THE BRONX — Pedro Hernandez, the Bronx teen held at Rikers Island for a year on a quarter of a million dollars bail while awaiting trial on gun charges, spoke out Thursday about his time behind bars, saying he hopes his struggle advances the bail reform cause.
“Incarceration at Rikers has been incredibly difficult for me, but it was my family who truly suffered. Being back with them is the greatest gift,” Hernandez said in a statement posted on the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization’s website.
His release came after a court appearance on Wednesday during which the rights organization offered to post Hernandez’s bail and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office agreed to lower the amount from $255,000 for two charges to $100,000.
Hernandez’s case has been likened to Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after being held awaiting trial for a stolen backpack, a crime he insisted he did not commit. Hernandez’s release led to a call by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. for bail reform or money bail elimination.
“There are too many more like me who are still inside Rikers just because they can’t afford to pay bail. I hope my experience elevates their struggle and causes all of us to rethink how we treat those who are least able to purchase their freedom,” Hernandez said.
Jessica Perez, Hernandez’s mother, had raised more than $100,000 for her son’s bail through a crowdfunding site but later learned that the more than 3,000 donations would need to be vetted before the money could be accepted as bail, according to a message she has posted on the page.
The Robert F. Kennedy organization stepped in, saying that “teenagers should not be locked up on Rikers Island solely because their families can’t afford to pay bail,” according to Wade McMullen, managing attorney for the human rights group.
In a note to supporters, Perez said that the money she raised through crowdfunding would go to help her son with legal fees and would be used for his education and to help others who find themselves in a similar position.
Hernandez, 18, was charged July 14, 2016 with criminal possession of a weapon, criminal possession of a firearm, assault and reckless endangerment. He was also charged in 2015 for a robbery case. He refused to take a plea deal, claiming he is not guilty.
On the most recent case, he was initially accused of shooting into a crowd in 2015, but the District Attorney’s Office now believes he provided the shooter with the gun.
A private investigator working for his family, however, claims that reports from eyewitnesses prove that Hernandez is innocent. The investigator, Manuel Gomez, has video footage appearing to show the victim of the shooting, Shawn Nardoni, saying he was falsely arrested and threatened with violence by a police officer who wanted him to identify Hernandez as the shooter.
The video, obtained by DNAinfo New York, shows a soft-spoken teen who says he’s Nardoni, claiming Det. David Terrell, who has been placed on modified duty, tried to force him to identify “some light-skinned kid” and to testify against him. But, he said, “I did not recognize the kid from nowhere.”
Numerous lawsuits have been filed against Terrell, including one in federal court by Nardoni’s mother on his behalf. Hernandez’s mother also filed suit on his behalf against Terrell and other officers from the 42nd precinct. It alleges a pattern of abuse and harassment that includes multiple false arrests preceding the one Hernandez was most recently jailed for.
Hernandez’s trial is expected to begin Sep. 6.
U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
Sixteen world-premiere American documentaries that illuminate the ideas, people and events that shape the present day. Films that have premiered in this category in recent years include Chasing Coral, Life, Animated, Cartel Land and City of Gold.
U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Robert Greene, Producers: Douglas Tirola, Susan Bedusa, Bennett Elliott) — An old mining town on the Arizona-Mexico border finally reckons with its darkest day: the deportation of 1200 immigrant miners exactly 100 years ago. Locals collaborate to stage recreations of their controversial past. Cast: Fernando Serrano, Laurie McKenna, Ray Family, Mike Anderson, Graeme Family, Richard Hodges. World Premiere
Crime + Punishment / U.S.A. (Director: Stephen Maing) — Over four years of unprecedented access, the story of a brave group of black and Latino whistleblower cops and one unrelenting private investigator who, amidst a landmark lawsuit, risk everything to expose illegal quota practices and their impact on young minorities. World Premiere
Dark Money / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Kimberly Reed, Producer: Katy Chevigny) — “Dark money” contributions, made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, flood modern American elections – but Montana is showing Washington D.C. how to solve the problem of unlimited anonymous money in politics.World Premiere
The Devil We Know / U.S.A. (Director: Stephanie Soechtig, Producers: Kristin Lazure, Stephanie Soechtig, Joshua Kunau, Carly Palmour) — Unraveling one of the biggest environmental scandals of our time, a group of citizens in West Virginia take on a powerful corporation after they discover it has knowingly been dumping a toxic chemical — now found in the blood of 99.7% of Americans — into the local drinking water supply. World Premiere. THE NEW CLIMATE
Hal / U.S.A. (Director: Amy Scott, Producers: Christine Beebe, Jonathan Lynch, Brian Morrow) — Hal Ashby’s obsessive genius led to an unprecedented string of Oscar®-winning classics, including Harold and Maude, Shampoo and Being There. But as contemporaries Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg rose to blockbuster stardom in the 1980s, Ashby’s uncompromising nature played out as a cautionary tale of art versus commerce. World Premiere
Hale County This Morning, This Evening / U.S.A. (Director: RaMell Ross, Producers: Joslyn Barnes, RaMell Ross, Su Kim) — Composed of intimate and unencumbered moments of people in a community, this film is constructed in a form that allows the viewer an emotive impression of the Historic South – trumpeting the beauty of life and consequences of the social construction of race, while simultaneously a testament to dreaming. Cast: Daniel Collins, Quincy Bryant, Mary Collins, Latrenda “Boosie” Ash. World Premiere
