The Warrant Squad 'Burglars'
More than a month after careless intruders, first believed to be bounty hunters, smeared fingerprints all over the back window of her fourth-floor Bronx apartment, the allegation that the incriminating imprimatur of the home invaders belongs to NYPD detectives still terrifies Indra Rodriguez.
'I feel violated,' says Rodriguez, who is a 26-year-old accountant with a Manhattan public-relations firm. 'I walk around with pepper spray. Each and every day I come home from work, I'm very scared when I open my door. I turn on all the lights in the apartment."
Rodriguez, her attorney, Robert Ellis, and Roland Thomas, a private investigator, told the Voice that a detective from the 43rd Precinct has admitted that a mistake was made by the Bronx warrant squad, and apologized to Rodriguez on behalf of the raiding party. But a simple apology is not enough for Rodriguez, who intends to file a lawsuit against the NYPD. (Department spokesperson Marilyn Mode did not return a Voice call for comment.)
On August 16, Bronx warrant squad detectives, searching for Raymond "Edwin" Nieves for an alleged traffic offense, were told by the superintendent and tenants at 1165 Pugsley Avenue that Nieves had been evicted from his apartment six months earlier. Reportedly frustrated feeling they'd otherwise have to walk away from the investigation empty-handed the detectives broke into an apartment they believed was still occupied by Nieves. However, the apartment had been rented to Rodriguez, "a law-abiding, professional, articulate, and single young woman," according to a complaint her attorney filed with the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau. Rodriguez is not related to Nieves, the lawyer insists, and was not at home at the time of the incident.
Once inside, the complaint alleges, the detectives embarked on a sweeping search of Rodriguez's "lingerie, bank account documents, family photos, medical information, and other private matters. . . . "
"I feel they know everything about me that no one else knows," says Rodriguez, sobbing, in the Bronx basement office of private investigator Roland Thomas, who first looked into her charges that detectives, or a group of men pretending to be cops, had burglarized her apartment. Rodriguez's claim that the "officer or officers also [had] damaged the inside of her door and locked the door with a lock that can only be locked from the inside" convinced both Thomas and Ellis that the detectives should be charged with second-degree burglary, attempted burglary, criminal mischief, criminal tampering, as well as misconduct.
But Internal Affairs did not seem to be interested.
"Remarkably, we have been informed that the officers responsible have still not been arrested and that IAB has referred our complaint . . . to the Civilian Complaint Review Board," Ellis stated in the complaint to IAB chief Charles Campisi. "[W]e believe that this referral is improper, that the police officers who burglarized Ms. Rodriguez's home should be arrested. . . . " The IAB's washing its hands of the case fuels the contention by Rodriguez and her lawyer that the department is engaging in a cover-up of police misconduct.
Coming home and discovering that her apartment had been broken into and ransacked is only half the ordeal Indra Rodriguez alleges police have put her through.
Embittered, she went to the 43rd Precinct to file a complaint. That's where her nightmare really began. "I walked in there very calm, with my head together, and I told the police officer at the desk there were some policemen that were supposedly in my apartment. I was locked out of my house, there was damage done to the door, and I want to know why they were there."
Rodriguez said the cops told her none of their colleagues had been to her apartment and there was nothing in their computers indicating that another agency had tried to execute a warrant. Incredibly, Rodriguez recalls, one officer suggested that she go back to her apartment and call 911. "I feel helpless," she says. "Nobody is helping me so I figured maybe if I do exactly what they tell me I might get some answers."
While climbing the stairs to her apartment, a neighbor told her that the FBI had been banging on her door asking for Raymond Nieves. "She automatically assumed they were FBI," Rodriguez says.
Rodriguez called the New York office of the FBI.
"This is not the movies, ma'am," she said an agent told her. "We don't break down apartment doors and climb up fire escapes and break into bedroom windows and lock people out of their apartments." Upset and confused, Rodriguez then called 911, as the 43rd Precinct cops had advised her to.
About two hours later, two officers showed up at Rodriguez's apartment. She says she recounted the story as the cops examined her apartment. The officers took a statement and later questioned the superintendent in her presence. Did he see a car? Was it unmarked? Did he see a badge? Did he get a badge number? Did you get a name? "I began to feel frustrated and I started to cry in front of the officers," Rodriguez recalls. 'They told me not to worry, that things would be fine. They suggested I go back to the precinct and speak to detectives on the second floor.'
The officers allegedly told Rodriguez they could not accompany her back to the station house because they had another call. Back at the station house, a homicide squad detective tried to help out. He even punched Nieves's name and aliases into a computer. Nothing. "While he was punching in all of those names, there was another detective supposedly calling all of the squads the narcotics squad, the warrant squad, the missing persons squad to find out who was at my apartment."
Rodriguez otherwise felt that every attempt to ascertain whether police had invaded her home was met with skepticism and nonchalance. "Nobody was there. We don't have a record of any police officer being at that location at that time," she says one officer told her. Then a ray of hope. The homicide detective vowed to get to the bottom of it all. "He said he would call with some answers, which he did the following day, but he didn't have any answers," Rodriguez laments. She says she then turned to turned to Roland Thomas, the private investigator.
