(Because of the graphic and brutal nature of the crime, a warning seems appropriate before one reads further)
In the bathroom of the precinct, I sodomized Mr. Abner Louima with a stick, then threatened to kill him if he told anybody.
Officer Justin Volpe
Some people become known for things they did, created, or accomplished. Some because of things done to them. Sadly, Abner Louima falls in the latter category. He was the victim of one of the most vicious cases of police brutality on record in the United States (and probably the best known after Rodney King).
And he was innocent.
(A few notes on the sources and writing of this)1
The incident at the club
It happened on 9 August 1997. The police were dispatched to handle an "unruly crowd" (NYPD report) at Club Rendezvous in Brooklyn, New York. The time was around 4 AM. The crowd was there to hear a band popular among many of the Haitian and Caribbean immigrants in the area and to blow off steam after the work week. Apparently, the club is also known as a place frequented by homosexuals (something that both Officer Thomas Bruder and Patrol Supervisor Michael Bellomo allegedly were unaware of according to their FBI interviewsthe subject will come up again at trial).
A number of people were fighting, including two women (an incident included in both the above mentioned interviews) in a "lesbian fight" (Int-B) during which both became unclothed and the crowd both encouraged and attempted to discourage the pair. There was much cursing, much of it directed at the officers who arrived on the scene. Some bottles may have been thrown. Officer Justin Volpe was seen arguing with a black man who "had his wallet out, possibly showing VOLPE a badge" (Int-B). It later turned out to have been an "intoxicated patron" (NYLJ) named John Rejous. Volpe was able to push him to the ground when Rejous showed him his badge identifying himself as a New York City Corrections Officer. Volpe knocked the badge from his hand.
Louima "confronted" Volpe and was "yelling at him regarding his treatment of Rejous" (NYLJ). He refused to move when Volpe tried pushing him away. Two other officers, Thomas Wiese and Charles Schwarz, attempted to handcuff Louima. At that time someone ran up and hit Volpe in the head and injured him. The assailant was a black man who was later alleged to be Louima. He later turned out to have been his cousin, Jay Nicholas. It was this misidentification that started the dominoes that led to Louima's brutal victimization.
Some question as to the identification is suggested early on. According to Bellomo's FBI interview, he admits to having seen Volpe "engaged in another verbal dispute with a second black male. BELLOMO believes he saw this individual on television the Wednesday following the incident...and thought the caption under the individual identified him as LOUIMA'S cousin." On the other hand, he then stated that another man (dressed similar to Louima) ran up and punched the officer in the head before running off. Later, at the station, he took time to view Louima to see that his clothing matched his recollection of the subject. Another instance below.
In Bruder's interview, he described "a black man wearing dark pants and a black vest" fighting ("flailing") with Volpe in what he described as looking like a "schoolyard fight." The following line from the FBI report states that "BRUDER learned later that morning that the man in the black vest was ABNER LOUIMA," suggesting that perhaps he never made a true ID on the suspect but accepted what the others said.
Volpe had chased after Nicholas (thinking it was Louima, thinking Louima had hit him). The other officers had gathered two or three suspects in the assault and were waiting for an identification. Bellomo stated that he saw a man running behind Volpe, who then ran into the officer with an altercation resulting. This man was Patrick Antoine who was also arrested that night. Interestingly, Antoine was claimed to "intentionally collide" and "interfere" (Int-B) with Volpe, yet Bellomo's interview notes that "BELLOMO is not sure why, but VOLPE stopped running, turned around and it seemed as if the black male charged into VOLPE." Curiously, this might not have been as intentional as it was portrayed by the officers involved.
In fact, Antoine had never even been at the club and just happened to be on his way home. He becomes another victim.
When Bellomo arrived where Antoine had been detained, he was "yelling and screaming." Bellomo was sure that Antoine was "definitely not the subject who punched VOLPE in the head and initiated the foot pursuit, nor is he the individual with whom VOLPE had the initial verbal dispute." Antoine was taken to the station. The reason for his "yelling and screaming" came out later: Volpe had beaten him about the head and face with a flashlight. He was cut and would later require seven stitches.
