Who Killed Robert Konopka?

His psychotic Rikers cellmate—or the prison system itself?

It was at the Kross Center that he would first meet Derrick Smart.

Smart had been arrested on November 17, 2000, the day after his grandmother was found dead in the apartment that several family members shared at 1170 East 229th Street in the Bronx. As cops were poring over the evidence—they found Smart's bloody clothes in the laundry chute—Smart wandered upon the scene, appearing dazed. "He kept looking up and talking about birds," recalled New York City police detective Jose Crespo at the trial. "Blood birds, how they just fly over and sprinkle blood." Smart was first jailed in module 11 of the Kross Center, but then on Christmas Day he got into a fight with another inmate. Smart claimed that the fight started after three inmates spat into his food, and guards ultimately decided that Smart hadn't started the fracas. Because he was not guilty of an infraction, Smart apparently was eligible to be placed in a two-man cell.

The two-man cells were rare in city jails, seen only on the mental health ward. Many Rikers residents live in larger dormitories. Others—and most of those inmates on the mental ward—are in solitary cells. The idea behind the two-man cell program was that it had "therapeutic" value, because the isolation of prison can be especially tough on someone with mental illness. A cellmate might also stop his cellmate from killing himself, or at least alert a guard. In city jails, the two-man cell program had operated for some time without incident, officials said. But it all depended on making sure the right people were permitted to participate. Mental health staff decided who was eligible for the two-man cells, while the Department of Correction determined who slept where. The person who filled out Derrick Smart's housing form listed him as a "low" security risk—and appears to have indicated that Smart faced a top charge of reckless endangerment, not murder. This helped make Smart eligible to get a roommate.

Robert Konopka and his two daughters, Teresa (left) and Felicia, in a 1998 family photograph
photo: Courtesy Susan Konopka
Robert Konopka and his two daughters, Teresa (left) and Felicia, in a 1998 family photograph

Things in cell 30/31 apparently worked out for a couple weeks, as Konopka went back and forth to court for more hearings and Smart met with his prison psychiatrist, Dr. Isaac Bampoe. Konopka would call home late at night to talk to his wife when his kids were asleep. "He said he stayed to himself," Suzanne recalls. Of his cellmate, Konopka's widow recalls: "Robert said the guy was quiet—a young kid."

On December 26, Bampoe had noted that Smart was hearing voices and showed "poor impulse control." But by his appointment on January 9, Smart seemed to have improved. Bampoe later testified that Smart that day "showed no evidence of acute psychosis," and added: "He was not delusional. He was not hallucinating. His speech was clear and coherent. He was very pleasant." But he wasn't taking the 2 milligrams of Risperdal twice a day as directed. Bampoe sent Smart back to his cell. It was about 6:15 p.m.

The details of what happened next remain murky. Smart is the only living witness to what occurred inside cell 30/31, and he didn't reply to requests for an interview. As for what went on outside the cell, there are multiple discrepancies.

Correction Officer Anthony Curreri was the guard posted to the section of Quad Lower 1 that contained cell 30/31. In a police interview nine days after the murder, Curreri said that he, along with a deputy warden and two inmates who worked as suicide prevention aides, checked Konopka's cell at around 7:10 p.m. and saw Smart standing there and Konopka lying on his own cot. Minutes later, Curreri told the cops, he heard Smart call for help. Curreri said he ran over to the cell, found Konopka lying there, and called for assistance.

But a Department of Investigation report filed a week after Curreri's police interview indicated that a different officer, Randall Meinsen, found Konopka. Curreri changed his recollection in a subsequent interview with the police. But the discrepancy was not explained. At least one witness— one of the suicide prevention aides, who asked not to be named because he fears retaliation from the Department of Correction if incarcerated again—says Curreri wasn't at his post. "He had to go eat and he said, 'Stay on your toes,' " the aide says. "He came back when all this was going on." Even if he had been on the scene, it's not clear that Curreri could have heard the attack: The suicide prevention aide says no one he spoke to heard the beating taking place, not even the inmates in the adjacent cells.

Meinsen told police that as he was walking down the line of cells, Smart called him over to 30/31 and showed Meinsen his bloody hands. "Where are you bleeding?" Meinsen asked. "Not me, him," Smart answered. Meinsen waved for Curreri to come down. "This guy's all fucked up," Meinsen told Curreri. They opened the cell.

Konopka was on the floor, choking and gasping for air, and his head was swollen to what seemed like twice its normal size. When Curreri pressed his personal safety alarm to summon help, another corrections officer arrived and began CPR. But a more thorough medical response wasn't immediate. Jail log entries have the call for medical assistance going out 15 minutes after officers discovered Konopka in obviously serious distress, and an ambulance wasn't called until 31 minutes after Konopka was found. While the officers waited for doctors and an ambulance, Konopka's nose and mouth repeatedly filled with blood as prison staff tried to save him. Eventually, Konopka was transported to Elmhurst and died.

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