Inventing Tomorrow/ U.S.A. (Director: Laura Nix, Producers: Diane Becker, Melanie Miller, Laura Nix) — Take a journey with young minds from around the globe as they prepare their projects for the largest convening of high school scientists in the world, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). Watch these passionate innovators find the courage to face the planet’s environmental threats while navigating adolescence. World Premiere. THE NEW CLIMATE
Kailash / U.S.A. (Director: Derek Doneen, Producers: Davis Guggenheim, Sarah Anthony) — As a young man, Kailash Satyarthi promised himself that he would end child slavery in his lifetime. In the decades since, he has rescued more than eighty thousand children and built a global movement. This intimate and suspenseful film follows one man’s journey to do what many believed was impossible. World Premiere. DAY ONE
Kusama – Infinity / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Heather Lenz, Producers: Karen Johnson, Heather Lenz, Dan Braun, David Koh) — Now one of the world’s most celebrated artists, Yayoi Kusama broke free of the rigid society in which she was raised, and overcame sexism, racism, and mental illness to bring her artistic vision to the world stage. At 88 she lives in a mental hospital and continues to create art. World Premiere
The Last Race/U.S.A. (Director: Michael Dweck, Producers: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw) — A cinematic portrait of a small town stock car track and the tribe of drivers that call it home as they struggle to hold onto an American racing tradition. The avant-garde narrative explores the community and its conflicts through an intimate story that reveals the beauty, mystery and emotion of grassroots auto racing.World Premiere
Minding the Gap / U.S.A. (Director: Bing Liu, Producer: Diane Quon) — Three young men bond together to escape volatile families in their Rust Belt hometown. As they face adult responsibilities, unexpected revelations threaten their decade-long friendship. World Premiere
On Her Shoulders / U.S.A. (Director: Alexandria Bombach, Producers: Hayley Pappas, Brock Williams) — Nadia Murad, a 23-year-old Yazidi, survived genocide and sexual slavery committed by ISIS. Repeating her story to politicians and media, this ordinary girl finds herself thrust onto the world stage as the voice of her people. Away from the podium, she must navigate bureaucracy, fame and people’s good intentions.World Premiere
The Price of Everything/ U.S.A. (Director: Nathaniel Kahn, Producers: Jennifer Blei Stockman, Debi Wisch, Carla Solomon) — With unprecedented access to pivotal artists and the white-hot market surrounding them, this film dives deep into the contemporary art world, holding a funhouse mirror up to our values and our times – where everything can be bought and sold. World Premiere
Seeing Allred/ U.S.A. (Directors: Sophie Sartain, Roberta Grossman, Producers: Roberta Grossman, Sophie Sartain, Marta Kauffman, Robbie Rowe Tollin, Hannah KS Canter) — Gloria Allred overcame trauma and personal setbacks to become one of the nation’s most famous women’s rights attorneys. Now the feminist firebrand takes on two of the biggest adversaries of her career, Bill Cosby and Donald Trump, as sexual violence allegations grip the nation and keep her in the spotlight. World Premiere
The Sentence/U.S.A. (Director: Rudy Valdez, Producers: Sam Bisbee, Jackie Kelman Bisbee) — Cindy Shank, mother of three, is serving a 15-year sentence in federal prison for her tangential involvement with a Michigan drug ring years earlier. This intimate portrait of mandatory minimum drug sentencing’s devastating consequences, captured by Cindy’s brother, follows her and her family over the course of ten years.World Premiere
Three Identical Strangers/U.S.A. (Director: Tim Wardle, Producer: Becky Read) — New York,1980: three complete strangers accidentally discover that they’re identical triplets, separated at birth. The 19-year-olds’ joyous reunion catapults them to international fame, but also unlocks an extraordinary and disturbing secret that goes beyond their own lives – and could transform our understanding of human nature forever. World Premiere
Meet the NYPD12: a group of minority whistleblower officers who risk everything to expose racially discriminatory policing practices and smash the blue wall of silence. CRIME + PUNISHMENT is a captivating and cinematic investigation into the New York Police Department’s outlawed practices of quota-driven policing and officer retaliation. Using secret recordings between officers and commanders, first-hand accounts, and emotional testimony, the NYPD12 detail the explosive truth when no one else will listen. In the meantime, Manny Gomez, an ex-cop turned private investigator, collects testimony from young minorities who have been affected by these policies and targeted by officers in the name of fighting crime.
Stunning cinematography and intimate, character-driven access peel back the layers of institutional bias, exposing a need to re-examine problematic departmental policies that taint officer morale and erode public trust. Told from the rarely heard perspective of active whistleblower officers and the young men and women of color they police, CRIME + PUNISHMENT is a once-in-a-generation film that considers the complexities of police work when faced with the unjust systemic and institutional practices fueling social justice movements across the US.
On the evening of January 29, 2018, Caryn Santa knew she only had a few hours to save her son, Robert Collazo. Collazo, 21, had been held on Rikers Island for almost three years, charged with the murder of Jose Velasquez. Around 3:35 a.m. on Easter Sunday in 2015, Velasquez, 19, was fatally shot near the corner of East Burnside and Walton Avenues in the Bronx. On April 9, 2015, Collazo was arrested after a Bronx man named Joenelvy Ferreras identified him as the shooter in a multiple photo identification and an in-person line-up shown to him by police, according to a disclosure form prepared by a prosecutor on the case.
Collazo’s attorney Martin Goldberg claimed, however, that the police’s identification procedures were tainted. Ferreras told the police that the perpetrator was a light-skinned man, but in the police line-up “there were only two light skinned-guys,” said Goldberg. Goldberg also said that Ferreras was likely to pick Collazo because his friend, Jailene Espinal, had already shown him Collazo’s photo while texting about the shooting.
Furthermore, footage of Collazo from a party Espinal threw the night of the murder captured by a camera inside her building did not match the surveillance footage of the shooter taken from a nearby store, according to Goldberg. “At the party, he’s wearing a distinctive teal colored hat and teal shirt,” said Goldberg. “That didn’t look like the shooter.”
Despite the factual issues with the case, Collazo was convicted of second-degree murder when he went to trial in the Bronx in December of 2017.
So on that freezing January evening, Santa assumed that her son was about to be sentenced and sent upstate. Santa, a house cleaner, had scraped together what she could to hire Manuel Gomez, a former NYPD officer turned private investigator, and was accompanying him as he searched for evidence that could prove her son’s innocence. That night, Gomez and Santa tracked down key witnesses Ferreras and Espinal, who alleged in sworn written affidavits that the Bronx district attorney’s office had pressured them to change their stories about what happened the night of the Velasquez murder.
With this new evidence in hand, the Collazo defense team moved to file a “330.30 motion” that could set aside the verdict. Already rocked by recent accusations of rampant sexual activity, alcohol use, and fighting amongst its staff, the Bronx district attorney’s office now faces an allegation that threatens to further erode the public’s faith in its prosecutors: the coercion of witnesses in the pursuit of a conviction.
That January night, Santa and Gomez pulled up to the Bronx building where Ferreras, the sole identifying witness in her son’s case, resided. Santa had heard this was the building where Ferreras lived, but they didn’t know Ferreras’s apartment number or if he was even home.
After about 45 minutes, Gomez walked back to the car where Santa waited, looking happy. “He said, ‘Look, this is it’,” said Santa in an interview with In Justice Today, referring to a signed affidavit that Gomez obtained from Ferreras. In the affidavit, Ferreras stated that he was “harassed by” Orville Reynolds, a Bronx assistant district attorney, “to change” his statements in the case against Collazo. Ferreras, who affirmed his claims about the ADA in a recorded video statement, said that he had never seen the shooter’s face and indicated that he had told prosecutors about texts he had sent a friend the night of the murder in which he had said the same thing.
“I asked, ‘Is this going to help?’” Santa remembered. “He was like, ‘Of course, that’s everything.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
The next morning, on January 30, 2018, Judge Lester D. Adler of the Ninth Judicial District Court called for an adjournment “in light of the documentation” that Santa provided to her son’s attorney, according to court minutes reviewed by In Justice Today. With the judge’s decision, the murder case against Collazo appeared to be in jeopardy.
It was a moment of real hope for Collazo — but even today his fate remains unclear, largely because Ferreras may have recanted the statement he gave to Gomez. Collazo’s attorney Martin Goldberg is being taken off the case because he may be called as a witness in the motion to set aside its verdict. That motion will be filed by a new defense attorney, who will be assigned to the case on March 12. And in a March 3 phone call with In Justice Today,Goldberg, a former prosecutor himself, said that he heard that the state’s sole identifying witness, Ferreras, may have gone back on his recantation in a new statement to Bronx prosecutors.
Joenelvy Ferreras, screenshot from a video statement provided by Ferreras to Manual Gomez, private investigator at Black Ops Private Investigators, Inc.
Ferreras himself seemed to corroborate the rumor of his apparent change of heart in a March 4 telephone call with Gomez, the private investigator. When Gomez asked who he spoke with in the district attorney’s office to again change his statement, Ferreras said he spoke with ADA Reynolds. In a brief phone call on March 1 withIn Justice Today, Ferreras refused to answer questions about his previous allegations that ADA Reynolds had pressured him to implicate Collazo in the Velasquez murder. “I did what I had to do,” said Ferreras, “I told the truth in court … Leave me the fuck alone.”
Collazo insists that he should not have been convicted in a murder based on the testimony of an eyewitness who has changed his story multiple times and that he suspects Ferreras is again being intimidated by the Bronx DA’s office. “Reynolds is probably telling him, ‘I’m going to lock you up, I’m going to charge you.’ He’s probably scaring the kid, he’s a young kid,” said Collazo in a phone call with In Justice Today from Rikers Island on March 4. “But he gotta be tough, he’s gotta know, if you know I didn’t do it, how can you go to sleep at night? How can you put away somebody for the rest of their life?”
Though Ferreras appears have recanted the statements he made in the affidavit he gave to Gomez and returned to his original testimony identifying Collazo as the shooter, Collazo’s supporters point to another misconduct allegation against the Bronx district attorney’s office that was uncovered by Gomez the same night he spoke to Ferreras.
In written affidavit from January 29, Jailene Espinal, Ferreras’s friend and the host of the party outside of which the shooting took place, stated that ADA Reynolds “harassed her” by going to her or her boyfriend’s house every “three to two months” and tried to get her “to lie.”
“He wanted me to say Robert Collazo changed all his clothes when I didn’t personality [sic] see him change,” Espinal said in the affidavit. She also said that Ferreras had texted her on the same day of the murder, saying that “he ain’t witness anything he was too drunk to remember…”
It’s unclear if this new evidence will be enough to set aside Collazo’s conviction.
