Rohan Bolt was used to putting in long hours. So, on Christmas Day 1996, he spent only part of the day celebrating with his family before trudging to a grocery store to pick up supplies for the next day’s business at his Caribbean Delite restaurant in Queens.
No sooner had he stepped out of his mini- van that afternoon at the Trade Fair grocery store in East Elmhurst than two men—obviously plainclothes cops—jumped out of a Ford Taurus and called him by a name he had never heard before.
“Hey, are you Roti?” one of them yelled out.
A detective later testified that Bolt replied, “Yeah.” Bolt recalls that he replied, “I’m not Roti. I’m Jabba.” In any case, he was bent over the hood of a car, patted down for weapons, handcuffed, and driven to the precinct. “What’s the problem?” Bolt asked. All he got was “You know. You know.” Frustrated, he said to them, “What are the charges?”
“Double homicide,” one detective told him matter-of-factly.
“What are you talking about?” he says he told the cops. “My name is not Roti. I’m the wrong person.”
The detectives had been told that Bolt was “Roti,” mastermind of a notorious armed robbery four days earlier that cost the lives of off-duty cop Charlie Davis and store owner Mike Epstein.
Three years later in court, after he was convicted, Bolt turned to the widows of Davis and Epstein and offered his condolences. But he told them, “I am not Roti. My name is Jabba, and I did not have anything to do with the murders. . . . I know one day God will show them the truth, that Rohan Bolt did not have nothing to do with it.”
More than a decade after his conviction—with at least 39 years left in Bolt’s 50-to-life sentence—an inmate sidled up to him and confided who really did the crime for which he is doing the time. The real killer, Bolt was told, is a notoriously violent felon named Wayne Page, whose nickname is “Ratti.”
The inmate who told Bolt this was Ratti’s cousin Jerry Bonton. In 1998, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes announced that he was seeking the death penalty against Bonton for the November 1995 execution-style murders of two Brooklyn men whom Bonton mistakenly thought were drug dealers. Prosecutors believed, but could never prove, that Bonton’s partner in that botched robbery was Ratti Page. Eventually, Bonton pleaded guilty, dodging the death penalty.
Money shot: Mike Epstein’s check-cashing store in Queens, the scene of the crime
Bonded by their Jamaican roots, Bolt and Bonton became friendly at Green Haven, but Bolt says they never discussed their cases. So Bolt says it came as a complete surprise when Bonton told him one day, “I never talked to you about it, but Ratti is the one you in here for.”
Bonton won’t talk to the Voice about it, so proving that it was Page who did the crime is another matter. Not that Page is going anywhere anytime soon. He’s serving 22 years to life for kidnapping a Brooklyn man, shooting him, and throwing him out of a car.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown uses the standard alibi, telling the Voice that he and his prosecutors can’t comment on the Bolt case because of ongoing appeals. However, a former prosecutor, speaking to the Voice on the condition of anonymity, says the idea of a guy like Rohan Bolt, a 35-year-old father of four with only minor pot violations from long ago, suddenly heading up a gun-wielding stickup crew “never really added up.”
The precinct’s detective squad had a reputation back then for what one prosecutor calls “sloppy” investigations. Two of the squad’s cases in which men were convicted on murder charges—killings that happened on the same corner at Northern Boulevard and 105th Street (and coincidentally on the same block as Bolt’s restaurant) in 1992 and 1993—were later overturned. Those two men were eventually freed, but not before serving a combined 15 years in prison. The lead detectives in Bolt’s case, Maryann Bubelnik and Frank Bovino, weren’t on those cases, but before receiving kudos for cracking the Davis-Epstein murders, they wrongly accused a man in another murder case. That man was formally charged, and he spent more than two years locked up before he was freed and the charges were dropped.
“For years, every case that came out of the 115th you had to go through with a fine-tooth comb,” says the former prosecutor—and this case was no exception.
It may not matter whether “Roti” was “Ratti,” and that neither name fit Rohan Bolt. Prosecutors aren’t exactly eager to revisit the Bolt conviction, and the NYPD is making little effort to produce what may be crucial ballistics evidence. The jury is not out; it came in 11 years ago. But there are major questions that won’t go away no matter how much time has passed.
There were doubts about Rohan Bolt’s guilt even before he heard about “Ratti.”
