When assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Vinegrad stood up on the morning of June 2 to deliver his summation at the trial of the police officers charged with brutalizing Abner Louima, it was one of those extraordinary opportunities prosecutors live for. A high-profile case. Unsympathetic defendants. A packed courtroom. Extravagant media coverage. And the whole city, if not much of the country, paying close attention.
But for Vinegrad, a formidable, battle-tested prosecutor, this was more than just a star turn in the post-O.J. era of celebrity lawyers. This was an opportunity to argue on behalf of an unimpeachably righteous cause. And so when he began to address the court at a little before ten, wearing a dark suit and a white shirt, he was stoked by the confidence that he was fighting the good fight.
Vinegrad spent almost three hours painstakingly recapping the government’s case. At times straightforward, in a barely inflected, just-the-facts kind of way, and at times quite passionate, he took the jury back to the early morning hours of August 9, 1997.
The tragic chain of events began just shy of 4 a.m. at Club Rendezvous in Flatbush, where Abner Louima had spent the night dancing and drinking. An argument broke out in the club between two women, which quickly escalated and spilled out onto the sidewalk. Tearing at each other’s clothes, the women ended up in a partially naked brawl, attracting a crowd of rowdy onlookers, many of whom had been drinking. When things began to get out of hand, someone called the police. Ten cops from the 70th Precinct responded.
In the ensuing chaos, police officer Justin Volpe was punched on the side of his head. Officers Charles Schwarz and Thomas Wiese mistakenly thought Abner Louima had done it, and they arrested him. (Later on, it was revealed that it was actually Louima’s cousin who hit Volpe.)
On the way to the precinct, Louima was allegedly beaten in the back of the patrol car twice – once by the arresting officers and once, at a different location, by Volpe and his partner, Thomas Bruder. Then, of course, the night’s appalling denouement took place in the Seven-Oh’s bathroom.
After hours of copious exposition covering time lines, locations, and witness statements, Vinegrad stepped out from behind the lectern and walked slowly toward the jury. Pressing right up against the rail in front of the jury box, he made sure to make eye contact with each of the twelve jurors: eight of them white, three Hispanic, and one black. It was his cinematic moment, his moment to transcend the mountain of detail and to lift the jury up with him to a place where they could clearly see and understand the essence of the case.
“This trial is about justice,” Vinegrad told them, his voice growing stronger for effect. “This is not the streets of Brooklyn. This is not the back of a patrol car. This is not a station-house bathroom. This is a court of law. In this courtroom, the rule of law must prevail.” Vinegrad’s voice resonated in the hushed courtroom when he gave the jury his final pitch. “We ask that you return a verdict that delivers justice and vindicates the rule of law, a verdict that each of the defendants in this courtroom is guilty.”
After eighteen hours of deliberation, the jury found Charles Schwarz guilty of holding Abner Louima down while Justin Volpe – who’d already pleaded guilty to the crime – sodomized him with the broken end of a broomstick (Schwarz, Wiese, and Bruder were acquitted of the assault in the patrol car). The verdict was a catharsis for the city, proof that the police weren’t above the law. This time, the thin blue line provided no shelter; justice was done.
But was it? In the four months since the verdict was delivered, compelling doubts have been raised about Schwarz’s participation in the crime. Though it seems hard to believe, given the resources devoted to this case, the questions about what happened on that August morning in the 70th Precinct are far from being answered. The investigation lasted nearly two years. It involved both the Brooklyn D.A.’s office and the office of the U.S. Attorney. Every one of the 700 investigators in the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau was utilized. Dozens of FBI agents worked the streets, and more than 400 people were interviewed.
Nevertheless, in the end, the government mounted a case against Schwarz built in large measure on circumstantial evidence. Parts of the trial testimony were blatantly contradictory, and the jury never got to hear critical information that plainly suggests another version of what happened. Personal animosity between Schwarz’s lawyer, Stephen Worth, and Volpe’s lawyer, Marvyn Kornberg, distorted the proceeding; Justin Volpe claimed that another cop had been in the bathroom with him; and Abner Louima himself, who unhesitatingly identified Justin Volpe, was never able to identify his other attacker.
