“He told her he was going to ruin her or take all of them down,” her father, Kenneth Schlecht, said. “She didn’t know if he would carry on with the threats. She was in tears, a basket case.”
On Wednesday night, her worst fears were realized. Police found her decapitated body in the bathroom and the couple’s daughter’s body in a bedroom. The daughter’s throat had been slit. The body of her husband, Yonathan Tedla, was found hanging in a bedroom, police said.
Police officials said they believed the husband was responsible for all three deaths. They also said the couple was in the middle of a divorce proceeding.
As crime statistics continue to plummet citywide, the horrific murder-suicide in Harlem is a stark reminder that domestic violence remains a problem in the nation’s biggest city.
Nearly 560 New Yorkers were killed in domestic violence incidents from 2010 to 2018, according to an annual city report. More than half of those victims were killed by spouses or partners. Almost 50 of these victims — nearly all of them women — were killed by a partner who then took his or her own life, the report said.
Police said they had no record of domestic incidents at the location in Harlem. But officials and family members said Jennifer Schlecht had filed an order of protection in 2016.
“He said he was not going to lose,” her father said Thursday morning. “That he always wins.”
Kenneth Schlecht, 75, said the family hadn’t heard from Jennifer Schlecht since their worrisome phone call four days earlier. The family phoned her repeatedly Wednesday, but she didn’t pick up. “It was not like her,” her father said. After 9 p.m. the family called 911 and asked police to check on her.
“They had to break into the floor and found three bodies,” he said. The couple’s daughter, who the grandfather called Abnysh, had just turned 5 in September.
“How do you do this? Kill your own child?” he said.
He said his daughter had married Tedla about seven years ago. They met at Columbia University, where she studied public health and social work. He added that his daughter was a giving person who often traveled to Kenya and other African countries to help the needy.
Jennifer Schlecht worked for the United Nations Foundation in New York, officials said. According to her LinkedIn page, she was a senior adviser specializing in reproductive health, humanitarian response and other issues.
Her co-workers said that after years of helping women and girls in Africa get access to health care, she continued her efforts out of the foundation’s New York office to spend more time with her daughter.
“She delighted in telling us about her daughter’s first day of kindergarten and the clothes she picked out all by herself,” said Beth Schlachter, an executive with the foundation. “That she should die under such brutal circumstances is beyond our understanding. But we will all remember her for her life — and the thousands of lives she enriched — rather than the horrible way she died.”
Tedla worked as a computer contractor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in the population and family health department.
When the Schlecht family first met Tedla, who was originally from Ethiopia, he seemed like a “very smart, clever person,” Kenneth Schlecht said. But later, he added, Tedla became violent toward Jennifer Schlecht, and she tried for years to leave him. He refused to go, ripping up the divorce papers each time.
“She could not change the locks as long as he legally lived there,” her father said. “She was planning to serve him divorce papers and an order of protection first.”
On Thursday morning, detectives could be seen walking out of the second-floor Harlem brownstone carrying crime scene evidence in white plastic bags. Distraught neighbors cried and consoled each other as news crews roamed the placid block.
The family’s turmoil had not been apparent, neighbors said. Tedla seemed to dote on his young daughter and was often seen in the neighborhood carrying her on his shoulders, they said. “He looked really, really happy all the time,” one neighbor said. “He was always smiling.”
Another neighbor, Jane Chancellor, 82, said she occasionally saw the family, and neither parent mentioned they were going through a divorce.
“I talked to him yesterday,” Chancellor said of Tedla, breaking into tears. “I clean the sidewalk, and he jogs every day, and he stretches and we joke.”
She said she could not fathom how he had killed his daughter, whom she called “a precious thing.”
“How could he!” she said.
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