An Ordinary Murder

The gun used to kill Clifford Birkbeck lies in the evidence vault of the ATF in Brooklyn.Photo: Henry Leutwyler

December 18, 2005
East New York, Brooklyn

Just before one o’clock on a bright Sunday afternoon, Joseph Truman and his friend Moose are leaving the Shop Smart Deli, on the bleak corner of Linden Boulevard and Euclid Avenue in East New York. Truman, a tense 21-year-old with a scar on his face, is a convicted felon: He stole a car at 16 and at 19 spent a year in prison for robbing a guy at gunpoint. He was arrested again last August for choking an ex-­girlfriend, which earned him 60 days in Rikers.

Now he’s back out on the street, and he has a gun in his pocket. It’s an old .22-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver made for shooting targets at the range and plinking cans in the country, but it plays the same role in the neighborhood as a Mac-10 automatic or Desert Eagle .44: It’s an equalizer, and it gives Truman a little more swagger in his step.

Outside the store, Truman and Moose cross paths with Clifford Birkbeck and his girlfriend, Tameika. Birkbeck, a towering 26-year-old with a big, easy smile and dimples, was born in the Bronx and moved to East New York three years ago to live with Tameika and her son. East New York leads the city in the kind of random gun violence that Michael Bloomberg is crusading against. “New York is the safest big city in America,” Mayor Bloomberg testified before Congress in March. “But the harsh reality is that far too many people continue to be killed with illegal guns.”

But Birkbeck isn’t afraid. He stands an intimidating six-foot-five and has done time himself: In 1998, he did seven months upstate for selling crack and has been in and out of Rikers on a handful of petty drug charges over the years since then. But after the last time he was locked up, a year ago, his mother, whom Birkbeck still calls “Mommy,” begged him to stop, and he promised her she wouldn’t have to visit him in jail anymore. It wasn’t an empty promise.

He told Tameika he wanted to marry her. She got pregnant, and he went to every doctor’s appointment with her and crowed over the sonogram that showed they were having a boy. And, after months of looking for a job, he was hired as a security guard at an apartment building in the Bronx. He is set to start tomorrow morning. But there has been bad news, too. Just two weeks ago, when Tameika was five months pregnant, she miscarried, and they have been grieving together ever since. Birkbeck is in a protective mood.

As Birkbeck and Tameika cross the street to the deli to buy ingredients for dinner, Truman and his friend, ­now outside the store, are crossing in the opposite direction. Tameika notices Truman looking hard at them as they walk past. Meanwhile, Truman decides that Birkbeck is staring at him, and he doesn’t like it. He hands Moose his grocery bags and follows Birkbeck and Tameika into the store. ­Tameika hears Truman ask Birkbeck, “Yo, Money, can I talk to you for a minute?” She puts a bag of sugar and a box of macaroni and cheese on the counter and follows the men outside. “You got problems with me?” Truman barks. “Whatchu lookin’ at? You don’t know me. I got beef out here!” Birkbeck looms nearly half a foot over Truman, arguing back—“No, you lookin’ at me!”—but this isn’t going to be settled with fists. “You too close,” Truman warns, and then he yanks the revolver out of his pocket. The gun explodes. Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack!

The bullets hit Birkbeck in the chest, the left arm, the left shoulder, and the back, ripping through major blood vessels and both lungs as he turns with Tameika and starts running. They make it around the corner before he collapses on the street. Tameika is at his side, screaming. Truman stands watching them. A woman who says she’s a nurse appears—there’s a clinic just across the street—and pries Tameika off Birkbeck so she can check his pulse. Another woman driving by jumps out of her car and calls 911. The nurse says to tell them to hurry—he looks bad and his pulse is getting weaker. Birkbeck tries to say something, and blood pours out of his mouth. Tameika, still screaming, wipes at it futilely with a tissue. While Birkbeck’s lungs fill with blood, Truman is running the two blocks to his mother’s home on Pine Street. Paramedics pull up and carry Birkbeck through the chaotic crowd to the ambulance. They bring him to Brookdale Hospital: Dead on arrival.