None of the cops who were in the 70th Precinct that night and knew what happened to Abner Louima are without guilt. In the atmosphere of fear, chaos, and anger that prevailed in the station house, the cops thought first of saving their skins, protecting their colleagues, and staying out of harm’s way – everything but justice for Louima. Even officer Eric Turetzky, who came forward six days after the crime and was hailed as a hero by Mayor Giuliani, appears to have broken his silence only when he believed his career was on the line. But there are, clearly, levels of guilt, and the critical question is whether Schwarz deserves the same fate as Justin Volpe.
Charles Schwarz is currently under 23-hour-a-day lockdown in a six-by-nine-foot cell in the Metropolitan Correctional Center; he faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison. Despite the questions about his guilt, there have been few voices raised on his behalf. There are no protesters locked in arm-in-arm solidarity in front of the U.S. Attorney’s office demanding his release. And there are no activists revved up to focus attention on his case.
Even the PBA, the cops’ own union, has been mealy-mouthed and barely visible on his behalf. Though it’s held one press conference and is contributing some money for Schwarz’s defense, there’s no evidence of a sustained, comprehensive effort to get the word out. It’s almost as if the crime was so depraved, so unspeakable, that traditional ideas about guilt, innocence, and reasonable doubt don’t seem, at least in the public’s mind, to apply.
There is, however, a small but growing movement – led by Schwarz’s wife, Andra, and his new lawyer, Ronald Fischetti – to get the judgment against him overturned. Or, at the very least, to get him a new trial. The private-investigation firm of Stanton and Maple is also part of this effort. Bill Stanton is an energetic former cop, and Jack Maple is, of course, the iconoclastic, derby-wearing former deputy commissioner under Bill Bratton. Maple, who used to sit in his small ninth-floor office at Police Headquarters drinking espresso and absorbing reams of crime data from precincts all over the city, is one of the most original thinkers in the history of the NYPD. He and Stanton have taken the case pro bono.
“I will get Chuck Schwarz out of prison,” says Fischetti, “if it takes me the rest of my career. There’s no doubt in my mind that Chuck Schwarz is innocent.”
Charles and Andra Schwarz believe he was served up to satisfy a public hungry for retribution. And to help a mayor desperate to appear in control of the crisis during his re-election campaign. Though Mayor Giuliani was far ahead in his bid for a second term at the time Louima was attacked, he was not about to live with the impression that his Police Department – already under fire for crossing the line, especially in minority communities – routinely sheltered renegades and sociopaths.
It would be easy to dismiss the pro-Schwarz sentiment and scapegoat theorizing as the perfunctory posttrial bleating of defense lawyers and family (if you can’t count on the loyalty of your wife and your lawyer, whose can you count on?). But a look at the murky complexities of the case reveals why the verdict against Schwarz is open to doubt.
It’s simplest to start with what is not in dispute: Schwarz and Wiese arrived back at the station house on Lawrence Avenue at 4:35 a.m. with their prisoner, Abner Louima, in tow. They stopped at the desk, told the sergeant on duty they had a suspect to book, and began to do his pedigree: filling out forms with his personal information, searching him, and cataloguing his possessions.
While this was taking place, Volpe, who got back to the precinct around the same time as Schwarz and Wiese, was seen by a witness walking toward the bathroom with a sticklike object two or three feet long. Moments later, he came out of the bathroom without the object and asked one of the cops if he could borrow a pair of black leather gloves.
Volpe then went to the front desk, where Louima was still being processed, and there was a minor dispute about who would get credit for the collar. Schwarz wanted it because he originally grabbed Louima in the street and he’d gotten a little banged up in the mêlée outside Club Rendezvous. Volpe, however, was adamant about taking the arrest because he believed Louima was the guy who had punched him in the head. The desk sergeant gave the arrest to Volpe.
Determining what took place from this moment forward depends on whom you talk to. Two key prosecution witnesses, both cops, said they saw Schwarz leading Louima, still handcuffed, to the back of the precinct with his pants and his underwear down around his knees. One of these cops was Eric Turetzky, who testified he saw Schwarz turning right, into a dead-end hallway that leads only to the bathroom – the other way, to the left, are the holding cells. Nobody, however, saw Schwarz actually take Louima into the bathroom. But why would Schwarz take Louima anywhere at that point if the arrest belonged to Volpe? And if he was walking Louima to the back of the precinct, couldn’t he have been walking him to a holding cell?