Armed with the scenario laid out by Rodriguez, Thomas tried getting through to anyone at the 43rd Precinct. The phone rang "about 80 times and no one picked up." He called 911 to determine whether the two officers who had taken a statement from Rodriguez filed a report. There was no record of one. "And that's impossible from my knowledge of the police department that an officer can finish a tour, take a complaint, and it not be logged in and get a number," Thomas concluded. "It's unheard of as far as I know."
Thomas then interviewed some of Rodriguez's neighbors and the superintendent. According to Thomas, the cops who were unable to enter Rodriguez's apartment through the front door, drove their unmarked car onto the sidewalk and parked it under a fire escape leading to Rodriguez's back window. The cops stood on the hood of the car and tried to pull down a ladder to the fire escape. He said someone eventually used a broom to jerk the ladder from its hook.
Thomas and Ellis went back to the 43rd Precinct. It was almost 48 hours since the incident, and they felt their client had been given the runaround. They talked to a lieutenant, whose initial investigation uncovered that Raymond Nieves was wanted on an outstanding warrant and that he had jumped bail in another case.
Thomas remembers: "Then he said, 'Well, you know, this sounds so ridiculous in terms of how this went down. You know, there is such a thing called bail enforcement.' And a bright light went on. Yeah! Bounty hunters! The only idiots that would attempt to do something like that in that manner. It had to be these bounty hunters that are working off this 1873 law no license, no certification, no nothing. We know that police officers, if they couldn't get that door opened, would have called the emergency services unit and took the battering ram and knocked that door down instead of going on the sidewalk. So now we're focusing on bail- enforcement agents, not totally eliminating police officers. We still wanted to go out to the warrant squad to confirm that it wasn't them."
Finally, Roland Thomas had a phone conversation with the two 43rd Precinct officers who had interviewed Indra Rodriguez. His primary mission was to encourage them to file an official report of a burglary because he got the impression that the cops did not believe Rodriguez's story.
Again, he gave cops the benefit of the doubt with a dash of sarcasm. The people who crashed Rodriguez's apartment, he theorized, fit the pattern of those pesky bounty hunters on trash TV. "The two cops basically tell me on the phone that they didn't file a report," Thomas recalls. "So I said, 'Excuse me,' and one says, 'No, we didn't file it; we took the complaint in our memo books. We didn't file it as an official report because we couldn't figure out heads or toes what occurred.' "
One of the cops then conceded, "At most, it's criminal mischief." Thomas argued in favor of burglary. "Unauthorized entry, at least with intent to commit a crime, constitutes a burglary," he recalls telling the officer. Eventually, the two cops filed a burglary report.
As the circumstances surrounding the filing of the report changed rapidly, the same homicide detective who earlier appeared to go out of his way to assist Rodriguez now allegedly was telling her attorney that she seemed to be, as the attorney put it, "full of shit" that Rodriguez was "a crazy woman."
Meanwhile, Thomas kept pushing the cops to do the right thing. Now that the break-in had been classified as a burglary, detectives should dust for fingerprints. It was the only way, he and Ellis argued, that all involved could ease doubts that NYPD detectives were running around the Bronx like cowboys.
"I had examined the house and definitely there is a full-hand palm print on the outside of the window to her bedroom, depicting a sliding, the fingers sliding," says Thomas. "But there are still no swirls to pick up something, to show that they slid this window up. I couldn't really get any answers from the squad."
Ellis filed a complaint with Internal Affairs. That action may have forced the department to assign a detective to check the apartment for fingerprints. August 21 was set for a visit by the fingerprint experts.
"I call the detective to find out what time the fingerprint team was coming," says Thomas. "They put me back down to the desk, I couldn't talk to him. Then someone checked and said, 'Oh, no, that is no longer a burglary. The sergeant who goes over the reports and signs off on it, read it and knocked it down to a criminal mischief. The squad will no longer be handling it, it does not justify a fingerprint team.' "
Thomas reminded the cops about the penal law regarding burglary. "The following day, they jacked it back up to a burglary and that's when a detective officially moved on it," Thomas says. "I called him and he agreed that he was going to come over that evening. I told him that I had done a background search on Raymond Nieves and it really looked like bounty hunters but, you know, you guys are officially on it now. So I know that we are going to get New York's finest to identify who was really in this thing."
According to Rodriguez's complaint to Internal Affairs, on August 25, a detective from the 43rd Precinct "appeared at the home of our client and indicated that the entry to her apartment was made by the Bronx Warrant Squad. . . ."
After Internal Affairs disposed of the case, it was turned over to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which confirmed in a letter to Rodriguez that it had launched its own investigation.
But Ellis and Thomas refused to give up. They knew for sure now that the cops' sticky hands were all over a botched raid. They pointed out the legal discrepancy regarding the pursuit of Raymond Nieves, citing a section of the criminal procedure law "which does not permit forcible entry under these circumstances, and most certainly would not permit a roving search through Ms. Rodriguez's panties, bras, or damaging property within the apartment."
Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas and Karen Mahabir
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