By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Village Voice staff
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
As Epstein pulled up the metal security grating, two men moved swiftly across the street. Drawing guns as they approached, they ordered Epstein and Davis inside the store. A woman looking out the window of her home across the street called 911. Within seconds, shots rang out, and the gunmen were seen walking quickly out of the store. They disappeared around the corner.
The dispatch of a "10-30" (robbery in progress) drew Officer Eric Smith to the store in under two minutes. Gun drawn, body bladed against the storefront, Smith peeked in the window and saw a man on the floor. Moving inside cautiously, Smith smelled gunpowder and saw the man gripping a Smith & Wesson in his hand. Then he saw a police badge on a chain around his neck.
"M.O.S. down," Smith yelled into his radio, jargon for "member of service," a fellow cop. Police from all over the borough swarmed to the scene. Epstein was slumped against a locked door where the tellers work, so it was another 30 minutes before his body was found. The father of two daughters was dead from a shot to the heart. Davis was shot in the chest, left thigh, and hip. Revived momentarily in an ambulance, he was dead on arrival at the hospital.
Investigators found $60,000 in the safe and later determined that the robbers got nothing.
The investigation was marked by the hyper-intensity reserved exclusively for a cop killing. Forty-seven cops split into eight teams and went block by block to interview neighbors and workers. Crime-scene cops collected 52 fingerprints as well as several hairs from the store. A hoop earring, a 16-ounce can of Eagle Premium Malt Liquor, and a yellow-and-green cloth bag were found in front of the store. A K-9 dog traced a black baseball cap picked up in front of the store to the corner of 95th Street, where the trail ended. Ultimately, none of these items were connected to the crime.
Checkpoints were set up on local roads and nearby highways. Drug buy-and-bust operations and warrant sweeps were ordered increased in East Elmhurst, and everyone arrested was pumped for information about the slayings. The then police commissioner, Howard Safir, would later boast that in four days cops made more than 6,000 vehicle stops and interviewed more than 1,000 people. One of those nabbed in the massive manhunt was a Liberian immigrant named John Mark Bigweh. The 20-year-old, who had come to Brooklyn as an infant, had never held a legitimate job, surviving instead by dealing drugs or robbery. Two days after the Davis-Epstein murders, already on probation for a stickup, Bigweh was arrested four blocks from the scene for selling a nickel bag of pot to an undercover cop.
At the 115th Precinct, Detective Maryann Bubelnik questioned him about the murders. According to Bubelnik's report, Bigweh told her that about an hour before the murders, he went to a bodega to buy a "Philly blunt" cigar that he planned to fill with marijuana when he ran into George Bell and Gary Johnson. Bell showed him a silver automatic handgun, and Johnson said they "wanted to get paid," Bubelnik wrote, but Bigweh "stated to the males that he wasn't down with that and walked away." She wrote that Bigweh then saw the pair get into a "red-like caravan with their homeboy driving."
Bigweh later twice testified that he didn't tell Bubelnik any of that. "She asked me where I was the previous night and I told her who I was with and that's it," Bigweh said in court. Whatever the case, Bubelnik had started the ball rolling.
Taken down to Queens Central Booking to be arraigned on the marijuana charge, Bigweh was suddenly pulled out and returned to the 115th Precinct, where Lt. Vincent Mazziotti and Detective Michael Falciano interviewed him in a locker room. Four hours later, they emerged with a new version: Bigweh was now copping to being a "lookout" for the robbery gone bad.
Gary Johnson was never even asked to describe Roti.
Bigweh said he didn't know where "Roti" or "Jason" lived, but he agreed to take detectives to the homes of Bell and Johnson. As Christmas Day dawned, cops descended on Bell and Johnson from all sides, screaming, "Freeze! You're under arrest!"
Within 12 hours, Bell, a 19-year-old stockboy at Old Navy with no criminal record, gave a confession he has since told the Voice is false, coerced by threats, physical abuse, and trickery by two veteran detectives.
With the case having spent four straight days on the front pages, Giuliani wanted to hold a press conference as soon as he received word that two more suspects were in custody. Detectives wanted to interrogate Bell and Johnson some more, but Giuliani couldn't be held back for long. As Bolt was being arrested around 3 p.m. that day, Giuliani was already handing out attaboys and exchanging hugs with detectives at a Christmas Day press conference. A police supervisor at that presser publicly credited Bubelnik and fellow detectives Frank Bovino and Michael Falciano with cracking the case. In a story the next day, Bubelnik was quoted as saying, "I was just very happy to let the families have some peace on Christmas. That was my goal."