My Uncle Vinny
In July 1998, two months before Thomas Curto officially learned what really happened in the moments his Uncle Vincent lay dying on the floor of an East Village bodega, the Civilian Complaint Review Board gave police internal investigators the heads-up on its findings. In a stunning ruling, the board substantiated charges by Thomas that police brutally beat Vincent before and after he had been mortally wounded in a hail of gunfire by cops responding to a report of a robbery.
It will be one year on September 11 since the board assured Thomas in writing that the case had been turned over to Police Commissioner Howard Safir "with the recommendation that charges be preferred against the officer(s)." The board did not specify in the letter what the charges were, and its final report is confidential. Since then, Thomas, a 27-year-old dentist's assistant, says he has heard nothing from Safir about the progress of the investigation.
NYPD spokesperson Marilyn Mode told the Voice that "the whole matter was reviewed" by the deputy commissioner for trials, who recommended in May that "no disciplinary action" be taken. While vowing to look into Thomas's claim the department had not reached out to him about the final determination, Mode argued that the board rendered its decision too late a year after the statute of limitation expired on April 10, 1997. "There was an exception the department could make if a penal law crime had been committed, but none was committed," she said.
The department's ruling confirms what critics such as Thomas Curto have long contended: cops accused of brutality often go unpunished. Others say that more complaints, like the one filed by Thomas on behalf of his uncle, will continue to fall into the NYPD's black hole. Safir has been pushing a controversial proposal, which the Daily News reported recently would allow the department to send substantiated complaints back to the board, on the grounds that they do not constitute misconduct or require discipline.
Cries of justice for "Vinny" Curto seemed to echo louder last week in the wake of a "blue streak" of homicides. On September 1, an undercover cop fatally shot 32-year-old Richard Watson in Harlem after Watson allegedly cheated a cab driver out of the fare he owed for a ride from jail. The NYPD claims that the officer's gun went off while he was trying to pull Watson out of a second cab. About 100 people gathered at the scene, chanting, "Killers! Killers!" at the cops.
It was the second time in three days police had shot and killed a New Yorker. On August 30, four officers in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park fired a barrage of shots at Gary Busch, an emotionally disturbed man who allegedly was beating a police sergeant with a claw hammer and refused orders to put it down. The shooting prompted hundreds of Hasidic Jews to demonstrate into the early morning hours as community leaders questioned whether deadly force was necessary.
Safir and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared that a preliminary investigation had concluded the officers acted appropriately. Other police officials said that the shooting of Richard Watson appeared to be accidental.
Pressure had been mounting on Safir to revamp the department's disciplinary practices after a federal investigation confirmed that it does not properly police its 40,000 officers, some of whom routinely violate the civil rights of New Yorkers.
Zachary Carter, the U.S. attorney for Brooklyn's Eastern District, is believed to be focusing on a plan to create an independent panel to review brutality complaints and oversee the department's response to them. The current Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is controlled by the mayor, is viewed by some as ineffective.
Police critics have repeatedly cited statistics showing that of the roughly 5000 reports of misconduct received by the CCRB last year, only 300 were found to be substantiated and forwarded to Safir. Less than half of those cases resulted in disciplinary action.
In January 1997, Benjamin Lugo, Sigfredo Mendez, and Edwin Rivera pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and assault in a botched holdup that ended in the friendly-fire shooting of Officer Keith Prunty and the killing of Vincent Curto inside the Lopez Deli Grocery Store, on East 3rd Street near Avenue C.
None of the defendants, according to Rivera's attorney, Lynne F. Stewart, who was interviewed by The New York Times, had prior criminal records and there was no evidence that they had fired on officers investigating the robbery.
"I want to make it very clear that my uncle did not shoot at these officers," Thomas Curto says. "My uncle never owned a gun and the police never presented one."
But that's not how the case originally was reported, resulting in, Thomas contends, a plea bargain for the robbers that was built on "lies and distortions" blaming his uncle for the tragic events.
The October 10, 1995, incident was described in initial reporting by the Daily News as a "wild shootout." Officer Prunty and his partner, Gerald Derby, were on patrol about 11:20 p.m. when a man told them that a robbery was taking place at the bodega, which was known as a drug spot. The cops, both assigned to the 9th Precinct, called for backup.