Birkbeck’s death is the 31st and last murder of the year in the 75th Precinct, which yet again has the unwanted distinction of posting the most homicides in the city, though even in this toughest section of Brooklyn, crime has fallen. “It’s dropped dramatically,” says Lieutenant John Cornicello, commander of the Brooklyn North Homicide Task Force. “But the violence is still there. More and more, it’s the dispute for ridiculous reasons.” The cops have a name for it when someone is killed over a look: It’s a “staredown.” A quarter of the murder victims in New York are now killed by strangers in a confrontation that turns ­lethal—double the percentage of stranger murders a half-century ago. And while crime numbers are at historic lows, the murder rate this year to date has inched up by 6.3 percent over the same period last year. The one factor holding steady, in two-thirds of all murders, is the fateful presence of a gun. How do you prevent a murder over nothing more than a perceived insult? You can’t exactly target testosterone. You can, however, target guns, and this is Bloomberg’s strategy. But no matter how much noise the mayor makes, the fact is that getting guns off the city streets is a long, slow, incremental process. Sometimes it has to happen one murder at a time.

Alleged Killer
Joseph Truman 21 years old
The mug shot taken at the 75th Precinct in East New York: The charge is murder in the second degree.

July 25, 2006
One Police Plaza, Manhattan

“The stranger murder is a big challenge,” says Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “They really are the exception, but they do happen, and they’re difficult to solve.” Even though a crowd gathered as Birkbeck lay dying, and even though Truman lingered at the murder scene, Tameika is the only eyewitness the cops have. “The police are not greeted with open arms in a lot of these communities,” Kelly acknowledges. “There is a reluctance to cooperate, a wariness about coming forward. It’s not only a dislike of the police—witnesses are worried about their own safety.” After Tameika picked out Truman’s photo from a collection of mug shots on a computer at the station house, the homicide detectives told her to take some clothes from her apartment and stay somewhere else.

For Birkbeck’s family, the police investigation is small comfort. His mother and his older sister, Crystal, were fiercely devoted to him, and they had relocated from the Bronx to Brooklyn to be closer to him after he moved in with Tameika. “You could see the glow in his face that he was in love,” Crystal says at their home in neighboring Brownsville. “Them two, they was like glue—couldn’t get them apart. Where one went the other went. I give it to her, that was my brother’s life right there. You could see he was changing. He didn’t hang out. He gave that up.”

“So nobody don’t even understand, why him?” Crystal says, her raspy voice growing louder. “This boy never had a problem with anybody. He realized his mistakes, he started making plans, he started getting out there looking for jobs—he was even talking about life insurance!” The idea of life insurance was more than a gesture toward the baby he and Tameika had been expecting. Birkbeck also had a 3-year-old daughter, whom he adored, who lived with his ex-­girlfriend in the Bronx. He had named her Carizma, and everyone thought she looked just like him. When she was born, her mother had a C-­section and had to stay in the hospital for a few days. Birkbeck took care of the baby at home, getting up to give her bottles and change her diapers. “That was his main concern, Carizma,” Crystal says. When he heard that he’d gotten the ­security-guard job, she says, “he was excited. ‘I’m-a buy this for my daughter, I’m-a buy that for my daughter, my daughter, my daughter, my daughter’—everything was his daughter.” Carizma had been temporarily taken from her mother by Child Services in the spring, and through the fall, Birkbeck had been going to court to try to get custody of her.

Birkbeck’s mother, Delvereen Birkbeck, an MTA maintenance worker, and Ivanhoe Birkbeck, a retired cop, separated before Birkbeck was born and were divorced when he was in the sixth grade. At the time Birkbeck died, he and his sister hadn’t spoken to their father in years. “We always leaned on Mommy for everything,” Crystal says. “It was me, her, and him. Mommy always used to be like, ‘Crystal, you take care of your brother. Clifford, you gotta protect your sister.’ I’d be like, ‘He ain’t gotta do nothin’. I can fight, Mommy!’ She’d be like, ‘That’s why I tell you to watch your brother. ’Cause you the fighter. He’s not.’ He got my mommy’s personality. His smile alone would light you up.”

