Monday, December 28, 2015

A Police Story: Chance Encounters

When I was sworn in as a New York City Patrolman on May 15, 1967,  a college friend asked, disbelief evident in his voice: “You!... How?” We’d gone to college in Brooklyn in the late 1950s, graduating as the Protesting Sixties got under way. I didn’t protest, I didn’t demonstrate. True, there weren’t many sexy targets in 1961 to stir the blood of the young; I even voted for Richard Nixon rather than JFK in the 1960 Election although that was about Kennedy being lace-curtain Irish and my feeling sorry for a sweating Nixon on TV.

Actually I was stumped at first for a reply to my friend’s question. After modest soul-searching what I came up with was: “Cops can go anywhere, even into people’s houses.” That sounds weird, I know, peeping-Tomish, yet it was as much truth as a budding writer could manage. For a 26-year-old just mustered out of the Peacetime Army, police work promised to be the high road to the Great World Experienced a la Jack London’s Call of the Wild.

And it was. I met celebrated people with whom I crossed paths (and swords, on occasion). There was the great Jacques D’Amboise, star of Gorge Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, who taught me to dance, and 300 children from mainland China, and 11 other NYPD cops. We debuted in his Corps de Ballet Recital at Madison Square Garden in May, 1982. Actually, he taught us one routine. Every Tuesday night for eight weeks before the Show, we’d show up at the Dance Studios at Lincoln Center to practice. It didn’t come naturally to me. That last Tuesday I was still failing to execute a small leap to the left when Jacques himself materialized at my side, took my left hand in his right and did a short leap to his left, compelling me to follow. “Remember the puddle there,” he said, and, eureka! I did. He had recruited us cops, instructors at the New York City Police Academy, to perform in uniform, christening us “The Dancing Cops”. On Show Night, waiting in the wings to go on, I stood between folksinger Judy Collins and TV’s Mary Tyler Moore who were having a conversation over my shoulder. Despite a flawless performance that night, I didn’t keep up with ballet.

On July 4, 1986, New York celebrated Operation Sail, on the centenary of the arrival of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Thousands gathered on the Piers and FDR Drive to see the Navy warships and hundreds of small craft. I didn’t get to see because I was the Sergeant in command of 50 police officers detailed to the Pier at the end of East 20th Street where a Destroyer was tied up awaiting the boarding of dignitaries for the Fireworks Show. My men formed a gauntlet as the invited guests funneled forward, me at the foot of the gangplank keeping a weather eye out. Then I spied them. “Cagney and Lacey,” in the flesh (actresses Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly, respectively), stars of Network TV as NYPD detective partners working out of the fictional 14th Precinct in Midtown Manhattan. Of course, there was no “14th Precinct” anywhere in the City nor did a pair of female detectives work the streets together out of a Detective Squad in the ‘80s. I’d never seen the show, but I was taken with the sight of them. a blonde and a brunette. (Maybe a hangover from rubbing elbows with Julie Collins and Mary Tyler Moore at the Garden?) Before I let them up the gangplank, I required each to sign her name in my Official PD Memo Book, which they did: “Christine Cagney” and “Mary Beth Lacey.”

In June the previous year, or the year before (who remembers dates anymore), I supervised the police detail assigned for U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s security. He was Commencement Speaker at New York University’s graduation ceremonies held in Washington Square Park in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village—all within the confines of the 6th Precinct where I was then assigned, hence my presence. What I vividly remember of that day was lunch with Moynihan, at his insistence (on NYU’s tab, I presume), at the White Horse Tavern in the West Village, the immemorial poet’s hangout favored by the likes of Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan. I was at table with the Senator, his daughter and some staff when The Troubles in Northern Ireland were mentioned. Apropos of too much death, I mentioned that my grandmother came from the Village of Coonagh near Limerick City, where all the men went to sea, including her brother Tom Grimes who went down with his ship HMS Goliath, all hands lost, off the Coast of Gallipoli in 1915. At that, Moynihan, in a pleasant, lilting tenor, began to sing a sea shanty about the exploits of Coonagh’s sailors on the oceans and we all joined in at the Call and Response. I was a convert that afternoon. My grandmother Catherine would have loved him.

All these past encounters can be classed as pleasant, fun, sociable. This last is none of that, being pure cop business—exactly what I’d hoped for when I joined up. In 1975, I returned to measurable work again in a Patrol Precinct, the 83rd in Bushwick Brooklyn, where the neighborhood was being burned out by arsonists—two kinds, from different motives: landlords for profit and rebuffed suitors for love. The 83rd had more crime then than any other Brooklyn Precinct. Obviously, they needed me, ostensibly because the City had laid off 5,000 cops to avoid fiscal bankruptcy which had left many patrol cars empty. For the six years prior, I had been performing comfortably (in civvies, 9 to 5, no weekends) as a reporter/writer for the monthly Police Magazine SPRING 3100 out of the Press Relations Office at 400 Broome St., known as “The Police Annex”.

Plunked back in a radio car in the 83rd felt like being rudely awakened from a deep sleep, but I’d been in the shit before and soon acclimated. Unexpectedly, I was picked up by an elite Precinct Unit, the Eight-Three Precinct Conditions Car whose sole mandate was to handle, neutralize Precinct “conditions;” namely, drug sales indoors and out, guns toted and sold, stolen car chopshops, counterfeiters, and, of course, arson—essentially, any violent street crime requiring immediate action but beyond the capacities of the regular patrol force. To that end, the Unit ran a stable of a dozen Registered Confidential Informants (CIs) and on the strength of their intelligence procured Judge-ordered Search Warrants for persons and premises which we then executed. That’s where I came in. I’d just graduated from Fordham University Law School, Night Division, which probably made me the only patrolman/lawyer in Borough of Brooklyn North. I interviewed the CIs, drafted the warrants, then took my flesh-and-blood informant and the Warrant down to Brooklyn Night Court where he or she would swear to its underlying truth before a friendly Judge. (No need to bother with hair-splitting assistant district attorneys who’d only gum up the works.)

