Jailhouse Salsa

The Bandleader Didn't Commit the Murder, Affidavit Claims

"I remember clearly," Ruiz says. "Arroz blanco, habichuelas, chuletas, tostones, ensalada, and a big glass of Pepsi. It was delicious."

Then 24 and living at home, Ruiz describes himself as shy and reserved. Unlike other kids on his street, Ruiz grew his hair long, dressed all in black like a punk rocker, and listened to metal bands like Queensrÿche.

And like many of his friends, he started peddling drugs on the side. While Ruiz was dealing on street corners between shifts working odd jobs, Mirabal had emerged as a drug kingpin. As Mirabal would later confess to prosecutors, he was storing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, kilos of cocaine and crack, and caches of machine guns and semiautomatic weapons in a "safe house." (Mirabal served 43 months behind bars and is now free. In his affidavit he claims he knows Ruiz; Ruiz denies that he knows Mirabal.)

Harry Ruiz, inmate No. 95-A-2026, might get a chance to prove he's innocent
photo: Steven Sunshine
Harry Ruiz, inmate No. 95-A-2026, might get a chance to prove he's innocent

According to the affidavit, the motives behind the murder Mirabal ordered were a combination of street justice and deterrence. In the fall of 1992, Mirabal states that he suspected one of his workers, Felix Emmanuel, had conspired to steal $150,000, three kilos of cocaine, and several 9mm handguns from Mirabal's safe house. In retaliation, Mirabal claims in his affidavit, he paid a hit man $8,000 to have Emmanuel killed. Mirabal claims he knew the hit man he hired only by his street name—"Shorty." Mirabal paid the man $4,000 up front, his affidavit states. The day after the murder, he received a phone call from Shorty: "It's done." He agreed to meet Shorty in a Spanish restaurant, where he paid him another $4,000.

When Ruiz heard the gunshot, he claims he got up from his mother's kitchen table and walked outside his building to join a mob of people moving toward the crime scene. (His mother; his sister-in-law, Jacqueline Ruiz; and his sister, Hilda Rodriguez, all testified at the trial that Ruiz was home with them at the time of the shooting.) Ruiz says he then followed the crowd over to Amsterdam Avenue in front of a bus stop. Emmanuel was lying in the bus lane. He had been shot once in the head with a low-caliber pistol fired six to eight inches away, the medical examiner later determined.

At the crime scene, little evidence was recovered. No gun. No bullet. No fingerprints. Four days later, a 15-year-old girl and her mother walked into Harlem's 30th Precinct. The girl, Nilda Alomar, claimed to be a good friend of Emmanuel, and she told police she was in the street the night he was killed and had seen the man who shot him. According to the police report, Alomar said she recognized the killer, having seen him around the neighborhood. She said he "was wearing a black vest, black jeans, and baseball cap. In his right hand he had a black pistol. . . . I know his name to be Harry."

The case went cold. It was one of about 1,900 reported homicides in 1993, 56 of them reported in Harlem's 30th Precinct. In the months before Ruiz was first arrested, detectives were assigned to review old murder cases. Then Ruiz was spotted wearing clothes identical to those that Alomar had described, according to police. The arresting officer said Ruiz wore a black vest with no shirt, black pants, and a backward baseball cap.

During questioning, Ruiz says detectives offered him a deal—less prison time in exchange for a guilty plea for Emmanuel's murder. Ruiz refused. "Why am I gonna try and make a deal for something I didn't do?" Ruiz recalls asking. "They had nothing. They were fishing."

The cops did have something, though. They had Alomar, who later picked Ruiz out of a lineup. In that lineup, Ruiz says, he was flanked by scruffy, homeless men who looked nothing like him.

At the time of Ruiz's trial, in the fall of 1994, criminal courts were flooded with violent gangs like the Wild Cowboys and Latin Kings. The prosecutor, Helen Sturm, now a Family Court judge, centered her case on Alomar, who told jurors her story. Alomar talked about going out the night of the murder, partying with two 15-year-old friends. Then, Alomar claimed, walking in the street that night, from a distance of about 40 feet, she watched Ruiz approach Emmanuel from behind. He took a gun from his waistband, put it to Emmanuel's head, and pulled the trigger.

When asked to identify Ruiz sitting in front of her in the courtroom, Alomar, who claimed to have known Ruiz for about a year, had difficulty.

From the trial transcript:

Sturm: "I would ask you to look around the courtroom now and tell us if you see Harry Ruiz in the courtroom."

Alomar: "Yes I do."

Sturm: "And can you indicate where, please?"

Alomar: "There."

At this point, instead of pointing at Ruiz, Alomar pointed to the back of the room, to another person. The trial judge, Alfred Kleiman, then asked Alomar to stand up on the witness stand and point to Ruiz.

The second time Alomar got it right.

Explaining her mistake, Alomar said: "He looked like him. I just got confused. . . . He looks like Harry."

« Previous Page
Next Page »