By Anna Merlan
By Albert Samaha
By Tessa Stuart
By Anna Merlan
By Roy Edroso
By Carolyn Hughes
By Chuck Strouse
By Albert Samaha
Following a rash of shootings in the 41st Precinct in Hunts Point, Acosta's anti-crime team arrested 19 people on homicide, assault, and drug charges. And there was the case in which he helped catch a drug crew and seized $400,000 in cash, five guns, and 18 kilos of cocaine.
Over 20 years as a police officer, Acosta had never spoken to a reporter before he agreed recently to give an interview about the incident outside the bar on December 17, 2008, that led, in its bizarre way, to his exile from the street.
The evening began normally enough, he says. According to his very detailed notes, he finished his tour at the 3-0, and met up with some colleagues at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que under the West Side Highway. Then, after dinner and one drink, he headed to the Vudu Lounge at East 78th Street and First Avenue for a Christmas party organized by Captain William Pla, the commander of Manhattan North Impact, a unit composed of rookie officers sent to flood high-crime areas.
Acosta parked across the street, walked inside, paid Pla the $60 party fee, and chatted with some of the officers present. At about 11:30, the captain told everyone the party was over, and Acosta left.
He crossed the street, sat in his car, and made a couple of calls on his cell phone. He got out of his car to respond to what turned out not to be an accident, and then noticed someone being assaulted across the street in front of the bar.
A group of rookie cops had spilled out of the Vudu Lounge. Traffic on northbound First Avenue was going very slowly at that moment, and the rookies took the opportunity to cross against the light.
The young officers crossed in front of a yellow taxi driven by Levelle DeSean Ming, a 41-year-old Brooklyn man.
Ming had just come back from a trip to Kennedy Airport. He was about 10 hours into his shift. At the time, he was making about $400 a day as a hack, but he had to kick back half of that to the cab owner. He had child support and other debts to worry about.
"I was sitting there, and I tapped the horn, and I said to myself, 'Wow, people don't know how to act when they're drunk,' " Ming tells the Voice in an interview. "But this guy heard me, he was intoxicated, and he said, 'What did you say?' "
That guy, Ming later learned, was Police Officer John Virga. Virga reached through the window and punched Ming three times in the face. Ming says he opened the driver's side door and began to get out, but Virga slammed the door against Ming's chest three times, bruising his ribs.
Ming finally got out of the car, which turned out not to be a great idea. "I got out, he punched me more, I fought back, and then other people jumped in, punching and kicking me," he says. "I got knocked down. I got beat up bad. They must have hit me 30 or 40 times."
The telephone switchboard in the NYPD's dispatch center began to light up with calls.
"You got to get the cops over," says a Park Avenue doorman from New Jersey in his 911 call, who spoke to the Voice under the condition that his name be withheld, and happened to be in his car right behind Ming's cab that night. "They're beating the shit out of a cab driver. About 15 guys. They're fucking jumping him."
Seconds later, the doorman adds, "They're getting a two-by-four. I'm witnessing a big two-by-four being picked up."
"He honked his horn," the doorman tells the Voice. "They went ballistic, started punching his window, being dickheads. The cabbie did nothing wrong."
He continues to confirm details of Acosta's story: "The traffic was very slow. These guys came stumbling out in the street. One of them stepped in front of his taxi. All the cabbie did was honk the horn. They came over screaming at him and tried to pull him out of the taxi."
"I could have been the same guy," he says. "They didn't belong in the street. They obviously had a few drinks in them, and they thought they could do whatever they wanted."
In the second 911 call, a man tells a police dispatcher, "There's a fight breaking out here, right in the middle of First Avenue."
In the third call, a woman looking down from her window says, "A bunch of young people are chasing another person into the street. Oh, my God, they're in the middle of First Avenue."
"Any weapons?" the dispatcher asks.
"I saw a whole group chasing after one person, and I could hear somebody screaming, 'Let him go, let him go.' "
Acosta was off-duty. He could have kept driving, let the incident take its course, let uniformed cops handle it, but he wasn't the type of officer to walk away when there is a potential crime taking place.
"The altercation appeared to be growing," he writes in his notes. "I observed Captain Pla, his female companion, and several other people and other sergeants and lieutenants on the sidewalk watching the altercation escalate. . . . To me, the situation appeared to become violent, so I decided to take police action by intervening and dispersing the crowd."