Louima himself told two different stories about what exactly happened after he was booked. Sergeant William Hargrove of Internal Affairs was the first investigator to talk to Louima. He interviewed him in the hospital on Sunday night, about 48 hours after the attack.
In this interview, Louima said he was taken from the front desk of the precinct to a holding cell for about ten minutes. Then he was taken into the bathroom, and it was in there that his pants and underwear were pulled down and he was beaten and sodomized. Oddly enough, the fact that Louima said he was first taken to a cell appeared only in Hargrove’s notes, not in his final written report.
The prosecution dismissed this first account as an insignificant inconsistency because in all of his subsequent statements, Louima said he was taken straight to the bathroom from the front desk. And that he was cruelly humiliated even before the attack by being marched through the precinct, handcuffed, walking “chicken-wing-style,” with his pants down, his underwear down, and his genitals exposed. Remarkably, in no account and at no time was Louima able to identify Charles Schwarz. Not in a lineup, not from pictures, and not in court. He was only able to say that it was the driver of the patrol car who was the second cop in the bathroom, the one who beat him and held him down.
“I stand Schwarz up in the middle of the trial,” says Stephen Worth, Schwarz’s lawyer, “and I say to Louima: ‘Look at this guy, this guy right here. Is this the guy?’ It’s a very dramatic moment. And Louima says, ‘I don’t know; it’s either the driver or the passenger.’ I mean this was his chance to point the finger at Schwarz and he doesn’t take it.”
The prosecution presented this inability to I.D. Schwarz as a testament to Louima’s honesty. “Did he seize this chance that Mr. Worth was so generously dangling before his eyes to identify the driver as the second officer who was with him in the bathroom?” Vinegrad asked the jury. “Did he? No. He told you the truth, nothing less and nothing more: ‘It looks like the driver, but I’m not sure.’ He thought the driver and the passenger looked alike.”
Two days after Schwarz was indicted, Thomas Wiese – the passenger in the patrol car – told investigators that Volpe was the one who rammed a stick into Louima’s rectum. And, Wiese told them, Schwarz was not in the bathroom. He knew this, he said, because he saw it.
Wiese, the precinct’s PBA delegate on the midnight tour, told Internal Affairs he was chasing a stray puppy the cops had picked up in the street when the dog ran to the back of the precinct by the bathroom. He followed, heard a noise inside, and opened the door. There was Volpe, he said, standing over a crumpled, moaning, soiled Louima, with a stick in his hand. “He shit himself,” Wiese said Volpe told him. Wiese’s story is backed up by Volpe’s partner, Thomas Bruder, who said he saw Volpe take Louima into the bathroom and he saw Wiese near the door.
Wiese’s account is without question the most enigmatic part of the case, and the government has dismissed it from the beginning. What remains impossible to determine is whether they have definitive proof he was lying. Wiese did fail a lie-detector test shortly after he first talked to investigators, but several days later, he passed a second one.
If the prosecution is right, however, and Wiese is lying, what could possibly be his motivation? Why would he place himself in jeopardy by saying he was at the scene when no one else put him there? Indeed, given the mood of the city in the aftermath of the attack and the race to find and indict every cop who had a role in it, the last place on earth any cop would have wanted to be on that morning was anywhere near the bathroom at the Seven-Oh.
It is on this point that the government’s case against Schwarz really turns. According to sources close to the case, prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office do not believe it is possible that their two witnesses and Louima are either mistaken or lying about what happened. One of them, maybe, but not all three. Instead, they believe that Wiese, Schwarz, and Bruder concocted a story to protect Schwarz, and the three of them have been charged with obstruction of justice. The trial is set to begin January 3. (Schwarz is scheduled to be sentenced after this trial.)
Because the obstruction trial is pending, Alan Vinegrad declined to comment on any aspect of the case other than to give me an official statement, which says, in essence, that the place to argue the case is in the courts, not in the media. It also accuses some of the defense attorneys of using “half-truths and outright misrepresentations” in their effort to retry the case in the media.
“They’re furious about this buzz that’s out there,” says one of the defense attorneys, “and their attitude now is, You just wait, we’ll show you at the obstruction trial.”
What the prosecution apparently intends to do is to solve the big mystery, to prove, at long last, that Wiese is lying. Sources tell me they will do this by revealing that several days after the bathroom attack, a secret meeting took place in the 70th Precinct’s muster room at three in the morning. Attending were Schwarz, Wiese, Bruder, and several PBA representatives. The belief is that the government may have a witness who’ll testify that some kind of a cover-up was hatched or at least discussed at this meeting.
