Drifter Dwight Johnson was on the subway with his bag on the seat next to him when another passenger demanded it be moved because he wanted the spot, even though there were plenty of empty seats on the late-night train.
The two argued briefly over the bag before Gerardo Sanchez, an exterminator still in uniform, snapped, police said. He pulled a knife and stabbed Johnson to death in front of horrified passengers on the "D" train early Saturday, police said.
On Monday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended what happened next: Passengers were briefly trapped with the suspect and the bleeding victim because police kept the subway doors closed as they combed the cars looking for the crime scene.
"Letting everybody run in every direction and have a murderer back on the streets doesn't make a lot of sense to me," Bloomberg said.
Immediately after the stabbing, someone pulled the emergency cord and the train screeched to a halt between Manhattan's Rockefeller Center and the next stop further north. Police said the 37-year-old Sanchez pried open the doors and dropped the knife on the tracks.
Just minutes later, the train was moving again as the engineer radioed ahead, and police met the train when it pulled into the station at 53rd Street. One door was opened as police worked their way back to the crime scene. Sanchez was arrested as he stood over the body, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Monday. The arrest took just minutes. No one else was injured.
Sanchez pleaded not guilty to charges of murder. His Legal Aid attorney did not immediately return a call seeking comment. His brother, Louis Sanchez, told reporters that the family was struggling to understand what happened.
"He's a family man, he's not a beast," the brother told reporters after the arraignment Sunday.
Louis Sanchez told the Daily News that his brother recently had been hurt in a workplace accident and had been taking pain medication. He was being held without bail.
Johnson, 36, died at the scene. Little was known about him, and there was no number at the address provided by police.
Bloomberg noted the subways are safer than ever, and there had not been a slaying in the subway system this year.
"I have empathy for everybody that is in danger," the mayor said of the passengers on the train with the suspect. "The truth of the matter is our subways are very, very safe," he said.
About 5.2 million people ride the New York City subway every day.