By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
According to the police version, as reported by the News, Prunty, then 29, was cuffing a suspect inside the deli when Vincent Curto, wielding a gun, burst from the back room. Four cops rushing in spotted the gunman, and Prunty was caught in the crossfire. Prunty was hit by two of 30 shots fired from both cops' guns. But he managed to empty his gun of all 15 shots. When the shooting stopped, Prunty lay badly wounded. (He is paralyzed from the waist down.) Nearby, Vincent Curto, 33, lay dead.
From that point, the story gets murkier. Thomas says that upon seeing photos of his uncle's body, he became suspicious of bruises on his forehead, nose, and cheekbones. He says he also tried to determine whether the robbers had fired on officers and which cops had killed his uncle. "There are two sides to the story," asserts Thomas, who played detective, "the police version, which was concocted with lies, and the version I got from someone a short time after the incident."
During his investigation, Thomas learned that his uncle supposedly had brandished an old-style Colt .45 at the cops. Not so, he insists. According to Thomas's findings, this is what happened: About two months after the shooting, he, his father, and his aunt received a call from a source who laid out a different scenario than the one police had painted.
An autopsy report concluded that Vincent Curto was shot in the right arm and chest and that the bullets had perforated his lungs, heart, aorta, liver, and spleen. "He literally bled to death from the wounds and the beating he sustained after he was shot," Thomas maintains. As to the allegation that his uncle was shot at close range, the autopsy report stated that "the exact sequence of these wounds cannot be determined."
Thomas charges that after the shooting, his grandmother, Rose Curto, went to the 9th Precinct to determine how her son had died. Ms. Curto, who suffers from breast cancer, allegedly encountered an officer who told her, "Vincent Curto is dead and he deserved it." Thomas says that his grandmother collapsed, and none of the officers in the precinct summoned an ambulance.
"I am not aware of any discourtesy by detectives towards your family," Lieutenant Arthur Monahan of the 9th Precinct Detective Squad would later declare in a letter to Thomas, which he said he was directed by the mayor to write. "The day of the incident we made every effort to provide information to VINCENT CURTO'S mother and a woman who said she was his sister informing each of his death."
In November 1996, Thomas Curto took his findings and suspicions to investigators at the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Thomas says he presented them with a videotaped TV news account of the shooting and photos taken of the body by a relative that showed the abrasions.
Thomas also asked the board to investigate allegations that police knew that drugs were being sold at the bodega and did nothing to stop it. It was initially reported that 50 bags of heroin bearing the street name "Knockout" were taken from the store and four other men were taken into custody on drug charges.
"They charged three kids, my uncle is dead, and no one was ever prosecuted for selling drugs, which is very fishy," Thomas says. "They've stopped talking about the drug money and the 50 bags of heroin they claimed to have found."
But the board is not authorized to conduct investigations into allegations of corruption. That is handled by Internal Affairs. The board's letter to Thomas substantiating the charges against the police makes no reference to corruption. Thomas's disappointment with that aspect of the probe comes as state Supreme Court Justice Richard F. Braun ordered the city to immediately establish an independent board to investigate police corruption.
The order, issued on August 31, was hailed by City Council Speaker Peter Vallone as an important step. Vallone has been pushing since 1995 for an independent board, which would focus on corruption.
"This is an important victory for the public and for cops," Vallone said. "The board will strengthen public confidence in the Police Department and it will give officers a place to look outside the blue wall of silence when they want to expose corruption within their ranks."
The Civilian Complaint Review Board will continue to investigate police brutality complaints. The Giuliani administration which, along with Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau fought the formation of the new board said it would appeal the judge's decision. The city had argued in a lawsuit that the new board would restrict efforts by police and prosecutors to battle corruption.
The City Council passed a law creating the board in 1995, heeding recommendations made a year earlier by the Mollen Commission, which investigated police corruption. But the Giuliani administration successfully argued in court that it was unconstitutional. The Council came back in 1997 with a modified version of the board, which Giuliani promptly vetoed. The Council overrode the veto, and the mayor once again sued to stop the creation of the independent corruption board.
Under the revised plan, the board would make recommendations to the NYPD about its handling of corruption, but not get involved in the investigations.
Thomas says that had the defendants not pleaded guilty, a trial would have aired allegations of corruption and exonerated his Uncle Vinny.