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Two Young Women with Big City Dreams Found Dead in Upper West Side Double Murder
N.Y.P.D. detectives had to comb through several suspects when uncovering why two Times Square dancers were strangled to death in their home.
What should have been a night of fun and games turned into an early morning double murder, sending cops on the hunt for no less than one killer.
On December 19, 1992, at around 9:00 a.m., N.Y.P.D. Detective Darryl Hayes was sent to the scene of a suspicious death on W. 109th Street, part of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The super of the building reported leaking from the apartment of roommates Nikki Silas, 20, and Brittany Rojas, 19, and couldn’t access the home.
“He was getting no response from knocking on the door,” Hayes told New York Homicide, airing Saturdays at 9/8c on Oxygen. “So, he goes up to the roof and comes down the fire escape until he gets to the fifth-floor landing and peers through the window.”
The building manager made a grisly discovery.
How did Nikki Silas and Brittany Rojas die?
When police arrived, they found Rojas dead in a bathtub, a ligature still wrapped around her neck. It seemed there was “a major struggle” in the flooded bathroom, according to Hayes, who noted that sink items were dumped onto the floor and the toilet was shifted from its regular position.
Rojas’ roommate, Nikki Silas, was found dead on a bed just down the hall. She, too, had been strangled, and there was evidence to suggest she’d been sexually assaulted, resulting in a D.N.A. sample that could be useful in the investigation.
A post-mortem examination revealed both women died of asphyxiation.
“There was no broken windows or locks,” said N.Y.P.D. Detective Rashida Jupiter. “So, in theory, Nikki and Brittany must have known their killers and let them in.”
Near the bed where Silas’ body lay, detectives found a handwritten note containing directions to the apartment from Queens, New York. Evidence also indicated signs of a party, including playing cards and snacks.
During a neighborhood canvas, police found a witness who claimed to have seen Silas at around 6:00 a.m. that day, walking her dog with an unknown Black male. The building’s super recalled that at around 8:00 a.m. — about an hour before he made the chilling discovery — he saw two unfamiliar men leaving the women’s apartment and coming down the stairs about 30 to 40 minutes apart.
According to Det. Hayes, the first man seemed upset, while the second man was “in a rush,” carrying a duffel bag containing a mini safe. The building’s super didn’t think much of it at the time.
Rojas and Silas' Dancing Careers
Rojas was a New York City native, described as a “fearless” city girl with a rough background, according to former Village Voice writer Kathy Dobie. She was born soon after her father passed away and dropped out of school in the 10th grade, saving up money to pursue her dreams of one day becoming an actress.
Silas grew up in a tight-knit family based in Pembroke, Massachusetts, where she sang and danced at talent shows and on local television programs. Her brother, Damon Silas, said she wanted to chase her dreams of making it in show biz.
“Nikki was never not gonna go to New York,” said Damon. “That was, for her, the Mecca.”
Silas’ mother, Karen Silas, said her daughter was “too trusting” of people, which might have accounted for why someone wanted to put her in harm’s way.
But as many an aspiring starlet could attest, making it big in New York was no easy feat. Silas found some success by finding roles in a Mariah Carey music video and Shabba Ranks’ “Slow and Sexy,” but soon shifted into the adult entertainment scene that once dominated the city’s seedy Times Square.
Silas found work as an exotic dancer at the Show World peep show, where she met Rojas, a fellow dancer.
“That was tough for her,” Damon Silas said of his sister. “She didn’t want to do that; it was very dangerous. It was a dangerous place to be.”
Silas invited Rojas to be her roommate just one month before the murders.
New York’s Finest Look into Multiple Suspects
Nikki Silas’s loved ones cast their suspicions onto a former boyfriend named “Cooley,” who reportedly had a criminal background.
“Nikki told me he was physically abusive,” Karen Silas said. “My boys didn’t like him. My husband didn’t like him. And it was just an uncomfortable feeling that there was something off.”
Police tracked the ex to his place of work at New York’s famous Apollo Theater, and while “Cooley” admitted to being violent, he denied any connection to the double homicide. Ultimately, he offered an air-tight alibi, which checked out.
Police next looked into possible connections to the women’s work in Times Square, where violence and sex crimes were rampant, soon finding Rojas had a “strong admirer,” according to Det. Hayes.
“While staking out Show World, he walks right through the door,” Det. Jupiter told New York Homicide.
The supposed admirer confessed feelings for Rojas but denied having anything to do with the double homicide. Eventually, an alibi would place him away from the crime scene, leaving investigators back at square one.
