Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes Faces Questions About Hiring Reluctant Witness in Murder Case
On October 12, 2003, Fairfield University student Mark Fisher spent the night drinking with fellow students in a couple of Upper East Side bars. When it got too late to take the train home, he accompanied two classmates, Angel DiPietro and Merideth Denihan, and several guys he didn't know back to a house in Brooklyn.
The partying continued into the small hours of the morning. Just after 6 a.m., gunshots rang out. Fisher's bullet-riddled body was found in a driveway about two blocks away.
The case had all the ingredients of a tabloid blockbuster. Fisher was white, a football star from a relatively affluent family. The tabs dubbed the case the "grid kid" slaying, and labeled the suspects wannabe gangsters who called themselves the "Ghetto Mafia."
The motive for the killing was never clear: Either the shooter thought Fisher had disrespected him at the party, or it was nothing more than a botched robbery. Two years later, a jury convicted two Ghetto Mafia members—Antonio Russo, the shooter, and John Giuca, an accomplice who lived in the house where the party was held. Both are now serving 25 years to life in prison.
The convictions were considered a major victory for Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes,
who was running for reelection at the time. Yet the investigation was not without its bumps. Police complained that many of the people at the party resisted cooperation.
DiPietro was the common denominator between the college students and the Brooklyn contingent. In police interviews, she said that she left Giuca's house with friend Al Cleary to sleep at his house just a few blocks away. Though Fisher's body was found across the street from Cleary's home, both DiPietro and Cleary claimed they heard no gunshots. Nor did they know of any beef that could have led to the slaying.
But a woman who lived across the street reported being awakened by her dog, then "male and female voices which appeared to be of young people and they were arguing." She called 911 after hearing gunshots, as did others in the neighborhood.
DiPietro didn't sit for her first police interview until nearly two days after the murder. She said that when she spoke with Denihan on the phone during the early hours of that morning, all was fine. She was told Fisher had left to catch the train.
Yet Denihan disputed DiPietro's statement, saying she'd never spoken to DiPietro that morning because she was upset that her friend had left her alone at the party.
Two of DiPietro's roommates further noted that her story was inconsistent.
"Angel also kept changing the time that she left the party in Brooklyn," one told the cops. "Her times changed each time she spoke to someone different."
Added a second roommate: "I felt through all of this Angel was never open about what happened to Mark. I don't know if she knew anything, but she was never open."
The case would eventually disappear from the headlines. After Fairfield, DiPietro attended law school at Hofstra University in Long Island, then began applying for jobs. That's when the decade-old murder rose again to the fore.
In November 2010, Hynes, now a 23-year incumbent who is again running for reelection, offered DiPietro a job as an assistant district attorney, contingent on her passing the bar exam. She began working for Hynes in January 2012.
Six months later, James DiPietro, Angel's father and a high-powered defense lawyer known for handling mob cases, donated $3,000 to Hynes's reelection campaign. The contribution was much higher than his previous campaign gifts to Hynes—$200 in 2009 and $500 in 2006.
Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman says the latest campaign contribution is troubling. "It's suspicious that she's hired and then her father makes a generous contribution," he says. "In general, relatives of a district attorney's employees shouldn't be making contributions, and he shouldn't accept them. Just that appearance is damaging."
Two of Hynes's political opponents have also questioned DiPietro's hiring. "I just can't envision that in the pool of 2.8 million people in Brooklyn, there wasn't an equally qualified applicant who wasn't involved in a central murder case in the office," says Abe George, a former Manhattan prosecutor challenging Hynes. "I'm not saying that she did anything wrong, but we should avoid the appearance of any impropriety."
Adds Ken Thompson, a former federal prosecutor also running against Hynes: "We have to look into all the facts, but if it's true, this is definitely very troubling, and he has to explain to the public why it happened. The D.A. has to be aboveboard in all of his dealings."
The Fishers did not respond to interview requests, but the family's views have long been clear. They were critical of Hynes's handling of the case, never satisfied that the full story was uncovered. Nor do they believe that all of those responsible were charged. They even sued DiPietro under the state's Good Samaritan law, alleging she had failed to keep their son safe. The case was summarily dismissed in 2007.
The Hynes camp, not surprisingly, is infuriated by criticism of DiPietro's hiring. "Your information is erroneous," says Hynes campaign spokesman George Arzt. "Angel DiPietro fully cooperated in the Mark Fisher case. Her father did contribute to previous campaigns, but it is absurd to suggest anything other than she went through the usual vetting process and is an excellent assistant district attorney."
Ben Brafman, a prominent defense lawyer who represented DiPietro and describes himself as a friend of her father, called the Voice to say that DiPietro was a minor witness who cooperated fully.
"A story like this could damage her career irreparably, but there are people who don't care about that," he says. "Anybody who thinks she got the job because of the Fisher case is crazy. Two years later, her father made a contribution to Hynes. One thing has nothing to do with the other."
Brafman has been a staunch Hynes defender, most recently in a letter to the website ProPublica.
Brafman told the Voice that he was able to get articles about DiPietro's hiring "killed" at the New York Post and the New York Daily News in recent weeks. "I went all the way up the chain at the Post and the News, and they ultimately concluded that this is a bad story," he says.
On Monday, after learning that the Voice had called the Post and Daily News for comment, Brafman called again. "This is a bad story based on inaccuracies and lies," he said to a reporter. "That's why they didn't run it." He also insisted that he never told the Voice he had spoken to the Post.
When reached for comment, a Daily News spokesman said that "the story is still in the works." A spokesperson for the Post had not responded to the Voice's questions by press time.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.