Volpe would later tell the assistant district attorney that he was trying to handcuff Louima and was pushed and punched by Antoine. He later "swore out a complaint attesting to these facts and charging Antoine with felony assault, obstructing government administration in the second degree, and disorderly conduct" (NYLJ). "Facts."
About that point, Wiese announced over the radio that he was "holding one" (Int-B). Bruder drove Volpe (feeling that he should drive because of Volpe's injury) to where Wiese and his partner Schwarz were parked with the suspect. According to Bruder, the car was "dark" and he "could not see anything." One thing that he apparently "could not see" was when Volpe "taunted Louima and beat him on his head and face with closed fist and a radio," giving him "lacerations and abrasions on his face and swelling in his mouth and around his eye" (NYLJ).
According to Bellomo, who arrived about that time, the suspect was dressed similar to the man he saw but he "could not positively identify LOUIMA as the one who punched [Volpe]"Volpe identified Louima as the man and the rest accepted his confirmation. Wiese and Schwarz were then told to take the suspect to the precinct.
It was during the ride to the station that Louima (who was handcuffed) was allegedly beaten twice by the two officers. While Louima's blood was found in the car, the charges were subsequently dropped against the officers.
In a memo (20 November 1997) between two of the attorneys who worked the civil suit for the crimeone being Johnnie Cochran of the O.J. Simpson trial "fame" (the memo is from him)Cochran had lunch with the attorney representing Wiese. According to the memo, he was told that Wiese had seen Volpe in a fight but that it was not Louima, only dressed similarly. While doing crowd control, he turns and finds his partner "in a tussle on the ground with Louima" (memo). They arrest him and drive off. At one point they stopped and Wiese went to look where he thinks he saw some people run off. When he returned "Schwarz is in the back seat apparently assaulting Louima."
He claimed that Louima had a small cut when he was arrested and it had grown because of the attack. Schwarz claimed that the suspect had been trying to kick out the back window and "he had to do it." At that time, they made the call on the radio. Reaching a second location, Volpe identified Louima and allegedly asked to take the suspect to his car. Wiese refused because he "is concerned that there could be foul play if Volpe takes him to the car." It goes to mention that foul play took place, regardless. Additionally, Wiese
has evidence that Volpe is a bad guy who is engaged in assaultive behavior at times other than this that may have been covered up. And supervisors knew of this other conduct and he should have been pulled off the street but wasn't.
It is true that the Civilian Complaint Board had a complaint that he had used excessive force in 1995 but it was never substantiated. In the FBI interview, Bellomo characterized Volpe in generally good, if not better than good, terms and said he "has never had a problem when VOLPE had answered a call." On the other hand, he has had to "reprimand" him "in the past" and says he is "inexperienced" and "needs to work on his interpersonal skills." While he "will not back down in a confrontation," Bellomo believes he is not "overly aggressive."
Bruder's assessment of Volpe was "as an arguer, a character, a comedian, a good patrol cop, there if you need him, funny, a kid and that emotions can get to him" (Volpe was 25 and a four year veteran with several commendations). The first and last suggest something more than Bruder may have intended. The facts certainly appear to bear that out.
At the precinct, the sergeant at the desk began filling out the paperwork for processing. At that time Louima was still handcuffed and during the processing (about fifteen minutes, according to Bellomo) his pants and underwear fell to his ankles. This seems a very odd thing to happen and I only hesitate to give it more skepticism because it was part of the guilty plea in Volpe's case (refer to the footnote). It remains a very curious occurrence that seems not to merit comment by any of those involved.
The only thing the police officers seem to note was the lack of protests or action on the part of the prisoners (Louima and Antoine). Bellomo claimed it was an "unusual aspect" that there was a "lack of complaining by the prisoners" during processing. Yet he did not "recall anything out of the ordinary concerning the prisoners." Later when he visited the holding cells (following the assault in the bathroom), he noted that they were "unusually quiet."
