Police officer Vincent Ling was Lester Pearson’s worst nightmare. On a wintry night, three days before the millennium, Ling, a 27-year-old undercover cop assigned to the narcotics division’s central Harlem initiative, was the last person Pearson, 24, wanted to bump into. It’s not that Pearson—a musclebound aspiring rapper—was doing anything wrong; he and Ling, who grew up in the Baychester section of the Bronx, and lived on the same street, did not get along.
Pearson told his lawyer that he and Ling had settled bitter disputes with fistfights—a kind of gangsta honor that was the hallmark of their long feud. Last Wednesday, after 35 days on the run, Pearson surrendered peacefully to detectives from the Bronx District Attorney’s office at the Hempstead, Long Island, law firm of his attorney, Casilda Roper-Simpson. Pearson initially was wanted for allegedly gunning down Ling. Roper-Simpson denies that Pearson shot the officer. Pearson, she insists, did not have a gun. And Ling, the attorney theorized, was shot by a third man—an unidentified friend of the officer who came to his assistance.
Friends and associates say shooting a cop—or anybody—does not fit the Lester Pearson they know. The son of Jamaican immigrants dreamed of storming the hip hop world with his debut album. Around December, a few months after he began shuttling back and forth “down South,” Pearson returned to “New York Shitty” for a recording session he hoped would jump-start a promising career.
For several weeks, prior to coming back, Pearson resisted lucrative offers from his friend and former schoolmate, rap mogul Sean “Puffy” Combs, to ink a deal with Puffy’s Bad Boy Records. Pearson was worried about negative publicity Puffy was attracting. Once-loyal fans, according to one Associated Press report, took to bashing the entertainer: “Puffy is a phony gangster. Puffy can’t rap. Puffy rips off other people’s hits. Puffy, with his big bankroll and his Bentley and his $600,000 birthday party, is out of touch with the street. Puffy is just plain dumb.” When Puffy was linked to a December 27 nightclub shooting in Manhattan, that was all Pearson needed to finally convince him to head for Cali’ and take his chances with the rap star’s West Coast rivals. “I been a ‘Bad Boy,’ ” a mocking line in one of Pearson’s lyrics declares, “but I ain’t fuckin’ wit’ Puff.”
Shortly after midnight on December 29, Pearson, who was with his girlfriend, Debbie Stevenson, parked his leased white Lincoln Navigator at the corner of Sexton Avenue and East Gun Hill Road in Baychester and went into a nearby store. What happened next is disputed by both sides, but an altercation ended in the shooting of Pearson’s old nemesis. According to Police Commissioner Howard Safir’s initial account of the incident, at 12:25 a.m., 11 shots were exchanged, but how many were fired at the off-duty officer and how many he fired back is uncertain. Ling was shot once in the abdomen.
Later, a police source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that Ling and Pearson knew each other, but the nature of the dispute that sparked the shooting was still under investigation. The wounded officer, who named Pearson as the shooter, had not been questioned by investigators because Ling invoked the “48-hour rule,” which prohibits authorities from questioning him. But Safir was quick to point out that Pearson has a lengthy criminal record, including arrests for attempted murder, assault, and weapons charges. (A Voice examination of Pearson’s rap sheet reveals that only one of the arrests resulted in conviction—criminal possession of a weapon, for which Pearson served 10 months in prison.) Ling, the commissioner added, has a good record.
But at Pearson’s arraignment the next day in Criminal Court in the Bronx, prosecutors did not charge him with the attempted murder of Officer Ling. In a dramatic twist, Pearson was arraigned on a complaint by 49th Precinct detective John Dodd, charging that two years previously—on December 7, 1997, at 9:48 p.m.—Pearson had shot and killed his best friend, Kuwuan Burgess, at 3034 Young Avenue in the northeast Bronx.
After Pearson pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and two additional counts of manslaughter, Roper-Simpson accused prosecutors and police of dredging up an unsolved homicide to keep her client behind bars until they sorted out the circumstances surrounding the shooting of Officer Ling.
The attorney noted that police had never attempted to arrest him for the Burgess killing. “If they had substantiated evidence or information, they would have indicted him,” Roper-Simpson argued in court. “Instead, they used trickery, schemes, and devices to violate Lester Pearson’s rights.” Prosecutors, she continued, were “simply using [their] leverage to conduct a fishing expedition.” (The Bronx D.A. did not return a call for comment.)
Roper-Simpson then attempted to shatter the “good cop” image the police commissioner had painted of Ling. She says that during a videotaped statement shortly after Pearson surrendered, Pearson began “cooperating with IAB [the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau] and this D.A.’s office to provide information on a ring” of “dirty cops” involved in “underground gun trafficking” in the Bronx. Roper-Simpson, who suggested that Ling was part of the ring, asked the judge to release Pearson on his own recognizance and “request IAB give [him] protection.