“I don’t know too many people who would do what Tommy did,” says Joseph Tacopina, Wiese’s lawyer. “Think about it. You’re not in the soup, you’re not charged with sexual assault, and you’re not charged with being near where it happened. The people who are charged are looking at possibly spending the rest of their lives in jail. Still, you go to investigators and tell them, voluntarily, ‘I walked into the bathroom and here’s what I saw.’ And yet the government doesn’t buy his story. What would make them believe Tommy? If he told them he stood there in the bathroom yelling, ‘Go, Volpe, go!’?”
But why would Wiese – who by all accounts, including the prosecution’s, was a model cop – participate in a cover-up to protect Schwarz? Sources say one possible scenario coming out of the prosecutor’s office is this: After Louima is booked, Schwarz takes him to the bathroom thinking Volpe is going to tune him up – smack him around a little, to get even, since he thinks Louima is the guy who sucker-punched him in the street.
But once inside the bathroom, Volpe doesn’t just hit Louima a couple of times; he pushes him facedown into that small space in the stall between the toilet and the wall and sodomizes him with the length of stick he’d left in the bathroom a little earlier. It all happens so fast, and Schwarz is so astonished by what Volpe’s done, that he basically freaks. Overcome by a mix of fear and adrenaline, he just freezes. He makes no move to stop Volpe, and in the blink of an eye it’s too late. It’s already over. Then, his mind racing, trying to take it all in and figure out what he should do, he runs out of the bathroom and gets Wiese, the precinct fixer, the guy who can take care of anything.
There is also a version of events that has been floated by some of the people close to the case that has Wiese in the bathroom in the role that Schwarz has been accused of playing. In other words, he didn’t just happen by and happen to open the door. This story line rests on mistaken identity and the key fact that except for a height difference, Schwarz and Wiese look pretty much alike. Remember, when Louima was asked to make an I.D. in court, he looked at Schwarz and said he could be the driver or the passenger. He wasn’t sure.
It was lost on no one once the trial started that Wiese suddenly showed up in court looking like a schoolboy with longer hair and glasses. It was so apparent he was trying to separate himself physically from Schwarz that a hot topic of gossip around the courthouse was whether his glasses actually had lenses in them.
When I asked his lawyer, Tacopina, about it, he dismissed this notion as ridiculous with a quick wave of his hand. However, the rumor was enough of a concern that he told me he went to court every day with a copy of Wiese’s lens prescription in his litigation bag, just in case.
Andra Schwarz has taken a leave of absence from her job as a paralegal to work full-time on her husband’s behalf, writing letters, making phone calls, and trying to organize fund-raisers. She has put their Staten Island house in the tidy, working-class neighborhood of Westerleigh up for sale so the money can be used for his defense. When she visits him at 9 South in the MCC, a special unit on the ninth floor where he’s held along with Justin Volpe and the terrorists accused of bombing the American embassy in Africa, he is brought out in handcuffs.
Since the indictment was handed down 26 months ago, her life has been a nightmare of almost unimaginable proportions. “For the first couple of weeks, we were just in shock,” says Andra, 39, a small woman with dark hair and dark eyes who wears a delicate cross and a replica of her husband’s shield at the neckline of her blouse. “The whole thing was surreal. I mean, there’s Chuck on the news and in the papers, and they’re saying all kinds of awful things about him, calling him a sex torturer. But we just kept saying it’ll all be okay. Once they investigate and the hysteria dies down, it will all work out.”
Instead, things just seemed to escalate: “All of a sudden, the federal authorities got involved and everyone started talking about the blue wall of silence and systemic police brutality. Now the mayor and Safir and Sharpton and the Feds all had something to gain. But we still had faith in the system. We still believed the truth would come out, and we never, ever in a million years thought he’d be convicted. Not with all of that reasonable doubt.”
The couple met one Christmas season when they were both working at Macy’s. She was an NYU art major helping out with window displays, and he was a stock clerk waiting to enter the police academy. Almost from the beginning, they seemed to be plagued by bad luck. Instead of the big church wedding they’d planned for the summer of 1991, they were forced to marry at City Hall in February of that year because Schwarz, a former Marine and a National Guard member, was called up for Operation Desert Storm.
