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“Are the People ready for trial, Ms. Cooper?” Judge Fleming took off her glasses and pointed them in my direction.
I was slower than usual to get to my feet, stalling for time as I waited for another prosecutor from my office to walk into court with information that would determine my answer.
“Actually, Your Honor, I’d be grateful if you would put this matter over until tomorrow.”
“That wasn’t your attitude yesterday when you were urging me—pushing me, actually—to clear my calendar so we could start jury selection this afternoon.”
“I’m sorry, Judge. Something was brought to my attention this morning and I’m trying to ascertain the truth of the facts before I move the case to trial.” I started the sentence by facing the court but had turned my head to the back of the room, trying to will the door to open.
Gino Moretti could barely suppress a smile, sensing my vulnerability. “We’re ready to proceed, Judge. My client is eager to get on with clearing his good name,” my adversary said. “Alex has twisted her neck so many times this afternoon that I figure she’s either looking over her shoulder for a stalker, or she’s waiting until the guys in the press room get wind that she’s about to start performing for them.”
“Cut me a break, Gino,” I said, turning my attention back to the bench.
“Coop hates playing to an empty house, Judge.”
Judge Fleming knew that a convicted rapist was in fact stalking me, and had been since his escape from a psych facility months earlier. Raymond Tanner was not actually on my mind in the secure surrounds of her courtroom, but he’d been a tremendous source of anxiety since he had threatened my life in August.
“What did you say about your client’s good name?” Fleming asked, replacing her glasses and scrolling through the rap sheet attached to the arraignment papers in her file.
“Just that the sooner he can clear himself of these ridiculous charges—”
Fleming didn’t brook nonsense in her courtroom. “Antonio Carlito Estevez. Nice enough name. Going to be pretty hard to clear it, though, Mr. Moretti, no matter what happens with this case. Looks like nine misdemeanor convictions, a murder rap that he beat—”
“He was innocent, Your Honor. He didn’t beat anything.”
“A conviction for manslaughter and—”
“That was a YO, Judge.”
“The fact that he was a youthful offender doesn’t change much, Moretti. Just meant he wasn’t a predicate felon when a jury found him guilty of second-degree assault four years ago. It explains why he did such a short stint for such a serious crime.”
Antonio Estevez gave Janet Fleming his iciest stare. But she met it head-on and returned it with an equally frigid gaze. It was a look I had seen many times on the face of this former Legal Aid attorney who’d been appointed to the bench a decade earlier. She was tougher on perps than most judges who’d come up as assistant district attorneys.
“Can we bring the panel in, Your Honor?” Moretti asked.
“Have you and Ms. Cooper exhausted the possibility of a plea for Mr. Estevez?”
“The only offer is a plea to the charge,” I said.
The top count of the indictment was Sex Trafficking, a crime—added to the New York State Penal Law less than a decade ago—with a maximum penalty of twenty-five years, the same level of punishment as first-degree rape.
“You like the cold, Mr. Estevez?” Fleming asked, waving her right hand at the stenographer, telling her to go off the record and stop recording the proceedings.
“You don’t have to answer that,” Moretti said, catching the move.
“’Scuse me?” Estevez cocked his head and smiled at the judge.
“I see you’re born in the Dominican Republic, moved to Miami, which is where you served time.”
Gino Moretti leaned over and whispered into his client’s ear. Estevez brushed him away.
“Dannemora’s where you’re going to end up, if Ms. Cooper is right,” Fleming said. “Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora—not that they correct many of the guys I send there.”
“Let’s have this on the record, Judge,” Moretti said, rising to his feet and tapping his pen on the old oak counsel table.
Janet Fleming shook her head at the stenographer. “I’m just trying to make progress before the jury panel gets here, Gino. Trying to talk plea. Get a disposition.”
“Not happening, I promise you. Ms. Cooper’s got her holier-than-thou posture going on.”
Fleming leaned in and talked straight at Estevez. “They don’t call that prison Siberia for nothing, Antonio. Rubs right up against the Canadian border. I get a chill just thinking about you being holed up there till you’re fifty years old.”
“I’m glad you’re thinking about me, Judge, is all I got to say,” the defendant said, almost leering at her. “I didn’t do nothing wrong.”
“Can we please—?” The conversation was going in a bad direction.
“Stay seated, Ms. Cooper,” Fleming said, holding her arm out toward me. “Clinton is full up with guys who didn’t do nothing wrong, Antonio. It’s a helluva lot warmer in Shawangunk. They have special classes for men like you.”
The prison in Shawangunk was one of the few with a sex offender program, but Estevez—who was also charged with physical assault—had refused all plea discussions that involved accepting sex offender status, and I wasn’t caving to anything less.
“What you know about men like me?” Estevez asked, jabbing his finger in the air, toward the judge. The smile disappeared and a hint of his temper was about to boil to the surface.
Gino Moretti grabbed his client’s arm and flattened it on counsel table.
“Ms. Cooper says you abuse women,” Fleming went on, flipping through the eight-count indictment. “She says you take pimping to a new level.”
“I’m on the record now, Your Honor,” I said, standing up to address the court. “What I say has no relevance. Those are the charges against Mr. Estevez. I get your point, Judge. I’ll move the case to trial.”
“She don’t know shit about me,” Estevez said, now focusing his anger on me as the court officers moved closer to surround him. “I got a wife; I got a baby—”
“No more, Antonio,” Moretti said to him. “Keep your mouth shut.”
“You just wait and see if that bitch who ran her mouth shows up to testify. She took back everything she said about me. The lady DA knows that.”
Janet Fleming stuck her glasses on top of her head. “So you’re stalling this operation till you figure out whether you’ve got a witness or not, Ms. Cooper? Any truth to that rumor?”
It wasn’t unusual for victims who’d been threatened by a perp to change their minds about their willingness to testify in open court by the time the case came to trial. Tiffany Glover had texted me three days ago that she no longer wanted to cooperate, but just yesterday Mercer Wallace—a detective from the Special Victims Squad and one of my closest friends—found her and brought her to my office.
“Ms. Glover will be here when we need her.”
“Perhaps she recanted her recantation, Judge,” Moretti said, one hand on his client’s shoulder, snickering at me across the aisle.
“Which will make your cross even more devastating than I’ve been prepping for,” I said to Moretti, not loud enough for the judge to hear. “The threats didn’t work, Gino. Just FYI.”
“What did you say, Ms. Cooper?” Fleming cupped her hand to her ear.
“I apologize, Your Honor. I had forgotten to tell Gino something I wanted him to know before we got started.”
My adversary and I went back a long way together. I was sure he was aware that Estevez had sent threats to his former girlfriend through someone who had visited him at Rikers Island, but I didn’t want to burn Moretti by putting that on the record.
“Did I hear the word threat?” Fleming asked.
“Ms. Cooper couldn’t help herself, Judge,” Moretti said. “She’s been threatening to have her favorite detectives break my legs if I show her up in the courtroom. Looks like I’m in for the big hurt. That’s all that was.”
Fleming’s scowl suggested she didn’t believe Moretti. “Do you want to move the case, Ms. Cooper?”
“The People are ready for trial,” I said.
“The defense is ready.”
Fleming nodded to the captain of the court officers. “I’ve got a panel of a hundred and fifty prospective jurors waiting in the hallway. Any other housekeeping before I bring them in?”
Gino Moretti and I both shook our heads.
I settled into my chair, resisting the opportunity to turn and look over the dozens of citizens who had responded to their jury duty summons. There would be no more than ten or so in business clothes, another thirty in casual dress, and the majority wearing gear so sloppy and threadbare—and often so odorous—that it appeared court proceedings had lost all the dignity in which they had been cloaked for centuries.
Moretti had turned his chair almost a hundred and eighty degrees, less for the purpose of sizing up the jury pool than for trying to charm them with a welcoming grin, a cheesy suggestion that he wouldn’t be seated next to anyone except an innocent man.
“Nothing to eat or drink in the courtroom,” the captain called out from the railing behind me. “Except for water. All newspapers and materials must be put away. Turn off your cell phones and devices. No e-mailing, calling, or texting. Take your seats, please.”
Moretti stood up and positioned himself behind Antonio Estevez, using the moment to give him a friendly pat on the back, leaning to whisper into his ear. The faked intimacy would feed jurors the idea that my adversary really liked his client—touched him and talked to him and shared a secret from the rest of us. He’d probably just told the experienced criminal to keep his mouth shut from this moment on and resist the temptation to do anything stupid in front of the people who would decide his fate.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Janet Fleming. I’m a justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, presiding in Part 53 of the criminal term.”
The judge rose, circled her chair, and leaned on its high leather back as she addressed the prospective jurors. She compensated for her short stature by wearing stiletto heels, which got everyone’s attention whenever she walked on the elevated wooden platform that held the bench. Fleming pulled back one side of her black robe—placing her hand on her hip—to make sure the group saw the colorful dress that clung to the outline of her body.
I glanced at my watch. Almost three o’clock and I’d had no word from anyone in my office. Fleming was going to steamroll forward with selection. Jeopardy would not attach until the twelfth juror was sworn in, but that could happen by noon tomorrow.
I zoned out on the judge’s introductory remarks and came back to the case at hand only when she told the group that her clerk would now read the names of prospective jurors to take their seats in the jury box.
The clerk cranked the handle of the metal cylinder on the corner of her desk. The stub of each summons had been placed inside, and all were mixed together as they rolled over and over again. She let go of the handle, reached in, and removed a piece of paper, calling the name of the first individual and following it with thirteen others—which filled even the seats allotted for two alternates.
The usual commotion ensued. Those who had just settled into the long pews and heard their names announced picked up their backpacks and tote bags and scuttled past their neighbors to get to the center aisle and head for the jury box.
A middle-aged woman carrying four shopping bags and dressed for anything but success tried to detour away from the path set by the court officers to approach the bench. One of them put his arm out to stop her.
“But I have to tell the judge something.”
“I’ll take you in turn, madam,” Fleming called out in her sternest voice. She liked to keep tight control of her courtroom.
“But I don’t want to say what I’m going to say to you in public,” the woman whined.
“I’ll give you the opportunity to talk to us privately. Do as we tell you for now.”
The woman reluctantly trudged to the box and took her seat in the number eight position.
Fleming began her general jury instructions. She introduced Gino and me, directing each of us to stand and spin around so that everyone in the room could see us.
She told them that the indictment contained eight counts, but that it was just a piece of paper, and that the defendant’s innocence was presumed at this point.
I could hear juror number eight murmur to the group, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. That’s what an indictment means.” I assumed that she was on a mission to get herself excused and knew exactly which buttons to push.
“The top count with which Mr. Estevez is charged,” Fleming continued, “is Section 230.34 of the Penal Law: Sex Trafficking.”
Prospective juror number eight gasped audibly and slumped down in her seat. “Oh, my God. I knew he looked like a pervert. He oughta get the chair.”
This time, Gino Moretti heard her.
“Judge Fleming, I’d like to approach the bench with Ms. Cooper.”
He reached there before I could push back and get to my feet.
“What is it with you, Moretti?” the judge asked, cupping her hand over her mouth so the jurors couldn’t hear her.
“You’ve got a whack job in the box and she’s going to poison the well if you don’t remove her right now,” he said. “Didn’t you hear her?”
He repeated the second statement she made and I filled in the first.
Fleming slammed her gavel on the desktop. “The lady in the number eight seat, you’re excused.”
“Who, me? But I want to see you, Your Honor. I want to tell you what my issue is.”
“Just follow the court officer. Before you wind up with a bigger problem than you think you have now. And zip your mouth while you’re on your way out.”
Fleming took the summons stub from the clerk, looked at the name, and ordered her to have the woman removed from all future service.
“You ladies and gentlemen in the audience, raise your hand if you heard anything that woman said,” the judge said.
Not one hand went up.
“Those of you in the jury box,” she said, waving her glasses back and forth over the two rows of stunned spectators who had been within earshot of the woman, “you’re all excused with my gratitude. See you in six years.”
Before they could gather their belongings and follow the crazy lady out of the room, the heavy doors creaked open again.
“You caught a break, Alex,” Fleming said to me. “Did you coach her? Is she part of your stalling-for-time routine?”
“Beyond my doing, Your Honor, but I like her thinking.”
“Well, speak of the devil,” Moretti said. “Detective Michael Chapman, Manhattan North Homicide. We got a body I don’t know about?”
I spun around and saw Mike standing at the back of the large room. He was holding the door open for the exiting line of prospective jurors.
“Speak of what?” Fleming asked.
“I told you Alex had detectives lined up to break my legs. Seems not to be an idle threat if she’s got Chapman on board.”
“Did your man Estevez kill somebody?” the judge said to Moretti as she motioned to Mike to approach the bench.
“Chapman has nothing to do with this case,” I said. “I have no idea why he’s here.”
“Don’t get flustered, Alex,” Moretti said to me. “I think we all have a good idea why he’s here, or haven’t you heard, Judge Fleming?”
“Can we take a break, Your Honor?” I asked. “I can assure you it’s nothing personal.”
“Ten-minute recess, ladies and gentlemen. You’re not to leave this room, but you’re free to check your messages and talk among yourselves,” Fleming said. Then she snapped at the captain as she stepped down from the bench. “Make Mr. Estevez comfortable in his office.”
The fact that any defendant on trial was a prisoner at Rikers Island was supposed to be withheld from the jury. They dressed in civilian clothes, and but for being escorted back to the holding pen behind the courtroom surrounded by four armed men, most jurors would have to guess the fact that Estevez was actually incarcerated.
“Let’s see what Chapman’s got,” Fleming said. “We’ll go to my robing room.”
“Don’t you have a disrobing room for them?” Moretti asked.
I walked ahead of Fleming and Moretti, into the short hallway that connected her robing room to the courtroom. Mike caught up with us, offering apologies to the judge, greeting Moretti and me, and closing the door behind him.
“Sorry to break up your trial, Judge. Commissioner Scully asked me to come over to deliver the news to Ms. Cooper face-to-face. Let you know there’ll be a passel of reporters swarming around her when she leaves your courtroom.”
“I have no intention of letting her leave till the close of business, Mr. Chapman. Now, what’s the story?”
My heart was racing. I couldn’t make a connection between Mike and this defendant. I couldn’t think of a reason for Mike to interrupt the middle of my working day, especially since our relationship had now become an intimate one. I was embarrassed by his presence.
“Bad news first. We had an attempted murder early this morning. Rape and stabbing of a teenager in Riverside Park. Likely to die when I got the call, but she seems to be coming around.”
“You’re not getting Ms. Cooper on this one,” Fleming said.
“Not a problem,” I said, avoiding eye contact with both Mike Chapman and the judge. “He’s not here for me. I had a call on this case at nine A.M., before I knew there was anyone in custody, and assigned it to Marissa Bourges.”
Bourges was one of the best lawyers in my unit.
“The commissioner wanted me to deliver good news for a change, and make a plan with the judge about the media. We nailed the bastard who did the girl in the park an hour ago, Coop. It’s Raymond Tanner. You’re out of harm’s way.”
“Sit down before you fall over,” the judge said to me. “Take a deep breath.”
“I’m fine, Your Honor. Really I am. This is great news.” I was shaken by the mention of Tanner’s latest attack, and the reality that I would now have to face him from the witness stand.
“Maybe he needs a good lawyer,” Moretti said. “You might whisper my name in his ear, Chapman.”
“This is the scumbag—excuse me, Judge—that’s got KILL COOP inked on his hand, Gino. I’m looking to do more to him than whisper in his ear. Some of his other body parts have my more immediate attention.”
“Don’t tell me anything else about him,” Fleming said, clapping her hands over her ears. “I don’t want to have to recuse myself if this guy winds up in my courtroom. Siberia might not be cold enough for him.”
“The commissioner wants to know whether your court officers can take Alex down to her office at the end of the day. Just so the press guys don’t throw microphones in her face.”
“Sure. We can put her right on the judges’ elevator. Nobody has access to that bank.”
The tiny elevator kept the judiciary away from the great unwashed, so they didn’t have to ride up and down with perps and witnesses, snitches and scoundrels of all sorts. It opened directly into the back room of the office of District Attorney Paul Battaglia on the eighth floor of the massive courthouse.
“Perfect,” I said, trying to control the tremor in my hand by steadying it on the judge’s desk. “Where’s Tanner now?”
“Look,” Fleming said. “Why don’t you two take five minutes in here? Answer all her questions, Detective, so she can get back to concentrating on the business at hand.”
Gino Moretti winked at me as he followed Janet Fleming out of the robing room, a stark space with only a desk, three chairs, and an empty bookcase. There were no curtains on the windows that overlooked the narrow passage of Hogan Place. Elsewhere in the courthouse the judge had chambers with a large office, well decorated and watched over by her secretary.
“You’re okay now, Coop,” Mike said, bracing his back against the door to the room.
I bit my lip and nodded.
“This is weird, don’t you think, kid? That you’re just standing there staring at me?”
“What’s weird about it? I’m not staring.” I shifted my eyes from Mike’s face, focusing on a button on his navy blazer.
“Six months ago, if the same thing had happened, the judge would have walked out and you’d be clinging to me for dear life, asking me to tell you details and stop you from shaking.”
“It’s different now.”
“Yeah, it’s different,” he said, brushing back a shock of dark hair. “It’s supposed to be better. C’mere.”
I walked toward Mike and let him wrap his arms around me. Inside that embrace had always felt like the safest place to be. We had started working together more than a decade ago, and throughout those years had become best friends. Just two months earlier, in August, we had crossed the line and turned our friendship into a romance. I still wasn’t clear on how that would affect things on the job—at crime scenes, the morgue, my office, or his squad room.
Mike took my chin in his hand and tipped my face up to look into his. “It’s over for Tanner, Coop.”
“You think I was going to kiss you? Get over yourself, girl. I know where we are.” Mike threw his hands up in the air and walked to the window.
“Sorry for being so awkward,” I said. “Where’s Tanner now?”
“The lieutenant’s going to hold him up uptown at the squad till you leave the building tonight. Whatever time that is. He just doesn’t want you under the same roof at the same time.”
“Crazy to slow down his arraignment for that reason.” I walked to one of the chairs and sat down. “Is he talking?”
“As in a confession? Not a word,” Mike said, walking to the desk, leaning on it as he looked into my eyes. “We don’t need anything from Tanner. Put together all the stuff he’s been doing since he slipped out of his work release program and his rap sheet will reach to Cleveland.”
“The girl, Mike. The likely from this morning. How’s she doing?”
“Collapsed lung from the stab wound, but she’s out of surgery and expected to make it.”
“No lead pipe?” The lethal weapon had been his signature in several cases.
“Except for the crater in this vic’s head, you’d hardly know it was Tanner. Yeah, he had a pipe. Yeah, he tried to smash her skull with it. The guys just haven’t found it yet.”
“Who collared him?” I asked, over my own reaction and interested now in the details. “Please tell me it was Mercer.”
“That’s a better attitude. Show me those whites, Coop.”
I smiled at him, reaching out and covering his hand with one of mine.
“Call it rookie luck. A kid on patrol heard screams, but they stopped so abruptly that he couldn’t find the location. Tanner apparently laid low for a couple of hours, hiding in one of those huge rock formations in the park till the cops scoured the area and cleared out. This kid asks his boss if he could stay on the scene for a while, guessing Tanner hadn’t made it far. Good instincts. And he asked for the K9 Unit to give him a dog to sniff around. The rookie eventually broke with the rules—let the dog off the leash to hunt on his own—and the animal actually rousted the rapist from his spot. The kid saw Tanner running down a grassy slope toward the river. Gave chase and caught up with a blood-spattered perp.”
“Sounds impressive,” I said. “The knife?”
“Yeah. Tanner dropped it during the chase.”
“They’ll get prints off it? Or submit it for touch D—?”
“You know what?” Mike said, straightening up and adjusting his tie as he walked to open the door. “They’ll do everything they’re supposed to without you breathing down their necks. They’re pros, kid. Just like you think you are. You get back to Mr. Estevez.”
“When do we celebrate? I mean, not us, but the team.”
“You do what you gotta do for the rest of the afternoon. A few of us will be lifting a glass to that rookie a little later this evening. You’ll be the first to know where.”
I headed for the door. “The lieutenant call you in on this today?”
“No, no. Mercer gave me the heads-up first, and the commissioner knew I had a keen interest in the motherfucker’s arrest.”
“So you’re still doing a midnight?”
“That’s what the loo tells me. Lets you get a good night’s sleep.”
“The weekend can’t come soon enough.”
One of the court officers was waiting for me in the hallway. Mike walked past us and we entered the courtroom. Fleming nodded at the captain to return the defendant from the small cell that held him during these proceedings to his place at counsel table.
Janet Fleming gaveled the group back to order and asked the clerk to put fourteen more citizens in the box. “And if I didn’t tell you earlier, folks, once you leave here tonight, there will be no tweeting, no Facebooking, no Instagramming your buddies about what goes on in here. For the forty dollars a day the state pays you, you get your train fare and your hot dog from the umbrella man in front of the building. No selfies with me or my staff. You don’t get to link in or friend me, understood?”
She rose again to project her voice to the entire room. “This is just to remind you that the unexpected interruption had absolutely nothing to do with the case at trial. You are not to speculate about anything you see or hear the parties do. The only evidence will come from that witness box, or from physical evidence and exhibits introduced during the trial,” she said, going on with the general instructions.
Fleming liked to control the voir dire of the panel as well. She would allow Moretti and me to ask a limited number of questions, but it wasn’t like the old days when a lawyer could free-form and inquire about magazine subscriptions or favorite television shows, hoping to glean a bias that would make a juror’s exclusion automatic.
After the judge finished forty-five minutes of questioning and entertaining three requests to be excused from the case, Fleming nodded to me for my turn. I carried an old green felt board, eighteen inches long, with two slotted tiers that held the summons for each of the individuals seated in front of me, so that I had their names and addresses at the ready. I rested it on the wooden flap that served as a mini podium attached to the side of the jury box.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Riley,” I said to the man in the first seat. An unemployed electrical engineer, he had tried in vain to have Fleming let him go. He didn’t answer me but stared straight ahead, determined—it seemed to me—to make himself unlikeable to Moretti and me so as not to make the cut.
The second juror was my age—thirty-eight—and a professor of women’s studies at Columbia College. I was quick with her, too, for the opposite reason. Human trafficking had become a hot-button issue with feminists and academics, and I had the gut instinct that she would be sympathetic to my victim, despite the witness’s history of prostitution. No need for me to open any doors for Moretti to slip in and knock her off.
Prospective juror number three was a challenge. An African-American male in his early thirties, he seemed affable and engaged in the proceedings, but a bit too eager to get the attention of the defendant, who looked over at the box from time to time. His black T-shirt featured a small logo of a pizza in the center of his chest, although I found the large neon green letters above it—EAT ME—to be not only off-putting but also totally inappropriate for the occasion.
“Mr. How-ton,” I said, phonetically breaking up the name that I read on the summons. It was spelled Houghton. “Am I pronouncing it correctly?”
“Nope. No, you’re not. My people say Huff-ton.”
Strike one for me.
“Could you tell us a little more about the work you do at Metropolitan Hospital?” He had his sneakered feet up against the wall of the jury box. His hands were clasped together and he was twiddling his thumbs somewhat nervously.
“I’m, like, a phlebotomist, you know?”
“So you’re trained to draw blood.”
“I’m in a tech program right now. I’m being trained,” Houghton said, looking over at Antonio Estevez. “I’m not quite Dracula yet.”
Estevez pulled back one side of his mouth in half a smile and Houghton laughed. Half of the prospective jurors laughed with him, at my expense.
Strike two for me.
“Is there anything you’ve heard so far that might make you uncomfortable sitting on a case of this nature?” I asked.
“Nah. You gotta prove what you gotta prove.”
“One of the charges here is that Mr. Estevez used force to compel a young woman to engage in acts of prostitution. You understand that?”
I walked toward the railing at the end of the well of the courtroom. “Do you know who Jason Voorhees is, Mr. Houghton?”
He sat up straight and dropped his feet to the floor. “You kidding me? Of course I do.”
Jurors number two and four looked at him, puzzled by either the question or his answer.
“Miss Cooper,” Judge Fleming said, glancing up from her notebook, “I hope you’re going somewhere with this.”
“I am, Your Honor.” I continued talking with Mr. Houghton. “And who is Jason Voorhees?”
“He’s the guy—the creepy one with that kind of full-face hockey mask—in the Friday the 13th movies.”
Gino Moretti was on his feet. “I’m going to object to this line of questioning, Your Honor.”
“What’s your point, Ms. Cooper?” the judge asked.
“We intend to present evidence that—”
“Wait a minute,” Moretti said, losing his cool. “May we approach? She can present her evidence when she’s got witnesses in the box.”
I wanted to give the prospective jurors a taste of the People’s case. Houghton, after his Dracula reference, seemed a likely candidate to know the horror-movie genre. I thought I could see whether anyone in the room would be freaked-out by a description of Estevez, whose victims claimed he wore the distinctive goalie mask, punctuated by holes and painted with red triangles—and wielded the same machete Jason did—when he threatened them to go to work for him. Better to find out they had weak stomachs now than midtrial.
“It’s not about the evidence, Judge. I’d like to—”
“I know what you’d like to do, Ms. Cooper. Don’t even think about it. Next question, please.”
“Mr. Houghton, is there anything about your familiarity with the fictional movie character Jason Voorhees that would prevent you from analyzing the facts in this case, independent of—”
“I object,” Moretti said, practically shouting at the judge.
But Houghton was ready to take his shot. “Mr. Estevez isn’t charged with hacking his old lady’s head off like in the movie, is he? I didn’t hear that count.”
The judge had to gavel the courtroom back to order, while Houghton basked in the amusement he had provoked with his response.
“Approach the bench, both of you,” Fleming said, making her displeasure clear when we got within earshot. “Over and out, Alex. You’re done. Move on to the next seat and ask a few questions and then Gino takes it from there.”
“Do you want a curative instruction, Gino?” she asked.
“Are you crazy, Judge? Call a little more attention to it? Spare me a ‘No, ladies and gentleman, Mr. Estevez is neither a vampire nor a homicidal maniac.’”
“He’s just a pumped-up pimp,” I said, whispering to Moretti, “who uses masks and machetes to coerce young women—to scare them to death—so they turn tricks from which he profits.”
“Your choice,” the judge said.
“If you’re not going to allow me to ask anything else,” I said, “I’d like you to go a little deeper into the meaning of sex trafficking, Judge. It’s not a familiar statute to most jurors.”
The sex-trade profession may be the oldest on earth, but the crime was a very new one on the books, ramped up recently in recognition of the brutal nature of sex slavery and the inadequacy of the old “promoting prostitution” laws.
“I’ll entertain some questions from you, Alex, but keep them within reason.”
The door creaked open at the rear of the room. I didn’t bother to turn this time as I tried to suggest a punch list for Fleming to use.
Her law assistant assiduously made notes of my comments, while the judge had her eyes on whoever had entered the room.
When I did glance back, I saw a neatly turned-out twentysomething-year-old striding down the aisle, making for the first pew, a row kept empty for press and for family and friends of the accused, directly behind Gino Moretti’s seat. She looked familiar to me. I had seen her recently, in the corridor near my office.
“Keep going, Alex,” the judge said to me, chewing on the arm of her eyeglasses. “That’s not the colleague you’ve been waiting for, is it?”
“’Cause if it was, you might want to tell her she’s sitting on the wrong side of the courtroom.”
“She’s new. She’s a paralegal in the Child Abuse Unit, I think.”
“Cute kid. She could give some cred to Mr. Estevez, sitting at his back, fluttering her eyelashes over here at Gino.”
“She’s in the right place, Your Honor,” Moretti said. “Seated on the side of the angels.”
“You must mean my side, Gino,” I said, smiling at him. “That’s why she’s working in my office. Maybe I’ll scoop her up for the Special Victims Unit.”
“You’re missing my point, Alexandra. That young woman is married to Antonio Estevez.”
Fleming was on her feet again. “Lower your voice, Alex. I don’t need a situation here.”
“I don’t think she’s been in the office a month,” I said, my jaw clenched. “I’ll bet she didn’t put that fact on her job application. I can’t imagine the hiring administrator—”
“Of course it’s not on her application,” Moretti said, one eye on me and one on the attractive young woman who was trying to get the attention of the defendant. “The wedding was at Rikers Island last weekend. I was the best man.”
I was steaming mad. “I’d like a recess, Judge. I need to find out—”
“Don’t try to stall this anymore, Alex,” Moretti said. “Shit happens. There’s nothing illegal about marrying an inmate.”
Antonio Estevez looked back and saw his bride. She mouthed words to him, but I couldn’t read her lips. He nodded. Then she blew him a kiss and got up to leave.
“Excuse me, Judge, but I’ve got to talk to her. I’ll be right back,” I said.
Most of the prospective jurors were riveted by this bit of courtroom drama. Gino and I were having a standoff in front of the judge and the young paralegal was sashaying her way out of court. The jurors were staring at us as I took off after the new Mrs. Estevez.
“You’ve got no business, Alex,” Moretti yelled after me.
“Hold it right there, Ms. Cooper,” the judge said as she banged her gavel on the bench. “Captain, don’t let the DA out of here.”
The door slammed behind the paralegal and the captain of the court officers squared himself in front of it.
“I’d like to see you both in the robing room,” Fleming said to Moretti and me. “Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for the lack of decorum in my courtroom. You’re excused from service for the next six years, with the thanks of the court.”
I walked past the judge on my way to the side door next to the jury box.
“You may have been looking for a mistrial, Ms. Cooper,” Fleming said, “but you are far more likely to have me find you in contempt right now, cooling down in a jail cell next to Mr. Estevez, before I give you the chance to pull that kind of stunt on me again.”
“So what’s the story, Alex?” the judge asked. She parked herself behind the bare wooden desk and invited Moretti and me to sit opposite her. “You started this afternoon’s session by saying that you were waiting for someone from your office to come up with information. Was Señora Estevez your courier? You knew this whole charade was about to happen? Showtime for the prospective jurors?”
“Absolutely not, Judge.”
I hesitated. “May we go ex parte on this for a few minutes? Would you mind stepping out, Gino, while I explain the problem?”
“You bet I’d mind. I’m as curious as the judge.”
“That’s a new legal standard?” Fleming asked. “Curiosity? There’d be a lot of dead cats in this courthouse.”
“I’d rather answer the question you asked out of the presence of counsel, Your Honor. It’s a confidential matter,” I said.
“What news were you waiting for, Alex?” the judge pressed.
“Just so you understand, there’s an internal investigation in progress. When it was launched,” I said, looking at my adversary, “it had nothing to do with your client. And I assure you that work will go on.”
“See, Judge?” Moretti said. “Another threat.”
“It’s not a threat, Gino. It’s a fact. When I got into my office this morning, I was notified by the head of the IT team that someone outside my unit had tried to hack into my computer file on this case.”
“Oh, the drama in your world is—”
Judge Fleming silenced Moretti with one slam of her hand on the desk. “From outside the office, you mean?”
“No, no. Someone unauthorized to see my trial documents, but with access to the DANY system, logged in and tried to get through the firewall that was set up for my staff only.”
“Nice touch, Gino,” Janet Fleming said, nodding as she stared straight through Moretti’s blank face. “The virgin bride, perhaps?”
“Hold on, Judge. No pointing fingers at me,” he said, bracing both hands on his chest.
“And just a minute ago you were best man. Short honeymoon, Gino,” Fleming said with a sneer. “Go on, Alex.”
“When I came up to court this afternoon, Your Honor, we had no suspect and no reason to think anyone in the office had a connection to Mr. Estevez. Maybe someone was surfing and accidentally punched the wrong docket number into the database. I was hoping to get an answer to stop the spread of some sensitive information—hopefully find some virtual fingerprints of an inexperienced colleague before you impaneled a jury. That’s why I was so anxious and, frankly, trying to stall you.”
“I’d say I can tell my team to narrow the list of suspects to just one young woman, don’t you think?” There are five hundred prosecutors in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a support staff twice that size. “Would you mind if I called the investigators with the wedding news?”
Fleming dug her cell phone out of her pocket and handed it to me.
“What’s her name, Gino?” I asked him as I dialed.
“She’s Mrs. Estevez now.” He shrugged his shoulders. “How the hell should I know what it was two weeks ago?”
Fleming slammed her hand down again. “Do better than that, Gino.”
“Her first name is Josie. It’s Josie.”
“Laura?” I said when my secretary answered the phone. “As fast as you can move, okay? Call the squad and tell whoever is closest to the door to come down and grab on to—”
“No!” Moretti shouted.
“Step into the hallway, Gino,” Fleming said. “Now you’re out of order.”
“They need to grab that new kid down the corridor. Josie is her name and—”
“Bring her right up to me,” Fleming said, talking over me.
“Laura? Still there? That’s the judge speaking. I don’t know who Josie works for exactly, but they can cuff her if necessary and bring her up to Part 53. We’re in the robing room.”
“Cuff her?” Moretti said. “You two are going overboard. There’s an innocent view of this that you haven’t even considered. My client isn’t—”
“Move faster, Gino.”
I put one hand over my ear while Fleming laced into my adversary.
“You know, when I was in your shoes and stood up in court for a client,” she said, “I was the client. I thought for him, I talked for him, I bled for him if necessary. I was going to be cleaner than a hound’s tooth so no one could hold any of my conduct against a guy who was already behind the eight ball. But you? You’re just gaming me. You’re gaming the system. And that’s the lowest type of animal life in my courtroom.”
“I’m not gaming anybody. I had no idea.” Moretti couldn’t bring himself to walk out. “Like it’s okay for a prosecutor and a cop to hook up, right, but not for anybody else? For a paralegal or even the accused, who is still presumed innocent even though you’re the one presiding, Judge Fleming. At least that’s my guess. You don’t think that kind of incestuous relationship between Cooper and her homicide hotshot compromises how an investigation gets worked?”
“Don’t go there, Gino,” I said.
“Close the door behind you,” Fleming added, waving the back of her hand at him.
I was still on the phone. “Yes, Laura. I’m here. Now call IT and tell them it’s this Josie kid who’s most likely trying to break into the database. They need to stop whatever else they’re looking at and get on her computer. Find out what’s on it and lock it down. Then call me back once you make contact. I’m on the judge’s cell,” I said, asking Fleming for her number and repeating it to Laura.
“What’s there to get from your files, Alex?” the judge asked.
I bit my lip. “More than you need to know at this point.”
“Give it up. I’m not going to be able to try this case. Ex parte, ex schmarte. Whatever adjournment you get, this one is already too messy for me to handle. I’ll be reassigning it today. Is it the women?”
“Yeah. And I’d have to say girls, not women. Estevez likes them young. Names, addresses, aliases. Every which way we have to find them.”
“Tiffany’s safe. I spent most of yesterday with her and she was good when she went home. Mercer had officers pick her up this morning when we learned this attempt was being made to gain access to my files and they’re babysitting her in a hotel.”
“So Estevez is smart enough, desperate enough, to actually plant a mole in your office?”
“Apparently so. That idea never occurred to me.”
“And Gino?” the judge asked. “Do you think he’s capable of—?”
“No way,” I said, walking to the window to look down at the street behind the courthouse. “I can’t imagine he’s involved.”
“Very gracious of you, Alex,” Fleming said sarcastically. “I wouldn’t be quite so certain. These other girls, are they in danger?”
“I suppose it depends on whether Josie was successful in breaking and entering into my computer system. It’s a big ring this guy runs. He’s got a posse out there who stand to lose a lot of money if Estevez goes down.”
The first few distinctive notes of the theme song from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly played out on Fleming’s phone. She looked at the incoming number and passed it to me.
“Two guys from the squad have been dispatched to look for Josie. Josie Aponte. She’s a brand-new paralegal assigned to Child Abuse,” Laura said. “And the IT crew is headed straight for her computer.”
“Make sure the techies hold back until the detectives are hands-on, so we don’t tip off that we’re onto her if she doesn’t know yet. That should be done within five minutes, right?” The District Attorney’s Office Squad, an elite branch of the NYPD with officers handpicked to work complex investigations, had its own version of a mini precinct just one flight upstairs from my wing. “Keep me posted.”
Judge Fleming reached for her phone and started for the door. “Let’s move this to the courtroom. I want to put this whole thing on the record. The Bar Association can make Gino sweat out his role in this. Let’s see if I can get Josie’s prenup out of her. I haven’t had my chance to do a tough cross since I graduated to my judicial robes.”
“I think we’ve met our match,” I said, following her out. “Can you imagine what balls it takes to go through all the security clearance for this job, then walk in ready to commit a felony, smiling at me every time she passed me in the hallway? Josie’s made of tough stuff.”
“Estevez says he’s got a kid. It’s hers?”
“I don’t think so. There’s a baby mama, but he keeps her away from all his business.”
The court officers and reporter were caught by surprise when Fleming and I walked back in. Moretti was on the phone but hung up when he saw us.
The judge stepped onto the bench and everyone resumed his or her position.
“You want Mr. Estevez in here?” the captain asked.
“No. Not now. Not ever again,” Fleming said. “Tell him I hope his parole officer hasn’t been born yet.”
Moretti was seething.
“I’m thinking of who the toughest judge on the block is, and that’s where this case will be tried. I’ll adjourn this for a month,” she said, tossing the case folder to the captain to hand to the clerk. “Let Eddie Torres have a crack at Mr. Estevez.”
The Honorable Edwin Torres was as formidable as he was smart and solid. The fact that he packed heat was known to every inmate, and none had dared any tricks in his courtroom.
“Your call, Mr. Moretti. Do you want to testify before or after Ms. Aponte?”
“Testify about what, Your Honor?”
Fleming was trying to come up with a reason to get Gino on the witness stand. “People’s lives are at risk here, sir. Do you understand that? What did you know about this harebrained scheme to get into Ms. Cooper’s files?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Is Aponte Josie’s surname? I didn’t even know that.”
“You better hope she says the same thing. She’ll be up here in—what?” Fleming asked, looking at me.
“Probably another few minutes.”
“Ladies first, Your Honor,” Moretti said.
“Cute, Moretti,” Fleming said. “This just happens to be the wrong time and place for cute.”
“You want me to question her, Judge?” I asked.
“Not a chance. She’s all mine.” The young woman had flaunted her relationship with Estevez in open court, and Fleming would try to hold her toes to the fire, on the record, before the police met with a refusal to answer questions. She opened her notebook and started to write in it. “Just give me some background, Ms. Cooper. Was Josie Aponte one of the women in the defendant’s stable? Did she work for him?”
“I don’t believe so. I never heard her name before today.”
“What’s his MO?”
I didn’t answer.
“Stand up and start talking, Ms. Cooper.”
I didn’t want to give away my whole case to Moretti, but I was getting the feeling that it wouldn’t matter much at this point.
“On your feet. That’s good. How did Estevez meet his girls?”
“He’s got a couple of young men on the payroll who scout for him.”
“You know their names?”
“I do, but—”
“Don’t worry. If I need them when I’m questioning Señora Estevez, you’ll give them to me. Scouted where?”
“The usual places, Your Honor. One went inside the Port Authority terminal, trolling for runaways who get off the bus from some godforsaken town a thousand miles away, twenty-four/seven. No shortage of hungry young girls in that hellhole. The second guy waits outside, in the Slade.”
“Not so fast,” Fleming said, scribbling in her book. “What’s a Slade?”
“Sorry. Street name for a Cadillac Escalade. It’s the Estevez pimpmobile of choice. The sweet-talker who was inside the terminal opens the back of the SUV. Shows off the goods—”
“Whatever he’s promised to the kid he’s trying to hook. If she’s seventeen and likes sequins and high-heel shoes, he’s got some glitzy clothes to show her. If she’s fourteen and wants designer makeup and bubble gum, there’s plenty of that.”
“Then it’s into the Slade and off to meet the wizard. That’s how it goes?”
“On a good night, yes, Your Honor.”
“Pay close attention, Moretti. Pretend like you’re hearing this for the first time. Where’s the meet, Ms. Cooper?”
“Mr. Estevez keeps a separate apartment, just for the purpose of breaking in the young women. Not the address on the court papers, which is his home.”
“You’ve seen it?”
“Detectives executed the search warrant I drafted, Judge. Lots of photographs for the jury. Three bedrooms—one for him, another for a female assistant who hangs out there to chill with the girls and prep them for Estevez, and the third for his intended victim.”
“Judge, I don’t even know how to begin to object to what’s going on here,” Moretti said.
“It’s easy. You say ‘objection’ and tell me it’s meant to cover everything that’s being asked and answered for the next hour or so, and I’ll say ‘overruled.’ I’ll say it just once, and you’ll understand I mean it for every time you would have flapped your mouth or even rolled your eyes at me. You don’t represent Josie Aponte, and this hearing is about her conduct. You’re extraneous to this whole proceeding, Mr. Moretti. I’m just waiting to see whether your conscience makes an appearance today.”
“May I continue, Your Honor?”
“Yes, Ms. Cooper.”
“The apartment I’m referring to has been completely soundproofed.”
“Loud music? Parties?”
“Not much of either, Judge. It’s mostly to muffle the screaming.”
“That should have been obvious to me. I must be slipping. You’ve got a rape charge in here?” she said, referring to the indictment.
“In almost every instance, Estevez starts with a sexual assault on the victim. No grooming period, no adjustment. They’re brought to the apartment one at a time, and he makes each one have sex with him.”
“What’s the force? Or is that what you mentioned in the voir dire?”
“No, the trafficking aspect starts later. There are at least two rape charges per victim. One is statutory because they’re all under the age of consent. The other is first-degree. Estevez uses physical force. Smacks them around when they resist, uses neckties and socks to secure them to the headboard, then has intercourse.”
“These girls have injuries? They’ve been examined—?”
“No injuries,” Moretti said. “Not a single one. Not a scratch.”
Fleming looked me. “Is that true?”
“Estevez and his crew don’t let the girls go, Judge. That’s the whole point. First he takes a shot at them, one girl at a time. One sexual assault at a time. Then he and one of his alums from the program—an older woman, like, maybe nineteen—spend a few weeks softening the kid up. The vic’s made to think she’s Estevez’s girlfriend. Clothes, video games, music, a gradual introduction to drugs and alcohol. But they never get to leave the apartment. Not once.”
“Stockholm syndrome,” Fleming said. “The girls form a traumatic bond with the hostage taker. That’s how they protect themselves emotionally.”
“Of course Ms. Cooper will have to prove that.”
“Apparently she thinks she can, Mr. Moretti. Go on.”
“That’s why there’s no medical evidence,” I said. “Nothing contemporaneous to the initial assaults. The second series of events begins after the bonding. It’s the period of coercing the young women to work for him. To be trafficked.”
“A machete and a full-face mask?”
“Accompanied by some powerful verbal threats, and the backup of the posse just waiting to have at them. Then Estevez has them branded and off they—”
“The tattoo, Judge,” I said. “When they’re ready to turn tricks, he brings in a tattoo artist, to make sure they’re each marked as his property.”
“Is that part of the torture?”
“Most of them view it that way.”
“Oh, please, Ms. Cooper,” Moretti said. “These kids leave home with more tats and piercings than most carnies have by the time they’re forty. What’s one more?”
I reached into my file for some photographs. “The Antonio Estevez logo, Judge.”
I handed one of them to the court officer to pass to Judge Fleming.
She turned it upside down. “What am I looking at? What body part?”
“That’s the inner thigh, about an inch below where Ms. Glover’s left leg meets her torso.”
“And the image?” Fleming said, squinting at the inked area.
“It’s supposed to be a woman in the center, with a man on each side of her.”
“The men are both aroused, it seems to me.”
“That’s the plan.”
“And the words? Do I see lettering?” Fleming said, putting on her glasses.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “It’s all about power and control for Estevez. It spells out, I SHARE MY BITCH. They seem to be the words he lives by.”
“A sentiment that will serve him well in state prison, I’m sure,” the judge said, looking up when she heard the courtroom door open, “where he’s probably hoping that he’s not the one who becomes the bitch.”
It was one of the detectives from the squad, Drew Poser, walking toward counsel table.
“Bring Ms. Aponte right in, Officer. She’s not Ms. Cooper’s witness; she’s mine.”
“I don’t have her, Judge,” Poser said, holding his arms out to his sides. “That’s what I’m here to tell you.”
“Did she give you a hard time, Detective?”
“I mean she’s history. No hard time. No time at all.”
“But she works on the eighth floor,” I said. “She whispered something to the defendant and then she went back downstairs to the office.”
“Maybe what she whispered was ‘sayonara,’ Alex, ’cause she never swiped her ID to get back into our offices from the elevator bank. And there’s nothing personal at her work space. No pocketbook, no cell phone—nothing but an empty desk.”
“So Josie Aponte just quit?”
“I don’t think she worried about giving the traditional two weeks’ notice, Alex. Not once she got exactly what she apparently came here for.”
“I know,” I said, taking my seat at the table and massaging my aching head with both hands. “The entire case file of Antonio Estevez.”
“I’d say she’s got a copy of pretty much everything that’s on your computer. Maybe that’s what she wanted to communicate to your perp,” Poser said. “All I can tell you, Alex, is you’ve got no secrets now.”
It was four fifteen when Drew Poser and three of the court officers from Part 53 walked me down the quiet corridor to the private elevator, tucked in the southeast corner of the courthouse and accessed by a key distributed only to judges, security staff, and the district attorney himself.
“I’ll take her from here,” Poser said.
“What was the adjourned date?” I asked, unable to concentrate on anything but the information on my computer that now made so many people vulnerable to the Estevez crew.
“You got a month, Ms. Cooper,” one of the officers said. “Judge Torres, November twentieth.”
“Can you believe this, Drew?” I said as the doors closed. “You know how much work we’ve got in front of us now? Victims to call, detectives to warn. God knows what’s on there.”
“Aponte won’t get far. Special Victims is pulling all their guys off the street to concentrate on finding her before she can spread the word.”
The doors opened onto the anteroom at the rear of District Attorney Paul Battaglia’s office. He had been the elected prosecutor of New York County for so many terms that the physical space had been overrun by awards from every civic group in the city, hanging on walls and leaning against bookcases. The strong odor of the Cohibas that he smoked from the crack of dawn till he closed his eyes at night infused every inch of territory he occupied.
“Laura said to tell you that Battaglia wants you,” Poser said, steering me away from the exit door to the hallway and toward the DA’s inner sanctum. He knocked and I heard Battaglia call for me to come in. Drew Poser opened the door but backed off and was gone.
“You ought to be beaming about Raymond Tanner’s arrest,” the DA said as I crossed the enormous room to get to his desk, “but instead you look like the bottom fell out.”
“It did. We had to adjourn my trial just now. Antonio Estevez.”