Bruder also noted (again, following the attack) that Louima was "quiet and had his head down" and characterized him as "timid and quiet" (a direct quote in the interview). Antoine was referred to as a "timid little guy" (same as last quote). He claimed not to have noticed any problem with either. Hard to believe since he first related that Louima was in the cell, hands cuffed behind his back, on his knees "with his pants open on his hips below the waist." Further: after stating that the two asked for medical attention, he said that Louima looked "very 'sweaty' and may have been 'cracked up' and drunk," also noting that Louima's front teeth were gone "although his mouth was not injured." If not enough to question his earlier statement to the contrary, when the EMTs first arrived they found Louima "out cold, lying on his stomach, holding his side and moaning." To note, this was also included in his FBI interview despite that he allegedly "did not sense any problems with either of the prisoners."
It was decided that Volpe would get credit for the arrest. Again, there is divergence of the stories. According to Bruder's interview, he, Volpe, and Wiese were "discussing" who would be the arresting officer. Then it was "agreed upon" that it would be Volpe. Bruder then was to start the paperwork. According to Bellomo, there was a discussion, but he made the decision. Perhaps not significant.
According to the court transcript cited above, Volpe arrived at the precinct, saw Louima being processed at the front deskthen left for the
juvenile questioning room, where he grabbed a wooden broom stick and broke it over his knee. He placed the bottom of the stick behind a locker, took the upper section to the bathroom and put it behind a garbage can.
He then returned to the desk and borrowed a pair of leather gloves from Officer Mark Schofield, who had been standing there.
According to Bruder, following the processing, Wiese and Volpe walked Louima to the bathroom. He was uncertain in the interview whether Wiese entered with them or stayed outside. This is part of another problem. Louima claims that it was the driver of the car in which he was taken to the precinct. That would mean it was Schwarz who was there with Volpe. Schwarz was tried and convicted for allegedly holding down Louima in the bathroom during the assault (something as yet not proven). But Volpe has claimed that Schwarz was not in the bathroom (he told the judge but it was never introduced at trial, see below). Further complicating this was that Wiese also claims not to have seen Schwarz there and had admits to entering the bathroom (according to him) after the fact.
In the Cochran memo, it is suggested that it was determined that Schwarz was to be the one indicted for it: "by the time [Wiese] gets there on Friday, they've already indicted Schwarz and Volpe for the bathroom. When...he doesn't corroborate that Schwarz was in the bathroom but it was he...and only after the fact, they're pissed at him," apparently wanting him to ID Schwarz because he'd already been indicted.
A bizarre side note to the whole thing comes from Bruder's interview in which he mentions a small dog, "a little black puppy with big floppy ears," that he and Volpe took along for the nightly patrol. The dog is mentioned a couple more times that are, at the very least, intriguing, if a bit odd. Later, at the station, he described having to clean up after the dog because it had "defecated on the floor outside the cell area." He cleaned up with a mop. A bit later he describes the dog as "walking near WIESE'S feet" as he helped escort Louima to the bathroom.
(Primarily following the aforementioned court transcript.) Louima had been escorted to the bathroom, pants still down around his ankles, "forcing him to shuffle-step" (Bruder's interview claimed they were up at this time). He was taken into the bathroom. Volpe took the stick he had hidden and reportedly told Louima "I'm going to do something to you. If you yell or make any noise, I'll kill you." Louima was pushed down near the toilet and kicked in the groin. When he started to scream, Volpe covered Louima's mouth with his foot. He was then punched and kicked by the two officers (according to Louima; it is still not entirely clear who else may have been in there or at what point, though Volpe later implicated Wiese).
Then "Schwarz" (or someone else) lifted him off the ground by the handcuffs. It was at that point Volpe sodomized him with the broom stick, forcing it at least six inches into his rectum. After he removed the excrement-covered stick, he "held it in front of Louima's mouth and taunted him." He then lifted Louima to his feet and still unclothed from the waist down, he was brought back to a holding cell. Volpe told Louima that if anyone was told he would kill him.
The gloves were then returned. Louima's blood was matched from them later at trial. The defense claimed it was because Louima had been bleeding when he was brought in. This wouldn't explain him borrowing the gloves (and not the kind usually used for protection against blood exposure). To his credit, Schofield testified as to what happened concerning the gloves as well as hearing Volpe brag that "I took a man down tonight," later at the hospital (while he and others were being treated for injuries sustained that night).