“It’s a question of what the judge wants to believe,” said Goldberg, Collazo’s former attorney. If Ferreras sticks to the original story he told prosecutors, there may not be sufficient reason to set aside the verdict, said Goldberg. But, he continued, “if he says he was pressured [by Reynolds], the judge would agree with us, and the DA would probably decline to prosecute the case.”
Goldberg cautions that there may not have been misconduct in this case. “Reynolds is a decent, honest guy,” says Goldberg. “He’s got a job to do.” (Aseparate case, where Gomez, the private investigator, showed police coerced witnesses to sign false statements sparked a federally assisted internal investigation into the Bronx district attorney’s office in September 2017.)
“The bottom line is he’s a liar and his credibility is destroyed,” said Gomez of Ferreras in a phone call with In Justice Today. “What case do they have? A guy who recants his recantation?”
Prosecutors from the Bronx district attorney’s office also seemed to voice doubt about Collazo’s guilt even after his 2017 conviction. During a January 10, 2018 sentencing hearing, ADA Reynolds said he had offered Collazo “numerous opportunities … to come and speak with me; multiple times, almost at times begging for him to come and speak with me, because I did not want somebody to be on trial if, in fact, they did not commit a crime.”
Goldberg claims that the purpose of such entreaties from ADA Reynolds was to persuade Collazo to testify against yet another suspect, William Hernandez, whom “numerous people” on the street had indicated may have been the real shooter. “In fact, offers were made to my client to actually come and — he was going to testify against the shooter,” Goldberg said at the January 10 sentencing hearing, referring to Hernandez.
Collazo says he refused to consider any such offers to testify against Hernandez because he did not see the shooter that night. “He wanted me to make up some shit, make a lie up,” said Collazo. “Speak about something I don’t know. He just wanted to place somebody else in my shoes … I’m not doing that.”
A detective’s report, released during the discovery process to Goldberg and reviewed by In Justice Today, also referred to a picture of another individual as the murder suspect. Gomez, Collazo’s private investigator, believes the photo is of Hernandez.
Robert Collazo, then 18 before his arrest, photo provided by Caryn Santa.
At Collazo’s January 2018 sentencing hearing Goldberg also said ADA Reynolds told him that the Bronx DA’s office had “reason to believe that Mr. Collazo might not have been the shooter,” according to court minutes. Despite these apparent doubts, at the same hearing ADA Reynolds insisted that the judge sentence Collazo that day, saying, “I am asking that Mr. Collazo be sentenced today. I am not here to retry the case.”
Judge Adler did not comply with the state’s request and delayed Collazo’s sentencing. Adler then referenced doubts about the case that appeared to be shared by both sides. “I do not want to sentence anybody for a crime that the attorneys believe, both attorneys — I mean, you know,” the judge said, before calling an off-the-record meeting with the attorneys and granting Collazo a delayed sentencing date.
After a March 12 court date in which a new defense attorney will be assigned to Collazo, upcoming hearings will address the integrity of Ferreras as the sole identifying witness, the motion to set aside the verdict, possible allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, and Collazo’s sentence.
Whether Collazo pulled the trigger that night seems to be irrelevant to ADA Reynolds, Santa claims, referencing a meeting in 2017 with the prosecutor in which he allegedly said her son was prison bound regardless of the case’s outcome. “He said, ‘Let’s keep it official: if he comes home, don’t you think he’s going to get arrested for something else?’,” recalled Santa. “I said, ‘And if he does, then he’ll deal with it. This is a different case.’ ”
The Bronx district attorney’s office declined to comment on issues raised in this article. “We cannot comment on a pending case,” the office wrote in an email.
Before his arrest, Collazo says he never realized how quickly a single prosecutor’s behavior could change his life. “Three years here [on Rikers Island], wasting my life for something I had nothing to do with,” said Collazo in a phone call. “What did I ever do to Reynolds, what did I ever do to the Bronx district attorney’s office? It’s crazy how you could go to a party one day, and the next week you’re locked up.”
The allegations against ADA Reynolds come as a personal injury claim of $15 million against the Bronx district attorney’s office is being brought by crime analyst Crystal Rivera. Rivera alleges that there was a culture of racial bias, on-duty sex, alcohol and even fighting among prosecutors at the DA’s office and that she suffered “mental anguish” after Bronx DA Clark retaliated against her for exposing such misconduct.
Rivera launched her suit after Clark placed her on administrative leave for allegedly violating the DA’s demand that she cut off contact with her boyfriend, NYPD Detective David Terrell, who had been accused of coercing witnesses in a gun and assault case against Pedro Hernandez — the same case, also upended by a Gomez investigation, that launched the federally assisted internal probe into the DA’s Office in September 2017.
Before becoming the Bronx district attorney, Clark promised the creation of awrongful conviction review unit so that “things like” the Kalief Browder case, would not happen under her watch. Bronx resident Browder was incarcerated for three years on Rikers Island for stealing a backpack, a charge that was later dismissed. A depressed and PTSD-stricken Browder committed suicide in 2015 at the age of 22. Clark was one of several judges who presided over Browder’s case and has been blasted in the press for her promotion of the Bronx assistant district attorney who prosecuted Browder.
