Cornerstone to the government’s case against Bergrin are the alleged events of March 2, 2004, when Kemo Deshawn McCray was shot in the head three times while crossing the intersection of 19th Street and South Orange Avenue in Newark. The Feds contend the murder was the culmination of a chain of events that began when McCray, a federal informant (i.e., snitch), purchased a quantity of crack cocaine from one William Baskerville, a lieutenant in the drug posse run by his cousin, Hakeem Curry, the fearsome “E. T. Hak,” Newark’s then-reigning dope kingpin.
Snagged in the buy-and-bust, Baskerville was represented by Paul Bergrin, reputed “house counsel” for Curry’s organization. It was during one jailhouse attorney-client meeting, the Feds contend, that Baskerville told Bergrin that Kemo McCray had fingered him. If so, McCray figured to be a convincing witness in any trial. According to federal wiretap evidence, Bergrin discussed the problem with Curry, who paid assassin Anthony Young $15,000 to kill McCray. The Feds maintain that Bergrin signed off on this solution, offering the succinct legal opinion, “No Kemo, no case.”
There was more. According to the indictment, in 2008, Bergrin traveled to Chicago, where he attempted to hire a hit man to rub out a troublesome informant in a case against another client, accused drug trafficker Vicente Esteves. The “hit man” turned out to be a government witness who recorded his dealings with Bergrin, including a snippet where the lawyer allegedly laid out the murder plan. “I got it all figured out,” Bergrin is quoted as saying. “Put on a ski mask and make it look like a robbery … It cannot under any circumstances look like a hit.”
The indictment stunned even the most jaded Essex County observers. One well-known lawyer whose career in the area goes back to the early seventies, said, “If Paul is guilty of half the things they say, he’d be the craziest, most evil lawyer in the history of the State of New Jersey. That is saying something.”
It is now two years since Bergrin’s arrest. Denied bail, he awaits his long-delayed trial (now scheduled for October) in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, where he spent several months in solitary confinement, apparently at the insistence of the Feds. “Mr. Bergrin participated in numerous plots to kill witnesses,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gay said at his bail hearing. “If he is willing to go to those lengths on behalf of his clients, he is certainly willing to do it for his own freedom.” But if Bergrin has been out of sight, he is far from out of mind, especially on Park Place, the block-long stretch in downtown Newark where many defense attorneys have offices.
This is Newark’s criminal-justice Tin Pan Alley, where the jammed-up, at least those with enough money to avoid the public defender, come to seek representation. At any one time there can be half a dozen breaking-and-entering men, dope pushers, and members of who-knows-how-many sets of Brick City Bloods sharing an elevator ride with cleaning ladies and misdirected guests from the nearby Robert Treat Best Western Hotel. Few Park Place lawyers are of the white-shoe variety. “A lot of them were cops, went to law school at night,” said one longtime observer of the scene. “They’ve seen it all and don’t care all that much whether their clients are guilty or innocent. They’re there to win cases, nothing more or less.”
Paul Bergrin, graduate of Nova Southeastern law school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a time was the biggest fish on the street. Parking his Bentley and BMW in the lot around the corner on Mulberry Street, Bergrin met his clients, people like Angelo “The Horn” Prisco, a Genovese caporegime, and ranking Latin King coronas, in his huge office on the tenth floor at 50 Park Place. And for legal eagles who continue to work here, their fallen former colleague remains an unsettling, cautionary, obsessed-about presence.
With the trial still pending, the U.S. Attorney’s office had issued a neo-fatwa against talking about the case—no surprise since everyone knew the Feds had a particular hatred of Bergrin. How could they not? First he works in their office, then he supposedly helps murder one of their witnesses. Also galling was the fact that they’d earlier mishandled a piece of wiretap evidence, blowing a previous attempt to indict him in 2005. They weren’t taking any chances this time.
Still, it was hard to stop talking about Paul Bergrin. Almost everyone on Park Place knew him personally. Many remembered him as “a good guy,” the sort who would “give you the shirt off his back, lend you $10,000 without even blinking.” However, when it came to Bergrin’s insistence on his total innocence, eyes began rolling—especially in regard to the disappearance of witnesses.