Sorel's Way

She died in her apartment just five doors down from the 9th precinct— murdered. A loner and, perhaps, one of the last Bohemians

Barbara Sorel lived a lonely, thwarted, marginal life. As she always used to tell her few friends, who knew her only as Sorel, she was everything America hated: a Jewish, lesbian, communist drug dealer. She had been living alone and isolated in a tiny, unkempt studio apartment on the fourth floor of 331 East 5th Street since the mid '70s, rarely interacting, much less sharing intimacy, with anyone. She died that way, too.

The police guess that Sorel, 54, had been dead nearly two weeks when they found her at 1 p.m. on September 7, just five doors down from the 9th Precinct, face down on the white futon on the floor of her apartment. Her hands were tied in front of her and her legs were bound. Her head was wrapped like a mummy, her nose and mouth were sealed with duct tape, and her frail, fully clothed, approximately 5-foot-tall, 95-pound frame was covered with a blanket.

According to a spokesperson at the Medical Examiner's office, the cause of death was suffocation. There were no signs of forced entry, and there was apparently no evidence of sexual assault. The body was so badly decomposed by the time they found it, however, that according to Sorel's brother, Edward, a psychologist who lives in Ithaca, the police relied on dental records to identify the body.

Detail from Marcella S. Nelson's cover illustration for Sorel in Love, a self-published memoir
Portrait of Sorel by Marcella S. Nelson, oil on canvas, 1984
Detail from Marcella S. Nelson's cover illustration for Sorel in Love, a self-published memoir

"They told me to hold off on coming down to identify her," he said, "because they didn't think I would recognize her."

From the description the police gave him, Edward suspects that his sister might have been tortured before she died. The perpetrators may well have been looking for cash and/or stashes of cocaine that one friend recalls Sorel having once plastered into a hole in the wall for safekeeping. (Several friends said that Sorel probably did not have a bank account, and must have kept most of her money in the apartment.) The police believe a possible motive could be robbery.

Though the police seem genuinely puzzled by the death, and have said nothing to Sorel's family and friends about any promising leads, it seems plausible that she may have been murdered by other drug dealers, perhaps her suppliers. Other cases like this have surfaced recently. For example, three weeks ago (probably just about the time Sorel was murdered) several members of a Colombian gang ambushed and killed a retired police detective in the Bronx. One gang member, Fernando Colorado, was fatally shot during the attack, and an address book found in his pocket enabled investigators to link Colorado and the gang to a series of robberies in six states. Some of the victims were drug suppliers and dealers. No official link has been made, however, between the Sorel murder/robbery and the fugitive Colombian gang.

Looking through the window from the fire escape into Sorel's apartment, you can see what look like small bloodstains at the foot of the futon and on the floor next to it, where a pair of white rubber kitchen gloves are lying discarded. A large old ceiling fan softly tills the air and rustles the thick black dust motes dangling around the room. The mirror on the vanity, which stands against the far wall, is covered with hundreds of black flies, some of which take off periodically to slowly circle the room. On the other side of the apartment door— the side that faces the inner hallway, and the side on which Sorel stenciled her name above a pale blue plastic star, in mock imitation of a diva's dressing room— someone has hung ribbons of flypaper to catch the strays that are buzzing around the fluorescent lights.

Smelling a "foul odor" that seemed to be emanating from Sorel's apartment, an upstairs neighbor was the first person to peek through the window on the fire escape and see Sorel's feet protruding from a thermal blanket, said another neighbor, Craig Osbern. The upstairs resident has been burning sage in a teacup outside her door ever since, in hopes of dispelling both the remnant stench of death and the spiritual pall that surrounds the building.

After she discovered the body, the tenant told Bob, the building's superintendent, to call the police. In what almost seems a grotesque parody of the fierce competition among New Yorkers for affordable housing in the Village, Bob had only this to say about Sorel's death and the empty rent-stabilized apartment that her obituary unwittingly put on the market: "People are fighting for that apartment. They don't give a damn about the murder."

Osbern, a friend of Sorel's for 15 years, lives above her apartment and to one side. He is the only neighbor who admits hearing anything unusual in the last few weeks. He said he remembers hearing what he thought was a scream in the middle of the night a couple of weeks ago.

"But in New York you hear these things all the time," he said. "I waited a while and nothing happened, so I went back to bed."

Osbern described Sorel as a dedicated writer and intellectual who sold drugs only as a means of supporting herself so that she could write day in and day out, which she did religiously, he says. He also described her as a loner, and a person for whom social interaction was extremely difficult.

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