March 22, 2004 - The New York Times

Telltale Words On A 1996 Tape Are Recalled In A Police Inquiry

By Jim Dwyer and William K. Rashbaum

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Except for one extraordinary twist, the raid on Apartment 10B in March 1996 would have vanished long ago into the dense annals of New York crime-fighting. A team of police officers and federal agents, hunting for evidence against a drug gang, broke into the apartment, on upper Madison Avenue. They pulled open drawers, looked in closets and upended cushions. They left behind their search warrant, on which they noted that they had not found the very first item they had come looking for: "monies."

Yet a fluke event - "once in a hundred years," as a lawyer later said - provided a candid glimpse of the search and raised troublesome questions.

During the commotion, someone turned on a telephone answering machine's recorder, apparently without realizing it. For the next 30 minutes, the machine captured the clamor and chatter of the search: an exclamation, "My God, that's a lot of money;" a wisecrack about the Constitution; a crude racial remark about the apartment's residents, who were not home.

Seven minutes into the tape, a man can be heard quietly counting. "Six hundred," he says. "Eight hundred. Nine hundred." Twenty-nine seconds later, the sound of a zipper is heard.

Annette Brown, who lived in the apartment and played a minor role in her son's drug business, later told authorities that $900 in cash had disappeared from a zippered portfolio. The police and federal agents all denied seeing money. At least three official investigations of Ms. Brown's claim and tape led to no charges.

Now, eight years later, as the New York Police Department faces allegations of corruption on a much grander scale, Carlos Rodriguez, the detective who was in charge of tallying evidence from the Brown apartment, has again come under scrutiny, for an entirely separate episode. This time, a retired detective claims to have shared money taken from a drug dealer with Detective Rodriguez, according to a person who has been briefed on the inquiry.

Detective Rodriguez is among 10 current or former police officers who worked drug cases in upper Manhattan and are now under investigation for their conduct over the last decade, based on claims of corruption from the retired detective and his partner, according to law enforcement officials and people with knowledge of the case. So far, the retired detective, Thomas Rachko, and his partner, Julio C. Vasquez, are the only current or former officers who have been charged in the case, indicted on narcotics conspiracy, money laundering and other charges. Both men, along with Detective Rodriguez and at least one former officer also under scrutiny, have had discussions with prosecutors, people with knowledge of the investigation have said.

Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, whose office, along with the Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau, is investigating the case, would not comment. Neither would a lawyer for Detective Rodriguez.

The Police Department believes that no money was taken in the 1996 incident, Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne said, so the case could not represent a missed opportunity to stop the sort of misconduct now under investigation. The department contends that the tape is a kind of audio illusion, with the provocative-sounding section actually best understood as jokes, sarcastic remarks or, in the case of the racial slur, simply inappropriate language.

Even so, the accidental taping of the raid, and the investigation that followed, offer a rare view of the perilous intersections of police, drug dealers and cash. At times, drug dealers have been able to use false allegations of wrongdoing as a weapon against aggressive police work. It is also true that corrupt police officers have been able to steal from drug dealers, assured that any accusation could come only from criminals whose stories of wrongdoing would be viewed with the utmost skepticism.

In the Brown case, department officials said last week that they did not think the tape by itself established that money was in the apartment, and that Ms. Brown's credibility was weak. Her lawyer, Peter J. Neufeld, said that Ms. Brown gave a straightforward account of petty theft, and did not embroider her story with the more garish sums often mentioned in such cases.

Mr. Neufeld provided a copy of the tape from Ms. Brown's answering machine that was returned to him by federal prosecutors after the investigation. An account of the search of her apartment, as well as subsequent events in 1996, has been pieced together from the tape, from records that were disclosed as part of an unrelated court proceeding, and from interviews with Ms. Brown and law-enforcement officials.

The intrigue began shortly after the raid, when Ms. Brown returned home on March 22, 1996, to find her apartment, at 1735 Madison Avenue, near 115th Street, in disarray. A grown son, Garrick, was involved in dealing P.C.P., and though he lived in the Bronx, he was an occasional visitor to Ms. Brown's apartment. Ms. Brown would eventually plead guilty to abetting his operation, in exchange for a sentence of probation. Her son, who also pleaded guilty, is serving a 15-year term in federal prison.

In an interview at her home on Friday evening, Ms. Brown said she recalled seeing the answering machine dangling by its cord from the dresser, but it was not her first worry. "That was my bedroom, and it was so messed up," she said. "I said, 'Where's my money?' It was in, like a binder that closed along the sides with a zipper. The money was stuck down in it. The binder was in the bottom drawer in my dresser. I think it was about a thousand dollars. The binder was gone. Nothing else personal was taken - my jewelry was still there, my coats."

As she and her sister began to straighten the apartment, the answering machine was beeping or making some sort of noise, she said. "Evidently, they knocked it over and they didn't know it was running," she said.