The murders of off-duty cop Charlie Davis and Ira “Mike” Epstein, the check-cashing-store owner for whom Davis was working security, were portrayed by the media and then-mayor Rudy Giuliani as a Christmas tragedy. The investigative firestorm unleashed whenever a cop is murdered was stoked by the added pressure of a deadline to solve the murders before the holiday. That Herculean job fell to a lowly regarded detective squad with a history of putting the wrong guys behind bars. But after only four days, Bolt and three others had been arrested. On December 28, Governor George Pataki showed up for the Davis funeral. Giuliani spoke at the service. Referring to Davis’s six-year-old daughter, the mayor said to the crowd: “Arielle, your daddy, who loved you, who admired you, who cared for you, will always be a hero of New York City.”
The case against Bolt, however, was thin, coming down to the word of a drug-dealing pothead out to save his own skin and an eyewitness half a football field away. What wasn’t put before the jury raises major questions: According to the detectives’ reports, Bolt was arrested with three men almost half his age, all of whom identified Bolt only by a nickname they pronounced alternately sounding like “Roti,” “Rowdy,” “Rotsy,” “Roady,” or “Ratti.” Their statements showed that they couldn’t agree how to pronounce his name, but they all implicated him as the mastermind. (Later, the two said their statements had been coerced by detectives and insisted that they were innocent.)
None of the three knew Bolt’s real name, where he lived, or that he owned a local restaurant. Nor did they mention that Bolt had a thick Jamaican accent, was only 5-foot-4, and has unusually large, bulging eyes. Two of them later admitted to the Voice that they were best friends with each other, but both said they had never laid eyes on Bolt before this case.
Of the three, only one of Bolt’s co-defendants positively identified him as “Roti” from a Polaroid taken after Bolt’s arrest. And this guy had the most serious criminal record of the bunch and was then already cooperating with the police. Another co-defendant described “Roady” (how the police spelled it) as being a 19- or 20-year-old gun and drug runner from Pennsylvania. Bolt was an old-looking 35 at the time and had never been arrested for anything more than two minor pot-possession charges in his life.
Bolt didn’t even match the descriptions of a known stickup crew believed to be responsible for several unsolved robberies of check-cashing stores in the area of the Davis-Epstein murders. After the December 21 slayings, police initially focused on a stickup crew believed to be responsible for those other robberies. One of those robberies occurred three days before at a store 10 miles away, involving three gunmen ambushing employees as they opened their check-cashing store at 7 a.m. Initially, police put out a reward poster stating that this stickup gang was wanted in connection with the murders of Davis and Epstein. The shortest of the men was seven inches taller than Bolt, the tallest was nearly a foot bigger, and all had at least 40 pounds on him.
But in Bolt’s defense—well, there wasn’t much of one. The 958-page trial transcript reads like a how-not-to guide for defense lawyers.
And there was plenty of material for a good defense lawyer to work with, though some of it remained hidden, like the confession of the fourth man, Jason Ligon, whose statement also implicated Bolt. That confession later turned out to be false.
George Bell says of Bolt: “I never knew this man, and he never knew me.”
Ligon was a drug dealer and faced charges as the robbery crew’s getaway driver. His signed statement was nearly identical in detail to the accounts of Bolt’s co-defendants. The problem was that Ligon was out of the state when the murders happened. The Queens D.A.’s office dropped the case against Ligon after the three others were convicted. “They made it up,” Ligon says of his confession.
Ligon says Bovino and Bubelnik set him up. It wasn’t the first time that such an accusation was leveled: In a different case, a man named Douglas Moser claimed that they framed him for a murder. He sued the city, and the case was settled out of court.
During four prison interviews and the letters we exchanged over two years, Bolt’s story never wavered. He passed a private polygraph test. But it was only last winter that Bolt came up with the possible case of mistaken identity involving Wayne Page. The word of Ratti Page’s cousin—himself a violent felon—isn’t enough for authorities to take Bolt’s claim of mistaken identity seriously.
But what if this claim were also supported by police science?
Ten days after the murders of Davis and Epstein, Wayne “Ratti” Page was arrested with a black Beretta 9mm semi-automatic, the same type and color of gun the prosecutor’s cooperating witness put in the hands of “Roti” on the morning of the slayings. But was it “Roti”? On a videotape, the witness at times clearly calls his cohort “Ratti,” not “Roti.”
Six months ago, the Voice filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the NYPD seeking the ballistics reports for both the four shell casings recovered at the check-cashing store murders and the gun taken off Ratti on New Year’s Day 1997 to determine if they matched. The results aren’t back yet. Although the Queens D.A.’s office won’t comment on the Bolt case, a source in that office says officials were comfortable at the time with the cases against Bolt’s two co-defendants. What about the case against Bolt? The source says, “Bolt was always troubling.”
The events that landed Rohan Keith Bolt behind bars unfolded on a cold morning, December 21, 1996, just as the sun began rising over a slice of Queens not far from LaGuardia Airport and Shea Stadium. Ira “Mike” Epstein, 40, pulled his gray Mercedes in front of his simply named Check Cashing store at 94-21 Astoria Boulevard just after 7 a.m. Charlie Davis, a 38-year-old former St. John’s University football player who stood almost 6-foot-3 and was a muscular 225 pounds, arrived moments later. Davis was a cop who worked off-duty providing security for Epstein.
As Epstein pulled up the metal security grating, two men moved swiftly across the street. Drawing guns as they approached, they ordered Epstein and Davis inside the store. A woman looking out the window of her home across the street called 911. Within seconds, shots rang out, and the gunmen were seen walking quickly out of the store. They disappeared around the corner.
The dispatch of a “10-30” (robbery in progress) drew Officer Eric Smith to the store in under two minutes. Gun drawn, body bladed against the storefront, Smith peeked in the window and saw a man on the floor. Moving inside cautiously, Smith smelled gunpowder and saw the man gripping a Smith & Wesson in his hand. Then he saw a police badge on a chain around his neck.
“M.O.S. down,” Smith yelled into his radio, jargon for “member of service,” a fellow cop. Police from all over the borough swarmed to the scene. Epstein was slumped against a locked door where the tellers work, so it was another 30 minutes before his body was found. The father of two daughters was dead from a shot to the heart. Davis was shot in the chest, left thigh, and hip. Revived momentarily in an ambulance, he was dead on arrival at the hospital.
Investigators found $60,000 in the safe and later determined that the robbers got nothing.
The investigation was marked by the hyper-intensity reserved exclusively for a cop killing. Forty-seven cops split into eight teams and went block by block to interview neighbors and workers. Crime-scene cops collected 52 fingerprints as well as several hairs from the store. A hoop earring, a 16-ounce can of Eagle Premium Malt Liquor, and a yellow-and-green cloth bag were found in front of the store. A K-9 dog traced a black baseball cap picked up in front of the store to the corner of 95th Street, where the trail ended. Ultimately, none of these items were connected to the crime.
Checkpoints were set up on local roads and nearby highways. Drug buy-and-bust operations and warrant sweeps were ordered increased in East Elmhurst, and everyone arrested was pumped for information about the slayings. The then police commissioner, Howard Safir, would later boast that in four days cops made more than 6,000 vehicle stops and interviewed more than 1,000 people. One of those nabbed in the massive manhunt was a Liberian immigrant named John Mark Bigweh. The 20-year-old, who had come to Brooklyn as an infant, had never held a legitimate job, surviving instead by dealing drugs or robbery. Two days after the Davis-Epstein murders, already on probation for a stickup, Bigweh was arrested four blocks from the scene for selling a nickel bag of pot to an undercover cop.
At the 115th Precinct, Detective Maryann Bubelnik questioned him about the murders. According to Bubelnik’s report, Bigweh told her that about an hour before the murders, he went to a bodega to buy a “Philly blunt” cigar that he planned to fill with marijuana when he ran into George Bell and Gary Johnson. Bell showed him a silver automatic handgun, and Johnson said they “wanted to get paid,” Bubelnik wrote, but Bigweh “stated to the males that he wasn’t down with that and walked away.” She wrote that Bigweh then saw the pair get into a “red-like caravan with their homeboy driving.”
Bigweh later twice testified that he didn’t tell Bubelnik any of that. “She asked me where I was the previous night and I told her who I was with and that’s it,” Bigweh said in court. Whatever the case, Bubelnik had started the ball rolling.
Taken down to Queens Central Booking to be arraigned on the marijuana charge, Bigweh was suddenly pulled out and returned to the 115th Precinct, where Lt. Vincent Mazziotti and Detective Michael Falciano interviewed him in a locker room. Four hours later, they emerged with a new version: Bigweh was now copping to being a “lookout” for the robbery gone bad.
