By Jena Ardell
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Bell had ostensibly confessed to being the shooter, but his description of "Roti" should have raised serious questions about the identification of Rohan Bolt as a member of the murder crew. Bell described "Roti" as a gunrunner, "probably 19 or 20," who operated in Pennsylvania and New York. Bolt's arrest record consisted only of two violations for possession of marijuana joints, the last coming when he was 21.
What did this "Roti" look like? Police reports reveal that investigators didn't press Bell for a more detailed description of this still-at-large suspect. And they never even asked Bigweh or Johnson, who also signed a confession, to describe "Roti."
Instead, the cops made the connection between "Roti" and Rohan Bolt with the help of a woman known as Sister Lovely, a part-time disc jockey who had a beef with Bolt over his restaurant's advertising debt. Lovely says Bolt owed her $150 for advertising on her show on 93.5 FM. Bolt says it was $80. When he fell behind, Lovely went to Bolt's mother, who paid her. When Bolt found out, he confronted the DJ and yelled at her for embarrassing him. The incident left Lovely shaken, she said. When she heard about the murders, Lovely said, she contacted a detective friend of hers and told him to check out Bolt.
At trial, Detective Joseph Fezza testified that Lovely had identified Bolt as "Roti." Lovely tells the Voice a decade later that she thinks Bolt did it and "should rot in jail." But she says she never knew Bolt as "Roti."
"'Roti'? No, roti is something to eat," Lovely says. "I didn't know him by that. I knew him as Jabba. That's the name they call him."
George Bell, convicted of being the main killer, may not have known what to call Bolt. When asked about him, Bell says, "I never knew this man, and he never knew me."
If the media, mayor, and police obsessed on the Christmas angle in the first days of the case, the coverage quickly turned to the death penaltyor, as a New York Post headline put it, "Death Is Just Too Good for Selfish Wretch," referring to Bell, whom police identified as the shooter. Two months laterfor only the second time since the death penalty had been reinstated in New York in 1995Queens District Attorney Richard Brown charged Bell, but not the others, with capital murder. At the hearing when that announcement was made, Davis's widow, Angela, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney's office who wore her husband's Medal of Honor, wept while a large group of cops behind her cheered.
Initially, Rohan Bolt thought it would be just a matter of hours before he'd be freed. After all, he had an alibi: On the morning of the murders, he was picking his wife up in the Bronx. He told the detectives to check it out. But what he thought was the key to freedom instead ended up helping to turn the lock shut. Scared and confused, Bolt had mixed up his days. His wife, who worked two nursing jobs, hadn't worked that Saturday. Catching Bolt in what appeared to be a lie, detectives began building their case against "Roti" on one speculation after another.
Frank Bovino, the lead detective in the case, still has one word to say about Bolt: "Guilty." Bovino tells the Voice why detectives initially suspected him: Bell and Johnson described a red minivan being used in the heist; Bolt had a red minivan. Bolt's restaurant was just a few storefronts away from a Northern Boulevard check-cashing store Epstein once owned. Bovino says detectives figured that maybe that was how Bolt came up with the idea of robbing Epstein's new place. In addition, says Bovino, "what we heard from the street was the restaurant was doing bad" financially, so Bolt, according to that, would have a motive for robbery. Finally, there was Bolt's nickname. "Roti," Bovino says he concluded, fit because Bolt ran a West Indian restaurant and roti is more or less a West Indian tortilla.
Bovino's reasoning, however, breaks down. Bigweh later told police that Bolt's van was not the same one used in the robbery. The Bolts didn't open the restaurant until August 1996, long after Epstein had moved to his new Astoria Boulevard location. Bolt says the rent at his family-operated restaurant was only $2,000 a month and it was pretty much breaking even while he, his wife, and mother all had incomes from other jobs. What's more, no proof of financial problems was ever produced, and the restaurant remained in business for two years after Bolt was imprisoned. As for the name "Roti," is it likely that Boltknown as "Jabba" for so long that he forgot why his childhood friends first called him thatobtained a new nickname associated with a restaurant that was in existence for less than four months? His restaurant, by the way, did not serve roti.
In 1999, George Bell was convicted of the Davis-Epstein murders and sentenced to life without parole. Months later, his partner Johnson was convicted and sentenced to 50 years to life. By then, Bigweh, who initially cooperated with authorities, had cut a deal and gotten a light sentence. The fate of Jason Ligon, who had been arrested in May 1997 with little fanfare, was still up in the air. So Rohan Bolt was up next. As his trial began in April 2000, he recalls, he was not as shaken by his co-defendants' convictions as one might think. He says he didn't know Bell or Johnson, so he didn't know if they had committed the crime. Also, unlike them, he had never confessed.