“When I met him,” says Tameika, “I asked him, ‘You believe in love at first sight?’ Because that’s what it was the first day I seen him. I called my sister, and I was like, ‘I found my husband.’ Tameika’s son, Marques, was 4 when Birkbeck moved in. “One day,” she remembers, “he was like, ‘Mommy, who is Clifford to me?’ I was like, ‘He’s not your daddy, but he’s your father figure.’ He was getting his job for his daughter and for us. Only thing he wanted me to do was go to school. He said, ‘Don’t worry about anything else.’ ”

Crystal’s birthday was just a couple of weeks before the murder. Birkbeck called first thing in the morning to say he was coming over to spend the day with her. “It’s crazy,” she says. “We was sitting here saying, ‘We lost a lot of friends. And here it is you 26 and I’m 28, and we can actually say we made it. To be black in America, we made it! We’re very fortunate to say that.’ He always stayed on my back: ‘Crystal, you got a high-school diploma, you went to college, you know what you got to do.’ I loved the way he always stayed on my back,” she says, sobbing. “I’d like to hear that one more last time.”

Clifford Birkbeck 26 years old
He had moved from the Bronx to East New York to begin a new life with his girlfriend. He stopped selling drugs, found a job, and started talking marriage.
Photo: Courtesy of Crystal Birkbeck

December 19, 2005
Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Kings County
Hospital Morgue, East Flatbush, Brooklyn

At 9 A.M. the day after the murder, Clifford Birkbeck is laid out on an aluminum autopsy table fitted with faucets and drains. The forensic pathologist, Dr. Kristin Roman, takes X-rays to find out where the bullets are. The one that went through the left side of his back is lodged in the skin and soft tissue of the right side of his chest. The one that went through his left shoulder is stuck between his lungs. The one that went through the left side of his chest stopped in the muscle beneath his right shoulder blade. The fourth bullet, which went through the back of his left arm, is missing.

Because a metal tool could damage important evidence on the surface of the bullets, Roman has to dig them out with her gloved fingers. To get to the ones closest to the skin, she makes a cut next to each bullet and squeezes gently until they pop out. Then she makes a deep Y-shaped incision in the chest and lifts up skin, muscle, and bone to expose the perforated lungs and torn blood vessels in the body cavity, which had filled with three and a half liters of blood. She tracks the path of each bullet’s destruction and pries out the last one from deep in the chest. She washes off the blood and tissue and marks the three bullets with a sharp tool, establishing the chain of custody, and places each one in its own small Manila envelope. Because Birkbeck was shot with a revolver—in which the spent brass casings remain in the chambers of the gun’s cylinder instead of being ejected, as they would from a semiautomatic pistol—these three pieces of lead are the only evidence the cops have.

Birkbeck’s corpse is zipped into a body bag. His wake and funeral service are held on December 23 at G. H. Weldon Funeral Home in East Harlem, and he is buried the same day at Rosedale Cemetery in New Jersey. His father pays for everything, although he was estranged from his son. “It was emotional for him,” Crystal says. “There was no ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘I forgive you,’ ‘I forgive you, we make mistakes’—no, there was nothing like that.” The next day is Christmas Eve.

December 28, 2005
NYPD Crime Lab, Jamaica

Five days after the funeral, the three Manila envelopes arrive at the ballistics unit, where the evidence from every shooting in the city is examined. The bullets are simply filed away. Without the murder suspect, who has disappeared, or the gun, which disappeared with him, the case is at a standstill. Half of the gunshot-murder cases in the 75th Precinct from 2005 are still open. All of them are waiting for a break.