According to the Cochran memo, Wiese (who claimed to be there, not Schwarz, and outside the door) hears a noise, not "screaming," but a "banging noise." Supposedly he then entered to find Louima face down, partially naked and Volpe holding the soiled stick. He also notices the excrement on Louima and is told by Volpe that "He shit his pants," "He defecated on himself." Then Wiese helps Louima up, during which Volpe tried to insert the stick in Louima's mouth. Pretty damning, but everything from the memo has to be seen for what it is, statements (over lunch) from Wiese's attorneys, making it possibly self-serving. On the other hand, enough pieces do begin to add up to a partial picture of the events. The implications cannot be easily shrugged off.
After the incident, Volpe was seen walking around with the stick, waving it "like it was a sword" according to testimony by Officer Eric Turetzkyanother to whom credit is due for coming forward (he was the first to offer information), despite the defense accusing him of only doing it to help gain himself a transfer and promotion to the Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB). Another officer, Sergeant Kenneth Wernick testified that Volpe bragged about it and told him he had rammed the stick into him five or six times. He may have even taken Wernick to show him the bathroom (as the court paper says).
Another officer, Michael Schoer, testified that Volpe had taunted him with the stick. When he smelled the excrement, he asked "What is it, dog shit?" (referring to the above mentioned dog), to which Volpe replied, "No, human shit." The weapon was later tossed into a dumpster outside the station.
Bruder claimed in his interview that Volpe said "I wacked his ass with a mop handle."
There is one other aspect of the attack that should be addressed. Louima's statement that Volpe told him that "these guys still think it's the Dinkins administration, but it's not. It's Guiliani time" was, in fact, a fabrication for the media to call attention to the case. He would later attribute it to a "family adviser (crime.about.com, February 8, 2000). This along with certain other discrepancies with testimony (the lack of being able to positively identify Schwarz as the second man for one) caused some difficulty at trial concerning his credibility.
These inconsistencies were blamed on the strong medication he was on due to the extreme nature of the injuries incurred (his initial hospital stay was two months, during which he may have been handcuffed to the bed for the first three days, according to Human Rights Watch).
it took about four hours after the attack for the prisoners to be given for medical attention. The nature and extent of Louima's injuries (from the "rape") were not immediately apparent and he was treated for cuts and bruises. It was after further tests that the serious damage was discovered. His first surgery took place that night, where doctors repaired a "two-centimeter perforation to Louima's rectum and a three-centimeter perforation to his bladder" (NYLJ). Also, colostomy and cystostomy procedures took place.
He later suffered complications and had an intestinal block, requiring emergency surgery and the implant of a colostomy bag (it was removed later in 1998). He was given medical and psychiatric treatment on an outpatient basis. He also suffered from headaches, abdominal pain, and insomnia.
IAB began the investigation the day after, though there was no attempt to look for evidence at the precinct until 11 August, two days after the attack took place. The possibility of foot-dragging and cover up was further advanced during trial when Schofield testified that, following the beginning of the IAB investigation, Bellomo said that he "didn't want to see anybody go to jail." Bellomo was charged with covering up one of the beatings in the squad car, filing a false arrest report on Antoine, and making false statements to IAB and the FBI (again, refer to footnote one).
Even if one has to read his interview with caution, it is clear that he is interested in damage control from the beginning when he says he was informed Volpe was walking around with a stick and had returned the borrowed gloves with blood on them. In fact, he told (according to him, making it doubly suspect) Schofield to "sit tight" (direct quote in interview) while he got in touch with IAB. So even if his story about concern for procedure and the law is accurate as he portrays it, that he tried to take control of the information from early on is clear. Whether this alone can be seen as a clear admission of guilt is debatable.
Volpe was arrested on 13 August 1997 and charged with assault. These state charges were dropped in favor of turning the matter over to federal prosecution. He and Schwarz surrendered to the FBI on 26 February 1998.
On 4 May 1999, the trial began. in addition to Volpe, Scwarz, Wiese, Bruder, and Bellomo were tried on various charges.
The first assault in the car: Schwarz and Wiese. The second assault in the car: Bruder, Schwarz, Volpe, and Wiese. This in addition to the charges concerning the main attack for Volpe and Schwarz. Bellomo's charges concerned the cover up, making false statements, and the false arrest of Antoine.
