Abner Louima Today
JIM DWYER / NY Times 23jun02
Of course he had a dream of escape, back when he was working days at
factories all over northern New Jersey, and on weekends when he sold used cars
for cash commissions, or at night when he guarded the sewage treatment plant.
Instead of the humming of sewing machines, the haggling with car customers, the
tolling of drips in the lonely sewage plant, Abner Louima would be in the air: a
pilot flying his own plane, on his own schedule, in his own sky. He had a plan.
Bank the money from one job, pay the bills with wages from the other, start a
business with the savings. Be his own boss. Then fly.
And for nearly five years, a group of New York police officers and their lawyers have tried to tag Louima with still another definition: liar.
As he rises to greet his visitor, he seems taller and broader in the shoulders than the frightened, hospital-gowned man who was first presented to the world on a gurney five years ago. Now, from behind a desk, his hello comes wrapped in a grin. Like his premises, he seems unmarked. His smile is easier; his rage, more fluent. The strong temptation is to believe time and money have worked as cures.
Last August, he received one check for $2,046,098.34 from the City of New York and a second check from the country's largest police union, the New York City Policemen's Benevolent Association, for $1,625,000, the first trickles in a river of money that will flow to the Louima family.
Two annuities, purchased by the city at his direction, not only provide an undergirding for the family's financial security but also offer a window onto their values. The smaller of the annuities will pay out nearly $400,000 during the years Louima's three young children reach college age. The larger one has been pumping out $5,000 a month, a payment that will increase 3 percent annually for the rest of his days, or no less than 20 years. That same annuity will also pay him lump sums at various moments over the next 24 years amounting to $2.5 million. Virtually all the annuity revenue is tax-free. Abner Louima's wealth, while not extravagant, makes for a substantial pile.
This was supposed to be his carfare to exile. New York, celebrated as a paradise for the privacy obsessed, had turned Abner Louima inside out. There, his name, his history, his wealth are taken as public property.
A few days ago, on a short visit to New York, Louima stood on a quiet street in Queens. A man spotted him. ''Oh, my God -- it's Abner Louima,'' the man said, throwing his arms around Louima, who gently parried the embrace.
''I'm having some problems,'' says the man. ''Can you help me out?''
''How can I help?'' asks Louima.
''I'm a little short,'' says the man.
''I'm sorry,'' says Louima. ''I don't deal in cash.''
After the man walked off, Louima explained that he has developed some expertise at managing such requests. Even so, no nimble evasions can spare him from a loop he thought had finally been severed.
Within the next week or so, he is due in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn to revisit the details of that lost, ugly week in August 1997. A former New York police officer, Charles Schwarz, will be retried on charges of helping another officer torture Louima. Schwarz has been convicted twice in separate cases rising from the attack; both verdicts were overturned in February on procedural grounds.
Louima has testified to these events a half dozen times or so in one venue or another, his affect flat, his voice uninflected, his manner understated. On a night in August 1997, after working an evening shift as a security guard in a sewage treatment plant, he went to a Brooklyn nightclub. Mistaken for someone who had thrown a punch at a cop, he was arrested, booked and, with his pants pulled below his knees, walked in handcuffs across the 70th Precinct stationhouse. In the prisoners' toilets, a broken broomstick was jammed up his rectum by Officer Justin Volpe while Louima was held by another officer, never identified by Louima with more specificity than ''the driver'' of the squad car.
At the hospital, the medical people first grasped the damage when Louima passed feces in his urine. He had three major surgeries to repair his torn colon and bladder. He nearly died from infection. He spent 64 days in the hospital.
Last summer, after the trials seemed finished, when the city and the police union had put the money in his pocket, he got out of town. He purchased a just-about middle-class home in Miami Lakes for $220,000, on a block where the cars in the driveways are mid-priced Toyotas and Nissans. For himself and his wife, he has bought a pair of nice, slightly used cars. ''No matter how much you have, if you don't invest that money the right way, you're going to have money for two or three days,'' he says.
His neighbors did not know his past, and the classmates of his school-age son and daughter greeted them as just two more new kids. He started his company. ''My children need to see me right now as a working man,'' he said. ''They are going to grow up with the mentality that they have to work. When you have children, they are watching everything you do.''
The 70th Precinct is a thousand miles away. Justin Volpe has gone to prison for 30 years. Louima's colon works almost the way it used to. In the night sky of his mind, he says, the firmament of his family is brighter than ever; only occasionally does the cosmic horror of that memory erupt into his dreams. He leans toward normalcy.
