Cocaine and Conspiracy

Were the Deaths in Custody of Two Suspected Drug Users 'Accidental' or Police Brutality?


Cocaine makes you hyperactive. If you are taking a lot of it, you are wired; the muscles shiver and quiver. . . . Death from cocaine is uncommon. When it does kill, it kills by causing arrhythmia—the heart stops and starts periodically, or it beats too fast. Either way, blood isn’t pumped to the rest of the body. Cocaine kills quickly, within half an hour. Many of the cocaine deaths that I have seen were brought on by swallowing large amounts of it while the police were breaking down the door to the apartment. . . .

Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner, by Dr. Michael M. Baden

One young man was a popular campus athlete a year shy of graduating from college; the other was a construction worker in drug rehab. Both were in the prime of lives that ended with alleged cocaine overdoses while in the custody of the NYPD. Although Maliki Yawmi-Deen Raymond and Dionicio Medrano, both 24, died three and a half years apart, bewildered relatives and friends, including a controversial private investigator, vow that nothing short of federal civil rights probes will still the outrage over the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

Conflicting reports about the incidents and the bureaucratic runarounds endured by the Raymond and Medrano families have led to allegations of police brutality and racism. The families accuse authorities of high-level cover-ups, saying that the department lied to the media and misled the public. Two independent autopsies performed by Dr. Mark L. Taff back the medical examiner’s rulings that the deaths were caused by drug overdoses. Both families have rejected Taff’s findings. The Queens D.A.’s Office says it conducted an investigation in the Medrano case, but its report is bogged down in the archives. In Raymond’s case, Barbara Thompson, a spokesperson for Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau, declined comment, saying that the records have been sealed. “This often means that there is no reason to prosecute,” a law-enforcement source says.

Raymond’s death four months ago came as a shock. By all accounts, the star football player at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, lived an exemplary life and had a promising future. In 1995, he graduated from Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark; he was president of the senior class and homecoming prom king. He was a defensive back for the football team and had been the substitute quarterback on the 1994 team that won the city championship.

But cops claimed that Raymond had a secret side. On March 1, shortly before 2 p.m., he allegedly was observed by undercover officers purchasing drugs at 554 West 149th Street in Harlem. Police say Raymond may have swallowed drugs in a cellophane bag in an attempt to thwart arrest. About 45 minutes after he was taken to the 30th Precinct station house and charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance, Raymond began to complain of stomach pains and suffered several seizures. He was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, where he later died.

The Newark Star-Ledger reported that Raymond’s mother, Marian Ebron, questioned police claims that her son was busted in broad daylight—and in Harlem. “When she tried to retrieve her son’s clothing and personal effects from the 30th police precinct [station house], Ebron said she was told by a police officer . . . that Raymond was arrested . . . near the Holland Tunnel, and not at the 149th Street address.” According to the paper, she also said that when she identified her son’s body at the hospital morgue, he “looked as if he had been beaten because he had bruises on his face, including a gash [on] his chin.” Nevertheless, the medical examiner ruled that Raymond had died of a cocaine overdose.

Isaiah Grauer’s voice breaks as he talks about his former classmate. “Maliki was my brother,” says the 23-year-old graduate student, who is now the news editor for The Expose News Magazine, published by the university. “We entered Kean together and would have graduated together.” Grauer says he met Raymond in 1995 while both were enrolled in Exceptional Educational Opportunities, a New Jersey-based summer program for students who do not have money for college. “He was smart—the storyteller of the group. He kept us all laughing,” Grauer remembers. “He really cared about people; he went out of his way for people.”

Like Raymond’s mother, Grauer isn’t satisfied with the police version of how his friend died. Raymond, he insists, did not drink, smoke, or use drugs. Grauer recalls that he spoke to Raymond about two weeks before his death. It was at the height of the trial of four white cops accused of pumping 19 bullets into Amadou Diallo as the unarmed West African immigrant stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building. According to Grauer, Raymond was part of a team of students assigned to work on a paper about police brutality for a communications class. “His role was to find out how it could be stopped,” says Grauer. “At the time the incident took place, he may have gone to New York to work on the project.”

Grauer’s unshakable opinion is that Raymond was somehow killed by police—an allegation, he adds, that should not be dismissed in the wake of reports by state and federal agencies that the NYPD practices racial profiling. “A lot of black bodies have been dropped into the cold ground,” Grauer contends. “I wonder if I’ll be next.”

That cops are supposed to protect people like Maliki Raymond resonates with more tragic irony in the case of Dionicio Medrano, a pudgy 24-year-old alleged cocaine junkie who died believing police were trying to kill him.

In the early morning hours of September 6, 1996, Medrano, who had a history of “drug-induced psychosis,” began “acting bizarre and was agitated” while visiting the racially tense neighborhood of Howard Beach, according to information provided to Dr. Mark Taff, the pathologist who was hired by Medrano’s family to conduct an independent autopsy.

