A blood-chilling true-crime account from former district attorney and New York Times bestselling author Robert K. Tanenbaum
BADGE OF THE ASSASSIN
They were just doing their jobs serving and protecting when the unimaginable happened: Officers Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini became moving targets, ambushed from behind at a Manhattan housing project. Jones lay dead in a pool of his own blood, and Piagentini lived long enough to beg for his life before he was riddled with twenty-two bullet holes by members of a deadly hit squad hell-bent on taking out the men and women of law enforcement.
Masterfully building suspense on every page, Robert K. Tanenbaum reconstructs the vicious murders of Jones and Piagentini and the manhunt for the suspects, and brings to life his courtroom prosecution of the killers revealing the triumphs and failures of America's legal system.
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About the Author
Robert K. Tanenbaum is the author of thirty-two books—twenty-nine novels and three nonfiction books: Badge of the Assassin, the true account of his investigation and trials of self-proclaimed members of the Black Liberation Army who assassinated two NYPD police officers; The Piano Teacher: The True Story of a Psychotic Killer; and Echoes of My Soul, the true story of a shocking double murder that resulted in the DA exonerating an innocent man while searching for the real killer. The case was cited by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren in the famous Miranda decision. He is one of the most successful prosecuting attorneys, having never lost a felony trial and convicting hundreds of violent criminals. He was a special prosecution consultant on the Hillside strangler case in Los Angeles and defended Amy Grossberg in her sensationalized baby death case. He was Assistant District Attorney in New York County in the office of legendary District Attorney Frank Hogan, where he ran the Homicide Bureau, served as Chief of the Criminal Courts, and was in charge of the DA’s legal staff training program. He served as Deputy Chief counsel for the Congressional Committee investigation into the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He also served two terms as mayor of Beverly Hills and taught Advanced Criminal Procedure for four years at Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California, Berkeley, and has conducted continuing legal education (CLE) seminars for practicing lawyers in California, New York, and Pennsylvania. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Tanenbaum attended the University of California at Berkeley on a basketball scholarship, where he earned a B.A. He received his law degree (J.D.) from Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. Visit RobertKTanenbaumBooks.com.
Read an Excerpt
North of the Triborough Bridge, the Harlem River slices sharply to the northwest, narrowing Manhattan Island down to a tadpole tail of land. At 142nd Street, Fifth Avenue, the dividing line between the East Side and the West Side, runs up against the river and comes to a stop. Lenox Avenue, which is Harlem's name for Sixth, extends northward as far as 147th, and then it, too, runs out of land. Seventh lasts all the way to 154th, just one block short of the Macombs Dam Bridge, which leads across the river to the Bronx and Yankee Stadium.
From the air, the triangle of land bordered on the south by 155th Street, on the west by the sheer cliff known as Coogan's Bluff, and on the east by the Harlem River doesn't look like it belongs to New York. Beyond it, to the south and west, one can see the huddled tenements of Harlem pressed to each other like subway riders in the morning. But in the triangle itself, known generally as the Colonial Park district, the tenements have long since been leveled, to be replaced by two distinct sets of ungainly X-shaped apartment towers.
The southernmost set of towers consists of four thirty-story apartments that from above look like mammoth jacks left lying on the ground by the children of giants. And well they might, for the land they stand on was once the home of Giants. The Polo Grounds used to be here, and now someone's living room covers the spot where Eddie Stanky rode from third to home on Leo Durocher's back after Bobby Thomson's home run in the '51 playoff.
Just north of the Polo Grounds Project stand seven identical twelve-story towers and a larger eighth one that is really just two of the smaller buildings run together. Although the grounds have been attractively landscaped with hedges, grass, trees, and wide walkways, nothing can disguise the fact that the Colonial Park Houses, as these eight towers are collectively called, are low-income housing. In an effort to pass them off as something else, the architects hoped to create a parklike atmosphere by facing the main entrances of all the buildings inward, so that the project is self-contained, its back turned on Harlem. But Harlem cannot be so easily thrust aside. Like an unpleasant thought the mind tries to reject, it has a way of reasserting itself. Psychoanalysts call this phenomenon the return of the repressed, but the cops in the Thirty-second Precinct had a simpler way of putting it. In Colonial Park, they said, you watched your ass.
Richard Hill had fought in Vietnam and should have known the sound of gunfire when he heard it. But on a spring night twelve thousand miles from where he had done his fighting, the sudden noise caught him off guard and he assumed the explosions were firecrackers. It took a moment for him to realize he was once again on a battlefield. When he did, he reacted like a soldier.
As he passed between buildings 159-14 and 159-20, he glanced to his left, the direction from which the sound of the firecrackers had come. But there were no children playing in the area, no signs of life at all. There was just, on the sidewalk near the bushes, sixty to seventy feet in front of him, a clump of discarded clothes.
Then the clothing moved, shifting on the ground as though there were something alive in it. He watched for a few seconds, until he was certain he had seen it move, then walked toward it, quickening his pace as he drew closer. When he had cut the distance in half he began to hear a terrible moaning, like an animal in pain, like the wind keening through high trees. By this time he was running.
The thought flashed through his mind that there were snipers on one of the roofs. An instinct bred in distant jungles took over and he darted for cover, then raised his head and scanned the rooftops. He saw nothing. In an infantryman's crawl, he inched toward the fallen man, alert for any glint from above that would be the only warning he would get of the sniper's presence.
As he rounded the corner of the walkway, he saw a second body, actually closer to him than the one he had seen before. He crawled to it, saw it was a cop and that the back of his head was missing. He looked for the cop's gun but it wasn't there. He knew he was safe, for a sniper couldn't have taken the gun, so he ran toward the other cop. The walkie-talkie one of them had been carrying lay on the ground between them. Hill grabbed for it, punched at the button that would make it work, and shouted an alarm. "May Day! May Day! Two cops shot!" he called. Then he dropped the box and ran to the second patrolman, the one whose cries he had been hearing all along.
Joseph Piagentini was still moving, still trying to crawl to the clump of bushes at the edge of the sidewalk. He didn't know the shooting had stopped.
Hector Grace, a beer-bellied, forty-five-year-old gypsy-cab driver, had taken his wife out for dinner before going on the night shift. He dropped her off in the back of the project and waited in the cab for a light to go on in the apartment window, their signal that she was safely inside.
He heard shots and saw, not far from where his wife had just walked, the flashes of gunshots, a quick bright series of flares in the near darkness. He saw two cops go down, then two men running along the sidewalk toward him, pistols in their hands.
He didn't follow them with his eyes once they were beyond his cab, didn't even wait for the light to come on in his living-room window. He gunned the engine and raced from the project, squealing the tires in a hard right onto Eighth Avenue. He was looking for a cop, heading south toward the precinct house but praying he would find a patrol car sooner than later.
He was in luck. At 145th and Eighth he spotted a green-and-white cruiser, pulled up beside it, and told the officer what he had seen and heard. The siren flashed on even as the cruiser was screeching into the U-turn that would take it back uptown to Colonial Park.
Mike Warnecke reached for the radio to report the call. "Jesus, that's our sector," his partner Bob Alvino muttered under his breath, in the back of his mind the realization already taking shape that but for a chance call that had drawn them from their sector only minutes before, it would have been he and Mike lying in their own blood on the sidewalk.
"They was sitting on that car," someone shouted from the crowd of thirty or forty curious and angry blacks clustered behind the barricade of sawhorses and ropes that had been set up to quarantine the crime scene.
Bill Butler, the blond, thick-bodied thirty-one-year-old detective who had just caught what was going to be the longest and most difficult case of his career, scanned the crowd, knowing that somewhere in it was a witness. For an instant he thought of holding them all, questioning them until they produced the man who called out that he had seen the killers sitting on the white Mustang. But Butler had been in the Thirty-second Precinct long enough to know it wouldn't work. Pressure from the police would only deepen the silence. So he turned his back on the crowd, ordered a nearby patrolman to secure the Mustang, then stood at parade rest, waiting. Behind him, voices in the crowd whispered hoarsely but offered him nothing more.
f0 An Emergency Services crew arrived with its generator truck and began stringing the high-powered lights that would illuminate the parking area like a fairground. While fifteen or twenty detectives circulated through the crowd, prowling the lawns, shrubs, and walkways in search of evidence, at least as many uniformed men began canvassing the project for potential witnesses. Kneeling on the ground, a detective from Forensic was tracing outlines on the sidewalk where the bodies had been found. He drew a circle for Waverly Jones' head, a long ellipse for his body, then wrote the name jones in large square letters across the chest. He stood up, stepping carefully around the bright puddle of blood that still gleamed red under the powerful lights.
Butler watched him silently, then crossed the parking area and approached Carl Lacho, the Forensic Division's fingerprint expert. He ordered Lacho to dust the exterior of the Mustang and of the two other cars parked nearby. "We should get a break on this," Lacho told him. "It rained a couple of hours ago, so any lifts we make are going to be fresh."
About fifty yards from where Butler and Lacho were conferring, a forty-nine-year-old self-employed upholsterer named Jack Franklin circled furtively around the parking lot until he felt reasonably safe from observation. With a small, almost imperceptible hand movement, he caught the attention of one of the detectives. "I see them," he whispered when the detective had come close enough.
"What did you see?"
"I seen them running. That's my car over there. I was unloading and I seen them running this way."
The detective flipped open his memo book, took Franklin's name and address. "Okay, start from the beginning," he said.
"Like I say, I'm unloading the back and I hear these shots. So I look up and I seen these guys running right over there." He motioned with his hand.
"You sure of that?"
"They was right over there."
"Okay. What else?"
"They had guns. And they run up that way. And that's all I seen."
The detective was skeptical. "Did you get a good look at them?" he asked. "Would you be able to recognize them?"
"You know it. I seen them real good. They was brothers, y'know I mean they was black," he corrected for the benefit of the white officer. "They was running kinda stooped down. Short fellas."
"About how tall?"
"The bigger one, he was maybe say about five-one. The other two was shorter, say maybe four-eleven."
The detective gulped. "How tall am I?" he demanded, to gauge if the witness had any concept of height.
Jack Franklin studied him carefully for a few seconds, then announced, "Five-eleven."
Right on the money. The detective closed his notebook and told Franklin the police would be in touch with him to make an identification when the killers were apprehended.
At the same time that Franklin was having trouble convincing the investigating officers he had seen the killers, an eighteen-year-old Parks Department worker named Duncan Grant was having just as much trouble convincing them he had seen nothing. Grant had been sitting in front of building 159-38 when the gunmen ran by. "I saw them coming and I got under that bench man. I'm telling you they had guns!" he said shrilly.
"But you did see them?" the detective questioning him insisted.
"Yeah, when they first come around the building. But they was too far away."
"How about when they got closer?"
"I just told you, man, I was under that bench. One of them says, 'Be cool brother, we ain't after you,' but I wasn't taking no chances."
"Could you identify them?"
"Their feet maybe. I could identify their feet. What do you want from me, man?"
Unsatisfied with the answers he was getting, the detective took Grant to the Thirty-second Precinct for further questioning.
While all these was going on outside, the team of patrolmen assigned to canvass building number 159-20 was making headway of its own. They had just entered the lobby and were crossing toward the elevator when the car opened and two teen-age black girls stepped out. As soon as they saw the cops, the girls exchanged nervous glances. "We didn't see anything!" one of them blurted out. She tried to get back into the elevator but one of the patrolmen grabbed the door. Both girls were handcuffed and taken to the Thirty-second Precinct for questioning.
So far, then, in the first minutes of the investigation, the police had turned up five witnesses, including Hector Grace, the gypsy-cab driver who had followed Patrolmen Warnecke and Alvin's radio car back to the murder scene after notifying them of the shooting. Grace claimed to have gotten a fairly good look at the gunmen, but the other four witnesses were of doubtful worth a kid who wouldn't talk, a guy who had seen three midgets, and a pair of terrified and incoherent sixteen-year-old girls. It wasn't much to go on.
Still, Bill Butler knew he had his first break in the case. It wasn't a clue, it wasn't anything that would help him find the killers. But the fact that the back-shooting butchers who killed Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini had taken the cops' guns meant they were after trophies and they weren't about to throw them away. Sooner or later those two Colt .38 Police Specials would be found. And when they were, they would tie the murderers to their deed like an umbilicus.
"We're in a war," Edward J. Kiernan, the truculent president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, announced the moment he arrived at Harlem Hospital. As the elected leader of the city's thirty thousand uniformed cops, the gray-haired, craggy-faced PBA president had more than enough cause for outrage. Just two days earlier, on Wednesday, May 19, 1971, Patrolmen Thomas Curry and Nicholas Binetti were parked on 112th Street in front of District Attorney Frank Hogan's apartment building while the cops assigned to the D.A.'s regular security detail took a late dinner break. Spotting a late-model yellow maverick heading west on the one-way eastbound street, they attempted to flag it down and were ignored. The Maverick turned south on the service road that parallels Riverside Drive and sped off. Curry and Binetti gave chase.
They caught up with the vehicle just north of 106th Street and pulled alongside. As they signaled for the car to pull to the curb, the driver suddenly ducked his head and the passenger to his right opened fire with a .45-caliber submachine gun, pumping a couple of dozen rounds through the doors and windows of the green-and-white patrol car. Curry, who was on the passenger side, was the most critically wounded, taking slugs in the face, shoulder, chest, and leg. One bullet passed through his optic nerve. Binetti was hit eight times, virtually ripped from the steering wheel by the tremendous pounding. Their bullet-riddled car careened on past the yellow Maverick, sliced murderously across the uptown lane of traffic, and came to a crashing stop at the foot of a statue in the narrow strip of park between Riverside Drive and the service road.
Curry fell from the car and was lying unconscious on the grass when the first police cars responded to the scene. Binetti managed to gasp out a description of the car and part of the license number before he, too, passed out. Both were taken to Saint Luke's Hospital, where their conditions were listed as critical. It was only the fifth month of the year, but Curry and Binetti were the twenty-ninth and thirtieth officers wounded in the line of duty in 1971, compared to forty-five in all of 1970. Already five cops had been killed, and for a while it looked like Curry would be number six. But early Friday evening the hospital announced that his condition had stabilized. Then, barely two hours after the bulletin on Curry was released, Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini became the sixth and seventh police officers to die in the line of duty since the start of the bloodiest year New York's cops had ever seen.
"It's open season on cops in this city," Kiernan told the reporters clustered around him in the spacious hospital foyer. "I refuse to stand by and permit my men to be gunned down while the Lindsay administration does nothing to protect them. Accordingly, I am instructing them to secure their own shotguns and to carry them on patrol at all times."
"Do you think that will make a difference?" one of the reporters asked skeptically.
"I don't know," Kiernan answered after a long hesitation. "But we'll do whatever is necessary. If we have to patrol this city in tanks, that's what we'll do. This is a war. I want all of my men to understand that in any situation in which they have to draw their weapons, they are to shoot to kill."
Just three blocks away, in the detective squad room on the second floor of the Thirty-second Precinct station house, Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy was holding his own press conference, which was attended by Mayor John V. Lindsay. The commissioner released copies of two identical letters that had been hand-delivered earlier that evening to the New York Times office on 42nd Street and to the office of radio station WLIB, a black-owned soul music station in Harlem. The letters were dated May 19, 1971, the date of the Curry-Binetti shooting, and each was accompanied by a license plate matching the partial number Binetti had given.
The typewritten messages read:
Here are the license plates sort [sic] after by the fascist state pig police. We send them in order to exhibit the potential power of oppressed people to acquire revolutionary justice. The armed goons of this racist government will again meet the guns of oppressed Third World peoples as long as they occupy our community and murder our brothers and sisters in the name of American law and order; just as the fascist marines and army [who] occupy Vietnam in the name of democracy and murder Vietnamese people in the name of American imperialism are confronted with the guns of the Vietnamese Liberation Army, the domestic armed forces of racism and oppression will be confronted with the guns of the Black Liberation Army, who will met [sic] out in the tradition of Malcolm and all true revolutionaries real justice. We are Revolutionary Justice.
In answer to direct questions, the commissioner said that at that time he had seen no evidence of any connection between the shooting on Wednesday and the double murder at Colonial Park, which he characterized as "an organized attempt...deliberate, unprovoked, and maniacal." When told that Edward Kiernan had "ordered" his men to secure their own shotguns, Murphy smiled at the phraseology but refused to get involved in a verbal battle with the PBA president. "Police officers will carry regulation firearms," he said diplomatically, declining to comment further. Clearly, he seemed troubled by the possibility that his department might quickly degenerate into a posse of thirty thousand enraged and vengeful vigilantes.
The press conference had just ended when Commissioner Murphy's fears began to be realized. As they left the ancient four-story brick station house, the commissioner and the mayor found their way to their waiting limousine barred by about twenty-five or thirty angry patrolmen clustered on the sidewalk. Most of the men had been to the hospital already, and then had drifted back to the precinct, their mood a volatile mixture of grief, outrage, and resentment.
Lindsay and Murphy sidled down the four concrete steps to street level, passing silently through the crowd, nodding glumly until forced to stop when the cops closed ranks.
"Jonesy and Joe are dead," someone shouted. "What are we gonna do about it?"
"What are you gonna do about us?" another cop challenged. His question was echoed by half a dozen other voices.
"I don't know about you guys," a powerfully built patrolman on the top step of the stoop growled from behind the mayor and the commissioner. "But the next time I go out there I got my shotgun with me."
"That's not the answer," Murphy said softly, without turning, the pious banality of his words making no impression at all on the men. "Those two patrolmen were ambushed from the back. Shotguns wouldn't have done them any good."
"That's them," someone shouted brutally. "I gotta be able to protect me."
Murphy shook his head and merely repeated, "That's not the answer." Lindsay said nothing. Together, the mayor and the commissioner edged to the curb and were met at their car by a tall, boyish-looking patrolman who strode forward until he was eyeball to eyeball with the mayor. "We're targets," he said, his voice more plaintive than angry. "Every day we go out there we're targets. They don't fear us or respect us. Maybe if we carried shotguns, maybe if we got tough with them..."
His voice trailed off, the sentence unfinished, unfinishable. Mayor Lindsay and Commissioner Murphy disappeared into the idling limousine, which immediately sped off, leaving the cops to mutter among themselves on the street.
One of the cops on the sidewalk was Bobby Alvino, who already was having waking nightmares. The Colonial Park project was his sector, and the bullets that killed Piagentini and Jones would have killed him if it hadn't been for the dumbest luck. At 9:45 he and his partner Mike Warnecke had been patrolling on the Harlem River Drive north of the project when they spotted a late-model yellow Maverick with two teen-age black males in the front seat. Warnecke checked the plates against the partial number on the small strip of paper taped to the dashboard the single letter and three digits that had been all Nick Binetti had managed to say.
"Those aren't the plates," he announced flatly, but Alvino said, "They would've got rid of the plates. Let's toss them."
In response to their signal, the yellow Maverick eased off the Harlem River Drive onto Eighth Avenue and pulled to the curb at 159th just in front of the drugstore in the corner building of the project.
The kids and the car checked out clean. "Okay, beat it. Sorry to trouble you," Alvino snarled, not particularly meaning it as an apology. While Warnecke jotted a note on the incident in his log, Alvino looked around and wondered if his partner was thinking the same thing he was. If the Maverick had been the car they were looking for, their service revolvers wouldn't have done them much good against a .45 submachine gun. The thought of it sent a shiver down his spine. "Let's get the hell out of here," he snapped. "I don't like it."
He had driven less than a block when a call came in on the radio a domestic disturbance on 144th. It was in the Dora sector, not the Paul, but Alvino was looking for something to get his mind off the yellow Maverick and what might have been waiting for the two of them when they walked up to it. "Let's take it," he said.
Warnecke was thinking the same thing and his hand was already on the mike.
A half hour later, when a call came in about another domestic disturbance at 159-20 Colonial Park Houses, a radio car from the John sector had to respond. That was why Bob Alvino and Mike Warnecke were alive, why Joe Piagentini and Waverly Jones were dead. That was why Alvino was having nightmares standing on the sidewalk in front of the Thirty-second Precinct station house on 135th Street.
Inside the station house, Bill Butler was questioning witnesses. Ruth Jennings and Gloria Lapp, the two teen-age girls picked up in the lobby of building 159-20, told their story while standing over the shoulder of a police artist, helping him sketch the killers.
Both girls were sixteen years old, high-school classmates. Ruth was small and sweet-faced, with wide oval eyes, pretty only by comparison with Gloria, who often came by to visit on a Friday night. Ruth's parents, religious and overprotective, considered her too young to date, and Gloria, who was painfully shy and very much overweight, rarely was asked out, so they were sulking around the apartment with nothing to do. A little after ten o'clock Ruth's father suggested a drive to City Island for a late supper. Bored in the apartment, wanting to talk out of adult earshot, Ruth and Gloria decided to wait in the parking lot out back until Ruth's parents were ready to go.
On their way out, in the lobby, the two teen-age girls passed two cops on their way in, a black one and a white one. The black one was tall and handsome. "He's cute," Ruth said when the elevator doors had closed on the cops. Gloria mumbled noncommittally, pretending not to have noticed.
They followed the walkway down to the back of the building, stepping over the puddles that an evening shower had left in the pitted sidewalk. As they lounged against the front end of a car angle-parked in one of the numbered spaces, they noticed, only a few feet away to their right, a young black man no more than twenty years old nervously pacing the sidewalk. Despite her belligerent indifference to boys, Gloria got a good look at him. "He was tall," she said, "had black attire, black hat, close-cropped Afro, a slight mustache and slight goatee." The artist's pencil flew as she spoke.
Stopping at the hedge that lined the sidewalk, the slender young man tore off a few leaves to gnaw on as he passed back to a white Mustang parked at the curb.
Another man, perhaps a year or two older, perched motionless on the left front fender of the Mustang, his hands under his thighs. His body faced the girls but his head was turned to the side as he stared over his right shoulder in the direction of the project building. Gloria described him as "shorter, about five-ten to five-eleven, and kind of stout, about 175 pounds." Because he kept his head turned, she saw him only in profile.
Ruth and Gloria waited in the parking lot ten or fifteen minutes. "What's keeping them? How long does it take to get dressed?" Ruth asked at last. She stepped away from the car, brushed her skirt off, and walked quickly down the sidewalk past the two men. Gloria hurried after her. They turned left at the walkway leading toward the front of the building and stopped under the window to the Jennings apartment. Ruth called up, got no answer, called a few more times. "They must be on their way," Gloria said. "C'mon, let's go back."
As she turned, she noticed the two police officers she had seen in the lobby. They had come out the back door and were crossing along the sidewalk to their car, with the two young black men now behind them, the tall, nervous one in back of the black cop Ruth thought was cute, the heavier one who had been sitting on the car stalking the white cop. There was a noise and the policemen pitched forward, both of them, and then there were only the two black men, arms rigid, firing into the cops' bodies. Between the explosions Gloria heard the white cop moaning, begging, "Don't shoot me, don't shoot me, I got a wife, I got two little kids, don't shoot me."
Gloria ran, with Ruth beside her, two frightened girls following the same path Piagentini and Jones had taken less than a half hour before on their way into the building. The cop's piteous cry was still in their ears, but the shooting went on and on.
"Yes," Ruth Jennings said, leaning forward for a better look at the sketch. "That's him, that's what he looked like."
Gloria Lapp studied the sketch pad mutely. Two cold, coal black eyes stared back at her from under the visor of a black applejack cap. The forehead was high and clear, the mouth cruel. She nodded her head with her eyes closed tight, but couldn't make the killer's face go away.
Copyright © 2001 by Simon & Schuster
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