Investigating Criminal Violence – )
THIS essay examines the ways of knowing of men and women who investigate and fix responsibility for violent crimes. The issues are: What is the notion of “truth,” or more exactly, justified belief in the wood of criminal investigators? What are the real-world obstacles to such justified belief faced by investigators? How do investigators achieve what they consider to be reliable knowledge, and what occupational habits of mind do they evince in the process? What moral rules-in-use guide investigators in their work? How do investigators transform achieved knowledge of criminal agency into “evidence” that becomes the medium of convincing “proof” in authorized public forums? Finally, why should we investigate the investigators of violent crime?
The essay begins with brief versions of four long stories. They are told through the eyes of four different men, three police detectives and one prosecutor, a few of the men and women studied for many years in New York City’s criminal justice system.(1)
On December 16, 1991, a night cold enough to freeze the ink in one police officer’s pen, New York City Police Department (NYPD) Detective Mark Tebbens, a working-class boy from the Bronx, caught a quadruple homicide. The homicides occurred on Beekman Avenue in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the south Bronx in the Four-O precinct in which Tebbens worked as a squad detective. Within a few days of the shootings, promptly named the Quad, Tebbens solicited enough information from street people, including a surviving fifth victim, to draw the following sketch. Several shooters who arrived on the block in two cars had gunned down the victims. One of the victims sold Yellow Top crack out of the small garbage-filled alley where the shooting happened; the other victims were either Yellow Top customers or bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time.(2) Two street witnesses, both with extensive criminal records, said that one of the purported shooters was a man named Stanley, whom Tebbens knew well from several other cases. The other shooter, these witnesses said, was a mysterious figure known only as Platano. Platano’s name had surfaced in one of Tebbens’ earlier murder investigations in the precinct. But the name “Platano” did not crosscheck with anyone with a New York State criminal record. Moreover, although other police officers had heard of Platano, no one had ever taken a picture of him. There were street rumors that he worked as an enforcer for Red Top crack, a big narcotics spot only a few buildings up Beekman Avenue from the alley where Yellow Top was sold.
Tebbens’ street sources told him that the reason for the slaughter was a territorial and price war between upstart Yellow Top and the well-established Red Top operation. Tebbens knew about Red Top because, in 1989, he had arrested two Red Top stalwarts for a double murder just down the block from their operation. Red Top was owned by Lenny and Nelson Sepulveda, brothers from 171st Street near Audubon Avenue in upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights area, home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.(3) Tebbens suspected, but had no clear knowledge or proof, that Lenny Sepulveda was the third shooter in the 1989 double murder. In any event, the trial for that crime was still pending since the witnesses gathered by Tebbens in order to make arrests had disappeared. In the meantime, both men arrested for the Double were free on bail.
Tebbens beat the bushes for Platano, putting out a city-wide bulletin to all police officers on December 21, 1991. He got bits and pieces of information from the street. But most people were afraid even to mention the name Platano, a sure sign of dread. Tebbens did learn that Platano was Dominican; he came from Manhattan’s Washington Heights; he had legendary skills as a get-away driver; and he drove a white BMW convertible with a blue rag top. And some people said that he was the most feared hit man in New York City. Tebbens became fascinated with Platano and became determined to find him and, if he were indeed one of the shooters in the Quad, to lock him up once and for all.
Detective Garry Dugan, then a nearly twenty-five year veteran of the NYPD working for the Manhattan North Homicide Squad assisting precinct detectives on homicide cases, white-haired and all-but-deaf in one ear, was also looking for Platano. Eight months before the Quad, in the early morning of May 19, 1991, three young men left a Saturday night beer party in their home town of Tarrytown, New York, and drove into Manhattan. They scored some coke at 158th Street and then went down to the West 20s to look at the working girls. But the police presence was heavy, so they headed home driving north on the West Side Highway. David Cargill, on summer break from an aeronautical college in Florida where he was studying to be a commercial pilot, was recklessly driving the group in his candy-apple red Toyota pickup truck, running yellow lights. At the ramp entering the highway at 57th Street, he ran a red light, narrowly missing a collision with a white BMW convertible with a blue rag top that was entering the highway. Cargill’s companions later described the scene to Dugan. After the near collision, the white BMW passed David’s truck at high speed. Another car, a dark, older American make, pulled alongside the pickup, once, twice, and then three times. The third time, David’s companions saw a man leaning out of the dark car with an automatic gun; they saw bursts of fire and heard loud noises like firecrackers. The pickup careened out of control, but they managed to right it. Cargill was dead with one bullet in his head.
The homicide occurred in the Three-O precinct. Dugan and a young precinct detective exhaustively investigated the Cargill homicide. They interviewed David’s two companions repeatedly and got the broad outlines of the story, but not much else because the two young men were shell shocked. The detectives also interviewed everyone at the beer party in Tarrytown, all the friends of the three young men, every street prostitute on Manhattan’s lower west side, and every drug dealer on 158th Street. They did a painstaking search of all registered white BMWs in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, but came up with nothing. One story, which Dugan obtained fourth-hand from an ex-boyfriend of one of Cargill’s former girlfriend’s friends, rang true. Big-time drug dealers had been partying at the Palladium club near Union Square. They called it a night around 4 a.m. They headed uptown on Sixth Avenue and cut over to the West Side Highway at 57th Street. At the ramp, a pickup truck almost hit the lead car in the caravan. After a brief street conference, the drug dealers decided to teach the boys in the pickup truck a lesson. But when Dugan tracked down the source of this story, the young man denied all specific knowledge and said that he was just repeating street gossip. Dugan and his colleagues also pursued leads from hundreds of phone calls on a special hot line, but none of them went anywhere, including the call from the old man who said he had insomnia and regularly walked his dog in the early morning hours by the West Side Highway. The old man wondered if the shooting had anything to do with the “wild Dominican” kids who rode up and down the highway at night shooting off their weapons and then went to the Twin Donuts at 218th Street and Broadway for breakfast.