A Crucial Phone Call Helps Break the Case
Phone records of incoming and outgoing calls from the women’s apartment returned about two weeks after the murders of Silas and Rojas.
“It was the last outgoing call on Dec. 19, the morning of the murders, that stands out,” according to Det. Jupiter.
The call — which lasted less than two minutes — was placed to a home in Queens, prompting investigators to visit the residence. A woman said she remembered a male calling around the time of the murders and yelling on the answering machine, but she couldn’t say who it was on the other end of the call. The woman told police she threw the phone out after destroying it during a fight with her boyfriend, Timothy Brown.
Though police never recovered the message, Brown told detectives the call came from 21-year-old Antoine Atterbury.
“What Timothy recalls is basically that there’s a lot of screaming on the phone from his friend, that somebody had been wanting to rob somebody in that apartment and rape them,” Det. Hayes told New York Homicide. “And he wanted no part of it, and he was leaving, and hung up.”
Brown led detectives to Atterbury’s Queens home, which “matched perfectly” to the handwritten directions found at the crime scene, according to Det. Jupiter.
Atterbury allowed detectives to enter his home, where Det. Hayes quickly noticed a mini safe matching the one taken from the Upper West Side apartment. Atterbury, however, said the safe came from his roommate, 22-year-old Kevin Ladson, who’d reportedly stolen a bunch of goods, including the safe, jewelry, and C.D.s.
Atterbury and Ladson were soon taken in for questioning.
“Kevin [Ladson] is not cooperative, but he doesn’t point the finger at Antoine,” Det. Jupiter told New York Homicide. “He just keeps saying, ‘I didn’t do what you say I did.’”
How did the suspects know Nikki Silas and Brittany Rojas?
Atterbury gave detectives what they needed, saying Ladson met Brittany Rojas by chance. Ladson bumped into her as he left a barbershop and, because he found her attractive, struck up a conversation before the pair exchanged phone numbers.
On the evening of Dec. 18, 1992 — about three weeks after the chance encounter — Ladson called Rojas and asked if he and Atterbury could come over for a game of cards and light fun. Rojas, Silas, and the two young men hung out all night and well into the morning.
At around 6:00 a.m., Silas said she had to get ready for school, and Atterbury accompanied her as she took her dog for a walk, matching witness statements.
When Atterbury and Silas returned, Rojas was nowhere to be found.
“Antoine says that when he came back up to the apartment, Kevin told him, ‘I’m taking Nikki up to the room, and I’m gonna make her have sex with me,’” according to Det. Hayes. “[And] I’m taking the safe.”
Around this time, Atterbury placed the call to his friend in Queens.
“Maybe if he called 911, Nikki and Brittany would still be alive,” Kathy Dobie told New York Homicide.
The building’s super picked both Ladson and Atterbury out of a lineup as the two men he saw leaving the apartment. D.N.A. from Silas’ assault eventually matched to Ladson.
Because of water washing away evidence, it was never determined whether Rojas was the victim of rape.
Arrests, Convictions, and Forgiveness
Ladson and Atterbury were initially charged with murder. However, while the case against Ladson was a “slam dunk,” according to Det. Hayes, nothing physically tied Atterbury to the murders and sexual assault. Ultimately, Ladson was charged with robbery, rape, and murder, while Atterbury was charged with robbery only.
Detectives believe Atterbury made a run for it while Ladson committed the more serious crimes, as evidenced by Atterbury’s phone call and his leaving 30 to 40 minutes before Ladson.
“At that point, there was relief that at least they were off the street,” said Silas’ brother, Damon Silas. “That I didn’t have to have this worry anymore of this looming monster in New York City.”
Both suspects were convicted, with Ladson receiving a 40-year sentence and Atterbury getting 17 to 21 years behind bars.
Living with the impact of his sister’s murder, Damon went to grad school for clinical psychology, stating he “wanted to work with juveniles… who could potentially go down the same path that Antoine and Kevin went,” he told New York Homicide.
In 2015, Damon and his mother visited Ladson in prison.
“We started talking, and I told him, ‘I don’t hate you, but I hate what you did to me and my family,’” Karen Silas said. “And I said, ‘You took a lot of things away from me that I’ll never have.’”
According to Karen, Ladson began crying and apologized for the double murder.
“At the end of that conversation, we all actually hugged,” said Damon, something Karen called a “phenomenal” feeling of closure.
Kevin Ladson remains behind bars and will be eligible for parole in 2033. Antoine Atterbury died in 2002 of complications from diabetes.
Watch more New York Homicide Saturdays at 9/8c on Oxygen.