“I respect my son to the fullest for this, no matter how many offers they gave, he said he was not guilty,” said Santa, referring to the prosecution’s alleged attempts to get Collazo to testify against Hernandez. “If the person actually committed the crime, then they need to be convicted, but if they didn’t, it’s not all about winning. It’s not about how many times you’ve won so you can be the best ADA.”
Ajaya Neale has a problem.
Accused of shooting a rival gang member to death, Neale faces 25 years-to-life for a crime he says the Queens District Attorney’s office is falsely pinning on him. The incident occurred in 2014 at a baseball game in a busy park in Jamaica, Queens. Neale, 29, has maintained his innocence for more than three-and-a-half years. In October 2017, still awaiting trial and with few places left to turn, Neale’s family hired former NYPD cop-turned-renegade private investigator Manuel Gomez.
“I heard about Gomez from watching TV, from the Pedro Hernandez case,” says Neale, referring to Gomez’s role in freeing a Bronx teenager who drew national attention after he was slapped with a $250,000 bail and forced to spend over a year locked up at Rikers Island on trumped-up charges of firing a gun into a crowd and injuring two people.
In the Hernandez case, Gomez tracked down a victim, who claimed NYPD detectives had physically coerced him into naming Hernandez as the shooter. Other witnesses said Hernandez was innocent, and Gomez found the prosecution’s star witness — William Stevens — who confessed to Gomez and a local television station that he was beaten by detectives until he falsely identified Hernandez as the shooter. Stevens told WNBC Channel 4 he was systematically intimidated, abused and harassed by detectives to provide false testimony, with the knowledge of a Bronx assistant district attorney.
This and other cases have launched Gomez into the limelight, including being profiled in a documentary film that was honored at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Ajaya Neale’s case is a typical assignment for Gomez. During the three-plus years he has been awaiting trial, the prosecution has declined to share key evidence like police reports, witness statements and 911 calls — because New York’s “blindfold law” (see page 14) allows them to withhold such evidence until the day before the trial.
That’s where Gomez comes in. Within days of taking Neale as a client, Gomez began to unravel the case with the same aplomb that he attacked the Hernandez case. He tracked down the prosecution’s own star witness and others the prosecution had missed or ignored.
“Someone made the mistake of including a photocopy of [the star witness’] business card,” Gomez told The Indypendent, referring to police documents he examined for the case.
Armed with just this information, Gomez zoomed down to North Carolina in his white Mustang convertible. The next day, he returned with a video affidavit from the star witness that blew the case wide open. In the video, the witness, Erika King, accuses NYPD detectives of manipulating her statements and intimidating her. She says she picked out three suspects from a lineup, but the NYPD detective on the case only asked her to sign off on Neale’s photo. “I said in my statement that I was not 100 percent sure,” she said in the video collected by Gomez.
King also accused detectives of coercing her into testifying. “If I did not testify, [they told me] a warrant for my arrest would be sent out … I feel like I’m being forced to testify,” she said in the video affidavit, which she later affirmed in a television news interview.
Soon after returning from North Carolina, Gomez hit the streets and says he tracked down 17 Crips gang members from Jamaica, Queens, who had some knowledge of the murder.
“I’ll sit down, I’ll eat with them,” he says,“things cops won’t do.” That lunch, he says, produced leads on Facebook messages from the day of the murder and new witnesses, including one who said that the killer was shorter and slimmer than the heavily built Neale.
“Unfortunately,” says Gomez, “[Neale’s] case is a dime a dozen.”
The Making of a Cop
Gomez, 50, grew up in the Bronx during the 1970s and ’80s when both crime and police misconduct were rampant. Coming of age, he says he “witnessed a lot of injustice [by the cops],” which led him to think “maybe if I joined the team that was doing it [the injustice], maybe I could make a change in it,” he says. “I became a cop to make a difference.”
Gomez was in the Army during the first Iraq War in 1991 before entering the police academy and serving as a beat cop in the southeast Bronx and parts of Queens between 1999 and 2011. What he saw was disillusioning.
“I witnessed illegal stop, question and frisks. [Cops] tossing and throwing people against the wall, and I refused to be a part of it,” he says. “That’s one thing they had a hard time understanding, that they couldn’t intimidate me — and they still can’t.”
Gomez says his investigations have led to charges being dismissed in 90 cases. As his fame grows, he encounters increasing numbers of strangers who recognize him on the spot.
Following a hearing for Ajaya Neale, two passersby spotted Gomez outside the Queens County Criminal Court. “I have a question for you,” a middle-aged woman asked, reaching for one of Gomez’s cards. “It’s my son’s case,” she said. The other was a short, boisterous man who said he recognized Gomez from TV. “I watch him, you understand me? Very good man! I see him all the time on the TV.”
But it’s not just his admirers who have taken notice of Gomez’s work. In late 2017, the president of the NYPD Detectives’ Endowment Association sent out an email blast advising detectives to “avoid any contact with [private investigator] Manny Gomez.” When I brought up the detective union’s email, he treated it as an endorsement. “What more could I ask for? [They’re] telling cops to avoid me!”
In Neale’s case, like most, Gomez has developed a personal rivalry, this time with the assistant district attorney on the case, Karen Ross. Gomez is quick to point out her role in a 2014 mistrial, where prosecutors failed to hand over a key ballistics report that cleared the defendants.
In a similar vein, during the Pedro Hernandez case, Gomez went to the 42nd Precinct in the Bronx to pay a visit to one of the detectives who had coerced false testimonies. “I’m investigator Gomez,” he said to the detective in a video recording of the interaction. “You might know me. I got your partner’s badge and gun taken away. I’m here doing an investigation on you. I’d like to know what the deal is with all these cases that you guys have been falsifying.” The detective’s response before walking off: “Okay.”
“I wanted to look him in the eye,” Gomez later recounted.
Though Gomez relishes head-to-head battles, he now wants to go from fighting one case at a time to tackling the injustices he sees in a systematic manner. He despises laws that give prosecutors legal immunity, that allow prosecutors to withhold discovery material from the defense until trial, and the general lack of public accountability in the criminal justice system. That’s where a new project of Gomez’s comes in.
The Gomez-Serpico Plan
Gomez often concludes his stories with the assertion: “That’s why we need the Department of Civilian Justice.” He has devised model legislation for The Department of Civilian Justice with his friend and fellow former NYPD officer-turned-whistleblower, Frank Serpico — depicted by Al Pacino in the 1973 Hollywood classic Serpico.
Serpico’s revelations of pervasive NYPD corruption made front-page headlines and led to the 1970 creation of the Commission to Investigate Alleged Police Corruption (known as the Knapp Commission). The department and its supporters say the investigations of that era forced it to fundamentally change its ways for the better. However, Gomez is quick to criticize the results of the Knapp Commission and can point to the persistent revelations of NYPD misconduct and recent media reports of the NYPD’s lax approach to disciplining hundreds of officers who committed fireable offenses.
“It gave New York City the most glorified stroke job in history,” says Gomez in his signature raspy voice. “Nothing was accomplished! That’s why we need the Department of Civilian Justice.”
Under a draft of the Gomez-Serpico plan, the head of the DOCJ would be appointed by the City Council and serve, at most, for two four-year terms. The department would be staffed only with civilian investigators (no former cops, prosecutors, judges, etc.) and would have subpoena powers and the power to investigate, suspend and discipline anyone who works for the NYPD, the district attorney’s office or the city’s Department of Corrections who impedes a DOCJ investigation. Such an institution would break with the long-standing practice of internal accountability and end the siloing of each separate component of the criminal justice system.
What’s the difference, Gomez asks, between “the cop who wrongfully arrests you [and] the prosecutor who keeps you in the jail for over a year while knowing you’re innocent?”
Gomez and Serpico are not the first to propose civilian oversight of law enforcement. An independent civilian review board was torpedoed by the police union in 1966 and again in 1992. Many special commissions have been formed to study the issue dating back to the 1890s, but all it has yielded is today’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, whose verdicts are subject to review by the police commissioner himself.
Gomez has some experience with sparking change. Following the Pedro Hernandez case, a federally assisted internal investigation into the Bronx District Attorney’s office ensued. Though the results have not been made public, fallout from the controversy has led a crime analyst who works for the Bronx District Attorney’s office to open a personal injury claim of $15 million, alleging that there was a culture of racial bias, on-duty sex, alcohol and even physical fighting among prosecutors within the DA’s office. Gomez has also gotten a detective demoted and an assistant district attorney transferred. But he says these measures only amount to a “glorified slap on the wrist.”
When Change Will Come
After things settle down outside the Queens courthouse following Neale’s hearing — which ended in yet another adjournment — Gomez and I retired to a nearby deli where one witness in the Neale case found us after being questioned by prosecutors.
Upon finishing our bagels, we hop in Gomez’s other car — a white Hummer — and head to Manhattan, where he has a meeting scheduled with the New York City Department of Investigation, the ethics watchdog for all city agencies and employees. At the meeting, Gomez details some of his cases and pitches the DOCJ. He is also asking Brooklyn City Councilmember Jumaane Williams to hold a hearing on his proposal.
Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, says the Serpico-Gomez proposal is “on point and addresses a very serious problem, which is essentially how our law enforcement apparatus, particularly in the form of the NYPD and district attorney’s offices, operate with virtually unchecked power.” But Gangi says it would require a sea change in city politics for something like the DOCJ to pass. “No mainstream political politicians have any kind of record that shows they are prepared to curtail the power of DAs or police departments,” says Gangi.
Gomez knows you can’t just institute full-scale criminal justice reform at the drop of a hat. “When the screams for change are equal to the amount of injustice, that is when we will get social change,” he says.
While Gomez dreams of sweeping reform to the system, he continues to fight it out one case at a time with dirty cops and DA’s offices. For this his clients are grateful.
“Thanks to the evidence that Manuel Gomez found,” Neale told The Indy. “I think I’m in a lot better place.”
His case is still pending before the Queens County Criminal Court.
Held for nearly three years on Rikers Island, 24-year-old Bronx man Brian Solano was set to go to trial on Monday on charges of second-degree murder in the December 2014 shooting death of Willie Lora. Lora was slain in the Bronx’s Mount Eden section and the trial of his alleged killer, Solano, was moved from Monday to June 25 because of a prosecutor’s medical issue. The case against Solano involves multiple allegations of prosecutor and police misconduct, including a videotaped NYPD interview of an alternate suspect that wasn’t disclosed to the defense until two years after it was recorded.
Prosecutors with the Bronx district attorney’s office did not disclose video of a key 2015 NYPD interview until April 2017. But the video, in which another man, Justis Colon, told cops that he possessed the murder weapon, was leaked to Solano’s private investigator Manuel Gomez and provided exclusively to In Justice Today.
