By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The case against Bolt, however, was thin, coming down to the word of a drug-dealing pothead out to save his own skin and an eyewitness half a football field away. What wasn't put before the jury raises major questions: According to the detectives' reports, Bolt was arrested with three men almost half his age, all of whom identified Bolt only by a nickname they pronounced alternately sounding like "Roti," "Rowdy," "Rotsy," "Roady," or "Ratti." Their statements showed that they couldn't agree how to pronounce his name, but they all implicated him as the mastermind. (Later, the two said their statements had been coerced by detectives and insisted that they were innocent.)
None of the three knew Bolt's real name, where he lived, or that he owned a local restaurant. Nor did they mention that Bolt had a thick Jamaican accent, was only 5-foot-4, and has unusually large, bulging eyes. Two of them later admitted to the Voice that they were best friends with each other, but both said they had never laid eyes on Bolt before this case.
Of the three, only one of Bolt's co-defendants positively identified him as "Roti" from a Polaroid taken after Bolt's arrest. And this guy had the most serious criminal record of the bunch and was then already cooperating with the police. Another co-defendant described "Roady" (how the police spelled it) as being a 19- or 20-year-old gun and drug runner from Pennsylvania. Bolt was an old-looking 35 at the time and had never been arrested for anything more than two minor pot-possession charges in his life.
Bolt didn't even match the descriptions of a known stickup crew believed to be responsible for several unsolved robberies of check-cashing stores in the area of the Davis-Epstein murders. After the December 21 slayings, police initially focused on a stickup crew believed to be responsible for those other robberies. One of those robberies occurred three days before at a store 10 miles away, involving three gunmen ambushing employees as they opened their check-cashing store at 7 a.m. Initially, police put out a reward poster stating that this stickup gang was wanted in connection with the murders of Davis and Epstein. The shortest of the men was seven inches taller than Bolt, the tallest was nearly a foot bigger, and all had at least 40 pounds on him. But in Bolt's defensewell, there wasn't much of one. The 958-page trial transcript reads like a how-not-to guide for defense lawyers.
And there was plenty of material for a good defense lawyer to work with, though some of it remained hidden, like the confession of the fourth man, Jason Ligon, whose statement also implicated Bolt. That confession later turned out to be false.
George Bell says of Bolt: "I never knew this man, and he never knew me."
Ligon says Bovino and Bubelnik set him up. It wasn't the first time that such an accusation was leveled: In a different case, a man named Douglas Moser claimed that they framed him for a murder. He sued the city, and the case was settled out of court.
During four prison interviews and the letters we exchanged over two years, Bolt's story never wavered. He passed a private polygraph test. But it was only last winter that Bolt came up with the possible case of mistaken identity involving Wayne Page. The word of Ratti Page's cousinhimself a violent felonisn't enough for authorities to take Bolt's claim of mistaken identity seriously.
But what if this claim were also supported by police science?
Ten days after the murders of Davis and Epstein, Wayne "Ratti" Page was arrested with a black Beretta 9mm semi-automatic, the same type and color of gun the prosecutor's cooperating witness put in the hands of "Roti" on the morning of the slayings. But was it "Roti"? On a videotape, the witness at times clearly calls his cohort "Ratti," not "Roti."
Six months ago, the Voice filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the NYPD seeking the ballistics reports for both the four shell casings recovered at the check-cashing store murders and the gun taken off Ratti on New Year's Day 1997 to determine if they matched. The results aren't back yet. Although the Queens D.A.'s office won't comment on the Bolt case, a source in that office says officials were comfortable at the time with the cases against Bolt's two co-defendants. What about the case against Bolt? The source says, "Bolt was always troubling."
The events that landed Rohan Keith Bolt behind bars unfolded on a cold morning, December 21, 1996, just as the sun began rising over a slice of Queens not far from LaGuardia Airport and Shea Stadium. Ira "Mike" Epstein, 40, pulled his gray Mercedes in front of his simply named Check Cashing store at 94-21 Astoria Boulevard just after 7 a.m. Charlie Davis, a 38-year-old former St. John's University football player who stood almost 6-foot-3 and was a muscular 225 pounds, arrived moments later. Davis was a cop who worked off-duty providing security for Epstein.