NEW YORK — “New York City 911,” the emergency dispatcher answered. “Do you need police, fire or medical?”

“I need police — 312 Riverside Drive,” the caller said in a hushed voice. “The lady in Room 340 on the third floor is cutting herself. She’s mentally ill. She’s buck naked, and she’s mentally ill, and she’s cutting herself with a razor.”

The dispatcher asked follow-up questions and assured the man, “Help is on the way.”

That call, just past midnight on Dec. 16, was the first of five that day reporting dire emergencies at that same address. Fights, stabbings, sexual assaults, shots fired — all at 312 Riverside Drive. It was the location of thousands of 911 calls going back more than two years — without question, the most dangerous address in all of New York City by this measure.

Again and again, police officers had raced to the tree-lined block of the Upper West Side, between West 103rd and 104th streets. Firefighters and paramedics met them there.

But the responses all ended the same way: The emergency vehicles turned and left, their sirens off. The police, over time, stopped responding to the calls at all.

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Because there is no 312 Riverside Drive.

The calls had been treated like emergencies; now they were a mystery. Who was making them? Why? Was it a coordinated attempt to disrupt the police or an epic, yearslong prank?

Detectives eventually traced the calls to a single cellphone in a building on West 43rd Street that had once been the Hotel Times Square but for years has offered affordable housing and counseling to vulnerable men and women in the city.

The police found the phone on the 14th floor and, with it, the man behind every call.

And so the mystery became a puzzle — one that has confounded an entire team of lawyers, caregivers and social workers. His remarkable case is an extreme example of a familiar dynamic. It is one that plays out all over New York when the city’s law enforcement apparatus is confronted with people whose behavior is erratic or delusional but who do not seem to pose any real danger to others.

This tension feels immediate in New York City, where people returning to their offices after months at home are facing reminders of some of the most visible ways mental illness manifests itself on subway platforms or street corners. A vein of behavior outside the norms runs through the streets, not easily addressed by handcuffs or medication.

One man with a cellphone has created enough havoc to be hauled over and over into court, but not enough to warrant a prison cell. He knows it’s wrong, and he apologizes to the judge, but he won’t stop.

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Help is always on the way, but it never quite reaches him.

Decades of trouble

Vickie Mwitanti walked into her office building near the criminal courthouse on lower Manhattan’s Centre Street in June and entered the elevator, pushing the button for the 20th floor. She was a lawyer with the New York County Defender Services, a churning and grinding job that can make idealistic young people cynical and exhausted. But three years in, she felt invigorated by the work. She had just been assigned a new client with an unusual case.

Before the elevator doors shut, a tall, older man, 70 and wearing thick eyeglasses, darted inside. He smiled.

“We bonded over the weather, but it was not small talk,” Mwitanti said later. “He complimented my dress, and we had this engaging back and forth.”

When the elevator arrived at 20, both of them got out. She heard the man approach the front desk of her office, and she realized that he was her new client.

He was not what she had expected. “He was just so warm and kind and sweet,” she recalled later.

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His name was Walter Reed.

Reed had arrived in New York City in the late 1990s, well into his 40s, and trouble followed.

He was arrested and charged with petty crimes starting in the late 1990s and in 2002 was caught stealing a camera and a phone from someone’s hotel room in midtown. When the owner of the property confronted him, Reed struck that person in the face, according to prosecutors.

He was convicted of burglary and sent to prison, where he served almost six years.

Upon his release, Reed seems to have drifted from shelter to shelter, trailed by arrests for trespassing, larceny and drug possession. He had begun using crack cocaine and in 2018 was arrested for selling a small bag of the drug to an undercover officer for $60 outside his apartment building.

This time, after pleading guilty, he was sentenced in the alternative-to-incarceration program of the court, in which defendants can attend regular meetings with counselors and meet other requirements to avoid jail time.

Reed was in many ways a model candidate for the program, an enthusiastic attendant at meetings with counselors and doctors.

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In other ways, he was an abject failure. He consistently tested positive for controlled substances, but more troublesome, in many ways, was his newer habit, one that gripped him as tightly as any drug: a daily, even hourly fixation with a hotel on Riverside Drive that he had imagined from thin air.

‘3-1-2 Riverside’

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the 911 calls began. But in 2020, there were 1,937 calls to that location. In 2021, that number grew to 2,336.

The calls brought real-world responses to the stately, art deco tower known as the Master Building located at 310 Riverside Drive — next to where 312 Riverside would be, if it existed. The Master opened to fanfare in 1929, and none other than Albert Einstein wrote the building’s designers with congratulations and regrets for missing the celebration. Over the years, the Master Building was home to artists, a museum, an art school and a theater.

Now it is a renovated apartment building and the setting for Reed’s delusions.

“We get firemen coming in asking about 312,” said Dawn Bent, a concierge at the Master Building. “Firemen and cops. When the night guy works, too.”

The 911 calls were often announced simultaneously over the popular Citizen app, which reports nearby emergencies on users’ phones.

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Charles Gross, 27, who lives near that corner of West 103rd Street, described looking with shock at his app and its drumbeat of reports of crime at 312 Riverside. “Stabbing,” he said. “Assault. Distress.” He said he would run to his window for a closer look: “But it’s always silent.”

In January 2021, one woman spoke up at the 24th Precinct’s monthly community meeting and asked about 312 Riverside: “What’s going on here?”

The question was hardly unusual. “I would say it comes up each meeting,” Deputy Inspector Naoki Yaguchi, the commanding officer of the 24th Precinct, said in an interview this summer. “Sometimes every other meeting. ‘What’s going on over there? Should I be worried?’”

New officers had similar reactions. “It was a rite of passage,” Yaguchi said. “There is obviously a sense of excitement that they’re about to go to this very serious call, until the training officer beside them says, ‘Relax, kid. It’s just a fake call.’”

He explained the situation at the 2021 meeting, as he has many times since. “That is an individual that’s basically making fake 911 calls,” he said, according to the blog Westside Rag. “He perceives that something is actually going on in that place.”

In 2022, by late March, the calls about 312 Riverside were on pace to beat the prior year’s record.

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Disturbing visions

In Reed’s mind, 312 Riverside Drive is chillingly real. He sees it as if standing outside on West 103rd Street. “You see the big numbers right on the stone wall,” he said in an interview this summer.

There is a revolving door to a lobby, and on the other side, in his quietly urgent telling in call after call after call, lurks a cast of violent predators.

He describes them to dispatchers: men in hoodies and jeans, attacking an old woman on the floor. A crew with a man known as the Director, assembling what looks to him like a pipe bomb — “I’m not professional; send someone over who’s professional.”

He knows at least one person there quite well. “My girlfriend,” he said. “They won’t let her leave that building. That’s the only reason I call 911.”

Outside of this vivid, teeming, nightmarish place, Reed’s real life is quiet, even mundane. Tall and lean, he looks like a giant in his tiny apartment in Times Square, seemingly able to touch opposite walls at the same time. He greeted a visitor with a warm handshake and a smile, offering a seat in his tidy room. Sitting before a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. and a “Hunger Games” movie poster tacked to the wall, he was a laid-back, friendly host and conversationalist.

“I keep a low profile,” he said. A favorite outing is Washington Square Park, to listen to the free jazz.

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In the years since the pandemic began, a city reckoning with an increase in some types of crime has focused its attention on shocking acts of violence perpetrated by mentally ill people. But far more common is the individual whose behavior derails his own life but is little more than a nuisance to anyone else — the Walter Reeds, who would not dream of pushing someone in front of a train or opening fire in a crowded subway car but whose cases account for countless hours in court, counseling sessions, medical appointments and other city services.

At ease in his modest room, Reed spoke of his family and of his lawyers, whom he thinks of as blood at this point: “I love them so much.” He worked at the grocery store Gristedes in recent years, sweeping up, and hopes to return, he said. He likes work and was known to show up early. But with age, a new pain has crept into his legs, and walking is slow.

Sixty blocks uptown from his apartment is the corner of West 103rd Street and Riverside Drive and the Master Building. There is no stone with the number 312.

A life lost

On Dec. 16, 1971, with the Vietnam War pulling thousands of young men out of their homes and neighborhoods and into the front lines, a 20-year-old from New Brunswick, New Jersey, named Walter Reed arrived to join their number.

He was born in Connecticut in 1951 but had been sent to New Jersey as a preschooler after his mother, a widow, died unexpectedly of an overdose. He lived with relatives; his brother, Lawrence Reed, lived nearby with another family.

Against these difficult odds, Walter Reed came through OK. He was a funny kid, a character. He finished high school and enrolled at Rutgers University. He fixed his hair just so and sang in any R&B band that would have him. He had a girlfriend named Gardenia.

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Then came the Army. It is unclear whether he was drafted or he enlisted, but he showed up. He did not last long, leaving just weeks later, on Jan. 29, 1972, with an honorable discharge.

He would not fight in Vietnam, nor would he die there. He seemed to seize upon this great relief with a newfound embrace of life. He and Gardenia became parents months after his discharge. They named their daughter Lakenya and married a month later. He worked a steady job at a factory that made corrugated boxes.

But that apparent happiness lasted only a few years. The couple split: “They were just young and didn’t know,” said Rosa Jeter, 94, his former mother-in-law.

Then, in 1994, Gardenia died of cancer. She was only 38.

Their daughter, by then in her early 20s, could take care of herself. Walter Reed was alone. He moved to Massachusetts and lived with family for a while. Then, in the late 1990s, he arrived in New York.

‘This case could break you’

Sam Sloane, an attorney at the New York defenders’ office, was monitoring courtroom arraignments one day in 2019 when a tall, older man approached and said his attorney had directed him here for a new MetroCard.

“He came down and started talking to me, this cool, very polite guy,” Sloane recalled. “There’s always some people you talk to and say, ‘Why is he in this building right now?’”

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He came to learn more about the man, Reed, and his case, and eventually became his lawyer. When he left on parental leave this summer, Sloane handed his files to Mwitanti.

“This was probably the most stressful case to transfer to someone else,” he said. “It’s the kind of guy who requires a lot of patience. And curiosity. I remember telling her, ‘This case could break you, as it has literally almost broken myself.’ At the same time, it’s why you at least say you want to do this work.”

They both teamed with a forensic caseworker, Taylor Garzone, who, like the attorneys, has spoken at great length with Reed and sought to understand his compulsions and his attachment to a sinister building that no one else can see.

“There’s something about that location that reminds him of his previous trauma,” Garzone said. “He genuinely believes that someone is in danger, someone’s being harmed there.”

Sloane said Reed often calls him in the middle of the night. He does not answer, and Reed leaves long voicemail messages.

“He’s not sleeping. He’s lonely. He can’t get his mind to stop racing,” Sloane said. “There’s some sort of catharsis or comforting feeling he gets when he calls. There’s a need to explain the whole situation over and over. He’ll call me the next day, and you can tell he’s calmed himself down.”

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There is no magic pill to stop calling 911. Reed has been medicated to stabilize his anxieties in recent months, with signs of success. His surest path to being released from the court system is to show continued abstinence from drugs and 911 calls.

In court hearings, judges reminded him of the importance of self-control. He promised to comply.

A week or so after he was sent home, on June 6, just after midnight, a dispatcher answered a call about an assault in progress — in a hotel at 312 Riverside Drive.

Then, one day this summer, Reed accidentally broke his phone.

While this was a relief to the 911 system, it brought Reed new hardships. His lawyers had a far more difficult time reaching him. He missed court-mandated appointments with counselors, perhaps because he was not aware of them or could not call to reschedule. In August, he missed an appointment in Harlem where he was to be given a new phone.

At a hearing in August, the judge, Ruth Pickholz, who has overseen Reed’s case for years, voiced her displeasure and urged him to get a new phone.

“Nobody wants this, but if it continues like this, if you’re not going, we’re going to have to remand you to jail,” Pickholz said. “I’m going to issue a bench warrant for your arrest. I don’t want to do that, but I will.”

Reed lowered his head. Mwitanti reached over and gently rubbed his back.

It was an irony bordering on the absurd: A man whose life has been upended in large part because of his misuse of his cellphone was being scolded, even threatened with arrest, for issues stemming from his no longer having a cellphone.