In the 2015 videotaped interview, two NYPD detectives interrogated Colon about a recent gun charge. He admitted to owning a black 9 mm gun for approximately eight to nine months prior to his arrest. Lora was murdered during this period, and ballistics tests conducted by the NYPD determined that Colon’s weapon, found about two miles from the crime scene in the Bronx, was indeed the one that was fired in the fatal shooting.
But prosecutors with the Bronx district attorney’s office did not formally offer to provide a copy of Colon’s videotaped interview to Solano’s defense counsel until a hearing on April 24, 2017 that was originally scheduled to be the start of his trial. Due process requires that disclosure of potentially exculpatory evidence material to guilt or innocence be made in sufficient time to permit the defendant to make effective use of that information at trial.
It is unclear whether the years-long delay occurred because police did not disclose the interview to the district attorney’s office or because prosecutors with the office did not disclose the footage to defense counsel. Thomas David Kapp, a former Bronx Assistant District Attorney who was initially assigned to the case, told In Justice Today that he has no recollection of the police interview, which was recorded on Jan. 10, 2015, just prior to when the ballistics report regarding Colon’s weapon was disclosed to the defense.
“I don’t think it’s anything intentional,” said Kapp. “I can’t explain … I don’t remember hearing about a statement being taken. It’s possible the police never brought it to us. It’s all about relaying information and sometimes information chains break down, though I’m not saying that happened in this case.”
John Schoeffel, a staff attorney with New York’s Legal Aid Society, says that the DA office’s intentions are immaterial to its constitutional obligations; the delay, he says, presents a potential Brady violation because prosecutors are required by law to proactively seek out any materials in the state’s possession that could be favorable to the defense.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has held that prosecutors have an affirmative duty to learn about all Brady information within the knowledge of law enforcement agents in the case, and then to disclose it to the defense,” Schoeffel said in an email to In Justice Today. “It’s not an excuse for a prosecutor to say ‘Only the police knew about this, I didn’t.’”
At the April 24, 2017 hearing, Assistant District Attorney Terry Gensler insisted that she told Solano’s defense attorney, Dawn Florio, about the interview “over the past couple of weeks.”
But at that same hearing, however, ADA Gensler requested that the defense be precluded from introducing evidence about Colon possessing the murder weapon at the time of the offense.
“The fact that this person indicated that he had had this gun during the time might mean many things,” Gensler told the court. “It could be a lie, it could be that he lent it to somebody else that lent it to the defendant, but it does not indicate that he was in fact there.” In her motion to exclude the issue of Colon’s gun, Gensler further argued that “gang members frequently share their weapons” and warned of a trial that would be “about the guilt or lack thereof of Justis Colon rather than Brian Solano.”
Solano’s attorney Florio countered that “someone else was arrested with the murder weapon” and that Colon “not only was arrested with the murder weapon but made a statement stating that it was his gun and that he had possessed that gun six to eight months prior to the arrest of himself with the gun and that was during that time period that this homicide had occurred.”
After the hearing, Solano’s private investigator Gomez interviewed Colon hundreds of miles from the Bronx at the Franklin Correctional Facility in Malone, New York. In a sworn affidavit provided to Gomez, Colon stated that a prosecutor with the Bronx district attorney’s office “tried to intimidate me and force me to switch my story that was on video to help the D.A [sic] win the case against Brian Sollano [sic] … I told her I’m not switching my story. She threatened me to link me to the case if I don’t help her out. I’m innocent I have nothing to do with that case. If I’m needed I will testify in court.”
At an Oct. 2, 2017 hearing, Gensler asked for and received a “cut slip” for Solano, authorizing his release but upholding his indictment. At the hearing, Gensler did not explain her rationale for requesting that Solano be freed, but did point to an unspecified subpoena meant to be served “on certain parties connected to the case.” Gomez says he believes that Gensler was referencing a subpoena “taped to his door” before Solano was actually discharged from prison. Solano’s attorney Florio, meanwhile, says that her client was freed because of prosecutors’ “witness problems.”
On October 24, the judge ruled that neither two police witnesses related to Colon’s gun case nor the NYPD’s 2015 interview of him could come in at trial. The judge said that in order to have allowed the videotape and the Colon-related witnesses into the trial, the defense would have had to demonstrate that Colon himself was the killer.
Soon afterward, Gomez says he handed over affidavits of two witnesses he interviewed who claimed detectives and prosecutors threatened them — and the case against Solano appeared to collapse. On November 6, Solano, who was just transferred to Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, New York, was unexpectedly released. But the second-degree murder charges were not dropped and he still faces decades in prison.
“The CO came and he knocked on my cell, and he said pack up,” Solano told In Justice Today, “I thought they was playing a joke on me.” Solano walked out in his prison shirt and boots with just a Metro-North train ticket and $40 in hand.
Neither the Bronx district attorney’s office nor the NYPD have provided an official explanation for Solano’s release.