The next day, she met with Mr. Neufeld, who spoke directly with Mary Jo White, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. Ms. White assigned the case to an assistant in charge of public corruption. A grand jury began hearing evidence. Ms. Brown gave the prosecutors her PhoneMate 3700 answering machine and the original tape. Mr. Neufeld arranged for her to take a polygraph test at the New York Lie Detection Laboratories. The examiner said she truthfully answered all the questions about the missing money, a report from May 9, 1996, shows. The prosecutors later repeated the polygraph; the results of that test were not disclosed, but Mr. Neufeld said he thought that the prosecutors would have notified him if Ms. Brown had failed.

The police inquiry into Ms. Brown's statement was handled by its Internal Affairs Bureau, according to Deputy Commissioner Browne, the department's chief spokesman.

On Sept. 4, 1996, nearly six months after the apartment was searched, Detective Rodriguez met with Internal Affairs investigators and the federal prosecutor. They asked about the zippered portfolio. "He does not specifically remember the black organizer, but asserts that if it was in the dresser he probably removed and searched it," an Internal Affairs report says. "Rodriguez claims to have only vouchered receipts (beepers, rent and cars) and only one list."

The answering machine tape was played for Detective Rodriguez, and the investigators questioned him about the man heard saying, "Six hundred. Eight hundred. Nine hundred."

"When asked to explain the counting he stated that it was not his voice but that of Agent Fred DiRenzo," the report states, referring to an agent from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration who had taken part in the raid. "He believes that DiRenzo could have been counting 'chump change' or receipts."

Agent DiRenzo said he could not discuss the incident, but did not dispute any of Detective Rodriguez's account. The agent is not under investigation, according to Anthony P. Placido, the head of the drug agency's office in New York. An internal agency investigation brought no charges of theft. Detective Rodriguez was also asked about the statement made by a female voice: "Oh my God, that's a lot of money." He said they had gone to the apartment in search of a strongbox, which they found. The officer, he said, apparently "observed the fairly large box and in anticipation of finding the money, made the comment, 'that's a lot of money.' " The box turned out to be empty, the detective said.

On that point, his version is consistent with what Ms. Brown says about money in the apartment - that there simply was not much on hand. The detective, however, denied that there was any cash. "Rodriguez firmly asserts that at no time did he see money in the bedroom," the report states.

Ms. Brown went before the grand jury, and she said that most questions were aimed at linking her to the drug ring. Little attention, she says, was paid to the small amount of cash she said had been taken.

As an example, she cited investment documents taken from the apartment during the search. These papers concerned money held for a granddaughter who was living with her, she said. The child's aunt was the custodian of the account, Ms. Brown said. "They were trying to say that was proceeds from drugs, because the documents were coming here under the aunt's name," she said. "They were not concerned about my money in the drawer. They were concerned about drug money. How did I get to a thousand dollars? I told them I would save some every month. My son received S.S.I. I was on public assistance. I knitted it together. They were giving the impression that they didn't believe it was my personal money, that it was some other money."

Mr. Browne said Internal Affairs investigators felt she was vague about the source for the $900 she claimed to have lost, and they could not confirm that she had cashed the government checks in certain locations. He also said that that she had changed her story "about where the money was in the apartment."

Ms. Brown insisted that was simply not true. She said she told the authorities her story only once, to the grand jury, and was certain about the location. "That was my life savings. I chose to put it down there, in the bottom drawer," said Ms Brown, who now works in a nursing home.

The police investigation also looked at the personal bank accounts of the officers who had taken part in the raid. Asked if it were likely that anyone would deposit a sum of $900 into a bank account, Mr. Browne agreed that it was not, but said the efforts showed the vigor of the Internal Affairs inquiry. "They went to great lengths to see if there was any movement of money," he said.

The one area where the investigation found fault was with Detective Rodriguez's language. While Mr. Browne said that the reference to the Constitution having gone "out the door," was made in jest, a later remark was deemed offensive. On the tape, Detective Rodriguez is heard discussing the contents of a closet or medicine chest. "You're talking about nigger people," he said. The detective told investigators that he was speaking to Agent DiRenzo, a white man, and that the remark was not offensive in context. Later, Detective Rodriguez changed that account to say he made the remark not to Agent DiRenzo, but to another agent, who is black. The detective was docked six days' pay, Mr. Browne said.

"Everybody who's looked at it feels that neither Rodriguez nor anyone else did anything wrong, with the exception of the use of the racial slur," Mr. Browne said last week. "The consensus is that there was no cash and nobody stole anything."

In the end, neither the grand jury, the police nor the Drug Enforcement Administration brought criminal or administrative charges for theft. The federal authorities were not nearly as emphatic or sweeping as the Police Department, at least in their only known public statement on the results of the inquiry. More than a year after Ms. Brown turned over her telephone answering machine, an assistant United States attorney, I. Bennett Capers, told a federal judge that his office's "determination of the evidence" of stealing "remains inconclusive," according to a transcript of an April 7, 1997, court hearing. Mr. Neufeld, the lawyer for Ms. Brown, said that he was told by federal prosecutors handling the case at the time that they thought money had been stolen, but could not determine who had taken it. A spokesman for the United States attorney's office in Manhattan would not comment.

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