Another day, another murder, another suspect refusing to talk. The precinct caught maybe half a dozen homicides a week. This was 1993, and this was north Brooklyn. For every case solved there were plenty more cold ones on the books. But the young precinct detective was skilled and lucky on this one. He had good street sources and he had a lead within hours of the shooting. It led to an arrest.
The precinct detective sat across the table from the suspect in a small, windowless interrogation room in the far corner of the precinct. He knew the suspect would not crack easily. The man was not some stickup kid who’d botched a robbery, not some crack fiend looking for quick cash, not some corner boy settling a score. The man, the detective believed, was a leader of the neighborhood’s most powerful gang. An hour or so into the questioning, the suspect held the line.
The door opened. Two men in suits walked in. The man in front was a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, thin-waisted, thick-haired fellow with deep-set, dark eyes and an icy glare. The precinct detective knew this man. He’d seen him around the precinct. It was hard to miss him. He looked, colleagues often said, how a detective in a movie looks. And he played the part well. His suits were tailored. He always seemed to be chomping his trademark cigar, whether at the station, on the streets, or at the bar after hours. He had a booming voice thick with a Brooklyn accent. He had a hearty laugh and a respectable handshake. He loved to buy others drinks and trade stories. He was the friendliest and warmest man many of his peers had ever met, and he was quick to cut himself down with abundant doses of self-deprecation. It was hard not to love Detective Louis Scarcella.
Behind Scarcella stood his partner, Detective Steve Chmil, a stout man with a trim mustache, a brown comb-over, and skeptical, probing eyes. Where Scarcella seemed to seek the spotlight, Chmil was fine working in the shadows. The Robin to Scarcella’s Batman, cops around the borough joked. Scarcella and Chmil had come to assist on the precinct detective’s homicide case. He was expecting the company. Scarcella and Chmil were members of the Brooklyn North Homicide Squad, a roving, 40-man task force formed to relieve the borough’s murder epidemic. Precinct detectives faced dozens of robberies, burglaries, rapes, assaults, and shootings each month. The heavy caseloads made it tough to stay on top of a murder investigation for more than a few weeks. So homicide-squad detectives worked with the precinct detectives to help investigate murders. And perhaps no detective in New York City was better known for solving murder cases than Louis Scarcella.
Scarcella was the star of the Brooklyn North Homicide Squad. He had solved some of the city’s most notorious crack era crimes, plus scores more that got barely a blurb in the papers. He was tenacious and crafty. He developed close contacts on the streets. He had a knack for tracking down eyewitnesses. And he was a master at getting suspects to talk. “That crystal ball” in his stomach, he called it.
Great detectives, he once said in a television interview, had “the ability to get inside to that person’s soul whatever way you can and get the person to say what you need to hear.” What set Louis Scarcella apart, prosecutors and fellow cops believed, were his people skills. “He understood human nature,” says Douglas Nadjari, an assistant district attorney who prosecuted a few of Scarcella’s cases. “He could read people. He knew how to talk to people. He was empathetic. He didn’t talk down to them. He was not judgmental. He had a way with people.”
And so the precinct detective would let Scarcella and Chmil try their luck in the interrogation room. The suspect wasn’t talking anyway. The precinct detective figured he’d try a new strategy. A classic good-cop move: He would step out to buy a cheeseburger for the suspect, he told them. He’d be right back.
Less than half an hour later he returned to find Scarcella and Chmil outside the interrogation room. “We got a full confession,” Scarcella told the precinct detective. “He’s writing it out now.”
The suspect would later be convicted of murder. Louis Scarcella had done it again.
Now retired, the former precinct detective says he was relieved on that day to have solved at least one of the growing number of homicides piling up on his desk. “I was thinking, ‘OK great, I’m about to clear a case,'” he says today. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, as he did not want to comment publicly about the case.
But these days, he adds, he often wonders just what had happened in that interrogation room.
Louis Scarcella’s reputation is much different these days. “Disgraced former NYPD detective Louis Scarcella,” the papers call him. The fall was swift and hard and perhaps inevitable. Because the case that destroyed his name was a case that had helped make it.
In February 1990, a rabbi named Chaskel Werzberger was shot to death in Williamsburg. He was an innocent bystander killed by a jewel thief fleeing the scene of an attempted robbery. The case of the “SLAIN RABBI,” as the tabloids dubbed it, embodied the fear that dominated the city. There had been more murders in 1989 than in any year in city history, and 1990 brought an even higher rate.
Mayor David Dinkins and Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes had barely been in office two months. They had campaigned on a promise to reduce crime. Now they faced a moment of judgment. At a press conference, Dinkins offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Hynes, who had won his election thanks to heavy support from the Orthodox Jewish community, vowed justice.
Not surprisingly, the case landed on Scarcella’s desk. The high-profile ones often did. He led a team of four detectives and they dove into the investigation. Scarcella made an arrest on Aug. 13. His picture ended up in The New York Times, his face steely and proud, his eyes gazing forward, his right arm leading a handcuffed man named David Ranta out of the precinct.
Two eyewitnesses identified Ranta as the shooter. There was a confession, too. Scarcella testified that he and Ranta had sat side by side on a bench at central booking. He told Ranta that they came from the same neighborhood and were both Italian. “Why don’t you just tell me what happened?” he said to Ranta. And Ranta confessed.
Ranta claimed that Scarcella had made the story up, but jurors didn’t buy it. They convicted him in 1991.
In 2011 Hynes, still serving as Brooklyn’s district attorney, established a “Conviction Integrity Unit” in his office to review questionable convictions. Michael Baum, the lawyer who had represented Ranta at trial, asked the unit to look into Ranta’s case. His client had lost every appeal attempt.
The Conviction Integrity Unit’s review found that Ranta’s arrest was based on lies. One eyewitness told investigators that he picked Ranta out of the police lineup because a detective had told him to pick “the guy with the big nose.” Two more witnesses told investigators that they had falsely implicated Ranta in exchange for leniency in their own unrelated criminal cases. They also said that Scarcella had allowed them out of jail to smoke crack and have sex with prostitutes.
In March 2013, the Brooklyn D.A.’s office dismissed the charges against Ranta. “In announcing our decision to release Mr. Ranta, we made it clear that the decision was made in part because of the conduct of Detective Scarcella,” Hynes later wrote in a letter to the New York Times editorial board.
The reversal of such a high-profile conviction was a major news story. The Times dug into the career of the detective who had led such an apparently dirty investigation. A string of inmates convicted for other crimes claimed that Scarcella framed them just as he had framed Ranta. Some accused Scarcella of fabricating their confessions. One said Scarcella ignored evidence pointing to his innocence and had manipulated the police lineup so that the witness would pick him out. Two said Scarcella beat them up until they signed a confession. Several others claimed Scarcella coached witnesses to lie. Reporter Frances Robles, who led the Times‘s coverage, discovered that a drug addict named Theresa Gomez had served as an eyewitness in at least six of Scarcella’s murder cases. (The Voice spoke to Scarcella several times this summer, but on the advice of his attorney, he declined to speak on the record at length.)
That May, the Times asked Hynes if he stood by the detective’s body of work. Hynes had an election coming up in November and his response was direct and resounding. He announced that his office would review every conviction that involved Scarcella: 71 cases, it turned out. “It’s totally unprecedented,” says David Crow, an attorney overseeing a number of Scarcella cases for the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Appeals Bureau.
Hynes had declared the detective an outlier, a deviant who deserved deeper scrutiny. And he had done so at a moment when wrongful convictions had emerged as the headline issue of the American criminal justice system. Eighty-seven people were exonerated across the country in 2013, more than in any year on record. But only one detective has had his entire career come under review for his personal role in imprisoning the innocent. Louis Scarcella became the poster boy for wrongful convictions.
In the late 1960s, New York City had become a dangerous place. And it had happened quickly. In 1963, the city reported 548 murders; by 1969 that number had nearly doubled.
Crime rates were surging all across America. New York City, dense and politically dysfunctional, was particularly vulnerable. In 1968, the country had tallied 298 reported violent crimes per 100,000 people; New York City had 544, according to Department of Justice data. “Law and order in this city have almost entirely collapsed,” one New York Times reader wrote in a 1968 letter to the editor.
People cited a range of factors: It was the sudden influx of baby boomer youth. It was the surge in heroin use. It was the flight of wealthy taxpayers to the suburbs. It was the public-housing towers crammed with poor people. It was a general degradation of cultural values.
Most agreed, though, that the New York City Police Department deserved plenty of blame. The popular opinion at the time was that officers were more concerned with protecting the criminals who paid them off than the civilians who paid their salaries. At a 1968 crime conference, some city officials declared that police corruption had sparked the growing crime rate. Criminals, they argued, were running the city. Bribery was so widespread, so tolerated, so brazen that police officers often took the cash right in the open, right on the street. “It is senseless to believe youngsters do not see this or to expect that it will create in them a respect for the law,” Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton said at the conference.
Two years later, Officer Frank Serpico detailed the corruption for a New York Times exposé. Mayor John Lindsay named a new police commissioner, Patrick Murphy, who aimed to instill a culture of professionalism at the NYPD. He sought to phase out the old generation’s boys-club virtues and foster a new generation of dedicated, ambitious young cops who took their duties to the community seriously.
Crime rates had continued to rise. The homicide rate had tripled in less than a decade. In 1972, 1,691 people had been murdered. The next year, 21-year-old Louis Scarcella graduated from the Police Academy.
Scarcella always knew he wanted to be a cop. It was in his blood. His father, Domenick, was a Manhattan homicide detective. Later, his younger brother, Michael, would also join the NYPD. The family lived in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a close-knit working-class community of mostly first- and second-generation Italian-Americans. Young Louis spent his summers on Coney Island, riding bumper cars and playing carnival games on the boardwalk. He was a star catcher at Midwood High School and got a tryout with the Mets. Then he served three years in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He worked on the construction battalion, known as the “Seabees,” building roadways and airstrips. He also gave lectures on drug abuse to soldiers and their families.
After the war, Scarcella arrived at the academy a hungry cadet. He had a name to live up to and build on. Domenick Scarcella was a respected detective. When Domenick retired in the early 1980s, Louis inherited his shield number, 92. One day, he would get the 92 shield tattooed on his shoulder.
But soon after joining the department in 1973, Scarcella was laid off. Budget cuts had forced the department to release 3,000 new recruits. He took a job as the security supervisor at the Metropolitan Jewish Geriatric Center, where he worked for eight months before the department called to offer him a position in midtown Manhattan’s 17th Precinct.
Scarcella thrived in the department’s new community-policing strategy. Few in the city worked the street patrol as well as he did. He embedded himself in the neighborhood, shook hands, learned names, and shared laughs. “He’s an outgoing guy,” Chmil says. “He’s easygoing, and he likes people.”
He was promoted to detective within a year because of his exceptional street-patrol work. It was the sort of promotion that had been common decades before but had become rare by the early ’70s. There was usually a long path to detective squad, involving years in specialized units and a stretch in plainclothes. Scarcella, according to his résumé, was the last NYPD officer to earn a detective shield based on street-patrol performance.
He began his detective career in the 71st Precinct in south Crown Heights. It was a rough precinct. Scarcella was caught in a few shoot-outs over his four years there. He made many gun arrests. “He was very, very tenacious,” Chmil says. In 1981, Scarcella was transferred to south Brooklyn’s 66th Precinct. He had been promoted to third-grade detective and assigned to the robbery/homicide command.
Two years later, Scarcella’s superiors named him to a task force investigating a series of violent sex crimes in Brooklyn. The team suspected the same man had committed perhaps a dozen of the assaults, and at the end of the yearlong investigation, the “Flatbush Rapist” was arrested and charged with eight rapes. The task force also arrested two other suspected predators. Scarcella was awarded a Chief of Detectives Citation for Outstanding Police Investigation. It was the first of many.
He was assigned to the 77th Precinct’s homicide investigation team in 1984. The central Brooklyn precinct had become notorious by the mid-1980s. New York‘s Michael Daly in 1986 called the 77th an “unmanageable precinct,” describing it as a “dumping ground for the department’s misfits, malcontents, and rebels.” A group of the precinct’s uniform officers had for years been taking protection money from drug dealers, and in 1986, 13 were indicted by then-up-and-coming special prosecutor Charles Hynes.
Scarcella was a bright spot for the precinct. He solved some of the neighborhood’s most upsetting crimes. In October 1986, Scarcella investigated the murder of a Queens man named Jaime Prieto, who had come to Crown Heights to celebrate his birthday with friends. Seconds after stepping out of his car, he was caught in a hail of bullets meant for another target. Late that night, Scarcella went to the Prieto family’s home. He offered condolences and assured them he would catch the killer. From then on, Jaime’s sister Lucy Prieto called Scarcella once or twice a week, asking for updates on the investigation. Once, she asked Scarcella if he wore a suit even while working the streets. Absolutely, he replied. “These people are gonna smell you a mile away!” Prieto said. “You’re gonna stick out like a sore thumb!” And Scarcella laughed.
“He was always very nice and always asked about my family,” Prieto says today. “He was always generous in giving us his time and communicating what was going on. He was a godsend.”
Six months after Jaime’s death, Scarcella called Prieto.
“We caught the guy,” he told her. “And guess what? I was wearing a suit.”
Crack arrived in New York City in the early 1980s. The NYPD was ill-prepared for the crime wave the drug would bring. Still reeling from budget cuts of the 1970s, when the city was nearly bankrupt, the department was understaffed. The NYPD had lost nearly a third of its officers since 1975.
Police were no longer patrolling the subways overnight, and the city’s public transportation system had the highest crime rate of any in the world. Many who could afford to leave the city did. Landlords in rough neighborhoods cut their losses and abandoned properties. The most cynical among them lit the buildings on fire for insurance money. From 1970 to 1980, the city’s population dropped by 800,000 people. By the end of the decade, New York City was a symbol of urban decay.
Just when the NYPD could least defend the city, the crack-era “precipitated an explosion of violent crime, unlike anything we’ve ever experienced,” Lee Brown, the city’s police commissioner in the early ’90s, told the Harvard Business Review in 1991.
The murder rate rose every year from 1985 to 1990, when it peaked at 2,245. “Crime-ravaged city cries out for help: Dave, Do Something,” read a New York Post front page, criticizing then-Mayor David Dinkins for his inability to curb the growing violence. Crime was the story of the city. Along with a growing state of fear and panic among the city’s residents, there was a belief that the authorities were powerless or incompetent. “Why have you not written again and again and again about the utter failure of the police and the courts to protect the ordinary citizen?” one Times reader wrote in a letter to the paper.
The officers themselves were frustrated. They saw up close how unprotected the city was. “What stood out the most was the feeling of hopelessness and the sense that we were just going through the motions,” says Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who spent 22 years in the NYPD. “No one really believed crime would drop. It was just keeping your finger in the dam long enough to keep it from spilling over in your 20-year cycle, and once your 20 years were up, it was the next guy’s turn to keep the finger in the dam.”
And nowhere was it worse than in Brooklyn, home to nearly half of the city’s murders. Most of those murders occurred in the borough’s northern precincts, in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Brownsville, and East New York. Precinct detectives were backed up with unsolved homicides. So in 1987, the NYPD created the Brooklyn North Homicide Squad. It was to be an elite team, composed of many of the borough’s best detectives. “Guys were dying to get into the homicide squad,” Chmil says. “But Louis said he didn’t want to go.”
Scarcella enjoyed working the precinct. He hit the streets like he did as a patrolman. He had developed a network of contacts and took pride in knowing the news and gossip of the blocks. He was in a comfortable place. He had a wife and three daughters and a job he loved. But his bosses told him homicide squad was a good career move, and they soon persuaded him to join.
The squad was loaded with talented investigators. One of them was Warren Bond, who had made a name for himself working undercover drug busts in the city’s roughest neighborhoods. Bond’s colleagues had nicknamed him “Boss Fighter.” He did not shy from telling his bosses that a certain strategy was wrong, and he did not try to win them over with numbers. He was a meticulous, patient investigator.
But, Bond tells the Voice today, the job of NYPD homicide detective “is all about the numbers.” And he didn’t always hit them. Sometimes his boss would swing by his desk and remind him, “You don’t have any clearances lately.” But Bond didn’t chase the numbers. He spent a decade on the squad and was never promoted above third-grade detective. Chasing numbers, he says, caused some detectives to “get over aggressive and do things they would normally not do.”
As the murder rate continued to rise, so did the number of unsolved homicides. “And with that comes substantial pressure to solve cases,” says one prosecutor of the era, who requested anonymity. The public put pressure on the politicians, who put pressure on NYPD brass. Police officials put pressure on the midlevel commanders, who put pressure on the folks tasked with solving the crimes and arresting the criminals. Cleaning up the streets mattered more than preserving the integrity of this rule or that. “The criminal justice system became a cut-corners system,” Adams says. “There were some who were frustrated by the slow wheels of justice, and they wanted to speed it up in their own way.”
Bond knew some cops were crooked, but he didn’t think Louis Scarcella was one of those cops. “I knew him to be a good detective who got things done,” he says.
And Scarcella posted great numbers. “He was a closer,” says Marty Marshak, a defense attorney who worked on a few of Scarcella’s cases. A year into his time with Brooklyn North, he was promoted to second-grade detective. In his second year, he led the investigation that brought down drug kingpin “Baby” Sam Edmondson. By his fourth year, 1991, he was a first-grade detective, the highest designation. “He was considered by many to be the top detective in Brooklyn,” Marshak says.
He knew how to use his charisma. When Scarcella and Chmil hit the streets in search of witnesses and tips, Scarcella was the one who talked to the wives and girlfriends. “Women loved him,” Chmil says. “He was a charmer. He would get stuff other detectives wouldn’t get.”
He invested in people. Chmil recalls one night when they came across a panhandler in Bed-Stuy. Scarcella introduced himself and bought the man food. Months later, Chmil says, the man showed up at the precinct and asked for Scarcella. He had information about a murder, and he identified a suspect. “When we worked, we always treated people decent,” Chmil says. “Being a detective, you’re in the people business.”
Scarcella handled headline-grabbing murders, and his investigations brought headline-grabbing arrests and convictions. There was the Ranta case. There was the case of the young men who set fire to a subway token booth in East Flatbush, killing the operator. There was the case of the 4-year-old killed by a stray bullet in a Brownsville housing project.
In each of those cases, Scarcella got an eyewitness identification and a confession. Prosecutors loved him. “Some detectives were lazy, and as soon as they got their one witness, they would close the case and send it off to the district attorney,” says Jeffrey Ginsberg, an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn at the time. “Scarcella was willing to go the extra mile professionally, to gather the evidence to make the case as strong as it could be. The best detectives can present the case to a grand jury.”
Scarcella had a talent for performing in front of juries. His testimonies were detailed and colorful. He was a storyteller.
“The jury hangs on his every word,” says Crow, the defense lawyer. Scarcella reenacted dialogue. He raised his voice and cursed and banged his fist on the witness stand the way he had in the interrogation room, except he didn’t call it the interrogation room. “I don’t like the word ‘interrogation,’ ” he once testified. “I interview and speak to people.”
“He was totally charming,” says Ron Kuby, a defense lawyer who worked several cases involving Scarcella. “The kind of person you would want to believe.”
Ronny Pondexter did not yet have a criminal record when he first saw Detective Louis Scarcella. He was a 16-year-old high school basketball star, and he didn’t give the broad-shouldered man in a suit much thought. Cops were always coming around Pondexter’s Crown Heights block in the mid-’80s.
During his senior year, Pondexter took a bullet to the knee and his chance at a college scholarship was gone. He began spending more time on the corners. He carried a gun and sold drugs. Scarcella showed up whenever there was a murder in the area, which seemed to be every few days. He would stroll up to the corner and question every person there. But Pondexter never talked. He wasn’t scared of Scarcella.
“Eventually, we both had some bad blood,” Pondexter says. The way Pondexter remembers it, Scarcella would shoot him a smirk, wag his finger at him, and hiss, “You ain’t as bad as you think you are.”
“He was real cocky,” Pondexter recalls. “He was like somebody out of a movie.”
In 1992, friends told him that police had been asking about him. Detectives had asked where he was on the night of a recent homicide. Soon, Pondexter was in an interrogation room with Scarcella. He assumed the arrest was just a ploy to get him to snitch, but then his case went to trial. Scarcella did not get a confession, but he did have an eyewitness. A 19-year-old woman named Sharon Valdez testified that she saw Pondexter shoot the victim in a vestibule below her apartment window.
After testifying, though, Valdez called Pondexter’s lawyer, Michael Baum, and said she had lied. Scarcella, she claimed, said she would lose custody of her baby if she did not implicate Pondexter. Valdez’s mother told Baum that Valdez had been asleep during the 3 a.m. shooting. Valdez offered to go back on the stand, but prosecutors threatened to charge her with perjury. The judge did not strike her original testimony. The jury convicted Pondexter, and he was sentenced to 25 years to life. Four year later, in 1996, the New York State Court of Appeals granted Pondexter a new trial, and he was acquitted.
By then, rumors were swirling about Scarcella. Defense attorneys in Brooklyn swapped stories and over the years some of them had begun to notice this detective popping up in several sketchy cases. The allegations were piling up.
In 1983, a judge questioned Scarcella’s credibility on the witness stand because he had answered “I don’t remember” to so many questions. In 1987, legal aid attorney David Crow, defending a suspect in a murder trial, noticed that the prosecution’s sole eyewitness, Theresa Gomez, had testified as an eyewitness in two other murder cases Scarcella had investigated. In another 1987 murder trial, Scarcella admitted that the witnesses in the case had identified the suspect from a single photo and not a police lineup; the judge called it “a classic illustration of what not to do.”
At a 1991 hearing, prosecution witness Jewel Smith claimed that she falsely identified a suspect because detectives on the case had threatened to bring criminal charges against her and have her children taken away; Scarcella was the lead detective on the case. In 1992, security footage captured Scarcella and Chmil letting an informant out of jail to visit his girlfriend. In 1995, a defendant testified that Scarcella had written a confession and then beat him until he signed it.
Even some fellow detectives had grown suspicious of Scarcella’s success. Marq Claxton, a Williamsburg precinct detective, had worked a couple of murder cases with Scarcella and Chmil and noticed that “it seemed like they were evasive with information. It seemed like I had to be left out for them to get a suspect.” Scarcella, he says, was a “big mouth, know-it-all-type. He tried to impress people. Some investigators go for the truth, are in it for the good. There are other guys who are glory hounds, who want attention, want focus, want to be perceived as brilliant.”
During the 1996 token-booth murder trial, Kuby brought up in court the rumors about Scarcella. “This is a pattern in some of his cases,” he told the jury. “Eyewitnesses are shown photo arrays by Detective Scarcella and sort of wondrously pick out the person who happens to be the top suspect at the time.”
Kuby had heard about Scarcella’s tactics in the Ranta investigation. “You took that witness to lunch and then to the witness’s home, where he smoked crack, isn’t that correct?” he asked in cross-examination.
“Of course not,” Scarcella said. “Definitely not.”
But Scarcella weathered the rumors, always able to provide an answer for the accusations. An eyewitness recanted? He feared that the defendant would come after him, Scarcella would reason. Suspects accused him of faking confessions? They were trying to save themselves.
People believed Scarcella. His reputation was solid when he retired from the force in 1999.
Within months of his retirement, the New York City Department of Education hired him as an investigator. In 2004, a teacher accused a principal of forging standardized test scores, and Scarcella was assigned the case. His investigation affirmed the teacher’s claims, and the principal was fired. But three years later, those rumors that had plagued his years on the force returned. An external review of the case concluded that the teacher had lied and that Scarcella’s investigation was “flawed from its inception.” The accuser had “assist[ed] him in writing parts, if not all, of the Scarcella report.” The department offered the principal her job back. Scarcella resigned.
But his reputation as a supercop still managed to live on. In 2007, the Dr. Phil show invited him on for an episode about false confessions. Scarcella was there to present the police side of the issue. He served as an expert; the program’s introduction noted that he had investigated 241 murders. “I will do whatever I have to do within the law to get a confession or to get someone to cooperate with me,” he said on the show. “Are there rules when it comes to homicide? No. No, there are none.”
“In the years that you’ve been doing all of this, how many times have you gotten a confession that it turned out didn’t corroborate, turned out it wasn’t true, turned out that it was the wrong person?” Dr. Phil asked.
“Never,” Scarcella said.
Steve Chmil felt angry and disgusted when he read the news about District Attorney Charles Hynes reopening Scarcella’s cases. Chmil’s ex-partner was one of his closest friends. “An honorable guy,” he says. They had run marathons together. Their families had gone on vacations together. “He took a lot of pride in being a detective,” Chmil says. “Your reputation is everything [as] a detective. It’s everything.”
Chmil had worked scores of investigations with Scarcella, including many of those under review. He found it absurd that Hynes had singled out Scarcella. “The D.A.’s office, they vet everybody and everything — the witnesses, the evidence,” Chmil says. “Unfortunately, when things go crumbly, it always falls on the police. They threw Louis under the bus.”
To Chmil, the review had the trappings of an election-year stunt.
There were 1,946 murders in New York City in 1993, 1,177 in 1995, and 633 in 1998. In 2012, there were 414 murders. By 2013, public safety was no longer the city’s biggest problem. People were more concerned with righting the injustices of the Tough on Crime era: stop-and-frisk, harsh drug laws, wrongful convictions. And in 2013, Hynes’s opponent, Ken Thompson, was happy to promote Hynes’s ties to that era.
“Hynes was in a world of shit,” Chmil says. “Hynes was in the process of getting reelected.”
By now it is clear that the misconduct went far beyond Scarcella. “Scarcella was a symptom of a much greater problem,” says Steve Drizin, head of Northwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. “The climate that was New York in the 1980s and early 1990s, everything was in place for wrongful convictions to flourish.”
Jonathan Fleming was wrongfully convicted in 1989 because Brooklyn prosecutor James Leeper did not turn over to the defense a hotel receipt proving his innocence. Derrick Deacon was wrongfully convicted in 1989 because a Brooklyn investigator told a witness that she would lose custody of her children if she did not falsely identify Deacon. Jabbar Collins was wrongfully convicted in 1995 because Brooklyn prosecutor Michael Vecchione threatened to imprison a witness if he did not falsely identify Collins. And so on.
“It was a poisonous stew of citizens who were saying lock everybody up; police officers who became numb to the possibility of innocence; prosecutors who were oversaturated with caseloads and sought to clear as many as possible; and judges who were frustrated with seeing continuous loads of black and brown men streaming into their courtrooms and wanted to move cases forward,” says Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and former police captain. Through it all, there was the media stoking the fear, plastering mugshots on front pages and accepting official law enforcement narratives. “When somebody is convicted, everybody feels a little better,” says Marshak, the defense attorney.
Scarcella was a prominent actor in this world. He thrived within its culture, and the culture rewarded him with promotions and praise. The city raised him up. “He was fueled by the public’s fear and able to be the hero,” Kuby says. “He told us what we wanted to hear and what the system needed to hear.”
Then the city changed and it tore him down. And maybe everybody feels a little better.
Louis Scarcella is a Coney Island regular. On his off days over the years he worked security at an arcade on the boardwalk. He worked shifts as a barker for carnival rides and games. He went scuba diving with the Coney Island River Rats, a research team that explores submerged historical artifacts. He swam with the Coney Island Polar Bear Club and served as its president for several years. Even among the dozens of bodies in the icy waters, Scarcella was hard to miss. He was the broad-shouldered guy with tattoos down his arms, belting out the lyrics to “Lydia the Tattoo Lady” in his baritone, trying to keep his companions warm with his spirit. That spirit is clear to anybody who calls his phone and hears his answering machine greeting, which ends with “… and remember, every day’s a beach day!”
Lucy Prieto, the sister of the murder victim in Crown Heights, got to know Scarcella’s spirit over the years. They had kept in touch and developed a friendship. Prieto worked at the World Trade Center, and when the towers fell, 186 of her co-workers died. After it happened, Scarcella invited her to spend a day with him at Coney Island, to get her mind elsewhere. It was the first time she had stepped foot in Brooklyn since her brother died there more than a decade before.
When Scarcella learned that Hynes had placed his career under review in the spring of 2013, Prieto was one of his first calls. He knew her brother’s murder would return to the headlines. He knew the defendant, James Jenkins, claimed to be innocent. He knew the Prieto family would have to relive the night of Jaime’s murder.
“Lucy, I’m so sorry,” he said to her. “I’m so sorry. Please tell your parents that I’m sorry.”
She told him that she had faith in his investigation.
“I swear to you I did nothing wrong,” he said. “I would cut off my right arm if anything should happen because I swear to you, I did nothing wrong.”
Reporters and cameramen appeared outside his Staten Island house over the following weeks. Scarcella denied wrongdoing. “I never framed anybody in my life,” he said more than once. When reporters challenged him with specific allegations in certain cases, he said that he did not remember the details of those cases. He saw his name ripped apart in the press. He saw many eager to denounce him and few willing to defend him. “Everybody,” he says, “got amnesia when I got thrown under the bus.”
Those who knew him struggled to reconcile the Scarcella they were reading about with the Scarcella of their memory. As one fellow Polar Bear put it, “It is a very confusing, emotional thing to deal with the revelations about Louis.”
Scarcella’s emergence as the villain did not turn Hynes into the hero. Thompson defeated him by a solid margin at the polls. Hynes’s own reputation only sunk deeper. Defense lawyers and inmates continued to tell stories of prosecutorial misconduct under his watch. The city’s Department of Investigations discovered documents showing that Hynes used public funds to pay a political consultant. In June, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he may bring criminal charges against Hynes. Since leaving office, Hynes has tried to avoid the public eye. He has not commented on any of the news stories about him and he could not be reached for this one.
Scarcella does not face the threat of criminal charges. The statute of limitations for perjury is five years. But he still has more to answer for. He is a defendant in multiple civil rights lawsuits. He received a subpoena to testify about systematic police misconduct in Jabbar Collins’s suit against the city, even though he was not involved in that investigation. And Thompson’s office continues to review his cases.
Thompson has cleared Scarcella in 17 cases and dismissed convictions in four others. Thompson has also expanded the review to include more than 30 cases that Scarcella had nothing to do with. He has dismissed convictions in three non-Scarcella cases. But it would be hard to find a New Yorker who could name the detectives who made those arrests.
Scarcella took the accusations hard. He went out less often. He spent time with his family but few others. He kept to himself more. It had been his life’s dream to be a detective, and he believed he had become one of the best, and now here he was, 62 years old, and people who’d never met him considered him to be all that was wrong with the profession. He threw all of his police awards in the garbage. He was down and felt like he had reached a low point.
Then on June 5, Scarcella’s brother Michael committed suicide. He was 50. Michael left a note that read: “My brother’s a good man, a good detective. He told the truth. The [assistant district attorneys] are liars. Hynes is a liar.” The next few days were a haze of deep pain and shock. Louis Scarcella had always been a man in control of everything around him. He could make strangers laugh and suspects confess. For more than a year, he had tried to stand tall as a city turned against him and ruined what he had worked for. He had proclaimed his innocence. He had told the world his side of the story. But the world, it often seemed, preferred the other side. The weight of an era’s injustices had somehow fallen on him.
“I have pretty broad shoulders,” Scarcella says, his voice as strong and sure as in any interrogation room. “But they ain’t that broad.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 5, 2014