January 26, 2006
Joint Firearms Task Force, Jamaica

There are two law-enforcement units responsible for getting guns off the city’s streets, but neither one is looking for the gun that killed Clifford Birkbeck. The NYPD’s Firearms Investigative Unit (FIU) goes after local black-market sellers; the Joint Firearms Task Force (JFTF), a partnership between police and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)—so that it can work across state lines—investigates the dealers and “straw-man purchasers” who supply the gunrunners, and then goes undercover to catch traffickers in the act.

“It is the most dangerous job,” says William McMahon, the Special Agent in Charge at the ATF’s New York field division in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where the JFTF is quartered. The detectives and agents who work on undercover gun buys know that their targets will be armed every time. And, of course, they must work without the protection of a bulletproof vest. “They’re on their own for at least three or four minutes,” says McMahon, “and three or four minutes is a lifetime when things go bad.” In 2003, two undercover detectives from the NYPD’s FIU were murdered on a gun buy when their cover was blown.

Yet once in a while, the job is almost too easy. Like when a ­licensed firearms dealer in Ohio gets a call from a guy in Brooklyn who found his number on the Internet and says he needs to get his hands on some guns under the table. The dealer promises to see if he can help him out and then calls the ATF. An agent sets up an undercover e-mail address and then contacts the Brooklyn guy. Sure, the ATF agent tells him, not only do we have a mother lode of stolen guns to sell—but we deliver!

The handoff is set for January 26 at a motel just off the Belt Parkway near JFK. Two undercover ATF agents lay out thirteen guns on the bed in front of the Brooklyn buyer while two of his crew stand guard in the hallway and downstairs in the lobby. The sale goes off without a hitch, and the JFTF bursts in to make the arrests. But wait a minute, say the three guys. The guns weren’t all for them! So now the three men who are already arrested make monitored phone calls. Two buyers arrive and are promptly arrested in the motel room, and then two more. Now all seven of them face federal charges of possession of stolen firearms. “They were shocked,” says ATF Senior Special Agent and press officer Joe Green, laughing.

Detective John Muzek reenacting the test-fire of the murder weapon at the NYPD crime lab.Photo: Henry Leutwyler

As the seven Brooklyn men are being interviewed, photographed, and fingerprinted at the ATF office, one of them says he has some information to share about “Darryl Chestnut,” the guy who’s claiming that he’s never been arrested before. He says that Chestnut is really Joseph Truman, the suspect wanted in the shooting of Clifford Birkbeck. Oh, and one more thing, says the informant: He knows where the gun is, too.

The homicide detectives pick up Truman from the ATF and bring him back to the 75th Precinct. He is read his Miranda rights and agrees to answer questions. During a 45-minute interview, he gives an oral statement that is transcribed by a detective. Truman initials each line and signs each page. He also gives a videotaped statement. He admits to having a .22 revolver and to shooting Birkbeck with it. He says that a couple of days after the murder, he “got rid of the gun to a guy named T.” Tameika is at her son’s grandfather’s funeral when she gets a breathless call from Crystal telling her to go to the precinct house. She easily picks out Truman in a lineup. After she makes the identification, the cops again tell her to stay away from home to be safe. Now they have the bullets, the eyewitness, the suspect, and the confession—the last piece of the case is the gun.

January 27, 2006
Joint Firearms Task Force, Sunset Park, Brooklyn

With Truman in police custody, the JFTF turns its attention to finding T and the murder weapon. The informant who tipped off the investigators—let’s call him Snitch—tells the task force that he knows about the murder and the gun because he’s a friend of Truman’s and heard him bragging about it. He says that the gun is a .22 revolver and adds that he also knows T. He’s coughed up a lot of dirt now, and he might think he’s earned enough good-­citizenship points to lighten the five-year federal sentence he’s looking at. But since he’s the one who knows the guy who’s got the gun, guess what? He’s the one who’s going to get wired and sent in to make the buy.