According to the police version, as reported by the News, Prunty, then 29, was cuffing a suspect inside the deli when Vincent Curto, wielding a gun, burst from the back room. Four cops rushing in spotted the gunman, and Prunty was caught in the crossfire. Prunty was hit by two of 30 shots fired from both cops' guns. But he managed to empty his gun of all 15 shots. When the shooting stopped, Prunty lay badly wounded. (He is paralyzed from the waist down.) Nearby, Vincent Curto, 33, lay dead.
From that point, the story gets murkier. Thomas says that upon seeing photos of his uncle's body, he became suspicious of bruises on his forehead, nose, and cheekbones. He says he also tried to determine whether the robbers had fired on officers and which cops had killed his uncle. "There are two sides to the story," asserts Thomas, who played detective, "the police version, which was concocted with lies, and the version I got from someone a short time after the incident."
During his investigation, Thomas learned that his uncle supposedly had brandished an old-style Colt .45 at the cops. Not so, he insists. According to Thomas's findings, this is what happened: About two months after the shooting, he, his father, and his aunt received a call from a source who laid out a different scenario than the one police had painted.
An autopsy report concluded that Vincent Curto was shot in the right arm and chest and that the bullets had perforated his lungs, heart, aorta, liver, and spleen. "He literally bled to death from the wounds and the beating he sustained after he was shot," Thomas maintains. As to the allegation that his uncle was shot at close range, the autopsy report stated that "the exact sequence of these wounds cannot be determined."
Thomas charges that after the shooting, his grandmother, Rose Curto, went to the 9th Precinct to determine how her son had died. Ms. Curto, who suffers from breast cancer, allegedly encountered an officer who told her, "Vincent Curto is dead and he deserved it." Thomas says that his grandmother collapsed, and none of the officers in the precinct summoned an ambulance.
"I am not aware of any discourtesy by detectives towards your family," Lieutenant Arthur Monahan of the 9th Precinct Detective Squad would later declare in a letter to Thomas, which he said he was directed by the mayor to write. "The day of the incident we made every effort to provide information to VINCENT CURTO'S mother and a woman who said she was his sister informing each of his death."
In November 1996, Thomas Curto took his findings and suspicions to investigators at the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Thomas says he presented them with a videotaped TV news account of the shooting and photos taken of the body by a relative that showed the abrasions.
Thomas also asked the board to investigate allegations that police knew that drugs were being sold at the bodega and did nothing to stop it. It was initially reported that 50 bags of heroin bearing the street name "Knockout" were taken from the store and four other men were taken into custody on drug charges.
"They charged three kids, my uncle is dead, and no one was ever prosecuted for selling drugs, which is very fishy," Thomas says. "They've stopped talking about the drug money and the 50 bags of heroin they claimed to have found."
But the board is not authorized to conduct investigations into allegations of corruption. That is handled by Internal Affairs. The board's letter to Thomas substantiating the charges against the police makes no reference to corruption. Thomas's disappointment with that aspect of the probe comes as state Supreme Court Justice Richard F. Braun ordered the city to immediately establish an independent board to investigate police corruption.
The order, issued on August 31, was hailed by City Council Speaker Peter Vallone as an important step. Vallone has been pushing since 1995 for an independent board, which would focus on corruption.
"This is an important victory for the public and for cops," Vallone said. "The board will strengthen public confidence in the Police Department and it will give officers a place to look outside the blue wall of silence when they want to expose corruption within their ranks."
The Civilian Complaint Review Board will continue to investigate police brutality complaints. The Giuliani administration which, along with Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau fought the formation of the new board said it would appeal the judge's decision. The city had argued in a lawsuit that the new board would restrict efforts by police and prosecutors to battle corruption.
The City Council passed a law creating the board in 1995, heeding recommendations made a year earlier by the Mollen Commission, which investigated police corruption. But the Giuliani administration successfully argued in court that it was unconstitutional. The Council came back in 1997 with a modified version of the board, which Giuliani promptly vetoed. The Council overrode the veto, and the mayor once again sued to stop the creation of the independent corruption board.
Under the revised plan, the board would make recommendations to the NYPD about its handling of corruption, but not get involved in the investigations.
Thomas says that had the defendants not pleaded guilty, a trial would have aired allegations of corruption and exonerated his Uncle Vinny.
Additional reporting: Karen Mahabir, Danielle Douglas, AP
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