Gary Johnson was never even asked to describe “Roti.”
In this statement, Bigweh said that after running into Bell and Johnson, he climbed into a burgundy minivan and met a man he knew only as “Roti” (the way the detectives spelled it) and “Jason,” the driver. Bigweh was quoted as telling the detective, “I seen Roti at the curb firing his gun,” and Bell firing into the store. Bigweh was shaky on the details: He described Davis as wearing a blue jacket and Epstein wearing a beige jacket. Both men wore black leather coats that day. Much later, Bigweh changed his statement yet again and claimed he couldn’t see who did the shooting.
Bigweh said he didn’t know where “Roti” or “Jason” lived, but he agreed to take detectives to the homes of Bell and Johnson. As Christmas Day dawned, cops descended on Bell and Johnson from all sides, screaming, “Freeze! You’re under arrest!”
Within 12 hours, Bell, a 19-year-old stockboy at Old Navy with no criminal record, gave a confession he has since told the Voice is false, coerced by threats, physical abuse, and trickery by two veteran detectives.
With the case having spent four straight days on the front pages, Giuliani wanted to hold a press conference as soon as he received word that two more suspects were in custody. Detectives wanted to interrogate Bell and Johnson some more, but Giuliani couldn’t be held back for long. As Bolt was being arrested around 3 p.m. that day, Giuliani was already handing out attaboys and exchanging hugs with detectives at a Christmas Day press conference. A police supervisor at that presser publicly credited Bubelnik and fellow detectives Frank Bovino and Michael Falciano with cracking the case. In a story the next day, Bubelnik was quoted as saying, “I was just very happy to let the families have some peace on Christmas. That was my goal.”
Bell had ostensibly confessed to being the shooter, but his description of “Roti” should have raised serious questions about the identification of Rohan Bolt as a member of the murder crew. Bell described “Roti” as a gunrunner, “probably 19 or 20,” who operated in Pennsylvania and New York. Bolt’s arrest record consisted only of two violations for possession of marijuana joints, the last coming when he was 21.
What did this “Roti” look like? Police reports reveal that investigators didn’t press Bell for a more detailed description of this still-at-large suspect. And they never even asked Bigweh or Johnson, who also signed a confession, to describe “Roti.”
Instead, the cops made the connection between “Roti” and Rohan Bolt with the help of a woman known as Sister Lovely, a part-time disc jockey who had a beef with Bolt over his restaurant’s advertising debt. Lovely says Bolt owed her $150 for advertising on her show on 93.5 FM. Bolt says it was $80. When he fell behind, Lovely went to Bolt’s mother, who paid her. When Bolt found out, he confronted the DJ and yelled at her for embarrassing him. The incident left Lovely shaken, she said. When she heard about the murders, Lovely said, she contacted a detective friend of hers and told him to check out Bolt.
At trial, Detective Joseph Fezza testified that Lovely had identified Bolt as “Roti.” Lovely tells the Voice a decade later that she thinks Bolt did it and “should rot in jail.” But she says she never knew Bolt as “Roti.”
“‘Roti’? No, roti is something to eat,” Lovely says. “I didn’t know him by that. I knew him as Jabba. That’s the name they call him.”
George Bell, convicted of being the main killer, may not have known what to call Bolt. When asked about him, Bell says, “I never knew this man, and he never knew me.”
If the media, mayor, and police obsessed on the Christmas angle in the first days of the case, the coverage quickly turned to the death penalty—or, as a New York Post headline put it, “Death Is Just Too Good for Selfish Wretch,” referring to Bell, whom police identified as the shooter. Two months later—for only the second time since the death penalty had been reinstated in New York in 1995—Queens District Attorney Richard Brown charged Bell, but not the others, with capital murder. At the hearing when that announcement was made, Davis’s widow, Angela, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office who wore her husband’s Medal of Honor, wept while a large group of cops behind her cheered.
Initially, Rohan Bolt thought it would be just a matter of hours before he’d be freed. After all, he had an alibi: On the morning of the murders, he was picking his wife up in the Bronx. He told the detectives to check it out. But what he thought was the key to freedom instead ended up helping to turn the lock shut. Scared and confused, Bolt had mixed up his days. His wife, who worked two nursing jobs, hadn’t worked that Saturday. Catching Bolt in what appeared to be a lie, detectives began building their case against “Roti” on one speculation after another.
