Now it can be told, the real story of how the twisted murder case against a decorated law-enforcement officer falls apart:
First, the old cassette tapes of the old interviews with the crucial prosecution witness are unearthed from the old cardboard box that has sat in the closet for years. Next, the intrepid reporter carries the tapes to the living-room tape player. There is a red button that says “Record.” You know that this button is your sworn enemy. Press it, and an innocent man may go to jail. The friendly buttons are “Play,” “Rewind,” and “Fast Forward.”
According to your rough 10-year-old transcripts, this tape contains the same witness saying the exact opposite of what she has told prosecutors about two murders alleged against the defendant. Gingerly, the critical tape is inserted. There is a brief hissing sound. Then, clear as day, the voice of Jerry Capeci, ace gangland reporter and—like witness Linda Schiro—a Bensonhurst native, is heard. “Testing, one, two, three, four,” Capeci is saying.
Memo to journalism students: This is how professionals conduct important interviews. You say, “Testing,” and check that the tape recorder is working.
The part where Schiro brings up the murder of mobster Larry Lampasi is supposed to be near the beginning. The prosecutors have promised in their opening statement to the court that Schiro will testify that she watched and listened as ex-FBI agent R. Lindley DeVecchio told her boyfriend, feared mobster Greg Scarpa Sr., where and when Lampasi could be found and killed. If Schiro told us what the transcript says she did, it is supposed to come right after she tells one of those Mafia side-splitters about how Scarpa’s sister once got called before a grand jury. On the tape, Schiro laughs as she tells it. This apparently triggers another memory.
“And another thing too,” Schiro starts to say. She is interrupted as someone emits a loud sneeze. Thankfully, no one has the decency to say, “Bless you,” and Schiro can be heard finishing her thought: “See, when Lin is right, I give him right. He didn’t tell Greg about Larry Lampasi.”
Some of these words are not even on your transcript. Still, you don’t believe your ears. You are nervous, keyed-up. The sneeze has you confused. What did she say exactly? You quickly punch a button on the tape player. It is not the dreaded “Record” button, but nor is it a friendly. You have hit the “On/off” switch for the entire player. The machine makes a loud popping sound and shudders to a halt.
The world starts spinning. You shout a curse at your clumsy fingers. In the past, your nickname was “All Thumbs.” You have lived up to this reputation. Surely the tape has been destroyed. Now, the best-case scenario, should you come forward with your story about the witness with two versions of the truth, is that it will be your word against Schiro’s, with only a lousy transcript for backup. You see yourself on the witness stand with a quartet of angry prosecutors, two of whom are big enough to be NFL linebackers, running right at you. Holding your breath, you turn the tape player back on.
Schiro’s voice is again heard saying that DeVecchio is not the one who told Scarpa about Larry Lampasi. Except that this statement is now immediately followed by a loud, metallic burp, a noise suggesting that someone has monkeyed with the tape. Which someone—you—now have. You are not cut out for this. With trembling heart, you listen as the tape keeps rolling.
Astonishingly, no words seem to have been obscured. Schiro goes on about Lampasi, repeating her exonerating description of DeVecchio’s non-role in this murder. “I know that for a fact,” she says regarding the agent’s absence from the scheme—words that are not even on the old transcript. On the tape’s flip side, Schiro can be heard denying that the agent had anything to do with another murder, that of mobster Joseph “Joe Brewster” DeDomenico. This is also diametrically opposed to what the D.A. has promised that Schiro will say on the stand.
You somehow manage to avoid erasing these statements. Apprised of this evidence, your lawyer wants you to copy the tapes. You look at the fragile cassettes and the flimsy strands of tape wound tightly inside and ponder that this may be all that lies between a Florida retirement community and a life sentence in Dannemora for ex-agent DeVecchio. You protest that you cannot be trusted with this mission.
Further memos to journalism students: One, throw nothing away. Two, conduct standard eye-ear coordination tests before handling crucial evidence.
You have received the best legal advice from your learned counselor, Zach Margulis-Ohnuma, about what to expect once your story appears. “The shit is going to hit the fan,” he says.
Thanks to the miracle of the Web, this doesn’t take long. The story appears on the Voice‘s site shortly after 4 p.m. on Tuesday, October 30. Thanks to the miracle of the Web, both defense and prosecution dispatch subpoenas by e-mail an hour later. “Is that legal?” you whine. “I’ve already accepted service,” your attorney responds.
The defense subpoena demands any notes and recordings related to the four homicide victims. The D.A. wants everything you own. Both subpoenas command you to appear in court the next morning, evidence in hand.
A delicate dance now ensues: You are willing to provide those materials that pertain directly to the murders at issue, nothing more. New York has a wonderful shield law that protects journalists from being compelled to give up their notes. But it’s possible that Judge Gustin Reichbach will order you to produce everything. Should you balk at that order, there are 17 heavily armed court officers prowling the courtroom, ever ready to enforce the judge’s will. Just try sitting in the seat reserved for the judge’s mother-in-law and see what happens.
You now work late into the night at the Voice‘s office, trying to black out all but the murder references on the transcripts. This is called “redaction,” and it is harder than it looks. Government agencies have entire departments to do this. You are decidedly inexpert at this task as well. Even after rubbing them with a massive black marker borrowed from the copy department, the darkened words still glitter mockingly in the light. “Try running it through the copier,” suggests a passing intern, all of 20 years old. Hmm. So that’s how it’s done.
In court the next morning, you choose a seat on the back bench, praying for invisibility. The judge summons you and your attorney forward. Capeci, seated next to you, mumbles something. “See you in Rikers,” it sounds like. Assistant District Attorney Michael Vecchione, he of the massive shoulders, stuns the courtroom by saying that if the tapes bear out what the article says, his office is prepared to dismiss its case. There is a loud murmur and shuffling of feet. In another era, the reporters would have bolted for the door, grabbing pay phones, shouting, “Get me rewrite!” Today, they finger their cell phones and eye the prowling court officers. No one moves.
In an amicable agreement, the judge directs attorneys and reporter to retire to the D.A.’s office to listen to the tapes. It is a small, windowless conference room. There are five assistant D.A.’s, two defense attorneys, you, and your lawyer. The A.D.A.’s glower. Defense lawyers Mark Bederow and Ginnine Fried look hopefully expectant. The cassettes are inserted into the machine. After some fumbling, Capeci’s voice is heard, followed by Schiro’s husky Brooklyn accent. She has just stated that the defendant had nothing to do with the Lampasi murder when the dreaded “pop” is heard.
“Wait a minute,” cries prosecutor Joe Alexis, who is twice Vecchione’s size. “Play that again.” The metallic belch replays. “ What was that?” Alexis demands, his eyes hitting you with twin bolts of suspicion. “Uh, that was me, hitting the off button,” you respond sheepishly. Alexis glares, then nods for the tape to continue.
Memo to journalism students: Avoid small rooms filled with big prosecutors.