The Making of a Guilty Plea
A confidant of accused cop torturer Justin Volpe's father ultimately may have been the one who prevailed on the former detective to persuade his son to plead guilty.
"Bob and I discussed this," says James Ridgway De Szigethy, a self-styled investigative reporter for the online zine AmericanMafia.com and a member of the controversial national police defense foundation. "I said, 'Bob, there is a very good chance that your son is going to be convicted and spend the rest of his life in jail. Now, how do we get around that?' "
De Szigethy, who sat next to Robert Volpe during his son's explosive trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, said he advocated a temporary-insanity defense. (At press time Monday, Volpe reportedly was set to plead guilty to specific charges related to allegations that he tortured Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. Volpe allegedly handcuffed and beat Louima, then shoved a broomstick or the handle of a toilet plunger into his rectum and mouth in a fit of rage in a bathroom at the 70th Precinct station house in Brooklyn. Volpe, 27, could get life in prison without parole.)
Prosecutors allege that Volpe mistakenly thought Louima sucker-punched him in a disturbance outside Club Rendezvous in East Flatbush, where a popular Haitian band called the Phantoms was playing in the early morning hours of August 9, 1997.
"When this whole thing started, everybody [asked], 'Why would some young man do such a strange and insane thing?' " de Szigethy told the Voice. "I looked into his background and although one source had called him a psycho I could find no evidence of mental illness on his part. [But] what would happen if Justin Volpe changed his plea from not guilty to guilty by reason of insanity?" he says he asked the father.
De Szigethy chided the New York Police Department for not considering the theory that Volpe's rumored use of steroids may have triggered violent outbreaks known as " 'Roid Rage."
"Unfortunately, the NYPD don't test for steroids," he said. "The theory never took off." (The late Daily News columnist Mike McAlary, the only reporter to interview Volpe, observed, "It was easy to see him as some version of Mark Fuhrman on steroids.")
The family friend pointed to the testimony of another Haitian immigrant, Patrick Antoine, who claimed Volpe punched him for no reason while police searched for suspects in the nightclub melee. Antoine testified that he too was taken into the bathroom by Volpe, where Volpe apologized for acting like a madman. "He told me he was sorry," said Antoine, who, like Louima, was arrested on an allegedly false charge of assaulting a cop. "He told me he was like somebody who was going crazy."
Over the weekend, de Szigethy told the Voice he planned to raise the insanity defense again with Volpe's father when the trial resumed on Monday. He said he was going to tell the father, "Look, Bob, I know you believe your son is innocent, but is it possible he is a little psychotic?"
De Szigethy suggests that defense attorney Marvyn Kornberg might argue that "the blow to [Volpe's] brain [the sucker punch] threw him into a psychotic state." He added, "You can find a psychiatrist [with] the credentials who will say, 'Yes, this man was insane.' "
After prosecutors reportedly turned down a plea-bargain request, the embattled cop considered taking the witness stand. Volpe might have been motivated to plead guilty after a parade of law enforcement witnesses gave devastating accounts of his activities the morning of the alleged assault.
The defense suddenly went silent last week after a burly sergeant named Kenneth Wernick appeared as a surprise witness. In a never-before-made-public account, he testified that Volpe bragged, "I took a man down tonight." Wernick said Volpe also confessed he "took a stick and put it five or six inches up [Louima's rectum], took it out, and put it up to his mouth and teeth area, kind of like showing it to him." He said Volpe then took him into the bathroom to see the two-to three-foot stick, which was stashed by a sink.
Kornberg declined to question Wernick and a second surprise witness, officer Michael Schoer, who said Volpe had taunted him by brandishing the end of an excrement-soiled stick in his face. His first thought, he told the jury, was about a black dog Volpe kept around the station.
"Off the cuff, I asked him, 'What is that, dog shit?' . . . And he replied, 'Human shit,' " testified Schoer, who still faces disciplinary charges for initially lying to internal affairs. "That was the end of it."
Despite de Szigethy's effort to get Volpe to set the record straight, he is not a supporter of Abner Louima. In fact, it was de Szigethy who helped reporters track down information challenging Louima's honesty. He said he dug up a lawsuit in which two men contended they were fired by an insurance company to keep them from disclosing information about "fraudulent insurance claims" allegedly filed by Louima.
Lawyers for Louima told The New York Times that the allegation about bogus claims is false, and a lawyer for the company, Country-Wide Insurance, said that "there was nothing to cover up" and that the men were fired for other reasons.
De Szigethy says that no matter how the trial turns out, his feelings about Louima will not change. "Maybe [the accused officers] did this to this man, but this man is a liar and a fraud [because] he is involved with Johnnie Cochran and all these other things," he contends.
He claims that Louima lied on the witness stand to protect the Reverend Al Sharpton, who many in de Szigethy's camp believed had urged Louima to say that, while pummeling him, cops shouted, "It's Giuliani time."
"[Louima] said on the witness stand that it was this total stranger who convinced him to make the 'Giuliani time' remark and not Sharpton, with whom he had met," de Szigethy argued. "This conveniently protects Sharpton from being sued like he was by Steven Pagones [the Dutchess County prosecutor whom the black activist had falsely accused of raping Tawana Brawley]."
Sharpton, who repeatedly has denied the charge, contends that Volpe's decison to admit guilt vindicates Louima and himself. Although Sharpton did not know what Volpe would plead to, he said he would urge Judge Eugene Nickerson to hit Volpe with the strongest possible sentence.
"The judge should remember that not only did Volpe torture and sodomize Abner he also raped his character by falsely accusing him of engaging in a homosexual act," Sharpton says.
The civil rights activist who helped stir public anger in the wake of the alleged attack on Louima, and who recently organized nonviolent civil disobedience sit-ins to protest the police slaying of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo, also intends to file a complaint with a lawyers' disciplinary committee against Kornberg.
Sharpton predicted that Volpe's plea eventually may help the Diallo family. "Kornberg [who represents one of the officers accused in that case] would be reluctant to come up with an outrageous defense for the cops who pumped 19 shots into Amadou's body," he explained. He suggested that those officers also consider copping a plea.
"If they admit that they screwed up, that will shake up this country and change the whole attitude toward black people's complaints of abuse against cops," he asserted.
Sharpton added that Volpe's change of heart could not have come at a worse time for Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is considering a run for the U.S. Senate. "It is ironic that on the day before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission was to question Giuliani under subpoena, Volpe's plea comes down and the mayor is thrust in the public spotlight," he said. "After Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo, does Giuliani still want to be quoted as saying that what happened to them were isolated incidents?"
Ultimately, it may have been Jesus Christ pounding on Justin Volpe's guilty conscience that caused him to abandon the incredible defense strategy that Louima was injured during consensual sex before he got involved with police. Patrick Antoine said Volpe noticed he was wearing a cross and asked if he believed in Jesus. "I said, 'Yes,' " Antoine recalled at the trial. "He told me he believed in Jesus, too."
Additional reporting: Karen Mahabir and AP
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.