Frank Bovino, the lead detective in the case, still has one word to say about Bolt: “Guilty.” Bovino tells the Voice why detectives initially suspected him: Bell and Johnson described a red minivan being used in the heist; Bolt had a red minivan. Bolt’s restaurant was just a few storefronts away from a Northern Boulevard check-cashing store Epstein once owned. Bovino says detectives figured that maybe that was how Bolt came up with the idea of robbing Epstein’s new place. In addition, says Bovino, “what we heard from the street was the restaurant was doing bad” financially, so Bolt, according to that, would have a motive for robbery. Finally, there was Bolt’s nickname. “Roti,” Bovino says he concluded, fit because Bolt ran a West Indian restaurant and roti is more or less a West Indian tortilla.
Bovino’s reasoning, however, breaks down. Bigweh later told police that Bolt’s van was not the same one used in the robbery. The Bolts didn’t open the restaurant until August 1996, long after Epstein had moved to his new Astoria Boulevard location. Bolt says the rent at his family-operated restaurant was only $2,000 a month and it was pretty much breaking even while he, his wife, and mother all had incomes from other jobs. What’s more, no proof of financial problems was ever produced, and the restaurant remained in business for two years after Bolt was imprisoned. As for the name “Roti,” is it likely that Bolt—known as “Jabba” for so long that he forgot why his childhood friends first called him that—obtained a new nickname associated with a restaurant that was in existence for less than four months? His restaurant, by the way, did not serve roti.
In 1999, George Bell was convicted of the Davis-Epstein murders and sentenced to life without parole. Months later, his partner Johnson was convicted and sentenced to 50 years to life. By then, Bigweh, who initially cooperated with authorities, had cut a deal and gotten a light sentence. The fate of Jason Ligon, who had been arrested in May 1997 with little fanfare, was still up in the air. So Rohan Bolt was up next. As his trial began in April 2000, he recalls, he was not as shaken by his co-defendants’ convictions as one might think. He says he didn’t know Bell or Johnson, so he didn’t know if they had committed the crime. Also, unlike them, he had never confessed.
Bigweh—a crack dealer, chronic pothead, and career criminal—was the government’s star witness in a case that the former prosecutor said appeared “shaky” heading into trial.
Unfortunately for Bolt, that word could also be applied to his choice of lawyer. After Bolt was arrested, his mother, Melba Pickersgill, had called the only attorney she knew: Joseph Dorsa, now a state judge, whose elderly mother Pickersgill, a home health-care aide, cared for. Dorsa recommended his then partner, Dominic Villoni.
Villoni was known as a journeyman attorney, handling everything from house closings to foreclosures to a variety of criminal cases. He was not on the A-list of the city’s top criminal defenders, though his $80,000 fee (most of Pickersgill’s retirement savings) was on par with their rates.
“Very nice man,” the former prosecutor says. “But he shouldn’t have been handling this murder case.”
The lead prosecutor was the antithesis of Villoni. Diminutive Brad Leventhal is a pit bull of a prosecutor. Several people interviewed for this story say he reminds them of Joe Pesci’s character in My Cousin Vinny. Leventhal tries big cases and wins almost all of them. Sometimes, the record shows, Leventhal goes too far.
Last year, the state Appellate Division overturned one of Leventhal’s convictions, citing “repeated instances of prosecutorial misconduct during cross examination of a defense witness and upon summation.” The case involved a defendant who claimed that a friend who had borrowed his car was the one who got into a shoot-out with police, not him. The appellate court found that among other “misconduct,” Leventhal presented “himself as an unsworn witness at trial . . . suggesting that the defense counsel did not believe his own client.” Leventhal also implied that key evidence had been kept from the jury due to legal technicalities. “This misconduct should not be repeated at the defendant’s retrial,” the ruling admonished.
According to the transcript of Bolt’s trial, Villoni was overmatched. As Bigweh took the stand against Bolt, Villoni had no idea that the informant’s relationship with the prosecution had been through some trying times. A month after the Davis-Epstein murders, Bigweh attempted suicide by overdosing on aspirin and was hospitalized. He was upset that instead of a get-out-of-jail-free card, the prosecutor was talking prison time, and, after recovering, Bigweh refused to cooperate, says George Bell’s attorney, Mitchell Dinnerstein. Shortly after Bell was sentenced to life, however, Bigweh struck a plea agreement: five years for attempted robbery instead of a potential 50 for accessory to double murder. Villoni tells the Voice that he knew nothing at the time about Bigweh’s suicide attempt or cooperation flip-flop.
