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A Cop's Tale

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And when mistakes are made -- and there's been a spate of highly publicized cases recently in which innocent people have spent years in jail based on the false testimony of informants -- little if anything is done to find out why the system didn't work.

"When there's an airplane crash, there's an inquiry immediately to find out what went wrong," says Ellen Yaroshefsky, a professor at Cardozo law school who is an expert on the use of informants. "But in the criminal-justice system, we sweep these things under the rug. Until there are systemic changes to create a balance between the court, the prosecutors, the police, and the defendants, we can expect a lot more wrongful prosecutions and convictions based on false evidence."

Zahrey, who is six three and has dark eyes set deep into his angular face, was born and raised in Brooklyn's Sunset Park. Though he always wanted to be an architect, he wasn't much of a student. So in 1984, while attending Staten Island Community College, he signed up to take the police exam. Though he did it as a lark, he scored well, and found that almost as soon as he entered the academy he became more and more excited about the prospect of being a police officer.

"I loved being a cop. I felt really good about it," says Zahrey, who was the NYPD's first Palestinian recruit. "It's not all bleak and miserable. You get to do a lot of good things out there."

Zahrey did a brief stint in a neighborhood-stabilization unit in Manhattan when he graduated from the academy in December 1985, then was assigned to the 84th Precinct in Brooklyn -- which includes the large Arab population clustered around Atlantic Avenue -- because he spoke Arabic.

"This is what you call an association case," one of the detectives told me. "We looked at him, and he basically got jammed up because of his friends, who he associated with."

In early 1990, he was assigned to Narcotics, and he went undercover in April 1991. "I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I knew the streets, I knew the slang. So I did very well as an undercover," he says.

On June 8th, 1993, he was formally evaluated by his commanding officer. "Zahrey understands the high level of integrity that is expected of him as an undercover officer," the sergeant wrote. "Detective Zahrey is a very dedicated officer." "A leader among his peers." And finally, the sergeant concluded, Zahrey "exemplifies the undercover officer."

During this period in the early nineties, while Zahrey was advancing in the department and logging 400 hours a year in overtime, he did what the department claims it wants cops to do. Rather than move to Babylon or Hicksville, he stayed in the neighborhood and maintained his contacts.

The 56th Street Park had its own dynamic, based entirely on athletic skill. It was very clear-cut. If you could play, you were accepted. "Throughout the eighties and much of the nineties, this was the place that everybody from Bay Ridge, Red Hook, Sunset Park, Boro Park, Park Slope, East New York, Coney Island, and other neighborhoods knew they could go to and get a really good run," Zahrey says. "We came together because of a love for the game. That's why our lives crossed. Basketball."

The pull was so strong, the allure of those hours spent on the asphalt so irresistible, that the men tried to hold on to the experience, even long after the responsibilities of adult life got the better of them. Max Muñoz, a player who came out of Ft. Hamilton High School with Zahrey, was able to play less and less once he got married, moved to Staten Island, and went into the air-conditioning-and-refrigeration business.

Struggling to somehow keep some part of the romance, he would stop by the park between calls and just sit in his truck and watch the guys play. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. It was enough to make him feel good. And after a while, he'd move on to his next job. It was Muñoz who held Supreme in his arms the night he bled to death.

Among the players, Zahrey says, there were cops and brokers and contractors and teachers and firemen. All kinds of people, really: "It was just good times. You'd play and you'd leave. You didn't get into anybody's business. It was like, 'Hey, yo, man, what's up?' and you'd play. That's it. There was never any blah, blah, blah, blah."

As a result, Zahrey says, he knew very little about the guys he spent time with at the park, including Sidney Quick, whom Supreme brought around and introduced as "Bubba" and who would participate only in the shoot-arounds. (He wasn't good enough to play in the games.) There was a spirit, even a kind of camaraderie, among the players, but there were always reminders that some of these guys were not exactly angels.

The baskets at the 56th Street park are hung, just as they are at all the other city courts, from metal backboards. This gave rise to a showboating maneuver called "clapping boards." When one of the guys who could really sky put a nice move on someone and went in for a layup, he'd smack his hands on the backboard as he scored. It made a thunderous sound that served, like hanging on the rim after a dunk, as an exclamation point to the score.

One afternoon, a heated full-court game was in progress when a white guy who was one of the regulars drove to the basket, laid the ball in, and clapped boards. Apparently, there was a very small metal screw sticking out and it caught the edge of his wedding band. "It ripped his finger right off his hand," Zahrey says.

"He didn't even realize what happened. We all stopped playing and somebody yelled, 'Hey, yo, man, your finger. That's fucked up.' And then the guy sees his hand and he's running back and forth like crazy and screaming and he picked up his finger and he's trying to stick it back on."

In the meantime, one of the other players found the guy's wedding ring on the court. "He took the ring to the fountain, washed it off, and stuck it in his pocket. He didn't give it back. But that's the park for you. These were some hard sons of bitches." The guy never did return the ring, and the player who lost his finger was back running full-court in a matter of weeks, minus one digit since doctors were unable to reattach it.

"This is what you call an association case," one of the detectives told me. "We looked at him, and he basically got jammed up because of his friends, who he associated with."

When Internal Affairs detective Boyce (now Captain Boyce, commanding officer of the 40th Precinct in the Bronx) began his investigation of Zahrey in March 1994, it seemed he had a clear strategy.

He'd identify Supreme's friends and associates, locate them, and see which ones he could get to roll on the detective. He interviewed dozens of people, and without Zahrey's knowledge, of course, combed through his private life, reviewing phone records, bank records, and his personnel file.

During various periods, he even put the detective under surveillance. But after five months, he had nothing, or at least nothing more than when he started. Just a rumor that Zahrey was in with Supreme's crew. But then, nearly six months after he opened a file on Zahrey, Boyce went to Rikers Island to interview Sidney Quick.


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