“His life is in danger as a result of his cooperating with [the investigation concerning] the illicit gun trafficking,” she asserted. The judge denied bail. (Sergeant Andrew McInnis, an NYPD spokesperson, says the IAB investigates all allegations of corruption made against cops, “but that has no bearing on the fact that this officer was shot by a suspect who is going to face prosecution.”)
According to Roper-Simpson, Pearson recalled that on the night of December 29, after leaving a nightclub, he stopped at a store to buy a cigar. After entering the premises, he saw Ling stagger through the front door, go to the back of the store, and pick up a beer. Upon spotting Pearson, Ling allegedly approached and asked, “Wassup?”
“What you mean wassup?” Pearson sneered. “You got some nerve saying something to me after we’ve been having all these problems.” (Among their alleged encounters were a fistfight at a barbecue and an altercation in which Ling brandished a gun at one of Pearson’s friends as Pearson was unlocking the front door to his parents’ home.) Pearson rebuffed Ling’s overture and the two men argued. Once again, the confrontation seemed headed for fisticuffs. Pearson and Ling took their jackets off, but instead of coming to blows, Ling allegedly drew his gun and jammed it against Pearson’s face.
Roper-Simpson recalls that the assistant D.A. asked Pearson if he was afraid, and Pearson replied he was not because Ling “does this all the time; he’s been doing this for years. He always pulled guns on us, fooling around with his gun.” She says Pearson berated Ling, telling the cop he couldn’t even shoot a fly. “He said he didn’t take the cop seriously,” Roper-Simpson adds. “He told him everything he could think of; he just kept dissing him real hard.” At this point, Pearson’s girlfriend intervened, trying to separate them. As she tugged at Pearson’s shirt, Pearson kept warning her they shouldn’t turn their backs on Ling: “You gotta watch this guy!” During the standoff, someone walked into the store and asked Ling what was taking him so long. Ling, according to Pearson’s statement, then ran outside behind a tree, took up a defensive posture, and aimed his weapon at Pearson and his girlfriend.
Roper-Simpson says shots suddenly rang out and Pearson, who she insists was not armed, took cover behind his Navigator. Now both Ling and the stranger, she claims, were firing at Pearson. Ling, she maintains, was hit by friendly fire. “I could only assume that when this guy heard the shots he ran, shooting, to defend his friend because he first saw [Pearson] coming from behind the van,” she hypothesizes. “So that’s the bullet that hit the cop.” After Ling was shot, the third man chased after Pearson while firing at him.
Roper-Simpson says Pearson then heard what sounded like a car crashing, and more shots. “Somebody was shooting into the car,” the attorney says. Pearson’s girlfriend, who was behind the wheel, was shot in the thigh. She was treated at Jacobi Medical Center and released. Roper-Simpson claims that Pearson was beaten by guards shortly after he was arraigned and returned to a holding pen in the back of the courthouse. “When I went to the back to speak with him and inquired as to where he was, I was completely ignored,” she says. “The police officer there told me he could not help. A female correction officer told me she didn’t know where he was, and another male officer told me that I could not go downstairs to speak to him.”
The attorney says that while trying to ascertain where Pearson was being held, she heard him shouting and he was then escorted by a correction officer and an NYPD detective to the area where she was waiting. She says Pearson complained that the officer wanted to fingerprint him to get “prints for his wall and for his friend Ling,” insinuating that cops were upset because she had bypassed the NYPD and negotiated the terms of Pearson’s surrender with prosecutors. “When I attempted to inquire of the detective as to why he needed Mr. Pearson’s prints when he was already live-scanned [electronically fingerprinted] at the D.A.’s office, the officer left.”
After Roper-Simpson left, Pearson allegedly was removed from his cell by correction officers and taken to a reception area. When he resisted, he allegedly was beaten. “He suffered bruises to his head and experienced pain in his rib cage area,” Roper-Simpson claims, adding that Pearson demanded to see a doctor, but was denied medical treatment. An indication of her client’s condition, she says, is that when Pearson boarded a bus to be transported from the Bronx House of Detention to Rikers Island, the driver reportedly refused to escort him, fearing that he might be held responsible for Pearson’s injuries.
Roper-Simpson charges that Pearson “is being subjected to constant harassment” by correction officers. “This is occurring because Mr. Pearson is alleged to have shot an officer,” she declares. In a complaint to the city’s Department of Correction, Roper-Simpson charged that some correction officers warned Pearson “that they know where his dad lives and that they see him all the time. They also stated to him that they know his sisters.” Pearson is being set up by the officers who wrote “Red ID” (indicating that he was a gang member) on his inmate card. Pearson has no gang affiliation, the attorney says. “That code was placed on Mr. Pearson’s card to make his time spent at the correctional facility miserable.”
Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas