast of legal professionals, journalists, law students. There is also a woman who recites conspiracy theories about the case and asks if I think crime-scene photos of the children’s bodies will be made public. (On the day the medical examiner testifies, this woman gets into trouble for using her cell phone.) There is a man who arrives every day with a stack of newspapers flipped open to the latest Ortega-trial news. When I ask people why they’re there, many don’t want to tell me — by asking, I make myself into the disconcerting stranger they dread.

Defense attorneys Valerie Van Leer-Greenberg and Evan Van Leer-Greenberg (a mother-son duo) have now begun to offer Ortega’s version of the story, including psychiatric diagnoses she received in the hospital post-crime, testimony that drove Ortega to tears for the first time. As the trial continues, the defense will likely build a dark fairy tale of their own: one about losing everything, including your mind. During opening statements, Valerie Van Leer-Greenberg claimed that Ortega heard voices and suffered from delusions from a young age. (Witnesses for the prosecution, including a therapist Ortega saw three days before the murders, dispute this.) Fearing stigma, they say, she hid her illness, relying instead on religion for comfort. At the time the Krim children were murdered, the defense claims, Ortega was hearing voices and suffering from tactile hallucinations, which included feeling as though the Devil was entering her body. Yes, this is the fabled “Devil made me do it” defense.

Regardless of which story wins, everyone agrees on this: Yoselyn Ortega killed two children. When she slashed Leo’s neck, medical examiner Susan Ely testified, the knife went so deep it struck the 2-year-old’s spine. Lucia suffered 22 stab wounds to the neck. Cuts to Lucia’s arms and deep, twisting stab wounds on the back and front of her torso indicated “quite a lot of struggle and movement to get away from this knife.” The 6-year-old had fought her nanny and tried to flee. Both children died of exsanguination — a process that takes minutes, not seconds. “I can tell you the story of a body,” Ely said. “Bodies don’t lie.”

*This article appears in the March 19, 2018, issue of New York Magazine.

Watching the Nanny Trial Is Impossible. So Is Looking Away.