When Louima goes to visit Petionville, where he grew up, his brother Jonas calls a pal at the Port-au-Prince airport to escort them past the lines. They change hotels when news crews track him. One time, coming back to New York, Jonas could not put in the airport fix, and they were trapped on a slow-moving check-in. Heads cranked. Whispers started. A clerk pulled them aside and upgraded their tickets.
The ties between Louima and his extended family, first-generation immigrants, have not yet unspooled; if anything, the calamity has wound them closer. He has also developed a grab bag of new relationships since the attack -- with the police officers who for three years were assigned to protect him from other police officers and with the Rev. Al Sharpton, at whose side he has often appeared. These have amplified his life, not defined it. Last year, he endorsed a Sharpton enemy for mayor, finding laughable a published suggestion that he might have to clear such an action with the minister or with anyone else.
His deepest feelings of obligation were shaped not by Justin Volpe on the one hand or by Al Sharpton on the other but by events in his own home. He and his wife, Micheline, had a son, Steven, in 1999. They already had a son, Abner Jr., now 5, and Louima was raising a daughter, Abnia Samantha, 11, from a previous relationship. The birth of Steven, two years after Louima was maimed and nearly murdered, crystallized a sense of destiny beyond the ambitions of his younger days. ''They wanted to end my life,'' Louima said. ''I would never be able to see my children grow up. I would be history right now. God saved my life. For a reason. For people to find out how evil some of the cops are. To take care of these children.''
He indulged the demands on his public person at rallies and conferences, where he made modest calls for reform, offered a few words of consolation to some new victim. With each appearance, his currency as Babou dwindled and his stock as Generic Victim soared. Even the name Louima was no longer needed to describe him. Last April, at a conference in Washington, he was approached by a state trooper who was suing officials in New Jersey for discrimination against African-American officers.
''It's a great honor to meet you, Mr. Diallo,'' said the trooper, invoking the name of Amadou Diallo, the African immigrant shot 41 times in his doorway.
''Thank you,'' said Louima, smiling faintly.
Even Alan Hevesi, the politician Louima endorsed for mayor last year, had a hard time telling the quick from the dead. The day after Louima's endorsement, a man in Harlem asked Hevesi if he could be trusted to forcefully engage police misconduct. But of course, said Hevesi proudly. ''Yesterday, Amadou Diallo endorsed me.''
Louima shrugs it off. ''Probably 50 percent of the people on the street call me Diallo,'' said Louima. ''I don't feel offended by it.''
Louima may not mind if his name fades into obscurity, confused with the names of others, but as it does, a new opinion has taken hold among prominent members of the New York and national press: namely, that the wrong police officer has been named as an accomplice to the torture. In this view, all the credible evidence shows that Charles Schwarz was not in the bathroom. To support this contention, ''60 Minutes'' cited claims by Volpe and ran an interview with Schwarz's partner, Thomas Wiese -- who said he, and not Schwarz, had been in the bathroom with Volpe.
At his sentencing, Schwarz said he was a victim of people who catered to minorities. ''This case,'' he said, ''was about many things, but it was never about justice. The outraged masses had to be appeased. Desperate politicians concerned with their political futures had to take drastic action. The Police Department is an organization that is always sensitive to criticism, especially from those in the minority community.''
Understandably, Schwarz was a bit modest.
No credible system of justice could ignore the assault on Louima, although it is now beyond dispute that a number of police officers in the 70th Precinct on the night of Aug. 9, 1997, tried to do at least that and perhaps worse. Moreover, no system could ignore the robust -- if imperfect -- body of evidence that puts Charles Schwarz at the center of events he denies any connection with.
Those proofs, as outlined by the federal prosecutor, Alan Vinegrad, consisted of four witnesses: Jeffrey Fallon, the 70th Precinct desk sergeant, who ordered Schwarz to take Louima away from the desk; Louima himself, who from the beginning said he was led into the bathroom by the driver of the patrol car -- Schwarz that night; Mark Schofield, a 70th Precinct police officer who lent Volpe a pair of black gloves before the assault and who said, after claiming to have seen nothing, that he saw Schwarz lead Louima away from the front desk; and Eric Turetzky, the first police officer to come forward, who said unequivocally that he saw Schwarz escort Louima down a hallway that runs only to the bathroom.
Impossible, Schwarz swore. He had been outside the stationhouse, in the patrol car, checking the back seat for contraband. His partner, Wiese, told investigators that he -- not Schwarz -- had been the second police officer to walk into the bathroom, but that he entered after Justin Volpe had finished the attack, so he didn't know anything about it either.
