One in the Chamber
An undercover cop, who prosecutors formally accused last month of lying to the FBI to protect colleagues charged with torturing Abner Louima, considered killing himself as the "blue wall of silence" crumbled around him in the wake of an FBI and NYPD investigation.
The Voice was the first to report Officer Rolando Aleman's gut-wrenching struggle with the code of silence that some say is the biggest nightmare in police officers' lives ("70th Precinct Confidential," February 24, 1997). Under the code, cops who "rat" on other cops are ostracized from the fraternity and even, in extreme cases, set up to be killed.
"What are you gonna do when a 9mm is punched into my chest and I'm calling for help?" Aleman asked a prosecutor who had pleaded with him last summer to give up the names of others who allegedly helped sodomize the Haitian immigrant with the handle of a toilet plunger in the 70th Precinct station house on August 9, 1997.
"What are you gonna do?" Aleman demanded of his interrogator. "I have to go through my career being a rat?"
On December 16, frustrated federal prosecutors arrested Aleman, 28, and his partner Francisco Rosario, 35, and charged them with attempting to cover up the attack. The undercovers, members of an elite Brooklyn street crime unit, were in the 70th Precinct booking a suspect when officers Justin Volpe and Charles Schwarz allegedly dragged Louima into the station house. Aleman told the Voice he saw Volpe march Louima in and out of a bathroom and then into a cell with his "pants down, his penis hanging out." Prosecutors say Aleman and Rosario refused to cooperate with the investigation, and when they did, lied about what they saw.
"With everything piling down on me, pressures that I had and with a newborn baby and my wife . . . arguing I was getting stupid thoughts [about] ending it all," Aleman said in his interview with the Voice last February. But his story about life on the brink of self-destruction in the aftermath of the attack on Louima was never reported.
Every time Aleman remembered prosecutors wagging their fingers, implying threats, those "stupid thoughts" would entice him to commit suicide. But as he clung to life, Aleman, who sounds like a distraught figure in a Mike McAlary story about good cops gone bad, finally "realized I gotta stop." Aleman was being torn apart by the good cop-bad cop forces within him those who urged him to do the right thing and those who constantly reminded him of rule number one:"See no evil, speak no evil."
"I gotta step back, I gotta reset myself," reasoned the man who was voted "Cop of the Month" in his precinct three times and received 10 meritorious duty awards and three stars for bravery.
Aleman turned to his brother officers the ones who watch his back and always seem to know what's going on inside each other's heads.
"They were worried about me, calling me up; they saw I was on a short fuse," he recalls. All agreed that if Aleman wanted to defeat the demon, he had to get rid of a distressed cop's most seductive weapon his gun.
"Take my guns from me when I'm off duty," he told one of his partners. "When I go back on duty, give me my guns back. I'll feel better." Aleman says that while on duty he opted to drive to minimize contact with people. He stuck to this routine for about two weeks.
Rolando Aleman's fellow officers weren't the only ones watching him. Prosecutors, the FBI, and NYPD Internal Affairs investigators had been trying to convince him that it was no longer about saving his job but salvaging what was still a stellar reputation.
And that meant coming clean when a mistake was made.
But the tormented officer felt prosecutors already had a diminished opinion of him. Investigators had been playing cat and mouse with Aleman. His evasive answers sent them scampering in all directions. But one evening as the investigation intensified, Aleman began to feel trapped. His partner, Rosario, had phoned him in a panic.
"You know you fucked up, right?" he recalls Rosario complaining.
"What happened?" Aleman inquired.
"FBI is outside my house," Rosario declared. "They're staking out my house." In fact, an FBI agent was at Rosario's front door. (Charles Hochbaum, an attorney for Rosario, did not return a Voice call for comment.)
According to Aleman, it was the same agent who tried to "flip" him to the government's side during one of their stormy meetings. Rosario told Aleman the agent said, "Rolly left in a piss and he said something like not being a rat." He says the agent advised Rosario, "You got a family, you got a kid. Don't follow the path of Rolly." (William J. Muller, executive assistant to U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter, declined comment.)
Aleman and Rosario arranged to meet on Staten Island. Three hours later, according to Aleman, Rosario and another cop, a sergeant they both knew, arrived at the rendezvous.
"They showed up in [the sergeant's] car," recalls an astonished Aleman. "I wasn't comfortable with that." Aleman felt he was being set up. He says he did "what any criminal would do." He raised his T-shirt to assure the sergeant that he was clean. "Look, I ain't wearing any wires," he said. "You see that shit?"
The sergeant did not honor Aleman's invitation to offer proof that he also wasn't wearing a listening device. "This was real panicky now," Aleman says. "I was nervous."
In the back seat of the sergeant's car, Aleman carefully outlined the reason for the tense standoff with prosecutors and the FBI.
"Listen, these guys came at me hard," he told the officers. But Aleman grew more wary when the sergeant started asking leading questions that Aleman felt would incriminate him. "I had this eerie feeling that there's something wrong with [the sergeant] and it was like the way he was questioning us," Aleman remembers. "He knew all the answers. Why you asking them again?"
But the sergeant pressed the officers about the Louima incident. "Did you guys see anything?" he asked.
"No," Aleman replied. "I didn't see anything crazy. I told you everything that I saw."
The next day Aleman got a call from a PBA lawyer who had been assigned to represent him, saying there was a problem. "You were followed last night," Aleman quotes the lawyer as saying. "Something about you went to Staten Island and you all met up and they're [the feds] thinking about hitting you with a conspiracy charge."