And that’s how I came to meet Joseph Mad Dog Sullivan on a cold January night in 1977. We had a Search Warrant for an after-hours Puerto Rican “Social Club” (drug market) on Troutman Street, just around the corner from Knickerbocker Avenue, Bushwick’s main commercial drag. We went in without knocking: four patrolmen and our Sergeant, all of us in uniform. From the crowded bar, we were met with a cascade of glassine envelopes floating to the floor like a leaf fall in autumn. At an isolated corner table, I noticed two men staring at us intently, motionless, then the gun under the table. “Gun” I yelled to alert my partners while ordering both men up and on the wall. Before complying, the Irish-looking guy looked me hard in the eyes; he was of average height, muscular build, with eyes like dark pools, dead as a shark’s are said to be. At the Precinct, a call to the Bureau of Criminal Identification at 400 Broome Street informed us we had Joseph Mad Dog Sullivan in custody, on lifetime parole for a murder conviction, the only inmate to ever escape in 1971 from Attica, the maximum security prison upstate. And the gun, a Beretta semi-automatic, operable and loaded with seven live rounds.

In those days, an arresting officer escorted his prisoner to Criminal Court and arraigned him in person before a Judge, after consulting with an assistant district attorney who’d draw up the Complaint. The law permitted charging both men with possession of the gun I found under the table but it weakened the case against either at trial. It was therefore expected by the district attorneys (and approved of with judicial silence) for an arresting officer to solve the dilemma by testimonial creativity; i.e. I swore that I’d observed Mad Dog make a motion under the table where I then found the gun. Pleased with his tidied-up prosecution, the DA and I were in accord that Mad Dog should be on the first bus back to Attica. But that changed when we entered the Courtroom.

Mad Dog’s defense lawyer was Ramsey Clark, former United States Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson, in the flesh. Mr. Clark, I learned later, had been instrumental in springing Mad Dog to early parole from Attica in 1975, and Mad Dog had been assisting him ever since in “Prison Reform work”. Star-struck and fawning, those who should have know better decided to dismiss all charges and Mad Dog walked free. Clark, Southern gentleman that he is, approached me in the hallway outside Night Court, and said: “Officer, I think justice was done.” I replied: “I doubt that, sir.”

Of course, hooked on the mystery of Mad Dog and Ramsey Clark, I investigated. Between December, 1975 when Ramsey Clark interceded with New York State Parole to release Mad Dog, and our meeting on January 29, 1977 in Brooklyn Night Court, Mad Dog had killed at least three men he admits to—Tom Devaney and Eddie “the Butcher” Cummiskey, in Hell’s Kitchen bars a few days apart; enforcers for Mickey Spillane who controlled the West Side piers and Hell’s Kitchen; and Tom “the Greek” Kapatos on a mid-Manhattan Street. Mad Dog had just begun employment as a hit man for the Genovese crime family, intent on eliminating competitors for control of the waterfront and the Javits Convention Center rackets. I pieced together that the other man at the table arrested with Mad Dog in the Social Club—identified as Anthony “Snooky” Solimini, a soldier in the Manhattan-based Genovese family—was the go-between who arranged the hits. Solimini and Sullivan had history: cell mates when imprisoned as juveniles upstate. Intriguing is the locale for their rendezvous, around the corner from the Italian Cafes, hangouts for the members of the Bonnano crime family.

Was the Don of the Bonnano family, Carmine “The Cigar” Galante, to be Mad Dog’s next assignment from his Genovese patrons? Mad Dog says yes, in his eclectic autobiography co-authored with his wife Gail Sullivan, self-published in 1997 and memorably entitled Tears and Tiers. But, he claims, he could never get close enough during 1978, before a four-man team shot-gunned Galante to death on July 17, 1979 as he lunched in the back garden of Joe & Mary’s Restaurant on Knickerbocker Avenue. Galante’s cousin Joe, the proprietor, and a bodyguard also died. Eventually, an FBI Task Force caught up with Mad Dog for the 1979 murder of a Mob-connected Teamsters Union official near Rochester in late 1979. After convictions for that murder and others in Manhattan, Mad Dog was sentenced to 87 years to Life. He’s now incarcerated at the Sullivan County Correctional Facility (no relation) and goes before the Parole Board for the first time in 2069. He is 77 years old. The FBI credits Joseph Sullivan with 31 mob murders.

Yet, Ramsey Clark has remained Joseph Mad Dog Sullivan’s loyal friend over the years, helping him as he could; Sullivan had christened one of his sons Ramsey. How their friendship came to be and flourished is a mystery. Reminiscent of, yet distinctly different than Norman Mailer’s championing of the convicted murderer Jack Henry Abbott before the New York State Parole Board. Abbott had written a critically acclaimed memoir from inside The Walls, In the Belly of the Beast. Soon after being paroled largely due to Mailer’s efforts, however, Abbott in the course of an argument with a young waiter at an East Village café stabbed him to death. It’s unlikely that Tears and Tiers played any part in the Mad Dog story.

© 2015 Robert Knightly

1 comment:

  1. Totally fascinating, Bob. May I have your autograph???? Thelma