“It makes my stress level go down a little bit,” says Lieutenant Mike Rogers. A compact, light-­skinned black dude with a fade, ­double-pierced ears, and the Van Dyke that is the new-school version of the classic cop mustache, Rogers looks a little like the rapper Ghostface Killah, but he’s the commander of the NYPD officers on the JFTF. “I have less of a heartache knowing it’s a guy who deals with this guy anyway—and was probably in his house yesterday. Should be no problem with him coming in now.” But Snitch doesn’t just go off on his own. He will make the buy under the surveillance of the JFTF.

The JFTF team looks as though it’s been staffed by central casting, with detectives and agents who are black, Latino, Italian—and Special Agent Renee Repasky in the Jodie Foster role. Repasky, who will supervise Snitch, is a five-foot-one, 27-year-old strawberry blonde from New Jersey who is prone to blushing and looks like she probably still gets carded. On undercover operations, she’s on the cover team that monitors the detectives and agents wearing wires—and moves in with shotguns, submachine guns, and assault rifles if things go south. The cover team also makes the arrests during a bust. “People are shocked to find out what I do for a living,” she says. But she has no trouble getting the proper respect from criminals. “Nobody really says anything,” she says. “But then again, who is going to say something to me when I have a gun in my hand?”

Repasky works with Snitch on his story about why he wants to get his hands on the revolver. Then he calls T as she listens in. T tells Snitch that he handed off the hot handgun to yet another guy. Repasky coaches Snitch: He can’t seem too interested, and he can’t call too often, but they have to move faster than the news out on the street that he’s been arrested. Seven days after the buy-and-bust, Repasky and Snitch have a date to buy the gun that killed Clifford Birkbeck for $300.

February 2, 2006
Joint Firearms Task Force, East New York, Brooklyn

On the day of an operation, a tactical plan, complete with printouts from MapQuest, goes around to everyone at the JFTF. At the appointed hour, usually in the evening, the team members drive over in separate cars to “tac up” at an out-of-the-way location, like a parking lot or a cemetery. The group members, all in street clothes, gather in a circle to review the plan with flashlights and discuss the particulars of “the set” where the buy will take place, which codes will be used if the situation goes bad, and whose car is the designated ambulance in case of emergency. As the time draws near for contact to be made with the seller, even on a buy that seems unlikely to cause the team any trouble, you can feel the tension. A few guys light cigars, and expletives rise overhead, mingling with the smoke, as they get into street mode. Bulletproof vests are Velcroed on by everyone except the undercovers. “When you say, ‘Let’s go,’ you still get butterflies,” says Sergeant Charles Giglio, an Irish-­Italian father of three who serves with Repasky on the JFTF cover team. “You can’t get complacent—‘It’s just another buy’—you never know.”

At 4:30 A.M., Snitch is driven by an undercover to the deserted intersection of Pennsylvania and Livonia Avenues, where the elevated tracks of the L and the 3 trains cross overhead. It’s less than two miles from the spot where Clifford Birkbeck was killed. Members of the cover team take their positions nearby. Snitch places a phone call to the seller. He gets out of the car, wearing a concealed radio transmitter, and walks over to the corner. Five minutes later, the seller shows up. “The scariest moment,” says Senior Special Agent Joe Green, “is when the guns meet the money. Is it a rip-off, or are we going to do a deal?” This time it’s a deal: The seller gives Snitch the revolver, and Snitch gives him the cash.

The seller walks. The JFTF, focused on federal cases, doesn’t have anything on this guy besides the fact that the gun fell into his lap and he was happy to make a quick buck off it. “You want to make sure that you have enough evidence to prosecute somebody,” says Green. “Is the guy a bona fide gun dealer? If it’s an old gun, you know he’s not smuggling guns professionally.” All they’d really have him for would be criminal possession of a weapon, which is a mere misdemeanor in New York State, carrying a maximum sentence of a year and often pleaded down to no time at all. But the revolver is off the street. Back at ATF headquarters, Repasky stores it in the evidence vault. Tomorrow, she will drive it to the crime lab.