Then, in the summer of ‘96, one year before the Louima incident, Schwarz’s younger brother was injured diving into a pool in the Hamptons. The accident left him a quadriplegic, and indirectly led to Schwarz’s being on the midnight tour in the 70th Precinct on August 9. Schwarz had been working mostly days, as a plainclothes officer in an anti-crime unit. But he needed more time to help take care of his brother. So Schwarz gave up working days. When Abner Louima was attacked, Schwarz had only been on the midnight tour at the Seven-Oh about four weeks.
While there is no bitterness in Andra’s voice when she talks about what’s happened to their life, her lip quivers and her eyes get heavy with tears. Quickly, however, she regains her composure. “Every second he’s in there is a second too long,” she says, sitting up straight again, her resolve back. “His family’s been destroyed by this. But I know one day he’s gonna get his life back. And what we have to do is look toward the future and take it from there.”
The case has even extracted a price from those charged with investigating it. Several FBI agents working the case quit and filed a grievance because they didn’t like the way it was being handled. Cathy Palmer, the lead prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office, surprised everyone when she also quit in midstream to go into private practice. And once the trial started and the defendants and their lawyers were all seated together at the defense table, it became clear that bad blood was flowing everywhere. Volpe’s lawyer, Marvyn Kornberg, and Schwarz’s lawyer, Stephen Worth, loathe one another.
At first, the animosity between the two litigators was based on one fairly simple fact: competition. Worth has the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association contract to represent cops, a deal worth more than $5 million a year, and Kornberg doesn’t. Kornberg has spent the better part of the past ten years defending cops who opted not to use the PBA lawyers. His big selling point has long been that he may be expensive, but he’s worth it because he’s better than the PBA lawyers. And while it’s true, as one observer said to me, that PBA lawyers have probably put more cops in jail than any army of prosecutors, Worth happens to have a solid reputation.
Months before the trial began, Kornberg began to go after the victim. He employed what he jokingly referred to in private as the “dildo defense.” He told anyone who’d listen that he had medical experts who’d testify that Abner Louima’s injuries – a gaping hole in his bladder and in his rectum – were not consistent with the forcible insertion of a foreign object. He also said experts would testify that the DNA of other men was found in Louima’s fecal matter.
Translation: Abner Louima was not sodomized with a stick by Justin Volpe; he sustained his injuries while having some kind of homosexual sex. Kornberg went so far as to lay out this strategy in his opening remarks, though he discarded it once the trial began. But the damage was already done. The tactic sickened the public, and it also infuriated the other lawyers in the case, whose trial strategies were based on straightforward reasonable doubt.
Defense attorneys I spoke to, including those involved in the case, believe Kornberg’s blame-the-victim soliloquies were a Johnny Cochran-like publicity play, and a blunder of spectacular proportions. They were all in agreement about what Kornberg should have done, given that the medical evidence was overwhelming that Louima was sodomized and there was virtually no doubt that Volpe did it. He should have had Volpe plead guilty early on. Then he could have offered mitigating circumstances based on a psychological evaluation and tried to make a deal with the prosecutors.
Instead, Kornberg had Volpe plead mid-trial, when the government’s case was airtight and he had no real leverage to cut a deal. In fact, the prosecution wouldn’t even accept Volpe’s first plea, in which he said there was no other cop in the bathroom; he was alone with Louima. It wasn’t until he added the second cop that they agreed to take it.
“I’ve never seen a lawyer quit mid-trial like that,” says Tacopina. “But by that time, Kornberg had suffered all the humiliation he could stand. Kornberg took a case with this kind of impact on so many people’s lives and used it as a pulpit for himself.”
In the version of his plea that was finally accepted, Volpe said there was another cop in the bathroom who didn’t participate in the attack but stood by the door and did nothing. Though Kornberg told the government, and Schwarz’s lawyer, that the other cop Volpe was referring to was Wiese, he wasn’t named in the plea. This did irreparable damage during the trial to Schwarz.
Jurors Nos. 2, 6, and 8 have all signed affidavits stating they learned about Volpe’s plea – he pleaded without the jury present – while watching television. And in those televised news reports, they heard that Volpe said he committed the assault with another cop in the bathroom. The jurors simply assumed that cop was Schwarz, since he was the one charged. They learned only after the trial that Volpe’s “other cop” was Wiese.
Stephen Worth, however, knew that Volpe was referring to Wiese as the second cop, and he had to make a key strategic decision late in the trial: Should he call Volpe to testify? When Worth looked at the case he had presented for Schwarz and tried to determine what kind of shape he was in, he decided it was pretty good. It looked like he had put together a very strong reasonable-doubt case.
But why not finish it off by putting Volpe on the stand and have him take Schwarz out of the bathroom once and for all? Because Worth believed he couldn’t trust Kornberg and he couldn’t be sure of what Volpe would actually say on the stand. Kornberg, however, is adamant that Worth’s decision not to call Volpe as a witness was a colossal mistake.
“Don’t you think he had an obligation to at least interview Volpe to find out what he would say in court before determining whether or not to call him? This,” he says, “Worth didn’t do.” But even if he had, there was still no guarantee that putting the unpredictable Volpe on the stand wouldn’t have blown up in his face.
Though Kornberg says he doesn’t want to continue the public sniping he and Worth have engaged in, when I ask him if he feels he made Worth’s job more difficult, he answers without a moment’s pause, “I hope so. I put Worth in the position of having to make a determination as a lawyer of whether or not to call a man who’s an exculpatory witness. Worth would’ve loved for me not to have told him that when Volpe said there was a second cop in the bathroom he was referring to Wiese, not Schwarz. If I hadn’t told him, he’d have grounds for an automatic reversal. I didn’t let him have an automatic reversal. I made him have to make a choice, to act like a lawyer.”
The prosecution doesn’t believe Volpe’s claim that Wiese was the cop in the bathroom. Nor did they have any interest in Kornberg’s offer to have Volpe take a lie- detector test regarding his claim that Schwarz had no role in the incident. In part, this is because Volpe’s credibility ranks somewhere south of O. J. Simpson’s, but they also believe he had a motive to lie. Volpe and Wiese have a history, and prosecutors are convinced that Volpe, in one last hostile act, is trying to get Wiese by putting him in the bathroom.
After Wiese talked to investigators that first week, word got back to Volpe that Wiese had given him up. Volpe apparently went completely nuts, overturning a desk and throwing a typewriter across the room. This, however, was not the first problem between the two cops. About a month earlier, Wiese, as the union delegate, had been getting complaints from other cops that they didn’t want to work with Volpe. These cops were concerned that if they partnered with him they’d end up in trouble. Wiese took it to the sergeant on the midnight tour.
But when the sergeant tried to discuss it with Volpe, he threw a fit. Looking for a way out of the confrontation, the sergeant said, “Hey, I’m not making this up – your own delegate came to me about it.” Volpe then, of course, went straight to Wiese, and the two had what somebody called a “big fuck-you contest” that almost ended in blows.
Surely their most bizarre encounter, however, took place near the end of the trial. Volpe was only days away from pleading guilty. His life was essentially over. On a day off from court, he had to report to the Internal Affairs Bureau at 315 Hudson Street, as all suspended cops do, to sign in. Volpe was supposed to be there at nine, and Wiese was scheduled for eleven. When Wiese arrived, Volpe was sitting in the lobby.
He had waited two hours for him. As Volpe approached, Wiese thought he was in trouble. It had been nearly two years since the men had spoken, and they’d hated each other even before the incident. What would Volpe do now? Pull out a gun? Hit him? What? As the two men came face to face, Volpe looked at Wiese, kept his hands at his side, and began to recite the Gettysburg Address. Wiese couldn’t get to the elevator fast enough.
In the end, the relationship between the two men was one more grotesque sideshow in a case that was overrun with them. What mattered most was that neither Volpe nor Wiese testified at the trial, so the jury never got to hear either man’s version of what occurred in the bathroom. The same way they never got to hear the full story of the now-infamous and critical six-minute phone call.
After Sergeant Hargrove from Internal Affairs interviewed Louima in the hospital on Sunday night and heard his horrifying story, he immediately went to the 70th Precinct and declared the bathroom a crime scene. In no time, the precinct was swarming with investigators. Though Volpe and Bruder were off that night, Wiese and Schwarz were working. Records show they took their meal break at 4 a.m. in the precinct, so they must have seen what was going on.
They left the station at 5:08, and a little more than an hour later – at 6:16, to be precise – a six-minute phone call was made from a pay phone at Brooklyn College to Justin Volpe’s house. The call was charged to Charles Schwarz’s phone card. The prosecutors argued very convincingly that this was a smoking gun. Schwarz sees investigators ripping the precinct apart looking for evidence, knows Louima told them what happened, and as soon as he’s back on the street he calls his fellow sex torturer to tell him there’s trouble. It worked beautifully in court. After the trial, Daily News columnist Jim Dwyer interviewed several jurors who told him the phone call was a key in their decision to convict Schwarz.
There’s only one small problem: Wiese says he made the phone call. Not only did the jury not know this, but they also weren’t told that Bruder was called first, before Volpe. Wiese says he borrowed Schwarz’s phone card to fulfill his obligations as the PBA delegate. He saw there was a problem at the precinct, he saw investigators searching their lockers, and he was calling Volpe and Bruder to give them a heads-up. (In those first days, Bruder, as Volpe’s partner, was a primary suspect.)
Kornberg says it was indeed Wiese who made the critical phone call to Volpe, but not in his role as the union rep. “The reason Wiese made that call was, he wanted to discuss with Volpe what transpired with the two of them in the bathroom that night. And Volpe wouldn’t have any part of it. He didn’t want to discuss it on the phone, and at that point, he thought Wiese might be wired.”
As with any criminal case of this magnitude, there were those who saw it as an opportunity to advance their own agenda, to achieve something other than simple justice. It was clear from his public statements, and the way the case was handled, that U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter wanted to set the world right. He wanted to send a chill through the NYPD regarding both brutality and the blue wall of silence.
Mayor Giuliani, on the other hand, who had built his entire public career on law and order and who had presided over the largest decrease in crime in the city’s history, needed to send a different message. His failure to take the Police Department’s success to the next level by developing a strategy to improve police-community relations now threatened to turn his greatest success into his greatest failure. He needed to calm people’s fears, to convince them his police were not being allowed to run amok.
And for the Reverend Al Sharpton, the case was a tailor-made opportunity to try to awaken the city’s protest movement, which had been in hibernation more or less since the first year of Mayor Giuliani’s first term.
But on June 8, when the jury delivered its verdicts, it was clear that this case was, in the end, really only about the barbaric brutalization of Abner Louima and the tragic fate of a handful of flawed Brooklyn cops. When he was pronounced guilty, Schwarz stood and stared at the prosecutors, the rage in his eyes visible even in the back of the court. Wiese, on the other hand, was in tears. Though he had been acquitted of beating Abner Louima, he was devastated that his partner was going to prison. “How could this happen?” he asked Tacopina over and over again. And his lawyer told him, “I know what you’re thinking, but you’re going home today. It’s terrible that Chuck’s going to jail, but it wasn’t an either-or.”
We may never know if what Wiese was thinking that day was that Schwarz was going to jail for something he did. But even if he was thinking only that he tried to tell the prosecution what had happened and they wouldn’t listen, it is clear that there are no real good guys in this story.
It’s true that Justin Volpe put the other cops at the 70th Precinct that night, particularly Charles Schwarz, Thomas Wiese, and Thomas Bruder, in an untenable position. Once events began to unfold, there were no good choices. But certainly there were right ones. If this had been a test of some kind, no one in the 70th Precinct would have earned much better than a barely passing grade. Justin Volpe may be the only truly guilty party here, but no one was truly innocent. Innocent is when the DNA proves you’re not the rapist, that it was a terrible case of mistaken identity. Innocent is when you didn’t do anything. Not when you were there and somebody else did it and you didn’t report it, and you didn’t quite tell the truth about it later, and maybe you even helped cover it up.
“When the first trial was over,” says Joseph Tacopina, “I felt for a moment like I’d won the World Series of trials. But there was no celebration. This case will never be one I can look back on as a highlight. There’s just been too much suffering and too much tragedy. This case has taken a tremendous toll on everybody who’s been involved in it.”
What happened to Abner Louima was an abomination. This was a police precinct, after all, and these men were police officers. The city – not to mention Abner Louima – has a right to expect better. No one who was in the station house that night should escape accountability. Still, there is reason to believe – reasonable doubt, and more – that Charles Schwarz may not have behaved much differently than any of the other cops who were swept up in the chaos that night. Should he share the same fate as Justin Volpe? In the end, that would not be justice, either.