A Beer, a Steak Knife and a Murder: How the Lives of Two Families Changed Forever

The call to 911 came in just before 2 a.m. Something was seriously wrong with a man at the Brownsville Houses in Brooklyn. “He’s laying down, he’s bleeding,” said a woman, according to a transcript of the call. “I don’t know what happened to him… He’s bleeding from his arm and he’s laying in the hallway… Can somebody please help him?”

Forty minutes later, at 2:36 a.m. on Feb. 23, 2014, Michael Artist, 52, was pronounced dead at Brookdale Hospital. The cause of death, according to a medical examiner, was a stab wound to the heart.

Artist’s girlfriend, Latrina Crocker, now 49, had called 911, according to court files. She initially denied any involvement in Artist’s death and claimed she did not know him. It was not until detectives confronted her almost 36 hours later with a video and stills placing her at the scene that Crocker began to sob. “I didn’t mean it,” she said, according to police records.

In statements to the police, Crocker described in detail how the night unfolded. Crocker and Artist, who were involved for three years, had been drinking beer in her room in the Brownsville apartment she shared with her mother, daughter and sister. After finishing his own beer, Artist wanted to drink Crocker’s. An argument ensued, according to police reports.

“He walked out of my bedroom, and I followed him into the living room,” Crocker told police. Her mother was sleeping in another room at the time.

“We kept arguing and cursing at each other in the living room,” she continued. Artist walked out of the apartment into the hallway and then knocked on the door to come back in. Crocker opened it, she told police, a steak knife in hand. As the argument escalated, she told him to step back, but he got closer.

She told police she first “poked” Artist in the arm. She pulled the knife back, then stabbed him in the chest. Artist fell, picked his head up from the floor, made a choking sound, and then fell back again. “I was scared, I didn’t mean to do that,” she told police. Crocker said she proceeded to drag Artist by the arm into the hallway outside her apartment.

She went back into the apartment, according to the police report, and wiped the blood on the living room floor with a towel. She threw the towel into an incinerator and the knife out the window. She stepped over Artist’s body, walked down the stairs and straight to a nearby liquor store, buying her drink of choice: a half-pint of Bacardi. She called 911 somewhere along the way.

The steak knife with Artist’s blood on it was later found on the ground beneath the apartment’s window at the Brownsville Houses.

Michael Artist on the day of his sister Katrina’s wedding. (Photo courtesy of Katrina Artist)

Police, who had questioned Crocker that night, arrested her two days later on Feb. 25. Despite her claims that she was detained under insufficient evidence, hearsay and that police lied about her confessing to murder, Crocker was convicted of first-degree manslaughter on Sept. 29, 2016 in a jury trial. A month later Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Ruth Shillingford sentenced Crocker to 15 years in prison and five years’ post-release supervision. She continues to claim her innocence and is appealing her conviction.

Whatever transpired that night, the lives of those close to Artist and Crocker have been forever altered.

“Two families lost a person that day,” said Nakolle McCord, 40, a close friend of Artist’s who describes herself as his “adopted” sister. “[Crocker] has a daughter who is now motherless. What about this little girl? And of course, we lost Michael.”

A single mother with two children from separate relationships, Crocker dropped out of high school at 17 when she had her son, Anthony, who is now 31, court records show. By the time Crocker is released, her daughter, Katrina, now 19, will have spent almost 18 years without her mother. Court records indicate that Crocker was unemployed at the time of her arrest; she was receiving $141 in public assistance benefits, $367 in food stamps and $367 in rent assistance.

At the time of the murder, Katrina, then 16, was placed in the custody of her maternal grandmother, Fannie Crocker 71, according to court records. Fannie shared the Brownsville apartment with Crocker, Katrina and Crocker’s sister, Dorina Pettigrew, 48. Crocker’s family continues to reside in the apartment. And during the course of their three-year relationship, Artist also lived on-and-off in the apartment.

Crocker did not respond to a letter requesting an interview, and several requests for comment from her family also went unanswered. But hand-written letters addressed to the court prior to sentencing from family and friends portray Crocker as a good, church-going person who opened her home for those in need.

“My mom is a good mother,” her daughter wrote. “She goes around helping people in the neighborhood by giving them food and sometimes a place to sleep.”

“I knew her for 10 years of her life,” wrote Derrick Alley, a friend. “Best person in the world, give her clothes off her back.”

Pettigrew described her sister as “a good person, don’t like to fight or hurt anyone at all. . . Anybody can tell you how good her heart is. I don’t think she did that, a church going person.”

This letter written by Latrina Crocker’s daughter, Katrina, was one of several submitted to the court prior to Crocker’s sentencing.

The fondness used in describing Crocker does not lessen the loss felt by Artist’s loved ones. He leaves behind his sister, Katrina Artist, her two children, and McCord and her three children. Neither Katrina nor McCord could confirm how Artist and Crocker met, and said their own relationship with Crocker was superficial.