February 7, 2006
NYPD Crime Lab, Jamaica

The three bullets from Birkbeck’s body are retrieved from the evidence room and delivered to the white Formica worktable of Detective James Valenti, a baby-faced forensic microscopist in the Ballistics Unit who trained at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Valenti is able to see right away that the bullets are .22s. Lead bullets can end up mangled beyond recognition, but these are whole and not too deformed by their journey through Birkbeck’s body. Valenti takes out his scale. “The weight is where it is supposed to be,” he says. “They aren’t fragmented.”

He is also able to see something else, without having to look through his Leica microscope. All guns have “rifling,” a spiral pattern left on the inside of the barrel when it is drilled out during manufacturing. The spiral puts spin on a bullet for greater accuracy (think of a football leaving a quarterback’s fingers). But the ­rifling doesn’t just steady the bullet’s flight; it also cuts into the surface of the bullet itself. With his naked eye, Valenti can count six grooves with a twist to the right on the sides of each bullet—a distinctive pattern that confirms that the murder weapon is a Smith & Wesson .22 revolver.

The basic technique used to pair a gun with a crime has not changed in nearly a century. Valenti needs bullets test-fired from the suspected murder weapon to compare with the ones from the medical examiner. Detective John Muzek will pull the trigger. Muzek, a genial, beefy guy with huge hands, takes the revolver into a room dominated by a huge stainless-steel tank that looks like a coffin standing on six shock absorbers. He shoots through a porthole in the side of the tank. Now Valenti has something to work with. He turns to his comparison microscope. It’s really two microscopes, with two staging areas and two lenses, joined with a binocular eyepiece that lets him see a split image. He puts a bullet from the morgue on the left and one from the test-fire on the right and adjusts the view to line them up.

“Have you ever seen them do the ballistics tests on CSI?” asks Lieutenant Mark Gallagher, who supervises the Ballistics Unit. “They do it awfully fast. They’re looking at it under the microscope for ten seconds, saying, ‘It’s a match!’ ” The rifling marks on the bullet are obvious, but the microscope reveals more. When the barrel of a gun is drilled out and the rifling characteristics are carved in, the drill bit is worn a little further each time it bores through the steel. Because of this, no two barrels are exactly alike, and each one leaves tiny, unique striations on every bullet it fires. It takes Valenti a couple of hours to painstakingly perform the comparison on all the bullets, but—it’s a match. They have the gun that shot Birkbeck.

The revolver goes back to ATF headquarters to be locked up in the evidence vault, hung on a Peg-Board with dozens of other guns, until the Brooklyn district attorney’s office sends a subpoena for it. Only after the murder trial is over and any appeals exhausted will the revolver meet its own end, melted down in a foundry or chopped up in a machine shop.

July 13, 2006
East New York, Brooklyn

Joseph Truman was indicted for second-degree murder by a grand jury on February 8 and arraigned on March 3. Despite his detailed statement of confession to the homicide detectives, he is pleading not guilty—“He tells me he didn’t do it,” says James Koenig, his court-appointed defense attorney. Now Truman is on Rikers Island, making occasional appearances in handcuffs at New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn for preliminary proceedings. The trial is not expected to start for months. Birkbeck’s family is waiting for it to begin, and the forensic pathologist, the detectives from the Ballistics Unit, and Tameika are waiting to be called to testify.

After she was warned to stay away from home, Tameika asked the Housing Authority to move her to another apartment, but then she decided against it. “I wasn’t ready to leave him yet,” she says softly. “His clothes are folded in the closet like he’s still there. His washrag in the shower, his toothbrush—everything is still the way he left it.” She’s even kept her blood-­soaked jacket and the bloody tissue that she was left holding on that awful day, when two strangers crossed paths on the street and one was left dead. The investigation is over, but the people who loved Clifford Birkbeck still can’t understand how a look could have been worth his life. “It’s senseless,” says Tameika. “If that was the case, no one would be alive.”

An Ordinary Murder