On the stand, Bigweh repeated a story about Bell and Johnson recruiting him after a chance meeting and how Bolt and Bell entered Epstein’s store that morning holding guns. Bigweh said he couldn’t see who did the shooting. (Bolt contends that Bigweh identified him instead of Page as “Roti” because he was afraid of Page.)
Villoni referred to Bigweh, who admitted to smoking 12 joints a day, as a “walking marijuana humidor” during summation, but on cross-examination the attorney did little to shake Bigweh’s testimony.
Bolt’s attorney also fell victim to an O.J. moment—in reverse. With Bolt on the stand in his own defense, prosecutor Leventhal asked him, “Do you own a Third Rail mesh hat?” Bolt said no. Then Leventhal pulled the ball cap out of an evidence bag and asked Bolt if he recognized it. Bolt replied, “It’s my son’s hat. It was in my van. I had it on when they arrested me.” Leventhal then told Bolt to “put it on.” Without a peep from Villoni, Bolt complied. It fit.
In his closing argument, Leventhal mocked Bolt’s explanation: ” ‘Oops, I forgot, I was wearing it that day. Oh, yeah, that’s my son’s hat . . . . My 12-year-old son, that is his hat. It just happens to fit me.’ ”
The only independent eyewitness the prosecution put up, Gregory Turnbull, was across the street on a pay phone, at least 170 feet away, when he witnessed the robbery. On the day of the murders, Turnbull was questioned and made to look at mug shots for 11 hours. But he said he couldn’t recognize the robbers because they had hoods on. Nevertheless, Turnbull was brought in to view lineups the day after Christmas. In Bolt’s lineup, Turnbull said he didn’t recognize anyone. An hour later, Turnbull told Bovino he thought he recognized Bolt but didn’t speak up because he was scared that Bolt could see him through the two-way mirrored glass. (Turnbull declines to talk to the Voice about the case; Bigweh was deported to Liberia four years ago.)
In closing arguments, Leventhal tried to answer some basic questions not addressed by the scant evidence presented. Bolt’s motive, he told the jury, was financial troubles, though nothing had been introduced to back that up. He told jurors that a woman was the first to identify Bolt as “Roti” and led police to him. Presumably he was referring to Sister Lovely, but he never named her or had her testify.
Then Leventhal turned to the hat. He told the jury that he could understand they might be hesitant to trust Bigweh because he’s a “criminal.” But he was telling the truth, Leventhal argued, and the hat proved it. When Bigweh was arrested on December 23, 1996, Leventhal argued, he told detectives that Bolt was wearing a blue-and-red Third Rail baseball cap during the robbery. “A day and a half later,” Leventhal told the jurors, “when he’s arrested, what’s he [Bolt] wearing? A Third Rail mesh hat with a red stripe. . . . How do you explain that? . . . [Bigweh] is clairvoyant? He’s Kreskin now? Or is he telling you what he saw the defendant wearing on December 21st of 1996?”
But a review of Bigweh’s statements (three written and one videotaped) show that Bigweh only described the hat in a statement he made hours after detectives placed him in a van and conducted a drive-by identification of Bolt—who was wearing the hat then. No other witness in any of the three trials related to this case described a similar hat being worn by any of the robbers.
Leventhal returned to the issue of the hat several times in his closing argument, and his assertions slipped by unchallenged by Villoni. In fact, Villoni recently told the Voice that he doesn’t recall any testimony at Bolt’s trial about a hat.
None of that was challenged by Villoni. And Bolt’s only alibis for his whereabouts were his relatives. Bolt’s cousin Clement Winter says Bolt was in the restaurant around the time of the robbery, which happened about 12 blocks away. He says he told that to Villoni before trial and doesn’t know why he wasn’t called as a witness. Bolt’s mother, Melba Pickersgill, says Villoni called a meeting with her and Bolt’s wife, Bridget, as well as Winter, a happy-go-lucky sort who was smiling when he met with the lawyer. Villoni, the mother says, was suspicious of that smile, asking, “Is there something I don’t know about?” After interviewing Bolt’s wife, Villoni told the group that
he didn’t think she’d hold up under questioning. Villoni now says that he vaguely recalls some problem with using Bolt’s cousin and wife as witnesses, but can’t remember specifics.
As a witness in the case, Melba Pickersgill wasn’t allowed in the courtroom. But a few days into the trial, Bridget’s mother told her, “Stop the trial right now. Get Rohan a new lawyer. That man doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
Bolt recalls trying to follow the proceedings but becoming confused by the sidebar discussions and rulings. All he knew was that he was innocent, and he assumed that he’d be acquitted.
“When the jury came back with ‘guilty,’ ” he recalls, “I was like, ‘How can this happen? What’s their case? What evidence did you see to find me guilty?’ I knew I was the wrong man. Part of me wanted to cry, but I held my head up.”
Five weeks after Rohan Bolt was sentenced to a minimum of 50 years, Leventhal dropped all charges against Jason Ligon, telling the judge, “Mr. Ligon is not part of this crime at all. His confession to police was a false confession.” Leventhal claimed that Ligon involved himself in the check-cashing case so he could cut a deal on a pending drug case out of Washington, D.C. (Ligon denies that, telling me, “I’d give up a drug case for a murder case? That’s some bullshit.”)
By his own admission, Ligon, now 44, was a once-thriving drug dealer. Five months after the Davis-Epstein murders, he was arrested in East Elmhurst on a tip from an informant. Earlier that day, he had been in Atlantic City, gambling and partying heavily, he says, and he was still drunk when the cops picked him up.
“I remember they tried to show me some pictures of these guys. I said, ‘Who are these guys?’ I had never seen these guys. I had never met them before.”
Ligon says that Bovino and Bubelnik wrote out his confession and that he was so drunk he barely remembers signing it. They started to videotape him, but before he finished, Ligon broke the video camera. He says it was because he suddenly realized he was being set up.
Private investigator Kevin Hinkson, a former NYPD detective, eventually uncovered evidence showing that Ligon was registered in a Washington, D.C., hotel at the time of the crime. In court papers, Leventhal claimed that Ligon obtained the details in his statement from his grandmother (the woman who lived across the street from the check-cashing store and called 911), from “other sources” in the neighborhood, and by extracting it from Bovino and Bubelnik.
Bovino is now retired from the NYPD and living “the good life,” he says, with views of the mountains from his porch in bucolic Elbert County, Colorado, where he works as a sheriff’s deputy. To this day, he says he still believes Ligon was involved. “Nothing was fed to him,” Bovino says. “I was in total disagreement with the Queens district attorney’s office on this one.” When asked about the hotel registration, Bovino said, “I’d like to see it. No one ever told me about that.”
Ligon says he recanted immediately. Officials in the district attorney’s office acknowledged that they knew at least 18 months before Bolt went to trial about Ligon’s claim of innocence, but said they but weren’t able to substantiate it until after Bolt’s trial.
Rohan Bolt’s appeal attempts have been snake-bitten. One of his appeal attorneys died. Another was indicted for fraud and dropped Bolt’s case without telling him. Finally, two months ago, Bolt’s mother hired attorneys Mark Gimpel and David Diamond, former lawyers with the state attorney general’s office. As prisoner number 00A2845, Bolt’s connection to most of his family has slipped away. Unable to handle the depressing jail visits and the prospect that the earliest her husband might be paroled was at age 85, his wife left him. Bolt has tried his best to “maintain that father love” for his children, but with even the youngest of his brood now a teenager, the visits have decreased in frequency.
His mother has also become a prisoner of sorts. A fireplug of a woman, Melba Pickersgill came to New York from Jamaica in 1967 to work. In 1974, at the age of 13, her son joined her. She worked two jobs—nurse by day, home health aide at night—for nearly 40 years and, at 68, should be retired. Instead, she sold the modest Orlando retirement home she bought years ago and poured the proceeds, along with all her savings, into legal fees. As long as her only child remains locked up, she must keep working. “What else can I do?” she says.
Pickersgill paid for a polygraph test, which her son “passed with flying colors,” according to the private investigator who administered it. Such tests, however, aren’t reliable, and they’re not used in court. DNA is another matter. Post-conviction DNA exonerations have become so seemingly common—205 since 1989, according to the Innocence Project—that some argue they have created the false impression that the criminal-justice system now corrects most of its mistakes. Just watch CSI. But Seton Hall law professor David Feige, a former Bronx public defender, noted back in a 2003 New York Times Magazine
essay that most cases don’t revolve around DNA, and that “the reality is that most criminal cases are muddled, confusing affairs, rife with conflicting testimony, jumbled loyalties, complex motivations and equivocal evidence.”