Both acknowledged, however, that Crocker and Artist’s relationship was beset with problems.

“Uncle Mikey,” as McCord and her children affectionately refer to Artist, “practically lived with us. He was living with us when he met Latrina. He eventually moved in with her.”

Once a process-server, Artist was a handyman taking up sporadic jobs towards the end of his life. His flexible schedule allowed him to be a pillar of support for Katrina and McCord.

“He was always there for me as a brother,” said Katrina Artist. “For years he always helped me with my kids. He helped with homework, picking them up from school. And when my kids started growing and needed less from him, he started doing the same with Nakolle’s kids as well.”

McCord’s three children were 22, 16 and 9 when Artist died. “He was around them for all their lives,” she said. “When their dads walked away, he was here for them. With my youngest, he practically helped raise him until he died. He took him to school, took care of him when I went to work. He helped with everything.”

When Artist and Crocker fought, he often retreated to stay with McCord or his sister, said McCord.

“She accused him of all kinds of stuff,” she added. “But the thing about it is he was never violent.”

Not long before his murder, Artist had stayed with his sister for a week, said Katrina Artist. “He told me [Crocker] had been violent, and that she had hit him on the shoulder in a prior incident. I don’t remember what she used, but he said he’d gone to the hospital for it.” Court records confirm Crocker admitted to stabbing Artist in the shoulder a few months before he died and that the incident went unreported.

“I tried to see if he could get into a domestic violence shelter,” said his sister. “And he started calling a few. But then he decided to go back. At that point, I decided there was nothing I could do.”

Artist’s sister said she was worried things would get out of control. “A couple of weeks before the incident, I had spoken to Latrina, and she said she wanted him out,” said Katrina Artist. At her trial Crocker had admitted she kicked Artist out because “he got on her nerves,” according to a letter from the Brooklyn District Attorney to the presiding judge on Crocker’s case.

“She said she didn’t want him there, and she didn’t want to be violent,” said Katrina Artist. “And surely that’s what happened.”

A pre-sentencing memo submitted by Crocker’s lawyer indicates that Crocker has received treatment for depression, anxiety and panic attacks at various points in her life. She has also struggled her entire adult life with alcoholism. She began drinking at the age of 19 and regularly consumed two-six packs of beer and a half-pint of Bacardi light in one day, sometimes within two, according to the sentencing memo.

McCord and Katrina Artist said that Artist had his own history of drinking, but that it never made him violent. They’re still trying to wrap their minds around how events transpired that fateful night, and how Artist and Crocker’s relationship, despite being marked by instability, could have unraveled so tragically.

“To know that someone we truly loved and who played a major role in our life was murdered over a can of beer, is hard to fathom,” wrote Katrina Artist in a letter to the court prior to Crocker’s sentencing. “There’s people out there always getting into trouble, and you think that they’re the ones that are going to go that way,” Katrina added in an interview. “But not Michael. Never Michael.”

“I still find myself asking: how can a person do this?” said McCord. “Uncle Mikey, he was just a cool dude.”

Artist’s death has had a deep impact on the families of McCord and Katrina Artist. It hit particularly hard on McCord’s youngest son, then 9, who began acting out when Artist died.

“The school called me,” said McCord. “He was quiet. There were points where he was talking to himself or having outbursts. It was a struggle. Because you see a person one day, and then all of a sudden, you’re never going to see them again. How do you explain that?”

This letter from Katrina Artist, Michael’s sister, was addressed to the court prior to Crocker’s sentencing.

Over three years later, Katrina Artist continues to heal. “It does get a bit easier with time,” she said. “I know it happened in 2014, but it still hurts. Death scares a lot of people in general. And I never expected him to leave like that. Not in such a violent way… Now, I try to just think of him at his best. I think of him dancing. He loved to dance and listen to music.”

McCord’s family is also coping. “My youngest is finally okay,” she said. “We still all go through phases…  You can’t walk around angry. We could have all walked around angry from that day. That wouldn’t get us anywhere. I had to channel my feelings so I could help my kids get through it as well.”

McCord’s two oldest children got tattoos of feathers with Artist’s name in remembrance of him. McCord coped by writing. “I cried till I couldn’t cry no more,” she added. “I pray. It’s a day-by-day healing process.”

Crocker’s 15-year sentence gave some closure, but Artist’s loved ones still struggle.

“That’s not enough time for taking someone’s life,” said Katrina Artist. “There’s never enough time for doing something like that. But that’s the system for you.”

McCord accepts that no sentence would have been satisfying.

“I am a firm believer in God,” she said. “She may not have gotten what she deserves in this life, but I do believe she will answer to a higher power in whatever follows.”