But just before Solano was freed, Gomez provided prosecutors with an affidavit from grand jury witness Noely Cistillo who claimed that an NYPD detective threatened that if she did not place herself at the crime scene, she would face 25 years to life in prison and only ever see her mother through a hole in the wall. “He was putting pressure on me to say that I was there, that I was involved, that I know who did it, when honestly I don’t know nothing about it,” Cistillo said in a Dec. 28, 2016 videotaped affidavit. “They kept telling me if I don’t tell the truth that I’m not going to see my mother…. And I just got scared, I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do, what to say, what to think.” Cistillo said she was held at the NYPD’s 44th Precinct in the Bronx for four to five hours while she was questioned; a few days later, she appeared before the grand jury where, she told Gomez in her affidavit, “they was putting words in my mouth.”
Brian Solano (seated) and Manuel Gomez review evidence in Solano’s case (Photo: Simon Davis-Cohen)
Another witness named Alondra Alba Villar told Gomez that she was pressured by an NYPD detective and an ADA with the Bronx district attorney’s office to falsely implicate Solano in the Lora homicide. “I kept telling the Detective I don’t know I was high and I couldn’t see the face,” Villar said in an April 20, 2017 affidavit. “[The detective] just kept harassing me, to try to accuse somebody that I did not see.” Villar added that an ADA told her that if she did not cooperate with the state, “they was going make it a ‘hard way’ — that they was going to put me through court.”
Both Villar and Cistillo said that arresting officer Carlos Faulkner of the Bronx’s 44th Precinct was involved in the attempts to coerce them to make false statements in the case. Detective Faulkner is already the subject of an internal affairs investigation for his role in a botched 2012 manslaughter case in which the defendant, Enger Javier, was held at Rikers Island for a year despite evidence pointing to a different man as the killer. Faulker allegedly said that he didn’t investigate other suspects in the case because “we got the right Spic,” referring to Javier. The NYPD did not respond to In Justice Today’s requests for comment regarding Faulkner.
“I just destroyed their entire case,” Gomez said of the affidavits he gave to Bronx prosecutors prior to Solano’s October 2017 release, “They realized they had no case.”
Solano’s saga is the latest in a series of cases in which prosecutors from the Bronx district attorney’s office and Bronx cops have been accused of misconduct. As In Justice Today recently reported, two witnesses in the murder case against Robert Collazo, including the state’s only identifying witness, claimed an ADA pressured them to change their stories. And in the Javier case, his attorney claimed testimony from a key witness was coerced.
Both the Collazo and Solano cases also illustrate the failure of the Bronx district attorney’s office to fulfill DA Darcel Clark’s promises to limit case transfers between ADAs and expedite prosecutions to limit the time that defendants are held pre-trial.
Solano, for example, has appeared in the Bronx County Hall of Justice 32 times since entering his not guilty plea in December 2014 and his case has been handled by three separate ADAs. “Every court date, it was always an adjournment,” Solano told In Justice Today. “The DA would say they’re not ready [for trial]. I’ve been saying I was ready to go to trial since day one.”
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Bronx district attorney’s office said, “The original ADA left the office, as did the ADA to whom the case was reassigned, that is why a third ADA is handling the case.”
“It was bad,” Solano says of his time at Rikers. “I went through a lot. I got cut on my face, behind my ears. The correction officers, [would say], ‘you’re a murderer,’ they were coming at me. Everything. ‘You going to do life, you never coming home.’”
More than three years after Lora’s murder, the judge in the case demanded that there be no further delays in the case. “I’m not going to embrace any excuses by either side on April 2nd,” Bronx Supreme Court Judge Steven Barrett said during a February 21 hearing. “The case is going to go to trial even if I have to do it myself without any attorneys.”
But when the trial was delayed again on April 2, Solano continued to insist on his innocence in the Lora murder and lamented, “the victim’s family still thinks I did it. So because of the DA, I’m in danger.”
Private Investigator Manuel Gomez, Crime + Punishment Film Director Stephen Maing, and Retired NYPD Detective Derek Walker in an interview with Bric TV to discuss the film and corruption in the New York Police Department.
A man charged with a fatal 2012 stabbing in the Bronx claims that newly released surveillance video clears him of the murder — but his bid for freedom was busted again on Friday.
“They don’t know what to do. They keep delaying and delaying,” Enger Javier told reporters after a hearing in Bronx Supreme Court, where prosecutors refused to drop charges that he is one of two men who stabbed 20-year-old Hansell Arias to death in a McDonald’s parking lot.
(COURTESY JANSELL ARIAS)
Javier, 25, was arrested soon after the Aug. 2012 killing. He was an admitted member of the Dominican Trinitario gang who had served time for gun possession, though he had not been convicted of a violent crime.
(MICHAEL SCHWARTZ/FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)
His camp believes that video from a nearby auto repair shop shows Javier walking with a soda cup while a group of men chase the wounded victim down Webster Ave. in Claremont.
(MICHAEL SCHWARTZ/FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)
The video was collected within hours of the murder, according to police documents, but prosecutors finally turned the footage over to Javier’s defense attorney in December.
(MICHAEL SCHWARTZ/FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)
“They have had evidence for years that exonerates him, and done nothing,” said Manuel Gomez, a private eye who says he has been investigating the case pro-bono because he is convinced of Javier’s innocence.
The victim’s brother, Jansell Arias, said he still believes Javier killed Hansell, who was preparing to study business at a local community college when he was killed.
“I’m 100% sure he had something to do with this,” Arias, 24, told the Daily News.
Javier was held at Rikers Island for two years after the killing, but the court released him with an ankle bracelet in 2014 after a test proved that it was not his DNA found under the victim’s fingernails.
WITH CHAUNCEY ALCORN