The break came in mid-December 1991. A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) field agent informed Dugan that a confidential informant said that the key to the highway shooting, and to many other killings, was a man named Platano, who drove a white BMW convertible. On December 21, 1991, Dugan received Mark Tebbens’ city-wide alert on Platano in connection with the Quad. For the first time, circles began to close. But still the police had no idea who Platano was.
Then, on January 30, 1992, the FBI agent informed Dugan that, amazingly, Platano had been arrested in New Jersey on drug and gun possession charges. When Dugan interviewed him in jail, the fearsome Platano, who gave the name Wilfredo de los Angeles, confirmed the street stories about a party at a club downtown, a car caravan up Sixth Avenue and then over 57th Street to the West Side Highway, the near accident at the 57th Street ramp, and the subsequent highway chase. He said that his BMW, which turned out to have Massachusetts plates, was the lead car in the chase. He claimed to know nothing about the shooting of Cargill. But he did acknowledge that he had witnessed a business transaction earlier that evening between an acquaintance of his and Raymond, a big-time gun dealer from Brooklyn. Indeed, Platano put an Uzi in the hands of Lenny Sepulveda, the boss of Red Top crack on Beekman Avenue in the south Bronx. A few days later, Platano paid a cash bail of $45,000 and walked out of jail.
Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Dan Rather of the District Attorney of New York (DANY) was trying to figure out what was behind all the street violence that seemed to be coming from the area around 171st Street and Audubon Avenue in Washington Heights. In particular, he wondered who was behind all the car thefts and robberies. Gangs of kids from Washington Heights, all from around 171st Street, were invading garages of luxury buildings and stealing certain fancy cars while leaving others behind; numbers of street carjackings of certain makes had also skyrocketed. Clearly the cars were being taken on consignment. A man with the street name of Clint came forward to talk with Rather and detectives from the Manhattan Robbery Squad with whom Rather was working on the case. Clint provided detailed information on the robberies, including the names of the robbers and where to find them. When the police picked the kids up, all of them Dominican youngsters, they refused to talk even when offered a walk away from heavy prison time. Clint’s information, while always accurate, invariably came after the fact. Rather and the detectives began to realize that Clint was setting up the robberies and then giving his robbers to the police to avoid paying them the standard $150 fee for stealing a designated car. Clint then processed the cars, complete with new paint jobs and new registrations, and sold them to waiting customers. Just as Rather and the detectives moved in on Clint, a bloody robbery took place at 135th Street and Convent Avenue, right across the street from City College. Robbers ambushed the owner of an armored car service while he was picking up money. They blew his head off in the melee. Police who happened to be in the area caught all four robbers within two blocks of the crime. All immediately gave up Clint, confirming that Clint planned robberies for a living. By this time, Clint had fled to the Dominican Republic and was out of reach. Rather pressed the robbers for more information about Clint. What was he doing with the money from the car robbery ring, and from the other robberies that he organized? One of the robbers told Rather that Clint was saving his money to finance a drug business. More than anything else, the youngster told Rather, Clint wanted to be a big-time drug dealer like the guys from West 171st Street, like Lenny and Nelson Sepulveda.
The early spring of 1992 was more bewildering than usual for Detective John Bourges of the Three-Four precinct, the busiest house in New York City ever since Washington Heights had become the hub of the east coast drug trade. Every kilo of Colombian cocaine that came into Kennedy Airport passed through the hands of Dominican retailers in Washington Heights on its way to one of the five boroughs, or to locations as far north as Toronto, or as far south as South Carolina.
The skein of violence that most intrigued Bourges began on the evening of February 1, 1992. A young man with the street name of Madonna (because of his love for McDonald’s hamburgers) was found shot to death near the West Side Highway. For good measure, his assailants had run him over repeatedly with a vehicle. Madonna was last seen leaving a restaurant on St. Nicholas Avenue in the company of two men, Gilbert and Manny. But the case went nowhere. Then on March 16, Manny and Franklin Cuevas, who operated the restaurant, were ambushed by crossfire while driving home. Cuevas’ arm was injured, but Manny was paralyzed for life by a bullet in the spine. The next day, March 17, the brother of Cuevas’ girlfriend was shot and wounded. That same night, undercover police arrested a man who gave the name Paul Santiago along with Gilbert, who was in his company. The police charged Santiago with gun possession, but he was quickly released on $3500 bond. Police later learned that Santiago was Platano. Then on March 20, Gilbert was escorted on foot to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital at 168th Street and Broadway; he had been shot in the head. Before he underwent an operation to remove part of his brain, he told police that some guy on the street shot him for no reason. But the trail of his blood led back to an apartment owned by Franklin Cuevas in which police found several weapons. Three weeks later on April 14, Platano, while in his car, was caught in a withering crossfire and was severely wounded; he told Garry Dugan and John Bourges that his assailant was Franklin Cuevas.
On April 26, in the early morning hours, there was a wild-west shootout on West 181st Street, just two blocks from the Three-Four station house. When precinct detectives reached the scene, they kicked their way through 9-millimeter shells strewing the street. A man named Roberto, an associate of Franklin Cuevas, was wounded, but he said that he had no idea who might shoot at him. Two days later, on April 28, three men stormed into the restaurant that Franklin Cuevas operated, held everyone at bay with automatic weapons, poured kerosene everywhere and torched the place, threatening to shoot anyone who tried to leave. Remarkably, everyone escaped unharmed, breaking their way out of the restaurant in a wild scene. Then on 21 July, Gilbert, who had miraculously recovered from brain surgery, returned to his old haunts. He told some street-corner cronies that he was going for a ride with friends as he got into a car with heavily tinted windows. He was last seen staggering up 132nd Street in the Two-Six precinct trying to hail a taxi. He had been shot six times in the chest, and died in the street. Almost exactly a year later, Franklin Cuevas himself was gunned down in the Three-Four precinct.
