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Central Park Revisited

Mike Sheehan, 54, one of the key detectives in the Central Park case, comes out of the city's tradition of street-savvy Irish cops. Michael Warren, 58, the lawyer who is trying to vindicate McCray, Richardson, and Santana, comes out of the sixties tradition of black radicalism. Both men, and the camps they represent, are tenacious in defending their sense of emotional innocence. "All this stuff about coercion really pisses me off," Sheehan says. "Do you honestly think that we -- detectives with more than twenty years in, family men with pensions -- would risk all of that so we could put words in the mouth of a 15-year-old kid? Absolutely not."

"Oh, the police are lying," Warren says. "Absolutely. I've spoken to the parents, I've spoken to our clients, and I've seen the effect on them when they begin to tell the story of what was done to them during the interrogations: They break down. So I don't have any question as to their version of what took place."

Unfortunately, for everyone else, the hardest thing to come by in this case has always been absolutes.

On Wednesday, April 19, 1989, at about 9 p.m., reports began filtering into the Central Park precinct that a marauding gang of youths was beating up joggers and bicyclists. The initial response was haphazard. Jogger David Good approached an officer on a scooter to say he'd been attacked; the cop rode off in the opposite direction. Patrol cars were dispatched around 9:30, responding to assault and robbery calls. Near 10 p.m., at the northern edge of the reservoir, jogger John Loughlin was bludgeoned in the back of the head, apparently with a pipe. At roughly 10:30, at 100th Street and Central Park West, two cops grabbed five boys, including Richardson and Santana.

The first interviews were conducted inside the tiny Central Park station house; Santana contributed many of the 33 names on a list of kids said to be in the park that night. It wasn't until 1:30 a.m. that two construction workers, walking through the park after having a couple of beers, heard moaning and discovered a woman writhing in a ravine. The jogger, her skull smashed so badly that nearly 80 percent of her blood seeped onto the ground, had lain helpless for nearly four hours.

Later that morning, Linda Fairstein got a call. The head of the Manhattan D.A.'s Sex Crimes unit learned that her superior, Nancy Ryan, then the assistant district attorney for homicide cases, was taking control of the investigation with Ryan's top aide, Peter Casolaro, because the jogger was thought likely to die. Fairstein went over Ryan's head, to District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, arguing that the jogger was definitely the victim of a sex crime and if she lived would need a compassionate prosecutor. Fairstein won the turf skirmish. Soon, her best prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, was preparing to make videotapes.

The lowlights saturated the news. McCray: "We charged her. We got her on the ground. Everybody started hitting her and stuff. She was on the ground. Everybody stompin' and everything. Then we got, each -- I grabbed one arm, some other kid grabbed one arm, and we grabbed her legs and stuff. The we all took turns getting on her, getting on top of her."

Richardson: "Raymond had her arms, and Steve [Lopez] had her legs. He spread it out. And Antron got on top, took her panties off."

Santana: "He was smackin' her, he was sayin', 'Shut up, bitch!' Just smackin' her . . . I was grabbin' the lady's tits."

Wise: "This is my first rape."

As they confessed, the boys spoke in matter-of-fact cadences. McCray at times seemed embarrassed, Santana defiant, and all of them looked tired -- videotaping began on April 21, after most of the suspects had been awake for nearly two days. But none appeared apologetic or upset.

As inflammatory as some of the videotaped statements were, a few off-camera quotes also incited fury. Police officials told reporters that the boys had coined a new term, wilding, to describe beating up random victims, and that while in a holding cell the suspects had laughed and sung the rap hit "Wild Thing." Another law-enforcement leak had Salaam explaining why the boys had gone on their spree: "It was fun," Salaam was said to have said.

The tabloids and TV news were predictably sensationalistic. But a presumption of guilt infected coverage everywhere: "A 28-year-old investment banker, jogging through Central Park, was attacked by a group of teenagers. They kicked and beat her in the head with a pipe and raped her. The teenagers, who were from East Harlem, were quickly arrested." That's from the Times, and it appeared on May 29, a little more than one month after the five were indicted.

Beyond the initial shocking impact, the confessions grew in importance as forensic evidence failed to materialize. No blood or DNA tests tied the five to the jogger. Hairs found on Richardson's clothes were said to be "consistent" with those of the jogger, but it was precious little residue considering that five people were accused of beating and raping a woman in a muddy ravine.

The videotapes also showed rampant inconsistencies in the boys' accounts of the evening in the park. During deliberations, jurors, especially those who discounted the confessions, tried to fill in the troubling lack of physical evidence. In the second trial, juror Ivette Naftal picked up Kevin Richardson's underpants and showed the other jurors what she said were grass and mud stains -- therefore, Richardson must have pulled his pants down and raped the jogger. Incredibly, the prosecutors had never tested the stains, so their origin remains a mystery. But Naftal's argument swayed enough jurors to convict Richardson of sexual assault.

In the two trials, Lederer, the prosecutor, did a skillful job of weaving the jogger attack into the series of random acts of violence committed by packs of 30 to 40 youths that night. Yet that broader picture -- which prosecution sources still emphasize is crucial to the guilt of the five in the jogger attack -- has a large flaw. None of the seven other joggers and bicyclists who testified about other incidents was ever able to identify McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, or Wise.

The majority of jurors, however, kept coming back to what they saw as a common-sense analysis: How could four of the five teens, with adult relatives by their sides, give richly detailed statements incriminating themselves in a horrific act that they simply didn't commit? (Wise, 16, was unaccompanied; Salaam wasn't videotaped.) And the majority of jurors eventually won the debate -- though not completely through the weight of logic. Tim Sullivan, who had extensive access to the Central Park jurors for his book Unequal Verdicts, quotes one juror as disregarding the legal instructions of trial judge Thomas Galligan. "There's always that danger, that jurors will try to come up with something, because at some point they feel like prisoners," says Sullivan, now a producer at Court TV. "If a jury is in there for ten or twelve days, as these were, people start looking for a way to get out."

Meanwhile, on August 5, 1989, a rape victim managed to run out her apartment door screaming when her attacker went into the kitchen searching for a knife with which to blind her. When the rapist ran down to the lobby in pursuit, the building super whacked Matias Reyes with a mop and held him until police arrived.

T he detective who took Reyes's statement inside the 20th Precinct that day was Mike Sheehan. "In 25 years on the job, I took over 1,000 confessions, in 3,000 homicides," Sheehan says now. "Out of all the bad guys I've talked to across the table, this is one of the top five lunatics. This guy was a frightening guy. He was capable of doing anything. He's very manipulative."

Sheehan, who became famous during the Robert Chambers case and is now a reporter for Fox-5, grew up in East Harlem when it had a sizable Italian and Irish population. Even Sheehan's lunch is old-school: Today at Bill's Gay Nineties in midtown, he orders a burger with a slice of raw onion and Worcestershire sauce, and washes it down with two beers.

In the summer of 1989, a serial rapist was terrorizing women on the Upper East Side; connecting the assaults were the rapist's attempts to stab out the eyes of his victims so he couldn't be identified. Sheehan, a legendary detective with Manhattan North Homicide, got involved in June after the second victim, Lourdes Gonzalez, 24, was stabbed to death -- while her three young children watched. Detectives from the Sex Crimes unit took down Reyes's confession to three rapes, but he denied having anything to do with the rape and murder of Lourdes Gonzalez.