Even at just 7 years old, Zachary Merdy had a quiet determination to play the best football he could.
“He was a very excited young man, and thrilled with everything that was going on with the program, and being a part of football,” the little boy’s coach Allen McFarland tells Inside Edition Digital.
McFarland is one of many in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Coney Island who were stunned to learn Zachary and his 4-year-old sister Liliana Merdy and 3-month-old brother Oliver Bondarev had died after being drowned in the waters of the Brooklyn beach Monday. Those feelings of shock and despair only intensified when word spread of who was suspected of committing the unimaginable crime: the children’s mother.
Erin Merdy, 30, of Brooklyn was arrested Wednesday and charged with three counts of murder with intention and depraved indifference in the killings of her three young children, police said. Her arrest came a day after the New York City chief medical examiner’s office ruled the children had been intentionally drowned. She had initially been hospitalized Monday for a psychiatric evaluation after being questioned at the 60th Precinct stationhouse, officials said.
Police responded to a 911 call about 1:40 a.m. from Merdy’s sister who was concerned she was going to hurt the children. They discovered Merdy barefoot and soaking wet on the boardwalk in Brighton Beach about 90 minutes later, Kenneth Corey, the chief of the department, told reporters at a press conference that day.
Merdy’s children were not with her.
Officers said they found the boy, girl and infant about two miles away, along the shoreline in the vicinity of West 35 Street and the Boardwalk, unconscious and unresponsive. EMS responded to the location and rushed the three aided children to Coney Island Hospital, where they were pronounced dead, police said.
Video footage shows Merdy calmly walking with her children to the ocean in the middle of the night, police sources told WABC-TV.
“Every time I think about it, it just, wow,” McFarland tells Inside Edition Digital. McFarland, founder of the Coney Island Silverbacks youth football team for which Zachary played, said a fellow coach told him Zachary had been killed.
“I was shocked and in disbelief at the very beginning,” he says. “It just felt like everything just went quiet. When everything just went quiet, it’s like a real airy feeling, and I’m like, ‘wow.'”
Like many others in Brooklym, McFarland and his fellow coaches have been especially struck by the killings, one of the most heinous crimes against children in New York City’s recent history.
“Just to me, the situation is very just, it’s very difficult and very tough,” McFarland tells IED. “As a child, you think that the safest place and the safest person that you can possibly be with at a time would be your mom. At the same time that can be your last walk. The 7-year old or 4-year-old [may have been thinking], ‘We’re going to the beach.’ At any time you hear, ‘We’re going to the beach’ as a child,” McFarland says excitedly … “[But] in those moments, [instead] feeling hopeless, scared and confused, [thinking] ‘what the hell is going on?’”
Football was a safe space for Zachary, who often relied on his coaches to pick him up so he could attend practice.
“He was a nice, good young man. Very quiet, but also very expressive and lovable,” McFarland says of the young athlete. “Always laughing, smiling, excited. The word I would use for him would be excited. Excited.”
Zachary played receiver, linebacker and lineman for the team, helping the Coney Island Silverbacks go on to win a championship last year. He had a bright future in the sport, his coach says.
“Definitely, definitely high school,” McFarland tells IED. “Definitely high school. The purpose of us is pushing these young men to go to high school … to play football, you have to do good in school.”
Talking to Zachary’s teammates about what happened to their friend has been difficult. But McFarland felt it important to hold practice on Monday as they normally would.
“As we came together, and as the kids started trickling to the park and stuff like that, we gathered them up and we broke the news to the kids,” he says. “They took it very, very hard, especially the ones that understood life and death … It was a very sad moment. We got them all together, we did a group hug, and we said a nice prayer before the start of practice.”
Zachary’s team went on to hold a tribute for the little boy that same day, releasing balloons with his jersey’s number, 15, and yelling “Zachary, we love you,” the New York Post reported.
Though McFarland knew he must put on a brave face for the children, he is struggling with making sense of the senseless.
“It’s devastating. It’s difficult. What do you say to young men at that age that, hey, listen, this has happened, and in this way? Because kids have questions,” he tells IED.
Erin Merdy, the children’s mother, appeared to be “juggling a lot,” McFarland says.
The city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) found evidence to support a claim of neglect or abuse against Merdy in 2020, a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity told The New York Times. The agency told the Times it could not discuss Merdy pending the outcome of its investigation into the deaths of the children.
Derrick Merdy, Zachary’s father and Merdy’s ex-husband, told the Times he fought for years to get custody of his son. He said he called authorities about concerns over Zachary’s welfare. An ACS employee who spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity said it had not filed a petition in family court against Merdy, which is required to seek court-ordered supervision of the family or removal of children from her custody.
Merdy’s alleged actions appear to have been premeditated and not the result of a spur of the moment decision, police told WABC-TV. Investigators are examining if postpartum depression that led to postpartum psychosis could have played a role in the killings, WABC-TV reported. Merdy’s relatives have told authorities she had been taking anti-depressants, but was off her medication. She will not speak to police, but her family said she told them she drowned her children, officials told WABC-TV.
Merdy has prior incidents of alleged harassment and aggravated harassment that did not result in charges, but had never before been arrested or any documented history of being emotionally disturbed, police told the news station.
Investigators are interviewing neighbors and relatives to learn more about Merdy’s past. Officials also told ABC-TV that Merdy had been served with an eviction notice for allegedly not paying her rent since sometime last year.
When asked if Zachary appeared to be lacking any sort of care, McFarland said, “So that’s kind of a tricky one as well, for myself. Being a young parent and having that type of weight on your shoulders doesn’t mean that she wasn’t attentive to him, but she could have… Sometimes it seemed like just things were rushed a little bit.”
The children’s loved ones are planning to hold a funeral for them this week.
“(I) send the condolences to the family, and hope they find peace and understanding in this difficult time,” McFarland says.