Bourges, now working regularly with Garry Dugan, both spoke frequently with Mark Tebbens to try to piece together the factions in the struggle. This was difficult work since loyalties were unclear and seemed to shift regularly. Moreover, no one came forward to talk to the police except for some terrified civilians whom Tebbens had rescued from Beekman Avenue. Using all the individual cases that had occurred in the Three-Four precinct, Bourges created a large wall chart trying to delineate the social structure of the organized criminal warfare that was tearing Washington Heights apart. It was the first stab at a story that made sense of the events.
This series of investigations, which eventually came together into one investigation, provides material to think in a pointed way about investigators’ quest for knowledge about criminal violence and the occupational habits of mind that they characteristically bring to the task. Investigators work with a minimalist concept of “truth;” that is, they seek to fIx agency for specific actions. If they uncover motive in that search, it helps convince themselves and others that they have, in fact, ascertained agency. But the quest for agency is always primary. At the outset, consider the obstacles to this particular kind of knowledge that criminal investigators face.
First, criminal violence is a relatively opaque human activity. It requires painstaking work to gain even bits and pieces of knowledge about it. Few people actually see criminal violence. Most of the violent acts recounted in the four vignettes had few witnesses: the culprits themselves; their now-dead victims; civilian witnesses like the surviving victim of the Quad or David Cargill’s two friends, all so terrorized and confused that their perceptions were limited and jumbled; neighborhood residents, some of whom were civilians too frightened to come forward, and some of whom were themselves criminals who reveal information only when they can trade it for their own advantage.
Moreover, with criminal witnesses, one sees a classic dilemma of all criminal investigation. One of the street witnesses to the Quad gave Mark Tebbens a vivid eyewitness account and key identifications of Stanley and Platano. But he was useless as a witness in court: he makes his living riding the trains in an ankle-length leather coat, beneath which he carries a sawed-off shotgun to encourage people to part with their money. Those with the deepest specific knowledge of criminal acts are often either implicated in the acts or involved in occupations or social circles that give them specific knowledge of criminality, but make them untrustworthy outside of their immediate milieux.
Second, such extreme criminal violence proceeds from a social world that has its own peculiar ethos, that is, its own rationality, institutional logic, and moral rules-in-use. Many criminal occupations, drug-traffickers foremost among them, see violence as a wholly routine occupational tool-in-trade. With rivals, the kill-or-be-killed rules of warfare obtain; with the employees of many associates, such as couriers carrying narcotics or money, the rules of predatory opportunity apply since robberies and murders of others’ underlings can be blamed on the regrettable violence of the streets; with witnesses to crimes, the rules of expediency dictate a sometimes regretful dead-men-tell-no-tales prudence; with informers, the rule of “snitches get stitches” simultaneously punishes informers and cautions would-be informers; with peer associates, the rules of “respect” reign supreme in which the smallest slights, wayward glances, infringements on personal space, or untoward words, all whether real or imagined, often provoke murderous responses. Such a world places premiums on fearless daring and ruthless cruelty. Only those whose reputations inspire dread get ahead and simultaneously fend off trespass. Violent criminals almost always boast about their crimes to one another in order to boost their reputations (“A murder ain’t a murder until you talk ’bout it on the street”), a habit that gives still other criminals rich material to trade for their own advantage when betrayal time comes round.
Such a world has its own peculiar moral distinctions (“I mean it’s okay that he shot her `cause these bitches need to be taught a lesson, but you don’t shoot a woman in the face”), justifications for betrayal (“Why’d I give him up? Look, you can rob anybody you wants on the trains, but you don’t rob the people you down with”), and excuses for savagery (“Honest to God, Detective, she fell on the knife”). In order to grasp criminals’ habits of mind and rules-in-use, investigators must set aside their own moral standards and weather the gales of moral alternation. One must think like criminals to catch criminals.
Third, the extraordinary bureaucratization of the criminal justice system consistently fragments knowledge. Our entire civilization depends upon bureaucracy, on the rational segmentation of expertise and its coordination into ordered hierarchies, on the careful delimitation of authority and the division of responsibility by office. But despite its indispensability, the inner dynamics of bureaucracy impede holistic understanding of already opaque activities. The crimes described in the vignettes were, in one way or another, related to each other. Administratively, however, each of these crimes comprised a separate “case,” that is, essentially a bureaucratic entity subject to processing by established procedures within different venues. The episodes crossed several layers of jurisdiction. At the time, the NYPD had seventy-five different precincts (in 2000, there are seventy-six), four of which–the Bronx’s Four-O and Manhattan’s Three-Four, Three-O, and Two-Six–were scenes of the major crimes recounted here. Other related major crimes not described here took place in several other Bronx precincts and two different Brooklyn precincts. Different precinct detectives caught each of these cases and had primary responsibility for bringing it to closure. Three district-attorney offices–Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, each connected to a different branch of the New York State Supreme Court–had jurisdiction over these major crimes. Two federal prosecutors’ offices–the Southern District of New York in Manhattan and the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn, each connected to different federal district courts–claimed related “cases” for themselves. Several federal law enforcement agencies–Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the United States Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service–all became engaged in different parts of the investigation, each generating different “cases.” Jurisdictional segmentation inevitably generates fierce cross-agency rivalries as agency leaders vie with their opposite numbers in other agencies for the “best” cases, often producing jealous acrimony between federal and local authorities or between investigators in the dark recesses of the Bronx or Brooklyn and those in Manhattan’s bright lights. The bureaucratic segmentation of cases within a particular agency prompts the development of a bailiwick mentality as individual investigators vie with one another for recognition, promotion, and say-so, often leading to secreting of already scattered knowledge. Law enforcement is dirty, difficult, and sometimes dangerous work, always poorly paid. The search for glory fuels more investigations than material rewards. Everyone worth his or her salt in law enforcement wants to go after fearsome criminals because such cases present arenas in which investigators can demonstrate their prowess to their peers and to the world. But this usually produces a world where the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.
