By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
About three weeks into the manhunt for alleged cop shooter Lester Pearson Jr., two white detectives appeared at his father's home on a quiet block on Bruner Avenue in the Baychester section of the Bronx. That January evening, the Five-O wasn't looking for the old man; they had warned him on a previous visit that if Junior didn't surrender, he might run into a police death squad. "They told me if the others catch him they're going to kill him . . . because he is armed and dangerous," recalls Lester Pearson Sr., a 68-year-old retired Time Warner Cable supervisor who emigrated from Jamaica with his wife, Mary, in 1967.
This time, the detectives were back with a vengeance, swarming all over the two-story house. They rapped on the door of an apartment occupied by one of Pearson's tenants, a Nigerian doctor. "You must be careful," Pearson overheard one stonefaced officer caution the physician. "They [the Pearson family] have a murderer living here. If we catch him, we're going to kill him. He has a gun, and we don't know what he's going to do." (The NYPD refused to comment.) Although Pearson swore that his son did not live with him anymore, the tenant moved out.
The doctor's departure typified the pressure that had been put on the Pearsons by cops from as far south as the Carolinas. Authorities had hoped to force the family to rat out Lesteran obscure 24-year-old rapper who gets mired in trouble every time the odds of beating the system seem to be in his favor. He's always on the cops' most-wanted listthis hazel-eyed, six-foot, 200-pound poster boy perp whose description seems to fit every suspect in their dossier of unsolved crimes. Except for a conviction on a gun charge (to which he pled guilty)and barring a conviction in a pending murder caseprosecutors and courts in several states have dropped or dismissed charges of felony gun possession, kidnapping, theft, marijuana possession, and running a drug den.
As was reported in the Voicelast week, Pearson, a hip hop artist on the brink of signing his first contract, allegedly shot off-duty undercover narcotics cop Vincent Ling on December 29 after an early-morning dispute at the corner of East Gun Hill Road and Sexton Avenue in Baychester. The 27-year-old Ling, according to one published report, is paralyzed on his right side from a bullet that pierced his spine. Pearson and Ling, who grew up on the same street in Baychester, had an intense dislike for each other that often erupted into fistfights, the suspect's attorney, Casilda Roper-Simpson claims.
Ling reportedly told police brass that Pearson shot him. But Roper-Simpson denies Pearson was armed. She maintains that Ling, who was shooting at the rapper, was hit in crossfire when an unidentified friend of Ling's unloaded a barrage of shots, seriously wounding the officer. On February 3, Pearson turned himself in to the Bronx District Attorney. At his arraignment in the December 7, 1997, killing of Kuwuan Burgess, his best friend (charges in the shooting of the officer are pending), Roper-Simpson said Pearson told prosecutors that Ling was part of a gunrunning ring and that Pearson is cooperating with Internal Affairs investigators.
The morning after his surrender, Lester's father, a born-again Christian, read a Daily News article about the case and became enraged. The story by Michelle McPhee described Lester as "a Bronx career criminal."
"The damn girl that print the thing in the News don't know what she's talking about!" Pearson told the Voice. "Junior was only convicted of one crime."
Pearson says that Bronx cops began picking on his boy in 1991 at age 15: They regularly harassed the teenager, stopping and frisking him and then letting him go without an apology or explanation. One day, he recalls, Lester spat at a police car as his tormentors drove off. They made a beeline back and roughed him up. After that incident, cops constantly were on the lookout for the kid with the "bad temper" and "fresh mouth." They kept busting him for truancyeven at times when his absences from school were accounted for. In an attempt to avoid the cops, Lester transferred from Truman High School in Co-Op City and began attending Evander High School in the Gun Hill Road section of the Bronx.
His father remembers that Lester left home early one morning to apply for a part-time job at a hospital in Mount Vernon. As he got off a train on his way back to school, cops grabbed him. They did not believe his explanation that he had permission from a teacher to apply for a job and was expected back in class by the second period. "They throw him in jail," Pearson recalls.
In another incident, cops picked up Lester and took him to the 47th Precinct station house. He told his father that the officers sat him down on a chair, cuffed his outstretched arms to two empty chairs, and interrogated him. After remaining in that position for several hours, Lester collapsed. "He suffered an asthma attack, and when he asked them to give him his asthma pump everybody started laughing," his father claims. The cops put the young man through the system as a chronic truant. The next day, a judge dismissed a complaint against him. A 47th Precinct detective told the Voice he slapped Pearson with a summons for marijuana possession in 1991. "When I dealt with him he was much younger," the cop says. "It was a minor offense that wouldn't show up on his rap sheet." After eight appearances in Family Court, one angry judge reportedly admonished the cops for harassing the teen. He won all of his cases.
In the ensuing years, according to the 47th Precinct detective who monitored Lester Pearson's scrapes with the law, "his anger escalated." Despite the fact that he used several aliasesTerrance Stallings, Shawn Wellington Dillinger, Shane Dillinger, and Tony Parkscops began linking Pearson to more hardcore crimes.
New York City Department of Corrections records show that Pearson first entered the prison system on February 24, 1994, after he was remanded on a charge of second-degree attempted murder. He was held at the adolescent detention center on Rikers Island and was bailed out three days later. (That charge eventually was dropped.) About two years later, Pearson surfaced in Jacksonville, Florida, working as a clerk, and was arrested on felony kidnapping and weapon-possession charges by the sheriff's office. These charges were dropped in August 1996. Upon his return to New Yorkwith the attempted murder rap still hanging over his headpolice stopped a car in which Pearson was sitting with three others. Pearson was arrested for third-degree criminal possession of a weapon and jailed again at Rikers on September 5, 1996.
