By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Police officer Vincent Ling was Lester Pearson's worst nightmare. On a wintry night, three days before the millennium, Ling, a 27-year-old undercover cop assigned to the narcotics division's central Harlem initiative, was the last person Pearson, 24, wanted to bump into. It's not that Pearsona musclebound aspiring rapperwas doing anything wrong; he and Ling, who grew up in the Baychester section of the Bronx, and lived on the same street, did not get along.
Pearson told his lawyer that he and Ling had settled bitter disputes with fistfightsa kind of gangsta honor that was the hallmark of their long feud. Last Wednesday, after 35 days on the run, Pearson surrendered peacefully to detectives from the Bronx District Attorney's office at the Hempstead, Long Island, law firm of his attorney, Casilda Roper-Simpson. Pearson initially was wanted for allegedly gunning down Ling. Roper-Simpson denies that Pearson shot the officer. Pearson, she insists, did not have a gun. And Ling, the attorney theorized, was shot by a third manan unidentified friend of the officer who came to his assistance.
Friends and associates say shooting a copor anybodydoes not fit the Lester Pearson they know. The son of Jamaican immigrants dreamed of storming the hip hop world with his debut album. Around December, a few months after he began shuttling back and forth "down South," Pearson returned to "New York Shitty" for a recording session he hoped would jump-start a promising career.
For several weeks, prior to coming back, Pearson resisted lucrative offers from his friend and former schoolmate, rap mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs, to ink a deal with Puffy's Bad Boy Records. Pearson was worried about negative publicity Puffy was attracting. Once-loyal fans, according to one Associated Press report, took to bashing the entertainer: "Puffy is a phony gangster. Puffy can't rap. Puffy rips off other people's hits. Puffy, with his big bankroll and his Bentley and his $600,000 birthday party, is out of touch with the street. Puffy is just plain dumb." When Puffy was linked to a December 27 nightclub shooting in Manhattan, that was all Pearson needed to finally convince him to head for Cali' and take his chances with the rap star's West Coast rivals. "I been a 'Bad Boy,' " a mocking line in one of Pearson's lyrics declares, "but I ain't fuckin' wit' Puff."
Shortly after midnight on December 29, Pearson, who was with his girlfriend, Debbie Stevenson, parked his leased white Lincoln Navigator at the corner of Sexton Avenue and East Gun Hill Road in Baychester and went into a nearby store. What happened next is disputed by both sides, but an altercation ended in the shooting of Pearson's old nemesis. According to Police Commissioner Howard Safir's initial account of the incident, at 12:25 a.m., 11 shots were exchanged, but how many were fired at the off-duty officer and how many he fired back is uncertain. Ling was shot once in the abdomen.
Later, a police source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that Ling and Pearson knew each other, but the nature of the dispute that sparked the shooting was still under investigation. The wounded officer, who named Pearson as the shooter, had not been questioned by investigators because Ling invoked the "48-hour rule," which prohibits authorities from questioning him. But Safir was quick to point out that Pearson has a lengthy criminal record, including arrests for attempted murder, assault, and weapons charges. (A Voice examination of Pearson's rap sheet reveals that only one of the arrests resulted in convictioncriminal possession of a weapon, for which Pearson served 10 months in prison.) Ling, the commissioner added, has a good record.
But at Pearson's arraignment the next day in Criminal Court in the Bronx, prosecutors did not charge him with the attempted murder of Officer Ling. In a dramatic twist, Pearson was arraigned on a complaint by 49th Precinct detective John Dodd, charging that two years previouslyon December 7, 1997, at 9:48 p.m.Pearson had shot and killed his best friend, Kuwuan Burgess, at 3034 Young Avenue in the northeast Bronx.
After Pearson pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and two additional counts of manslaughter, Roper-Simpson accused prosecutors and police of dredging up an unsolved homicide to keep her client behind bars until they sorted out the circumstances surrounding the shooting of Officer Ling.
The attorney noted that police had never attempted to arrest him for the Burgess killing. "If they had substantiated evidence or information, they would have indicted him," Roper-Simpson argued in court. "Instead, they used trickery, schemes, and devices to violate Lester Pearson's rights." Prosecutors, she continued, were "simply using [their] leverage to conduct a fishing expedition." (The Bronx D.A. did not return a call for comment.)
Roper-Simpson then attempted to shatter the "good cop" image the police commissioner had painted of Ling. She says that during a videotaped statement shortly after Pearson surrendered, Pearson began "cooperating with IAB [the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau] and this D.A.'s office to provide information on a ring" of "dirty cops" involved in "underground gun trafficking" in the Bronx. Roper-Simpson, who suggested that Ling was part of the ring, asked the judge to release Pearson on his own recognizance and "request IAB give [him] protection.