Fourth, criminals understand and exploit such bureaucratization of knowledge. In a world constructed of discrete “cases,” one follows requisite procedures to dispose of cases that might trigger unwanted warrants, knowing that officials, taxed with their own particular work tasks, are unlikely to connect a minor case to more serious crimes. Thus Lenny Sepulveda, wanted for several murders, assaults, and drug trafficking, strode fearlessly with his lawyer into New York State Supreme Court to “get rid of a gun case.” Sepulveda was arrested only because one investigator anticipated such boldness, borne of many other successful attempts by fugitives to “get over” on the system. Again, identification is the principal and paramount problem of criminal investigation. Until police finally arrested, fingerprinted, and photographed Platano in New Jersey on January 30, 1992, for instance, investigators did not know his identity because he had no previous criminal record. Like any self-respecting Washington Heights drug dealer, Platano had multiple identities, complete with documents validating each. For about $400, one can buy identity kits in Washington Heights complete with a social security number, pay stubs to demonstrate employment, and tax records. These phony documents enable one to get a driver’s license or a welfare-benefits card, thus providing a legitimate, bureaucratic validation of a fictitious identity. Even an arrest in one state jurisdiction does not guarantee that someone can be identified in another state because, until 1999, there was no coordination of criminal records even between neighboring states. In New Jersey, Platano gave what seems to be his real name: Wilfredo de los Angeles. But on March 17, 1992, when arrested in New York on a gun charge, he used the name Paul Santiago and was released on minimal bail because his prints, taken in New Jersey, did not “drop” when checked in New York. His attorney was able to argue successfully to the court that he had no previous arrests.
Fifth, our system of law itself is essentially an elaborate set of thoroughly bureaucratized procedures that provide a thicket in which those who wish to can hide. Moreover, the procedures themselves are interpreted and applied by judges, who themselves are lawyers, in response to arguments from still other lawyers. In this sense, the law as an institution resembles the self-enclosure of other intellectual milieux. It is concerned principally with the integrity and consistency of its own rules, not with the presumed object of those rules; that is, substantive justice. Whatever substantive justice, as defined by some standard, that is achieved in the criminal justice system is the product of sustained effort by men and women in the system who decide to make the system work toward a certain end. “Justice” is always hostage to the vagaries of jurisdiction, judicial perceptions, whims, or ideologies, and even the time of day. The rule of bureaucratically fragmented procedures prevails. For instance, under the laws of most states, crimes are prosecuted one by one. The law deliberately incorporates no sense of history or pattern, insisting that people be tried and judged for each separate individual action. With some exceptions, prosecutors may not mention previous crimes in front of a jury, even if these crimes are related to one another. In cases that depend wholly on witness testimony, there is no case if witnesses will not or cannot testify. Moreover, in the event of the state’s inability to produce witnesses, the granting of bail pending trial or even outright dismissal of charges is the rule.
In the cases at hand, a gang member named Pasqualito, that is, Little Easter, one of the men whom Tebbens had arrested for the 1989 Double, was released on bail pending trial because the Bronx District Attorney’s Office could not produce the witnesses to the shooting. While on bail, Pasqualito went to Brooklyn with Lenny Sepulveda and shot one of the witnesses to the Quad in the face. Police arrested Pasqualito for that assault, but even though he was on bail for the Double, and even though the Brooklyn assault aimed to silence a witness to the Quad, he was released on $25,000 bail that he posted in five minutes. The Brooklyn night court district attorney and judge surely knew about Pasqualito’s pending trial for the Double, but, given his bail on that charge in lieu of available witnesses, could not hold him for that as yet unproved offense. Further, Pasqualito was not accused of participating in the Quad. Therefore the Brooklyn assault, though an attack on a witness to a slaughter, was seen and treated as just another serious assault, not as part of a pattern of criminal activity. Even Pasqualito was surprised when he received bail. By the grace of the system, he went on to commit several other violent crimes, including at least one murder. The rationality of the law , and the rational bureaucracy of the criminal justice system here produced irrationality. Procedural justice, here followed to the letter, differs from justice considered from some substantive standpoint.
In the face of such obstacles, only a concerted effort that cut across all the jurisdictional bureaucracies could enable detectives and prosecutors to learn with some certitude what was behind the sprawling and escalating violence on the streets. On the organizational end, in a remarkable move, the district attorneys of the Bronx and Brooklyn ceded their authority over crimes committed in their jurisdictions to the office of the District Attorney of New York, which spearheaded the investigation. Dan Rather supervised both Mark Tebbens and Garry Dugan, who began working directly for him as street investigators. Building a case required legal innovation to allow DANY to demonstrate links between crimes normally treated separately. Rather built the case around a never-before-utilized fifteen-year-old New York State law prohibiting criminal conspiracies, a law that parallels federal anti-racketeering statutes. The use of the conspiracy law allowed the prosecutors to present individual crimes as part of a pattern, linking them together into a powerful and convincing narrative framework. Defense attorneys immediately recognized the danger. Right after the conspiracy charges were announced in September 1993, one defense
attorney confronted Rather in a hallway and said: “What’s with this conspiracy stuff? We try these cases one by one, I win every time and I make a lot of money.” The statement suggests yet another obstacle to knowledge. Our society has established occupations wholly dedicated to creating fronts that conceal real interests or fabricate entire make-believe worlds that subvert everyday reality and seduce even intelligent, well-educated men and women. Sometimes members of completely honorable and essential occupations, such as defense attorneys, borrow the techniques of make-believe to obscure rather than clarify reality. With a high-minded occupational ideology sanctioned by law, some defense attorneys are afforded blind-eye-professional-courtesy by prosecutors and judges alike that enables them to maintain a publicly respectable knowing-and-not-knowing stance toward the crimes of their clients, even as they excoriate the police in court for procedural infractions. Indeed, some defense attorneys sometimes come right up to the line of participating in criminal activity, rather than just advocating for clients in trouble.
