This is a case that I took as a private investigator. I was called by a friend to investigate the disappearance of an in-law of mine, 60-year-old Joseph, who was made unemployed by the closing of the company for which he worked for 30 years, leaving him with no severance pay.
Joseph was ashamed of his situation. He was evicted from his basement apartment, but he kept it a secret and went to live with a nephew and the nephew‘s wife. I was called by the nephew’s brother, Michael, a fellow veteran of the World Trade Center recovery operation, who eventually had to retire on disability. He told me that Joseph had been missing for two days.
I checked with the wife of the nephew with whom Joseph had been living, and had some difficulty communicating with her, as English was not her first language. The nephew’s wife said that on the Saturday afternoon when Joseph was last seen, she heard a buzzer downstairs, and then she heard two or three people talking by her door, and then it sounded as though they were walking away. One of the two or three people she heard was Joseph.
I went over to their apartment and found, on the floor in the hall outside their apartment, a package of cigarettes, a toothpick, which Joseph often held in his mouth, and a paper towel. Inside the apartment, on the table, were his cell phone, his keys, and his wallet.
The circumstances seemed strange. I asked the nephew and his wife whether the medication that Joseph routinely took, an anti-anxiety medication, was missing also. He had recently gotten a full bottle of his prescription. I worried a little bit that we might be looking at a suicide. In suicide cases, often things are left behind, often in threes. We checked his bedroom and it was neat, often seen in suicide cases, but that was not unusual for Joseph.
Next, I called all the hospitals in The Bronx. No trace of Joseph.
I called the Bronx Medical Examiner, and got the same answer: no corpses matching his description.
If it were suicide, where would he have gone? He lived near a large park, one much too large to comb thoroughly.
I noticed that there were cameras in the nephew’s apartment building, in the elevator, in the entryway, in the lobby, and in the exit to the alley in back of the building. Sometimes these cameras are merely for show, but when I asked the superintendent about them, he said they had been installed earlier in the year and had been running since that time.
The superintendent said something else very interesting. He said that the police had been to the apartment building that Saturday afternoon, and he had observed Joseph in conversation with two guys in the lobby. Further, Joseph and the two men took the elevator to his fifth floor, stayed there briefly, and then came back down. That was recorded by the elevator camera, which video records I subsequently viewed. As I looked closely at the photographs from the elevator, I saw that Joseph was being put into handcuffs by the two men accompanying him.
He was being arrested for the first time in his life!
I was able to contact the appropriate authorities and found that Joseph was under arrest for arson in the second degree, a serious felony. There had been a fire at his old apartment, the one from which he had been evicted. Not only was he required to post a $50,000 bail, but $20,000 of that had to be in cash, not the usual 10% [$5000], perhaps manageable. He was staying in jail until he got a trial or a plea deal.
This was exceptionally large bail for someone who would be a first offender at worst. A few years before this, there had been charges of laxity in the prosecution of arson cases, and members of the political and judicial systems decided to get tough on this particular crime. Joseph became victim of this get-tough policy.
The next part of my investigation took me to his former apartment, a basement apartment in a detached home. I noted that the apartment’s windows were boarded, and there was some evidence of a fire having occurred there.
Soon after, I attended the preliminary hearing in the courtroom, and I was able to get legal aide assistance for Joseph. Furthermore, I offered to investigate, pro bono.
I conferred with the legal aide about how Joseph could have gone from merely being under suspicion to having there be enough evidence against him to give the “probable cause” necessary for his arrest. Since we doubted that he would have committed such a crime, and since the primary evidence against him was his statement, virtually a confession, we figured that to some degree this statement had been coerced.
Next, I re-examined the available videos taken in the vicinity of the apartment that he shared with his nephew and his nephew’s wife, looking to determine the times that he left and the times that he returned in the period of interest, from approximately 6am Friday morning to late Saturday afternoon. As noted above, the videos covered the elevator, the lobby, the front door, and the alley exit.
I noticed that Joseph was not arrested by police detectives, but by fire marshals. Fire marshals have special expertise that is useful in investigating fires, especially including arson, but they do not have the degree of training that members of the NYPD detective forces have. It seemed possible that their investigation was seriously flawed.
Joseph subsequently denied being at his former apartment immediately prior to the outbreak of the fire, but acknowledged that he had been there a day or two before that.
I talked separately with a husband and wife who lived in a building next to the one in which the fire occurred. Both of them witnessed something unusual near midnight Friday night just before the fire broke out.
The husband said that around midnight he heard laughter or giggling and he looked at the house next door, at the basement apartment entrance, and he saw the landlady talking with two teenagers. There was no fire or smoke visible, but 5 minutes later firemen came. Because the husband was a retired policeman, I gave his eyewitness testimony credence. Furthermore, he commented that this landlady had at times acted in a bizarre fashion on previous occasions.
Interviewing his wife separately, I was given the same facts with one significant addition. The wife heard the smoke alarm in that basement apartment go off while the landlady and the teenagers were talking.
What evidence did the fire marshals have to give “probable cause” to arrest Joseph? They produced a two-page statement that was supposedly his, but it was in rather stilted language that didn’t sound at all like him. He had acknowledged visiting the apartment a few days before the fire to pick up some clothes. Somehow, he was gotten to “admit” that he was an “alcoholic,” even though we know this is not true. Somehow, he was induced to say that he might have “blacked out,” but this is highly unlikely.
Unfortunately, the fire marshals were part of the System that was eager to find a perpetrator and close the case, without sufficient care for the rights of the accused. Sad to say, I have to admit that I would advise someone I cared about to ask for a lawyer immediately and not answer questions until one was provided.
Because both the neighbors, husband and wife, indicated that the fire engines came within a few minutes of their observing the landlady talking with the teenagers, and the wife noted that the smoke alarm went off during their conversation, it seemed highly likely that the fire had been set by one or more of these individuals, not Joseph.
Joseph had nothing to gain from setting the fire, but the landlord might have had insurance coverage that made arson attractive. I learned that she falsely continued to claim and receive welfare payments for the rent on this basement apartment even after she had evicted Joseph.
Meanwhile, Joseph, unable to raise the exorbitant bail, has languished in prison. If he chooses to demand a trial, and is unable to raise bail, he would likely be spending half a year to a year in that facility awaiting his trial. The plea deal that he was offered would have him serving up to several years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. Either way, he loses.
I became determined not to let this case rest. It is possible that detailed analysis of the rather complete coverage by the video monitors, along with precise timing of the crime, will provide evidence sufficient to convince the prosecutors that they are imprisoning an innocent man.
This excerpt is Chapter 21 from THE SHIELD OF GOLD, a candid memoir by a former NYPD detective, Lenny Golino, now of Gold Shield Elite Investigations, Newburgh, NY, and Douglas Winslow Cooper. Published in 2012, by Outskirts Press, it is available in paperback or ebook formats from Outskirts, amazon.com, bn.com.