Mystery Train

An everyday squabble in a crowded subway car becomes a lesson in power politics

Aboard a crowded Brooklyn-bound B train last Wednesday, one of those nasty little spats broke out over who was in whose space. Leaning against the center pole was a diminutive young woman in a skirt. Towering over her was a heavyset man in a suit, with long dreadlocks. The big guy accused the woman of hoarding the pole. The woman told the man to move his hand. He told her to stop taking up so much room. She shot back that he should do the same and go on a diet. Ouch.

Normally, that would be the end of it: two commuters cursing the rude, selfish world. Instead things ratcheted up several notches.

Him: "You don't know who you're dealing with."

Her: "Hey, you don't know who you're dealing with."

On that score, they were both right.

The young woman was a 23-year-old, five-foot-two-inch horse riding instructor named Eleanor Black, and a few minutes later, she was in handcuffs headed in a squad car for Brooklyn's 70th Precinct, where she was held for the next 30 hours before being charged with assault in the third degree, a crime that could potentially bring her up to a year in prison. The big guy was a supervising district attorney in the Kings County D.A.'s office named Aaron Nottage, who is 37 and five-nine. Nottage went to the precinct as well, where he pressed police officials to take his criminal complaint, and according to precinct cops, threw his ample weight around to make sure that Black was held for booking instead of released with a desk appearance ticket as they would otherwise have done.

Just how they got there is a he-said, she-said dispute that is now the subject of a criminal case.

"When I wouldn't move he started yelling," Black told the Voice. "I told him, 'You're acting like such a child.' He told me to turn around. I wasn't going to do what he said. He said, 'You're getting off at the next stop.' I said, 'No I'm not.' But when the train stopped at Church Avenue, he grabbed my knapsack and started walking off the train with it to make me follow him. I started hitting him on the arm. I grabbed his dreadlocks. I mean, I'm a girl, that's how girls fight."

Black said the big guy pulled her off the train, banging her hard against a pillar on the platform. When she was able to yank her bag away, the man said he was going to call the police. "I started walking, and he kept following me. I walked out into the street; I just wanted to find someone to help get this guy away from me."

On the street, Black ducked into an apartment building lobby, emerging when she saw a police car outside. "I was relieved the police were there. Just so someone would protect me from this maniac."

Outside, Black said, Nottage was on the phone loudly telling someone he was with the district attorney. Within minutes, five squad cars were on the scene, she said. A female officer apologetically told Black she would have to handcuff her and take her to the precinct. "She told me not to worry, that he [Nottage] was raising a big stink, but there was no way I would be arrested." The worst-case scenario, Black was told, was that she would get a ticket and have to show up later in court.

At the station, Black was held in a cell. As the hours ticked on, sympathetic officers told her they were trying to file a cross-complaint against Nottage for taking her bag. Nottage, however, had gone to the precinct's top commanders, she was told, who were worried about bucking the D.A. "They told me they had to work with the district attorney's office, so they really couldn't go up against him," she said.

One cop told the Voice that everyone in the precinct was angry at the way the incident was handled.

"My heart went out to her; so did everyone's in the precinct. This guy [Nottage] was about twice her size," said the officer, who asked not to be named, citing Nottage's apparent clout. "Did he throw his name around as to who he was? Absolutely. The worst that would usually happen would be that she would get a D.A.T. [desk appearance ticket]. Instead he insisted she be put through the system."

Black was kept in the precinct holding pen through the night and the next day. Black said she suffers from hypoglycemia and became dizzy and ill twice, having to be transported to the hospital, then back to the precinct.

When finally arraigned in criminal court on Schermerhorn Street early Friday morning, the D.A.'s office asked for $3,000 bail, saying Black had assaulted an officer of the court. The judge knocked that down to $1,000 and told her to be back for a hearing on June 22.

A spokesman for Nottage's boss, District Attorney Charles Hynes, confirmed Nottage's position and involvement. "Yes, he showed the police his badge; that's what he is supposed to do," said spokesman Jerry Schmetterer. "His story, and there are two witnesses to back it up, is that she was verbally abusing people and pushing them off the center pole. She struck him several times in the face," he added.

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