Within the framework of such organizational and legal innovations, the criminal investigators close to the case exhibited distinctive habits of mind typical of the best practitioners of their trade. The dark and forbidding world of drug-related murder seems, on its face, senseless and irrational. However, investigators penetrated it by working with key assumptions and beliefs. No matter how bewildering and elusive a criminal world seems, investigators believe that the answers are always there. Further, they believe that with enough effort they can unravel even the most tangled skein of events. Their occupational world thus places a premium on the notion that every criminal world has its own logic, sense, meaning, and history. One must enter it and reconstruct it on its own terms, from the inside out, with sheer dogged persistence and a dedication to factual specificity. More specifically, many drug-related homicides in a given geographical area, such as Washington Heights and the South Bronx right across the Harlem River, are interconnected: today’s witness is tomorrow’s assailant is yet another tomorrow’s victim. To grasp the patterns of drug-related violence in a given area, one must come to know particular players, their associations and loyalties, their rivalries and hatreds, their individual criminal signatures, fitting together into an intelligible whole what seemed initially to be independent events, and reified as such as separate “cases”.(4)
But because investigators rarely witness crimes themselves, they have to rely on information from witnesses in order to transform some of that information into sworn testimony or “evidence;” usually these are either civilian witnesses and/or victims, or criminal victims or culprits. Investigators are continually assessing the credibility of men and women who tell them stories. How trustworthy is this witness? How will a jury appraise his or her character? What incentive does this witness have for telling this story instead of that? At the same time, investigators gauge the plausibility of the stories themselves. Is the story consistent with other information they have independently gathered? Is the story internally consistent, however improbable its twists and turns? Criminal investigators expect people to lie to them or to try to deceive them in other ways. This expectation leads to a premium on tough-minded skepticism, often bordering on cynicism, an occupational virtue that actually is less temperamental than practical.
Detectives regularly use ruses of all sorts to outfox both witnesses and criminals and to elicit statements. Civilians refuse to cooperate with investigators for many reasons. Kinship ties still command primal loyalty in many communities whatever the depredations of one’s relatives. Sometimes civilians are beneficiaries of the river of cash that big-time drug dealing sends flowing through a community, as were hundreds of car dealerships and automobile-repair shops, as well as night-clubs, restaurants, jewelry stores, and bodegas in Washington Heights. Sometimes civilians are simply scared stiff because they know the merciless retaliation of drug-related violence and they know that the legal system, which for the most part requires policing to be reactive and not preventive, affords little protection against it. And sometimes civilians want no part of the vilification of their own characters that testimony in criminal matters always invites. Such reluctance or fear on the part of witnesses to testify about violent crimes signals a danger to democratic institutions just as ominous as, say, police brutality. Unchecked criminal violence leads just as surely as state violence to a society of bystanders. The care, protection, and encouragement of witnesses constitute a major part of investigators’ work.
The apprehension of criminals continues investigation because the unraveling of responsibility for crime, if not entirely accurate descriptions of crimes themselves, often depends on criminals’ own statements to police. Detectives cajole, wheedle, insult, frighten, bully, and tease information from suspects. Investigators in cases with multiple culprits, for instance, know that the concept of legal responsibility embedded in the notion of “acting in concert” (the street phrase is “acting in concrete”) is a wholly foreign notion on the street. There, one is responsible for, say, a shooting death during a robbery if and only if one actually pulls the trigger. But if a detective elicits an admission that one was “down for the robbery, but not for the shooting,” he or she can nail the suspect for felony murder. Or, to obtain a confession, detectives feign more knowledge than they actually have, by suggesting the availability of witnesses, even when none exist; they hint at possible betrayal from accomplices, even when this is unlikely, making suspects choose between betraying or being betrayed. They can also sow doubt in suspects’ minds about possible residues of hard forensic evidence, even when there is none to be had. Or, to elicit a denial of some crucial fact in the face of firm evidence to the contrary thus establishing “consciousness of guilt,” detectives engage criminals in long meandering seemingly-off-the-trail conversations riddled with traps. In criminal investigation, the groundwork of whatever truth one can hope to attain is often trickery or outright deception. In a role that has gone largely unnoticed, detectives help criminals who do talk to them construct accounts for their crimes that enable them to make requisite plea statements in the alien legal world while sustaining valued self-images. Thus the public-record versions of a great many crimes are highly sanitized.
When investigators “flip” criminals to turn on their accomplices, they are always engaged in the profound ethical quandary commonly called a “deal with the devil.” How many concessions can one make, say, to an admitted murderer in return for information against other murderers? Moreover, how will a jury assess the credibility of a criminal who has been given material inducements for his version of events? Police investigators, perhaps because they see the results of horrific violence first-hand, vehemently oppose deals with the devil and frequently see them as moral leprosy. Prosecutors, who understand better the irrationalities and vagaries of a legal system where witnesses recant regularly and sometimes disappear altogether, where the credibility of cops’ testimony is always hostage to public reaction to recurring police scandals, and where judges sometimes unmake well-made cases with procedural rulings, see such deals as regrettable exigencies, as the necessary price that virtue pays to vice in order to achieve any justice at all.
