Eyewitness Blues

Seeing a crime was bad enough. Helping the police was a nightmare.

As Giuliani's NYPD wages its overzealous war against crime, even civilian witnesses are sometimes treated like perps.

For 23-year-old Sophie Torres*, who witnessed a stabbing at the Union Square subway station on January 31, offering to cooperate with police by giving a statement was a decision she would quickly regret. Sophie was taken upstairs to the transit police office at 1:45 a.m. and then trucked off to the 13th Precinct, where she was held captive in a room, guarded by an armed officer, for the next 22 hours. For the first 16 hours she was given nothing but a buttered roll and coffee to sustain her. It would be nine hours before she could make a single phone call.

It all began around 1 a.m. as Sophie stood waiting for the Brooklyn-bound L train to arrive.

Tim C. Okamura

An actor who moved to New York City eight months ago when she graduated from Yale, Sophie was on her way home from a rehearsal. She had just decided it would be faster to walk than to wait for the subway, and as she turned toward the stairs she heard a group of kids yelling. She realized a fight was in progress.

"At least two kids were fighting right near me and with each punch they were advancing toward me," Sophie recalls. "I was watching for a minute and then I realized they were coming right at me, so I started to walk away. I went about three steps and a gun went off." Sophie dropped to the ground and crawled behind a pole. When she peered out, she couldn't see anybody with a gun; what she saw instead was a hand holding a blood-speckled knife aloft.

Moments later, another young man dropped onto a bench clutching his bloody side. When someone yelled for an ambulance, Sophie ran to the phone a few yards away on the platform and called 911. "Everything— all the clichés about New York City— were coming true before my eyes," Sophie says. For her, the crime was bad enough. But the aftermath would be a comedy— or tragedy— of errors.

"The first thing I said to 911 was, 'I'm at the 14th Street­Union Square subway station on the L-train platform and sombody's just been stabbed.' " The 911 dispatcher wanted to know which direction the L train was going and couldn't seem to understand that it didn't matter; the L departed in both direction from the same platform. Next, the dispatcher demanded "the booth number" for the station. Sophie asked whether this was posted somewhere or if civilians were supposed to carry such information around in their heads. But the dispatcher failed to explain, continuing to insist she needed the booth info before sending EMTs.

Then, cops arrived on the scene, guns drawn, prepared to shoot. ("It was scarier than the whole incident to have the cops flipped out and waving their guns around," Sophie says. "It was pretty clear that the way you react to their presence is how they decide whether to fire or not. You want to act right, but what's right?") Sophie begged the cops to please put their guns down because "there are innocent people here." They eventually complied.

Meanwhile, the dispatcher was still on the phone asking Sophie for "the booth number," telling her the cops would know; she should put a cop on. But when Sophie tried to hand the phone to a nearby officer he shrugged her away, saying he didn't know the booth number. Sophie was increasingly indignant. "Nobody knows the booth number," she said. "And a guy is dying."

It was 20 minutes, by Sophie's estimation, before EMTs arrived on the platform.

When the dust cleared, one teen was dead and three had been stabbed in what cops discovered was a gang fight between rival Mexican groups. "You know, it's really hard to get people to stay and tell us what they saw," an officer told a cluster of witnesses, "so if you could stay here a couple of minutes, that would really be a help." Sophie was reluctant— it was almost 1:30 a.m.— but thought that helping out, by sharing what she saw, was the right thing to do. "I was thinking, 'Damn, it's not going to be a couple of minutes, I'm going to be here another hour. It'll probably be 2:30 before I get home.' "

Sophie and approximately 15 others were bused to the 13th Precinct. "I did not see the light of day for another 20 hours," Sophie says. Somehow, although she had voluntarily offered to give a statement, she became a prisoner, forcibly detained by the cops she was trying to help.

Sophie was put in a holding room with gang members and other witnesses. Detectives took down her name and number— five times. She was briefly questioned once, at 4 a.m., and then ordered back into the holding room. An armed officer was stationed outside the door. Every time Sophie asked to leave, or at least make a phone call, her request was denied. Worried that her roommate would be frantic, she persisted. Finally, at 9 a.m., she was allowed to use the phone. She called her roommate to let him know where she'd been all night and her stage manager to let her know she would be late for that morning's rehearsal. Cops returned her to the holding room.

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