“He was reportedly involved in an encounter with police after they were summoned to the scene,” Taff says in a seven-page report. “It is unclear . . . how the deceased sustained multiple blunt-force impacts (bruises) to his body,” he adds, “[but] according to eyewitnesses, some of the injuries were self-inflicted, while others were inflicted by the police or members of the Howard Beach community.” (In 1986, three black men were chased through the neighborhood and beaten by a mob of white thugs. One man, Michael Griffith, was hit by a car and killed.)

William Acosta, a former Internal Affairs cop turned private investigator, interviewed Howard Beach residents after Medrano’s parents, Jody and Minerva, claimed police had beaten their son to death. In his report, which has been obtained by the Voice, one neighbor says he was awakened by a man screaming, “They’re chasing me! They’re chasing me!”

The witness says he did not observe anyone chasing the man he later came to know as Medrano. He adds that he saw Medrano “leapfrog over [a] metal gate” into the yard of a next-door neighbor who happened to be a paramedic at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center. According to Acosta’s notes, the paramedic, who tried to help the distraught man, says he discovered “a big pool of blood on the back of his head [and] he grabbed Dionicio by the arms and sat him down on a sofa that was outside in the garbage.

“Dionicio was sweating and his eyes were dilated [but] he was non-violent,” Acosta writes. Suddenly, according to the notes, Medrano sprang from the sofa, shouting, “I have to go, I have to go, they’re shooting at me!” He then bounded aimlessly into the street and began “hitting himself against [a] fence surrounding [a] garden.” According to another resident, Medrano stopped at her house, “put his head through [a side] window . . . then [she] noticed that he was laying down on his back screaming.” As she opened her door, Medrano jumped up and ran, “hitting her storm door real hard.” He ran across the street, where he tried to push his way into an elderly neighbor’s home.

“You know me, my name is Danny!” Medrano pleaded. “Someone is shooting at me!” When the terrified man rebuffed his pleas, Medrano ran off again. He wound up tossing on the ground in another neighbor’s yard, banging his head against a basement window.

Another witness says that at some point five uniformed cops began chasing Medrano, who was shouting, “Policia! Policia!” The witness, according to Acosta, “noticed that the police officers had flashlights in their hands.” Medrano later collapsed. He was gagged, strapped to a gurney, and taken to Jamaica Hospital, where he later died.

The medical examiner ruled that Medrano’s death was an “accident,” adding that “acute cocaine intoxication with agitated violent behavior” were contributing factors.

Although the family had hired Dr. Taff to investigate their accusations that cops had a hand in Medrano’s death, his findings were consistent with the medical examiner’s. In a letter to family attorney William Salgado, dated November 3, 1996, Taff writes: “You will recall that I predicted the . . . cause and manner of death in light of the fact that all of the soft tissue injuries (i.e., bruises and scrapes) were not associated with any life-threatening internal injuries.”

A case of police brutality? Taff had doubts. “I think you will have a very difficult time convincing the Queens D.A.’s Office to prosecute the police, as well as litigating a wrongful death action,” he concludes. But Acosta rejects Taff’s findings, saying he never got the opportunity to brief the pathologist. “This is not a case of 41 shots being fired at a poor African [Amadou Diallo]; it is a case of 40-something blunt instrument markings on the body of a poor Spanish guy who was beaten in the back of his head, his back, and on the bottom of his feet,” argues Acosta, who observed Medrano’s remains at the funeral home. “Diallo took 19 shots, but death was instant for him as he went down. Medrano felt every blow until he died later at the hospital.”

Acosta says he’s troubled by “a conspiracy of silence” surrounding the case. He says he filed a Freedom of Information Law request in an attempt to ascertain the names of the cops who were involved in restraining Medrano. “It’s been three years and I haven’t received an answer,” he points out. “An officer was seen taking Medrano’s clothes from the hospital in a plastic bag, but it has disappeared.”

In addition to Acosta’s claim, Jida Medrano, the dead man’s sister, alleges her parents were given the runaround even though they were summoned to the hospital by cops. “The cops said they couldn’t find the key to the room where my brother was,” she says.

No one wants to answer questions Acosta insists will reveal what really happened to Dionicio Medrano. “Did the police department conduct an investigation? Who are the officers who apprehended Medrano? Where are the 911 tapes?” Without these answers, the family cannot know all the facts surrounding Dionicio’s death or even if arresting officers were implicated. (The NYPD did not return calls for comment.) On November 27, 1996, the Medrano family notified the city it intended to sue the NYPD for $10 million. The notice of claim alleges that officers “struck [Medrano] about the body and face with blunt instruments,” which caused his death.

Jida Medrano says her brother was getting his life back together. He had applied for a higher-paying position in the construction company he worked for, to help provide for his then three-year-old daughter and an unborn child. “This job required a urine analysis,” she says. “My brother wasn’t someone in the street looking for a high. He worked real hard. He was tall and strong.”

Additional reporting: Amanda Ward