One side is lying.
The Schwarz camp suggests Louima calculated that he would get more in a civil suit by saying he had been assaulted by multiple police officers rather than by a single deranged individual. Why else would Louima also claim that the officer pinning him down said ''This is Giuliani time,'' if not to run up the financial score? That Louima voluntarily recanted that statement is of no moment to Ronald P. Fischetti, the leader of the relentless, loyal, pro-bono defense attorneys working on behalf of Schwarz. By Fischetti's reckoning, not only was the ''Giuliani time'' quote a fabrication, so was the second police officer that Louima claimed uttered it. ''This entire case turns on the different versions, the different accounts given by Abner Louima,'' Fischetti said in court last month.
He also has said he intends to sue Louima -- after I prove Chuck Schwarz's innocence,'' he says -- and not surprisingly, plans to go right at Louima's credibility in the coming trial.
''What matters is what happens in court,'' Louima says. ''That is where the truth comes out. They even went back to Haiti to see if I had any dirt on me. My record is clean, so they can't put any dirt on me.''
To save Schwarz, the new jury must not only disbelieve Louima and three police officers but will somehow have to integrate the story told by Wiese, which has two intriguing difficulties. In his interview with investigators, Wiese insisted Volpe was not wearing gloves (bloody gloves were found stashed in the locker of another officer) and that Volpe disposed of the stick in the bathroom trash can (other officers saw him waving it as he left the bathroom).
According to a member of the anonymous jury, interviewed earlier this year on Pacifica Radio, the cops and their lawyers ''wanted to throw smoke and dust in the eyes of the investigators, plant enough reasonable doubt in the record so a jury wouldn't be able to find anybody other than Volpe guilty of anything. Their goal was to keep Schwarz completely away from the bathroom during this time. And all the evidence points to Schwarz being in the bathroom, having been the one to take Louima to the bathroom, going in with him to the bathroom, being in the bathroom.''
ours after the Daily News columnist Mike McAlary broke news of the torture in 1997, a tireless machine began to crank out counterreality. Louima was a victim of gay sex gone bad. A political pawn. A greedy liar. Louima has lived in this fog from the beginning. It was only Volpe's admission to the attack, three years ago, that began to bring Louima some serenity.
Before the attack, his family had been regular churchgoers at the Evangelical Crusade Church in Brooklyn, where an uncle presides as pastor. During a flight to New York, he fielded a general query about whether religion had a big role in his life now. For a long time, he said nothing. It was hard to say if he had picked up the question under the shushing noise of the jet or had simply forgotten. His eyes seemed to glisten, and he spoke carefully, and with great composure: ''I don't see how I can avoid it. I don't know how to break it down.''
The ancient Roman technique of crucifixion runs toward the same point as Justin Volpe's station-house impalement. ''I cannot compare myself to Jesus Christ,'' he said. ''But you don't have to be on the cross to be crucified. You could kill someone without using a weapon, by your tongue; you might say something about that person. By what I've been through, the price I've paid, I could compare it with that.''
For nearly five full years, the same players have been working over the same moment in time and space, fingering at the event until its meaning has all but rubbed away, like the lost language of weathered gravestones. There is no mystery, of course, about what happened to Abner Louima; the mystery is what happened to those cops.
As things have turned out, Abner Louima has not got around to those flying lessons. Yet until February, he was more than content with his unmarked Florida life, where his children were secure, every day another stride further from August 1997. His anonymity there was as precious as anything, though he did not want to live as a shut-in. His brother recalls one of his first nights out in Miami, dinner at a celebrity hangout called Nikki's. Unlike in New York, no strangers approached him, knowing his name (or perhaps mistaking it) and asking how he felt and calling for God's blessing. The new life had begun.
Then the phone call came from New York, telling him that the convictions of Schwarz, Wiese and another officer, Thomas Bruder, had been overturned. Louima thought it was a dumb joke and hung up. Another caller told him to put on CNN. At school, the other children asked the Louima kids about their dad. At home, Louima screamed. He was finished with all that. He wouldn't go back to court again. He and the children peeked out the front door. The news crews had found their home, at the end of the development, past all the midlevel Toyotas and Nissans parked on a street where no one had known who he was. His name had been called once more. Abner Louima, torture victim, was back.
Jim Dwyer, a reporter for The Times, is a co-author of ''Actual Innocence,'' a book about wrongful convictions. It was written with the lawyers Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, who have represented Abner Louima.
This article was originally named No Way Out.
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