Even as they assess the stories of those who provide them with information, criminal investigators are continually constructing and revising their own narratives about what actually happened in any given crime. They tell and re-tell these stories to their colleagues as they try to make sense of events whose meaning is constantly changing. Indeed, story-crafting and telling stand at the center of the occupational culture of criminal investigators. Investigators continually discuss their cases, old and new, with their colleagues in the open-but-confined, metal-desk-cluttered forum of squad rooms or prosecutors’ offices, sketching out their understandings of the logic of criminals’ worlds or a particular skein of related crimes through stories. These intricate tales are always crowded with rosters of names and aliases of street players, thickets that, while bewildering to most outsiders, detectives and investigating prosecutors navigate easily. The stories change shape and meaning as the hunt proceeds. Early in his investigation, Tebbens had a sharp image of what happened in the Quad. But later, the picture kept shifting and became fragmented as he learned about other players on the set. In the end, he was able to arrest and charge five shooters, including Platano. But at least three other men were also assassins that bitter-cold December night and, although Tebbens knows who they were, their images never emerged clearly enough from the shadows for him to proceed against them. Dugan’s investigation of the Cargill homicide, particularly his interrogation of Platano in New Jersey, gave him, he thought at the time, a clear image of what happened. But later a witness came forward giving a completely different version of the homicide, putting himself at the center of the action and placing a gun in Platano’s hands. Still later, Dugan discredited this witness’s story; the witness had heard Platano falsely boasting on the street of the crime and, by imagining himself in the middle of events, he fulfilled a childhood dream of being, if only in his own mind, a big-time gunman. Only when Lenny Sepulveda, as part of a plea agreement, confessed in detail to the Cargill shooting did Dugan’s image of what happened come into sharp focus.
More generally, detectives’ stories present the wildly improbable ins-and-outs of life in the underworld (“You can’t make this stuff up”), complete with all of its peculiarities and regularities: stories of robbers who repeatedly use the same routine with the exact same words; tales of extreme violence as a matter-of-fact tool-in-trade; stories of the fatalistic bravado of the streets (“A young man says to a still younger guy brandishing a gun: `You wanna shoot me? Go ahead and shoot me. You wanna shoot me? Go ahead and shoot me.’ So the younger guy shoots him.”). Such stories are police procedurals in-the-making through which investigators display their experiences, ingenuity, and skills to each other in an entertaining way; in squad rooms, they are socializing vehicles that present occupational virtues, dilemmas, ethics, and worldviews to rookie investigators. They contain myriad self-images. Investigators see themselves, and present themselves to each other, as men and women unafraid of confronting and immersing themselves in the ugly underside of modern society, a world from which most people turn away. In private, however, investigators sometimes rue the emotional costs of such immersion. With the important exception of time-servers? police detectives exult in the danger that their work sometimes provides, in the heart-pumping excitement that only the chase and mortal combat afford. John Bourges has prominently displayed on his desk a quotation from Hemingway: “There is no hunting like the hunting of armed men, and those that have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.” This is a sentiment that captures the social psychology of the best investigators. Investigators’ most valued self-images are, of course, those as defenders of the social order and avengers of the innocent, self-images that, as it happens, are difficult to assert or maintain in the world of drug-related homicides where “everyone is guilty.” Finally, investigators see themselves as men and women who can laugh, even with violent criminal adversaries, about working in an absurd world, and have heard and seen it all, including human behavior at its very worst.
Investigators’ stories are often incomplete and sometimes without endings. They are also broken narratives, stories that begin at the end of events and work, in shards and fragments, in fits and starts, back to where things began. In the telling, these stories reveal as much about how the investigator learned about events as about the events themselves. Sometimes whole narratives are about going up blind alleys only to find something unexpected but valuable, as in Dan Rather’s story about his search for Clint that eventually led him, almost entirely by accident, to Lenny and Nelson Sepulveda. Only after listening to and weaving together hundreds of stories from civilians and criminals alike were Rather, Tebbens, Dugan, and Bourges able to piece together a street history of events and then link the stories together into a convincing narrative, based on testimony, for presentation as evidence in court.
Lenny and Nelson Sepulveda, Platano, Pasqualito, the slightly older Franklin Cuevas, and all of their associates had grown up together in the streets of Washington Heights. They went to George Washington High School together and played football together. They were physically restless and troublesome in school. One of their exasperated teachers told them that they acted just like a bunch of “wild cowboys.” To make money, they went over to New Jersey malls and stole cars on consignment or they robbed people in the subways. Early in the 1980s, Frankie Cuevas was interrupted during a burglary by an old woman and he beat her badly; he was given heavy prison time. In the mid-1980s, a man named Yayo is said to have invented crack; whatever his actual pharmaceutical wizardry, no one doubts his organizational or marketing genius. He developed most of the techniques for making and selling crack that spread throughout all five New York City boroughs. He took Lenny and Nelson under his wing and taught them the tricks of the drug trade, before fleeing to the Dominican Republic. In 1986, Nelson set up his own crack business near Beekman Avenue in the South Bronx, but his leadership was weak and things faltered. He called on the lion-hearted Lenny for help and everything changed overnight. In 1988, the brothers seized another location on Beekman Avenue and dubbed it “The Hole.” They rationalized the business, setting up an elaborate surveillance system and an accounting system to keep track of every bottle of crack that their operation sold. Between 1986-1993, the brothers grossed $17.5 million, clearing at least two-thirds of that, money that has never been traced. They brought many of their childhood friends and high-school classmates from Washington Heights into the business, in particular Platano and Pasqualito, by now tough, seasoned street players willing to use violence as an occupational tool. Indeed these two, along with Stanley, honed their skills so finely that they became independent contractors, hit men for hire working throughout the city.