The 10 months Pearson spent on Rikers awaiting trial took a heavy toll on his mothera former dietary supervisor at Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Islandwho was injured in a fall and forced to retire. "Oh, man, it tore her to pieces," her husband recalls. "She was very sick, but every visiting day she dragged her sick body to go visit Junior in jail. Sometimes when she got there they would say, 'Oh, the jail is on lockdown, you can't see anybody.' She would come back home and go back the next day."
On the morning of May 10, 1997, Mrs. Pearson told her husband she did not want to be alone that day. Pearson remained by his wife's side until she sent him on an errand. "I come back and I found her on the bed, dead," he laments. They had been married for 36 years. "My world did stop," he reflects. His son's world unraveled, too. Because some correction officers considered Lester a troublemaker, he says, they seized every opportunity to retaliate against him. When a social worker sought permission for Lester to attend his mother's wake, guards tried to provoke a confrontation to keep him locked up, his father charges.
"He said they stripped him naked and put him in a bathroom for seven hours just to get him to say something, to get him to do something so they could find a reason not to let him out to come to his mother's wake," he contends. But his son, he asserts, was onto the guards' scheme. Lester bottled up his rage.
At the wake, a correction officer who escorted Lester suddenly pulled him aside and began to search him. According to his father, the officer believed that Lester's three-year-old daughter, Jeuelle, who had been sitting on his lap, had slipped him contraband. Except for a condolence card with the 23rd Psalm printed on it clutched in his hand, the officer found nothing. After being allowed to pay his respects, Lester was returned to Rikers. "Why did you bring this back?" a guard allegedly shouted after finding the card. "You're not supposed to bring anything back!"
"This is my mother's," Lester explained.
"Fuck your mother!" the guard allegedly snapped. At which point the grieving inmate struck out at the turnkey. "That guy kicked out three of his front teeth," his father says, adding that Lester told him other officers had jumped him and beat him with their keys. "They treated him so bad in therethey almost killed him."
After he was treated at a hospital, Lester was thrown into an isolation cell. There, authorities allege, he threw urine in a guard's face. He was charged with aggravated harassment under a law that punishes unruly inmates who fling bodily substances, including blood, feces, and urine, at prison staffers. "He said it wasn't urine, it was Jell-O," his father insists. "They beat him." (Tom Antennen, a spokesman for the corrections department, said he did not know how the matter was resolved and could not comment on Pearson's allegations.)
After that encounter, a social worker finally got Pearson transferred to the Brooklyn House of Detention. On July 15, 1997, he was released on bail on the weapon and harassment charges. Two months later, he pled guilty to the gun charge. (He would be sentenced to a conditional discharge in February 1998.) But cops stayed on his trail. According to his father, Lester was wanted for questioning in the attempted murder of a man on Boston Road. "They said that he had shot somebody, but it wasn't him. He kept going back and forth to court every day until the case was thrown out." Not long after Lester beat that rap, detectives came knocking on his father's door. They claimed that Lester had witnessed the shooting of another man in Co-Op City. "They said they heard that he was there."
On December 7, 1997, Lester's best friend, Kuwuan Burgess, was shot and killed. Details are sketchy, but police speculated that Lester was the triggermanan accusation at which his father scoffs. He says Burgess, whose parents and grandparents live up the street from him, was like a son. "Every day in the week that he was killed, he came over to my home and I cook and I feed him and Junior. Both of them slept and ate here."
The day Burgess died, Pearson says, he went with Lester to his parents' home, but they were turned away by the family, who said they wanted to be left alone. (Lester later showed up at the wake.) "Look, I'll tell you something," his father sighs. "I don't know what young people do and say. Wethe parentsare the last ones to know. I can't say that he is innocent, and I can't say he did it. The trouble is, I don't know why he would want to kill his best friend." Pearson says his son began to feel like a hunted animal, confiding in him, "I can't take this again."
His father says that Lester shuttled back and forth to New York while spending most of his time "down South" working on a rap album. Then, on May 29, 1998, police in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, arrested Lester for criminal possession of stolen goods and carrying a concealed weapon (charges were dismissed). On August 3, 1998, an unspecified warrant was issued for Lester's arrest. A year later, cops in Greensboro, North Carolina, arrested him for felony possession of marijuana and maintaining a safe house to stash drugs. Both charges were dropped. Last month, in an unrelated charge, Greensboro police issued a warrant for his arrest for carrying a concealed weapon. (An officer in the department's criminal records division refused to give details.)
Lester's father remembers that the last time he spoke to his son was about a week before the shooting of Officer Ling. Lester, he says, was concerned about the pressure friends were exerting on him to sign a recording contract with rap mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs. "He said he was not going to sign over nothing to them," his father recalls. "He was going to California to open a record shop. I said, 'Be careful in Californiathey kill rap artists down there.' "
Lester never made it to Cali'. Police charged that he shot one of their own, and COP-SHOT (Citizens Outraged at Police Being Shot) put a $10,000 bounty on his head. "The only thing I fear is Giuliani and few of these fools around me," the rapper wrote while on the lam. He wanted to give up, but had to wrestle with "depression and death . . . no tellin' what's next." Desperate, he chain-smoked, "never seen so much stress and cigarettes." On the morning of his surrender, he woke up asking himself, "Who shall I trust?" Then he decided, no more hiding. Today is the day. But for permanent suspects like Lester Pearson, "tomorrow ain't finished fuckin' with us."
Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas