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An Ordinary Murder

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Victim
Clifford Birkbeck 26 years old
He had moved from the Bronx to East New York to begin a new life with his girlfriend. He stopped selling drugs, found a job, and started talking marriage.  

December 19, 2005
Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Kings County
Hospital Morgue, East Flatbush, Brooklyn

At 9 A.M. the day after the murder, Clifford Birkbeck is laid out on an aluminum autopsy table fitted with faucets and drains. The forensic pathologist, Dr. Kristin Roman, takes X-rays to find out where the bullets are. The one that went through the left side of his back is lodged in the skin and soft tissue of the right side of his chest. The one that went through his left shoulder is stuck between his lungs. The one that went through the left side of his chest stopped in the muscle beneath his right shoulder blade. The fourth bullet, which went through the back of his left arm, is missing.

Because a metal tool could damage important evidence on the surface of the bullets, Roman has to dig them out with her gloved fingers. To get to the ones closest to the skin, she makes a cut next to each bullet and squeezes gently until they pop out. Then she makes a deep Y-shaped incision in the chest and lifts up skin, muscle, and bone to expose the perforated lungs and torn blood vessels in the body cavity, which had filled with three and a half liters of blood. She tracks the path of each bullet’s destruction and pries out the last one from deep in the chest. She washes off the blood and tissue and marks the three bullets with a sharp tool, establishing the chain of custody, and places each one in its own small Manila envelope. Because Birkbeck was shot with a revolver—in which the spent brass casings remain in the chambers of the gun’s cylinder instead of being ejected, as they would from a semiautomatic pistol—these three pieces of lead are the only evidence the cops have.

Birkbeck’s corpse is zipped into a body bag. His wake and funeral service are held on December 23 at G. H. Weldon Funeral Home in East Harlem, and he is buried the same day at Rosedale Cemetery in New Jersey. His father pays for everything, although he was estranged from his son. “It was emotional for him,” Crystal says. “There was no ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘I forgive you,’ ‘I forgive you, we make mistakes’—no, there was nothing like that.” The next day is Christmas Eve.

December 28, 2005
NYPD Crime Lab, Jamaica

Five days after the funeral, the three Manila envelopes arrive at the ballistics unit, where the evidence from every shooting in the city is examined. The bullets are simply filed away. Without the murder suspect, who has disappeared, or the gun, which disappeared with him, the case is at a standstill. Half of the gunshot-murder cases in the 75th Precinct from 2005 are still open. All of them are waiting for a break.

January 26, 2006
Joint Firearms Task Force, Jamaica

There are two law-enforcement units responsible for getting guns off the city’s streets, but neither one is looking for the gun that killed Clifford Birkbeck. The NYPD’s Firearms Investigative Unit (FIU) goes after local black-market sellers; the Joint Firearms Task Force (JFTF), a partnership between police and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)—so that it can work across state lines—investigates the dealers and “straw-man purchasers” who supply the gunrunners, and then goes undercover to catch traffickers in the act.

“It is the most dangerous job,” says William McMahon, the Special Agent in Charge at the ATF’s New York field division in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where the JFTF is quartered. The detectives and agents who work on undercover gun buys know that their targets will be armed every time. And, of course, they must work without the protection of a bulletproof vest. “They’re on their own for at least three or four minutes,” says McMahon, “and three or four minutes is a lifetime when things go bad.” In 2003, two undercover detectives from the NYPD’s FIU were murdered on a gun buy when their cover was blown.

Yet once in a while, the job is almost too easy. Like when a ­licensed firearms dealer in Ohio gets a call from a guy in Brooklyn who found his number on the Internet and says he needs to get his hands on some guns under the table. The dealer promises to see if he can help him out and then calls the ATF. An agent sets up an undercover e-mail address and then contacts the Brooklyn guy. Sure, the ATF agent tells him, not only do we have a mother lode of stolen guns to sell—but we deliver!

The handoff is set for January 26 at a motel just off the Belt Parkway near JFK. Two undercover ATF agents lay out thirteen guns on the bed in front of the Brooklyn buyer while two of his crew stand guard in the hallway and downstairs in the lobby. The sale goes off without a hitch, and the JFTF bursts in to make the arrests. But wait a minute, say the three guys. The guns weren’t all for them! So now the three men who are already arrested make monitored phone calls. Two buyers arrive and are promptly arrested in the motel room, and then two more. Now all seven of them face federal charges of possession of stolen firearms. “They were shocked,” says ATF Senior Special Agent and press officer Joe Green, laughing.


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