The information confirmed Aleman's suspicions. "I started thinking about it," he says. "We weren't followed because I had somebody following me. It had to be [the sergeant]. Had to be. Then I realized, this motherfucker's cooperating and he was wired."
Aleman says that when he suspected his home phone was bugged he tricked the eavesdroppers. "It's like a little thing you learn in law enforcement," he explains. "You talk about one person in a very nasty way and hope they bring it out the next time."
Aleman became more paranoid and those deadly "stupid thoughts" that haunt troubled cops with guns began to gnaw at him. One day he noticed that Rosario looked worried, and he asked his partner if everything was alright between them.
"Bro, I'll talk to you later," Rosario responded. "You're already stressed out. I don't need to compound it with the shit I'm gonna tell you." But Aleman argued that not knowing would hurt him more. "Tell me what's going on," he demanded.
According to Aleman, Rosario told him about another visit from the sergeant, who had showed up at Rosario's house in a leisure suit around 11 o'clock one morning. The sergeant told Rosario that he was " 'gooming' today," cop slang for partying on a day off.
"Frank looks outside, and it's the Department car," Aleman explains. " 'Gooming' on Department time? This guy would never ever do that." The sergeant eventually got down to asking Rosario key questions about his and Aleman's presence in the 70th precinct station house on August 9. Why didn't they tell federal investigators and police detectives in the beginning that they saw Louima being led around the station house with his pants around his ankles?
"You know what, though, we didn't do anything wrong," Aleman recalls telling his partner. "We omitted that part, but you know what, that's our fault. We'll correct that."
During the meeting, Rosario allegedly asked the sergeant to remove his jacket. "He won't take off his jacket," Aleman says. "So Frank is like, 'Listen, I gotta go.' "
The sergeant, according to the story Rosario told Aleman, began to absolve one top prosecutor of any sinister motives. "This guy came off like a dick, but he really is a nice guy," the sergeant said. "They just want to get to the bottom of it." If the sergeant was not working undercover for Internal Affairs or the FBI, he sure was nosy.
"This motherfucker," Aleman fumes. "He had nothing to do with anything. He wasn't even in the precinct when it happened." To Aleman, the sergeant was trying to become part of the investigation, but did not seem to know how to go about ingratiating himself with him or Rosario. "I remember that day we get called down to a hearing and he goes, 'Listen, don't include me in anything. I wasn't there. Don't bother me with anything.' "
Federal prosecutors were threatening to lock up Rolando Aleman and Francisco Rosario for withholding evidence. But by the time Aleman eventually agreed to give Internal Affairs more snippets of what really happened at the 70th Precinct station house, the feds were demanding that he talk directly to them.
"Everybody is saying, 'Yeah, yeah, just go with the feds,' " Aleman recalls. "I knew right there we was getting thrown to the wolves. I knew it right there that everybody was being nice but nobody was doing the right thing for us. . . . The [PBA] realized now we got problems. We got two good cops who might get arrested."
This time around, the PBA hired Edward Jenks, the lawyer who had represented one of the police officers snagged in the 73rd Precinct "Morgue Boys" scandal. "I felt a lot better because I have a guy who has dealt with the feds, corruption, police, and brutality," Aleman says.
Prior to meeting with prosecutors, Aleman says he told Jenks, "They're not gonna like what I say." Aleman was planning to stick to his basic story. "I'm gonna tell them about the pants [being] down. I'll tell them about the cell area, but I really think they think we know more than we do," he told Jenks. The lawyer, he insists, urged him to be truthful.
Aleman, however, was more interested in exposing the FBI's alleged harassment of him. "So what was your business in Staten Island?" he says one agent asked him.
"Why would you throw us something like that, a surprise?" one of the prosecutors chimed in.
Aleman told the investigators that after his first meeting with them he felt they had "turned [his] life upside down" by putting him and Rosario under surveillance. "You fucking had us followed," Aleman charged.
A top prosecutor expressed surprise. "I didn't have anybody followed," said the prosecutor, looking around the room for an explanation from the FBI agents. Aleman says the agent who had asked him about the meeting in Staten Island turned red. He interpreted that to mean that the agent feared he would get into trouble for not conferring with his superiors.
"I did not fucking have anybody fucking follow you," the prosecutor reiterated. "So don't think it came from this office." The prosecutor also denied that the sergeant had worn a wire when he met with Aleman and Rosario.
Aleman told the prosecutor that when it appeared he was not going to cooperate with the investigation, "you pretty much threatened to arrest me. I expected you to come to my house . . . and lock me up. Now if you're gonna lock me up, you think I'm gonna make your fucking work easy?"
When Edward Jenks, Aleman's lawyer, denied the federal charges accusing authorities of arresting Aleman and Rosario to keep them from testifying as witnesses for the other indicted cops eyebrows were raised.
Maybe Jenks was grandstanding. How could Aleman take the stand in defense of a cop like Justin Volpe, the man he called a "cocky fuck" the man prosecutors say jammed the plunger up Louima's rectum?
Maybe Aleman who has been suspended from the force understands his dilemma. Maybe he's resigned to the fact that if he does not cut a deal with the feds, he could face five years in prison. Maybe he knows that if he becomes a "cheese eater," he's accepted the contention that retribution for violating the code of silence is inevitable. Maybe this good cop, so far out on the edge of the blue wall, has conquered those "stupid thoughts" after all.
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