By Anna Merlan
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Rohan Bolt was used to putting in long hours. So, on Christmas Day 1996, he spent only part of the day celebrating with his family before trudging to a grocery store to pick up supplies for the next day's business at his Caribbean Delite restaurant in Queens.
No sooner had he stepped out of his mini- van that afternoon at the Trade Fair grocery store in East Elmhurst than two menobviously plainclothes copsjumped out of a Ford Taurus and called him by a name he had never heard before.
"Hey, are you Roti?" one of them yelled out.
A detective later testified that Bolt replied, "Yeah." Bolt recalls that he replied, "I'm not Roti. I'm Jabba." In any case, he was bent over the hood of a car, patted down for weapons, handcuffed, and driven to the precinct. "What's the problem?" Bolt asked. All he got was "You know. You know." Frustrated, he said to them, "What are the charges?"
"Double homicide," one detective told him matter-of-factly.
"What are you talking about?" he says he told the cops. "My name is not Roti. I'm the wrong person."
Three years later in court, after he was convicted, Bolt turned to the widows of Davis and Epstein and offered his condolences. But he told them, "I am not Roti. My name is Jabba, and I did not have anything to do with the murders. . . . I know one day God will show them the truth, that Rohan Bolt did not have nothing to do with it."
More than a decade after his convictionwith at least 39 years left in Bolt's 50-to-life sentencean inmate sidled up to him and confided who really did the crime for which he is doing the time. The real killer, Bolt was told, is a notoriously violent felon named Wayne Page, whose nickname is "Ratti."
The inmate who told Bolt this was Ratti's cousin Jerry Bonton. In 1998, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes announced that he was seeking the death penalty against Bonton for the November 1995 execution-style murders of two Brooklyn men whom Bonton mistakenly thought were drug dealers. Prosecutors believed, but could never prove, that Bonton's partner in that botched robbery was Ratti Page. Eventually, Bonton pleaded guilty, dodging the death penalty.
Money shot: Mike Epstein's check-cashing store in Queens, the scene of the crime
Bonton won't talk to the Voice about it, so proving that it was Page who did the crime is another matter. Not that Page is going anywhere anytime soon. He's serving 22 years to life for kidnapping a Brooklyn man, shooting him, and throwing him out of a car.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown uses the standard alibi, telling the Voice that he and his prosecutors can't comment on the Bolt case because of ongoing appeals. However, a former prosecutor, speaking to the Voice on the condition of anonymity, says the idea of a guy like Rohan Bolt, a 35-year-old father of four with only minor pot violations from long ago, suddenly heading up a gun-wielding stickup crew "never really added up."
The precinct's detective squad had a reputation back then for what one prosecutor calls "sloppy" investigations. Two of the squad's cases in which men were convicted on murder chargeskillings that happened on the same corner at Northern Boulevard and 105th Street (and coincidentally on the same block as Bolt's restaurant) in 1992 and 1993were later overturned. Those two men were eventually freed, but not before serving a combined 15 years in prison. The lead detectives in Bolt's case, Maryann Bubelnik and Frank Bovino, weren't on those cases, but before receiving kudos for cracking the Davis-Epstein murders, they wrongly accused a man in another murder case. That man was formally charged, and he spent more than two years locked up before he was freed and the charges were dropped.
"For years, every case that came out of the 115th you had to go through with a fine-tooth comb," says the former prosecutorand this case was no exception.
It may not matter whether "Roti" was "Ratti," and that neither name fit Rohan Bolt. Prosecutors aren't exactly eager to revisit the Bolt conviction, and the NYPD is making little effort to produce what may be crucial ballistics evidence. The jury is not out; it came in 11 years ago. But there are major questions that won't go away no matter how much time has passed.
There were doubts about Rohan Bolt's guilt even before he heard about "Ratti."
The murders of off-duty cop Charlie Davis and Ira "Mike" Epstein, the check-cashing-store owner for whom Davis was working security, were portrayed by the media and then-mayor Rudy Giuliani as a Christmas tragedy. The investigative firestorm unleashed whenever a cop is murdered was stoked by the added pressure of a deadline to solve the murders before the holiday. That Herculean job fell to a lowly regarded detective squad with a history of putting the wrong guys behind bars. But after only four days, Bolt and three others had been arrested. On December 28, Governor George Pataki showed up for the Davis funeral. Giuliani spoke at the service. Referring to Davis's six-year-old daughter, the mayor said to the crowd: "Arielle, your daddy, who loved you, who admired you, who cared for you, will always be a hero of New York City."