The Sepulveda brothers bought their cocaine from yet another boyhood friend, El Feo (“the ugly one”), a diminutive man of great personal presence and authority, who ruled his own crew with an iron hand from the wheelchair to which he was confined as the result of an assassination attempt. Lenny and Nelson beat off rival gangs who tried to steal their business or “messed with” their boys. As Lenny Sepulveda later admitted as part of his plea bargain, the double homicide in 1989 was done in retaliation for the murder of a boyhood friend and business associate of both the Sepulveda brothers and El Feo. When Franklin Cuevas got out of prison in November 1989 for beating the old woman, Lenny gave him cocaine and set him up in business at Manor and Watson avenues in the Bronx and got guns for him from Raymond, the Brooklyn supplier. The two leaders also night-clubbed together. Cuevas was with Lenny earlier the night that Lenny shot David Cargill.
But then in September 1991, Lenny, nabbed the year before for gun possession, was sentenced to nine months in jail. Cuevas, powerfully charismatic in his own right, fired of his subordinate role and tried to take over Beekman Avenue. Cuevas thus enraged both the Sepulveda brothers and El Feo, laying the groundwork for the all-out war in the Three-Four precinct in the spring of 1992. Cuevas had his own workers Madonna and Gilbert murdered because he suspected them of collaborating with the enemy. All the while El Feo, who was continually plotting against Cuevas, utilized his own main hit man, known as Freddy Krueger, to wage yet another war on the side–a war within the larger war–that caused more bodies to fall, confusing things still further.
With Lenny still in prison, The Hole’s profits slipped. In order to shore up his waning authority, Nelson planned the Quad to teach the Yellow Top entrepreneurs a lesson. That slaughter finally triggered the mobilization of law enforcement resources that led to everyone’s downfall. At the end of this wild and wooly, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale filled with blood vengeance, murders for hire and convenience, as well as murder for sport, at least forty people were dead, including Franklin Cuevas who was eventually murdered in 1993 by Pasqualito, then allied with El Feo. Scores of other street players were maimed either physically or psychologically. These numbers may actually be much higher. As late as 2000, Tebbens, Dugan, and Bourges were still linking crimes to gang members.
It was only after understanding these crimes within a narrative framework, one that provided investigators with a street-historical perspective on the violence, that Rather and three other prosecutors, Dan Brownell, Don King, and Lori Grifa, who actually did the excruciatingly hard work of carrying the case through trial,6 were able to make the legal arguments that took key figures of the gang off the street and put them behind bars.
Why study investigators of criminal violence? First, investigators of criminal violence provide remarkable insights into such violence itself. Criminal violence occupies a central place in modern social structure and imagination. Violent crime rates differ dramatically across modern societies depending on the extent of or lack of social/cultural cohesiveness and continuity. Rates within a given society fluctuate with changes in: demographic structure, particularly in the size of the cohort of young men between fourteen and twenty-four years old, usually the shock troops of criminal violence; family stability, particularly in the rates of illegitimacy that usually leaves young men without fathers; economic prosperity that provides work considered honorable by physically restless young men; degrees of economic and social inequality that foster resentment in those at a competitive market disadvantage; and policing policies, particularly the extent to which police are given rein to guard communities proactively. Whenever it occurs, however, criminal violence fractures the social order. When it becomes widespread, as in Washington Heights in the early 1990s, criminal violence undermines the expectation of public safety, a prerequisite of everyday civil society and the underpinning of political legitimacy. But despite its shocking fearsomeness, indeed perhaps because of it, criminal violence fascinates modern men and women, and becomes variously an occasion for calls for order, for sermons about presumed moral disintegration, and often for celebrations of criminal badness as resistance to perceived social oppressiveness. But most citizens, except criminals themselves and those who travel in criminal circles, know about criminal violence only through the representations of it in the mass media, the demand for which is fueled by public fascination. While some of those representations come from criminal investigators, the mass media almost inevitably present them in simplified cartoon-like fashion, utilizing the visual and verbal vocabularies of the moment. Studying criminal investigators allows one to see, albeit through investigators’ occupational prism, the complexity, the wildness, the moral codes, and especially the predictable patterns of criminal violence, in non-sanitized form. As it happens, most criminal violence is committed by men and a few women for whom violence is an occupational tool-in-trade. Nowhere is this truer than in the world of drug-related homicides, which, at least in New York City, account for at least 60 percent of all murders. But robbers, as well as many burglars and thieves, also see violence as a taken-for-granted, if regrettable, exigency of their trades. Looking at criminal violence through the eyes of those who investigate it provides a sobering, workaday understanding of a phenomenon regularly sentimentalized by journalists and social scientists alike. Moreover, investigators’ work on occupationally-generated violence inevitably leads them to look at the institutional links between legitimate and criminal organizations, markets, and individuals, a shadowy but crucial area of inquiry for students of modern society.
Second, studying investigators helps clarify a key cultural struggle of modern society. The thorough segmentation and specialization of modernity, broken as it is into shards of self-enclosed arenas highly varnished by occupations dedicated to the triumph of image over reality and the invention of make-believe worlds that erase already blurred lines of responsibility, often make the world seem as if one were looking at it through a kaleidoscope darkly.(7) Even many contemporary ethnographers in the social sciences have left far behind the rich tradition of empirical ethnography, most evident, say, in the classic works of British social anthropology. Many ethnographers now work in the grip of a postmodern epistemology in which the best that one can hope to produce is a broad-brush, impressionistic sketch of others’ social worlds pregnant with multiple possible scenarios and interpretations, or, better, auto-ethnography, a record of one’s own experiences and emotions while studying others. By contrast, criminal investigators are urban ethnographers of another sort, men and women of affairs who work in a liminal world in which they try to find their way through mazes of lies, multiple identities, crooked stories, and blind alleys to achieve a knowledge of agency for violence. Solving the riddles of the violence at hand required investigators to break through the piecemeal, bureaucratic fragmentation of individual cases to see the larger pattern of mayhem caused by a gang of criminals. It required investigators to enter into worlds and listen attentively to hundreds of conflicting stories, many of them bald lies, some of them half-truths, some of them right on the money. All the while, they had to assess the credibility of the storytellers and their plausibility as witnesses in the legal forum, winnowing the wheat of valuable information from the chaff of rumor and deceit. It required them to enter into morally ambiguous terrain, to cut questionable deals and sometimes practice deception in order to get at the truth, a prerequisite to the notion of, let alone the establishment of, any kind of responsibility, unless one accepts an arbitrary assignment of blame. Perhaps most important, it required an empirical/historical/narrative bent of mind, a constant attempt to make sense of things through compelling stories that captured both the thrust and the meaning of events. This finally enabled the end-of-the-line bureaucracy of our thoroughly rationalized society to fix responsibility for heinous crimes and bring an end, at least for the time being, to the carnage in Washington Heights and the South Bronx. Some occupational groups, many intellectuals among them, are dedicated to re-enchanting the world. Criminal investigators, ordinary men and women, cling to rational/empirical legacies of sense-making, telling stories that illuminate dark corners of modern society.