Prosecutors usually have no choice but to concede when it comes to DNA. For the rest of the cases, it often takes not only overwhelming evidence of innocence but proof of another’s guilt before the system entertains the idea of reversing itself. That type of proof seems necessary in Bolt’s case, especially when you consider that Queens D.A. Richard Brown just last month was awarded the 2007 Police Officer Charles A. Davis Award for Outstanding Community Service.
In Bolt’s case, is that replacement suspect Wayne “Ratti” Page? Ten days after the Davis-Epstein murders, Detective Bovino submitted a fingerprint-analysis report listing 34 people whose fingerprints police checked against the ones recovered from the store. On that list were Bell, Johnson, Bigweh, and Bolt. All were negative. In fact, all of the 34 were negative.
But also on the list was Wayne Page. Police, in other words, considered him likely enough a suspect to check his prints.
Bovino says he doesn’t recall Page’s name and nickname “Ratti.” In general, however, he describes why Page and the other names might surface on such a list of possible suspects: “If you’re conducting an investigation, you might look at past crimes or similar crimes. You might take people who are known to be in the area from parole or from their street names.”
There’s no doubt that Page was a bad guy. Two years after the Davis-Epstein murders, on January 22, 1999, in Flatbush, Page and
others dragged Venniel Nephew into a van and pistol-whipped him; Page shot him once in the back before pushing out of the moving vehicle. Nephew survived but got death threats not to testify against Ratti. He did so anyway, and Page was convicted and sentenced to 22 years to life. “What the police told us,” says Nephew’s wife, Vielka, “is he [Ratti] was involved in a ton of things, but they had never been able to nail him on anything because nobody ever cooperated.”
More important to Bolt’s case is that Ratti Page was arrested 10 days after the Davis- Epstein murders—after that case was supposedly solved, but while carrying a gun of a similar make and appearance as one of the murder weapons used against Davis and Epstein.
On January 1, 1997, only a week after Bolt was arrested, a police officer spotted Page in the hallway of 693 Flatbush Avenue holding a gun. “Don’t move!” the cop screamed, pulling out his own pistol. Ratti threw the gun down and tried to run, but was caught. Recovered was a 9mm black Beretta with one spent shell in it and two live rounds. Page pleaded guilty in July 1997 to gun possession
and received six months.
That leads to a lot of ifs: If “Ratti,” not “Roti,” was involved in the Davis-Epstein murders, and if he didn’t get rid of the gun, and if this gun matched the shell casings recovered from the check-cashing store, then Rohan Bolt has a pretty good case for overturning his conviction. If.
Wayne “Ratti” Page, imprisoned at the state pen in Elmira, didn’t respond to several requests for an interview. Last month, however, he called me out of the blue and said, “I’m from Brooklyn, all my crimes are in Brooklyn. I never did nothing in Queens. All the people I rob are drug dealers. I don’t rob no grocery store, no check-cashing store, nothing. All I do is drug dealers. Legitimate people I don’t fuck with. You get real time for that.” Then he hung up.
A detective who has known Ratti for years, and who spoke to the Voice on the condition of anonymity, says that although Page operated mostly in Brooklyn, his sources told him that Page was rumored to have been involved in “something out in Queens.” That’s all the detective says he knows.
So it all may hinge on Ratti’s Beretta. A Freedom of Information Law request by the Voice to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office produced a preliminary ballistics report showing that the gun bore evidence of having been fired and that the gun and ammunition were deemed “operable.”
The NYPD is supposed to keep more detailed information on the guns it seizes. Tests are supposed to be conducted on each seized weapon, and the results are run through a computerized database to see whether it’s linked to unsolved crimes. At one point, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms had copies of the NYPD’s ballistics reports on Page’s Beretta and the Davis-Epstein murders, but those records were lost when the ATF office was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks.
A Freedom of Information Law request to the NYPD for the ballistics reports was made in March. Nearly six months later, an officer in the unit that responds to such requests says the NYPD lab that has the records is “all backed up.” The officer could not say how the records were kept or what was the specific cause of the delay. Asked for a timetable, the officer replied, “It’s going to take a while.”
Unfortunately for Rohan Bolt, all he has is time.