When Zack Zahrey walked into Brooklyn's 68th Precinct one evening seven years ago, he had no idea he was about to change the course of his life forever.
An undercover narcotics detective who worked out of another precinct, Zahrey went to the six-eight to do something cops do all the time: to see if he could get some information for the family of a murder victim. Zahrey and the dead man, William Rivera, were friends from the neighborhood. They played basketball together at Ft. Hamilton High School, in the playgrounds, on numerous teams, and eventually in the Police Commissioner's League -- Rivera had become an auxiliary cop just to qualify.
Known by the nickname Supreme, Rivera was a street legend. A natural shooter with great hands and devastating moves, he was heavily recruited in high school by Division I colleges (his grades were too big a hurdle). He regularly thrilled onlookers at the 56th Street courts in Sunset Park, where Brooklyn's real players went for competition. He dominated games at the West 4th Street playground in the Village, site of some of the toughest, most exciting street ball in the city. And he played in the famed Rucker tournament, which showcases the city's premier talent along with players from the NBA.
Now Supreme was dead at the age of 27, gunned down at 3 a.m. as he sat in his Lincoln Continental in front of a club called the Station. Though the murder had taken place in full view of a number of people on Fourth Avenue, one of the main commercial arteries in Bay Ridge, neither of the two shooters had yet been identified.
But one of the guns used in the murder was a 9-mm. Glock that belonged to an off-duty cop. As it happened, this particular cop was already on probation for a previous incident in which his gun was taken away from him in a bar fight. In addition, the murder victim himself had been an auxiliary cop. Consequently, investigators from Internal Affairs were all over the station house, working the case alongside the guys from Homicide.
All of which made for a very testy situation at the precinct. Zahrey wasn't aware of any of this when he popped up and started asking about the case. Nor was he aware that the cops believed his friend Supreme had been running a crew that specialized in robbing drug dealers.
Not surprisingly, an Internal Affairs investigator named Robert Boyce took an immediate interest in Detective Zahrey that night. Recently assigned to the beefed-up Internal Affairs bureau, Boyce was part of the NYPD's new, get-serious anti-corruption effort in the wake of the Mollen Commission report.
"This is the first case where prosecutors are in serious danger of having to stand trial on an allegation that they manufactured false evidence or acted wrongfully," says Joel Rudin, Zahrey's lawyer.
"I was okay with his questions at first," Zahrey remembers. "I mean, I understand there's like a process of checks and balances. And besides, I knew I hadn't done anything."
But when Zahrey was ready to leave, the questions from Boyce became more pointed. "Were you there?" Boyce almost badgered him. "Maybe you were there, Zahrey. Maybe you even know what the beef was."
Zahrey explained that he was working when Supreme was murdered and had no idea what happened. It had been more than two years since he and Supreme had any significant contact.
"I was really uneasy with how my own job was treating Supreme's family. Nobody was telling them anything. This guy was still a friend of mine. I was just being loyal," Zahrey says. "But Boyce was getting me agitated, and suddenly there I was, starting to feel like I had really stepped in some shit."
The feeling was just the beginning. A few hours later, after he'd gone home and he and his wife were in bed, a detective called and asked Zahrey to come in again. "He said they wanted to hit me with some ideas, see what I thought," says Zahrey. "My wife told me not to go, and of course, in retrospect, she was right."
Back at the precinct, the detectives working the case didn't seem to be sure whether they wanted to treat him as a colleague or as a suspect. "You sure you don't know anything?" they asked. "You better think about it carefully, 'cause this could come back and bite you in the ass."
Indeed, it did. Within ten days of Supreme's murder, Sergeant Boyce had opened an Internal Affairs file on Detective Zahrey and started an official investigation. But it would take the department three years to muster the evidence to charge Zahrey with an astonishing list of crimes that included selling drugs, participating in the robbery and murder of a drug dealer, robbing other dealers, and selling guns.
The charges were based almost entirely on the testimony of a career felon who was promised a chance to walk out of Sing Sing in exchange for implicating Zahrey. Though it took a jury just 10 minutes to clear him of all the charges, by that time Zahrey had spent years in what amounted to a kind of seventh circle of false-accusation hell, including eight months in jail under 23-hour-a-day lockdown.
Now Zahrey has filed an unprecedented $40 million civil suit targeting the practices cops used to prompt "a thoroughly disreputable and unbelievable street criminal to concoct false accusations." The suit charges the city, the Police Department, the Brooklyn district attorney, and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District with "malicious and wrongful criminal investigation and prosecution." In the process it shines a very harsh light on some highly controversial practices that have become an accepted part of the criminal-justice process.
Looking back over thousands of pages of court documents, testimony, depositions, and interviews, it's hard to understand why Internal Affairs and the Brooklyn D.A.'s office wanted to nail Zack Zahrey so badly.
Maybe it was the anxious, supercharged post-Mollen Commission atmosphere. Maybe Zahrey pissed off the wrong person. Perhaps someone had a gut feeling about him. Or it could have been the fact (mentioned to me many times in interviews with prosecutors and Internal Affairs detectives) that a good cop wouldn't have had associations with people like Supreme and some of the other guys Zahrey played basketball with. "These were bad guys Zahrey grew up with," one detective said. "And saying basketball was the basis of the relationships just didn't ring true to me."
Whatever the reason, the Police Department and the Brooklyn D.A. went after Zahrey with an indefatigable zeal. But after years of investigative work, the prosecution's case was based almost entirely on the uncorroborated testimony of one key witness -- a crack-addicted felon named Sidney Quick who was friends with Supreme and occasionally hung around the park during basketball games. Quick claimed he participated in the crimes along with Zahrey and the other members of Supreme's crew.