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Locked Up

Where in the World Is Yenchun Chen?

The now-folk hero who escaped DOC custody out a fifth-floor window is still free.

3:06 PM EDT on August 15, 2023

Picture this man wriggling out a fifth story window and vanishing into NYC without a trace (Photo: NYPD Crimestoppers)

Someone write a ballad about Yenchun Chen.

Chen is 44 years old, 6-foot 3-inches, weighs 250 pounds, and after being arrested in Manhattan on July 31 and arraigned on charges of drug possession, he is awaiting his next court date in the custody of the New York City Department of Correction.

Actually, no: Chen was in the custody of the Department of Correction until last Wednesday, when he made an incredible escape. 

Having complained of a heart condition, Chen was taken to Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital in Gramercy. There, Chen was allowed to take a shower in a fifth-floor bathroom, but when guards came to check on him…poof! He was gone.

Chen had, it turned out, managed to pull off a Hollywood-stuntman level escape, lowering himself on an improvised rope made of towels and bedding before leaping onto a second-floor air-conditioning unit, and from there descending to the street, where he hopped into a taxi cab and disappeared from the face of the earth.

Or had he? On Thursday—the day that DOC brass were in federal court trying to convince a federal judge that the jails aren't such a mess that they should be taken out of City control—multiple news outlets reported that Chen was back in custody, or about to be.

"Captured! Prisoner Back in Custody After Escaping," blared WABC Radio on August 10. 

An earlier version of this story from the Daily News, also published August 10, was slightly more circumspect—citing "two Correction sources and a high-ranking NYPD source," the News reported that Chen had been tracked to a New Jersey building. "Cops have surrounded that location and are awaiting a warrant to go inside," the story read.

Except…Chen wasn't back in custody! He wasn't in the New Jersey building. He remains, at the time of the publication of this story, five days after his daring escape, at large, and a free man. 

The entire episode of Chen's escape and non-recapture raises a number of questions: 

  • Why did the Department of Correction take Chen to Mount Sinai Beth Israel and not to Bellevue Hospital, which is nearby and has wards specifically designated for people in custody?
  •  Why weren't the guards tasked with keeping Chen in custody a little more on the ball? 
  • Has anyone been disciplined for letting him escape or is this just par for the course at the beleaguered department? 
  • And why were police and DOC sources telling the press that Chen had been recaptured, or on the verge of being recaptured, when he most certainly was not?

We posed all these questions to the NYPD and the Department of Correction. Both agencies confirmed that Chen remains at large, but ignored our other questions.The Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York, which brought the charges against Chen, did not respond to an email or answer their telephone.

There are some questions, though, to which only Chen has answers: 

  • How does a man built like an aging buffalo move with the nimbleness of a gecko? 
  • What does that first hit of free air taste like when you're hanging out a fifth-floor window looking out at the Manhattan skyline? 
  • Did he find himself softly humming the theme to the old Spiderman TV show as he picked his way down the face of the hospital? 
  • Will he ever know peace, or is he now condemned to a life on the run, drifting from town to town, one eye over his shoulder, always one step ahead of the law?

(Yenchun, if you want to give us any of those answers, you can email us at tips@hellgatenyc.com, just be sure not to tell us where you are.)

It is perhaps a measure of Chen's incipient folk-legend status that he has sympathizers even in the New York Post comment section, a reliable cesspool of racist mass-incarceration enthusiasm. Sprinkled in among the hang-'em-high, racial-minorities-constitute-a-criminal-scourge comments reacting to the Post's story about Chen, however, are several impressed by Chen's feat and wishing him well. 

"For a 44-year-old 250 pound cardiac patient to rappel down a five story drop to the ground is incredible. Boy Scouts should take note of the knots he used as he excels in that skill as well," commenter Dubya Dubya wrote. "Sentence him to time served and forget about him," commenter Abe Lincoln wrote. Commenter Wrath of God was even more magnanimous: "Kudos to Mr. Chen. Give that man his freedom and a dinner."

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