(*) My thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for the funding that enabled the fieldwork that underpins this essay. Special thanks to Janice M. Hirota for her invaluable editing and substantive suggestions.
(1) This essay is based on continuous fieldwork with the 34th precinct detective squad of the New York City Police Department from January 1992 through early September 1993, with twice-a-week fieldwork continuing through 1994, and more sporadic contact with individual detectives continuing to the present. My work with the 34th squad was preceded by a one-month stint with the Midtown North squad and three months fieldwork with the Central Robbery Squad of the then independent New York City Transit Police Department. My intensive work with the police was followed by extensive fieldwork in the New York State Supreme Court in late 1994 through the spring of 1995, and then at the office of the Homicide Investigation Unit of the District Attorney of New York from the summer of 1995 through the spring of 1997. This essay draws on the full-length work Wild Cowboys: Urban Marauders & the Forces of Order by Robert Jackall, published by Harvard University Press, Copyright [C] 1997 by Robert Jackall. See this work for further details and for full accounts of the stories in this essay.
(2) Crack is cocaine mixed with baking soda, water, and sometimes rum or lemon, and baked until it is brittle and breaks into “rocks”. Users smoke the rocks in glass pipes. Crack produces a powerful, instantaneous, and highly addictive rush. In New York City, dealers market crack in “bottles,” small plastic vials that sell for five dollars, jumbos for ten, with brands in a given geographical area (there are important product differences in strength and flavor depending on the skill of the baker) designated by the color of the tops of the vials.
(3) The vast majority of Dominican immigrants fit the classic profile of all immigrant groups in America: most Dominicans are hard-working, upwardly-striving, and law-abiding. Only a small percentage of Dominicans choose to live outside the law, either as illegal immigrants or as active participants in a range of criminal activities, often both. These few are the focus of police detectives’ and prosecutors’ work and consequently of this essay.
(4) In the 34th precinct alone between 1987-1993, 379 out of 638 homicides, or 59 percent, were drug-related. For a preliminary analysis of the patterns of these homicides, see Robert Jackall, Wild Cowboys, 65-73. Briefly, 27 percent of drug-related homicides during the period studied were due to robberies gone bad, with either drug dealers or robbers killed; 33 percent were cases of murder as a rational business tool. These were killings committed by drug dealers’ own robbery divisions, or the elimination of enemies in territorial disputes, or the bloody result of internal organizational discipline. About 15 percent resulted from spontaneous disputes between business associates in the drug trade, usually disputes about matters of honor, called “respect” on the street. Only 5 percent were drug-induced homicides, that is, murders committed by people under the influence of drugs. Less than 2 percent were shootings by police of drug dealers ruled justifiable by grand juries. And about 18 percent remain mysteries.
(5) The stratification of police organizations by talent and especially by hard work resembles that of all large organizations, but particularly that of other large, civil-service municipal bureaucracies. In the author’s estimate, based on wide comparative study of and experience in different bureaucracies, including corporations and the academy, about 20 percent of the employees of most large organizations have retired while still on the job. Moral entrepreneurs’ continual focus on certain types of police corruption–bribery in its various forms, racial profiling, perjury, extortion, and especially excessive or unwarranted use of force, all inexcusable crimes but all committed by a tiny percentage of officers–causes them to miss the most widespread form of corruption, namely laziness.
(6) After putting the main frame of the case together, Dan Rather took a promotion in September 1993, amidst considerable organizational turmoil and acrimony, to become DANY’s Chief of Firearms Trafficking. Assistant District Attorneys Dan Brownell of DANY, Don King of the Bronx District Attorney’s office, and Lori Grifa of the Kings County District Attorney’s office prosecuted the case in Manhattan’s New York State Supreme Court before Justice Leslie Crocker Snyder in 1994-95. Nine defendants were found guilty of murder and several other crimes at trial. More than twenty defendants pleaded guilty to serious crimes; among them were Lenny and Nelson Sepulveda who pleaded guilty to murder. El Feo was tried and convicted of several murders in federal court in the Southern District of New York. His hit man, Freddy Krueger, was eventually apprehended in the Dominican Republic and extradited to New York where he pleaded guilty to several murders in federal court.
(7) For an elaboration of this theme, see Robert Jackall and Janice M. Hirota, Image Makers: Advertising, Public Relations, and the Ethos of Advocacy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
Robert Jackall, Class of 1956 Professor of Sociology and Social Thought at Williams College, is the author of Wild Cowboys: Urban Marauders and The Forces of Order (1997) and Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers (1988), and co-author (with J. Hirota) of Image Makers: Advertising; Public Relations, and the Ethos of Advocacy (2000). He has co-edited several volumes, including Metropolis: Center and Symbol of Our Times (1994), and is currently writing an ethnography of the world of police detectives.
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