Pro Bono P.I.

Mike Race grew up in East New York when Danny Kaye lived around the corner. After the Marines and a beat in Fort Greene, he came back as an NYPD homicide detective-sergeant, “in 1985 B.C.,” Race says, then pauses. “You know what B.C. stands for? Before crack. East New York averaged 40 murders a year; when 1985 came, it doubled. We had 500 people being shot a year. It was like I finally got to Vietnam. What was really horrible was you never met the good people. You didn’t have time to meet any good people.”

Not that Race, 50, ever believed the neighborhood was anything out of Hans Christian Andersen. His father and older brother were both detectives; he suggests meeting today at East New York’s Lindenwood Diner, where John Gotti used to chat and chew. “We’ll sit at a non-bugged table,” Race says with a laugh.

He came through the carnage of the crack wars emotionally numb but not hardened. “November 10, 1988,” Race says, chewing his scrambled eggs. “Two kids were walking out of the grocery store on Sutter Avenue at Euclid. Car comes westbound, makes a left-hand turn, stops, pulls out a gun, starts blasting these two kids. One’s dead, one lives. A grandmother comes running down, she’s heard the shots. Her grandson, he’s laying there dead. Her biggest concern was her Levy rye. I said, ‘What?’ ‘I sent my grandson down for Levy rye. I want my Levy rye.’ So I opened the bag in the kid’s hand. I gave her the bread. Sometimes the only one who actually cared about the homicide case was the detective who had it.”

After 23 years and 750 murder investigations, Race retired and moved to upstate Otego (pop. 1,068) so his daughter could attend high school in rural peace. He bought a hot-dog cart and peddled Sabrett’s. But with his daughter safely off to college, Race got his private investigator’s license and, in 1996, returned to prowling Brooklyn. He did the unglamorous chores all P.I.’s do, like pacing off the distance between a crime scene and a girlfriend’s apartment to test an alibi. Like other P.I.’s, Race got dozens of unsolicited letters bearing prison return addresses. “Every single letter says the same thing,” Race says. ” ‘I’ve been falsely accused and convicted of a crime. I didn’t do it.’ “

Most P.I.’s toss the missives in the trash. But something compelled Race to keep opening them. He was looking for an interesting case, sure; but Race was also looking for a way to live, at least for a while, in a cleaner moral universe.

In October 1998, a 29-year-old Brooklyn man named Jeffrey Blake walked out of the maximum-security Green Haven Correctional Facility after eight years in jail. A jury had convicted Blake of a double homicide on the testimony of a single eyewitness, Dana Garner. Finally, a Legal Aid lawyer discovered that Garner was in North Carolina at the time of the shooting he claimed to have seen in East New York. Where did Garner get the crime-scene details that made him such a temporarily credible prosecution witness? Garner says they came from the detectives of the 75th Precinct, including Mike Race.

Howard Kirsch was Blake’s defense lawyer the first time around; Kirsch subsequently hired Race to do P.I. work. “I’ve known Mike since he was a detective in the seven-five,” Kirsch says. “He was a gung-ho type of cop. Could he put words in a witness’s mouth? Possibly.”

Race says Garner is lying about him too. “Did we make a mistake?” Race says, his light-green eyes flashing. “Yeah, I guess we did. Did the district attorney make a mistake? Yeah, they all did. Look, did we have doctors, lawyers, the pope, testifying in homicide trials? No. You had crackheads, prostitutes, people hanging out at all sorts of hours of the night. It’s sad, but that’s the way it happens.”

Three months after Blake was exonerated, in January 1999, a letter from Green Haven landed on Race’s desk. It was one of 76,000 written by Anthony Faison, who was serving twenty years to life for a 1987 homicide. Race sounds uncharacteristically mystical trying to pinpoint why Faison’s letter immediately seemed different. “The way he wrote, it had a flair, a charisma, a character to it,” he says. “It’s hard to explain. If you went window-shopping with your wife and she looks at a dress, she says, ‘Wow, I like that dress!’ You look at it, you have a different opinion. But she just knows.”

Faison and his co-defendant, Charles Shepherd, were convicted on the testimony of a single eyewitness. Race established that her testimony didn’t fit the physical facts of the 4:30 a.m. killing of a livery-cab driver. When he tracked down Carolyn Van Buren, she tearfully admitted she’d framed Faison and Shepherd to collect $500 in reward money to feed her crack habit. A judge refused to free the pair simply on the recanted testimony. So Race spent another year collecting evidence to identify and arrest the real shooter. In May, thirteen years after they left Brooklyn in handcuffs, Faison, 35, and Shepherd, 38, stepped out of court and into Cadman Plaza as free men.

After he retired from the NYPD, Race didn’t have any hokey spiritual epiphanies about the validity of police work as he ladled sauerkraut. “It’s not like I’m a liberal now,” he says. “Far from it. But I came to the realization that everything is not what it seems in life. It’s all in your perception of the situation. When you’re inside the Police Department, you only see one side of how the game is played. You don’t see the system’s imperfections. Maybe you don’t want to.” Race likes to think he’d have pursued justice for Faison and Shepherd even without the shadow of Jeffrey Blake – which isn’t to say that the shadow has disappeared. “Hey, look, Jeffrey Blake was an embarrassment to a lot of people, not just me,” Mike Race says. “Getting Anthony and Charles out of prison doesn’t erase that embarrassment. Nothing is ever going to make it go away.”

Pro Bono P.I.