One of the particularly cruel parts of the trial was when the defense contended Louima's injuries were due to consensual homosexual sex (bringing back the nature of the club). In Bruder's interview he described finding a "yellow and black promotion card" among Louima's things which advertised an "All Male Review" and had "pictures of guys with no shirts" (both direct quotes in interview). The interview also stated that he "discarded" it before bagging evidence (curiously). This brings into question the statement two pages later that claims "BRUDER does not know Club Rendezvous as a gay club."
This pernicious ploy on the part of defense might have appeared damning (from their point of view) but no actual substantiated evidence of Louima's alleged homosexuality was ever offered. On the other hand, there was testimony of him dancing with women and the fact that he was married and had a child. This, of course, should be irrelevant, as whether or not Louima was gay has no bearing on the extreme nature of the injuries. This should go without saying. Consensual sex does not involve that kind of behavior (that exceptions might exist among a few people, certainly cannot support the contention by the defense).
Parts of the testimony have already been mentioned. On 25 May, Volpe pled guilty on six of twelve counts: conspiring to deprive Louima of his civil rights by assault and aggravated sexual abuse, assaulting Louima in a police car, sexually abusing Louima in a rest room at the 70th Precinct, assaulting Patrick Antoine, falsely arresting Antoine, and witness tampering (adapted from NYLJ). In December, he was sentenced for 30 years. Schwarz was found guilty (though Volpe maintains he was not there) and the others acquitted.
The second trial on the matter of obstruction charges (Schwarz, Wiese, Bruder) began in February 2000. It was here that Louima's difficulty in remembering (along with the Guiliani fabrication) caused problems. He could not identify Schwarz for certain. Then Volpe testified, stating (again) that Schwarz was not there and that Wiese was (part of the time), though he did not intervene (contrary to what was told Cochran in the memo, which said Wiese helped Louima up and out).
An IAB officer testified that Louima had not identified Schwarz from a photo array and had never been shown a picture of Wiese. Schwarz claimed he was outside of the station house checking the squad car for any items or weapons left behind by the suspects. When asked about a large number of calls that Bruder, Wiese, and he had made to each other shortly after the assault, he claimed to not remember any of the details, even suggesting he had lent his phone card to Wiese.
The verdict was returned on 6 March of that year. All three were convicted of obstructing justice, which could carry a five year sentence (Schwarz already facing a possible life sentence for the assault). In the aftermath, Schwarz was given 15 2/3 years for the assault and Volpe felt he should be given credit for testifying about Wiese being in the bathroom. He continued to maintain that Schwarz was innocent of the assault.
Still hoping for a sentence reduction, Volpe claimed that he had not intended to assault Louima in the bathroom. The judge, unsurprisingly, was unimpressed. Hiding a broken broom stick in the bathroom certainly doesn't sound unintentional.
Meanwhile, the civil lawsuit brought by Louima was settled for $8.7 million to be paid by the city of New York and the Policeman's Benevolent Association.
Schwarz continued to try to battle his convictions. His law team produced a witness that said Turetzky was not certain whether he saw Wiese or Schwarz going toward the bathroom (only seeing the man from behind and not actually seeing the suspect enter). Further, that this was known information that was not relayed to his legal team. After hearings, it was concluded that Turetzky had been positive about the ID and the witness was not credible.
While that (specifically) did not work, the appeals court overturned the charges for all three of them in February 2002. The civil rights conviction for helping Volpe and the obstruction and conspiracy charges for all four. It was felt that the jury had been "improperly exposed" to news reports and that the jury was "contaminated" (cnn.com). Also of issue were that Volpe's original claims that Schwarz was not there were not presented at trial and that Schwarz's attorney had a conflict of interesthe was on retainer from the police union which had been named in the civil suit.
Bruder and Wiese were found to have made "misleading statements" but not in front of the grand jury. They were released and were not expected to be retried (on 15 May, the prosecuters asked the court of appeals to reinstate the obstruction charges, which is pending as of this writing).
Schwarz is expected to be retried starting 24 June 2002. Prosecuters hope to add perjury charges to the original civil rights related charges.
None of this has had any effect on Volpe's sentence, though his attorney hopes testimony about who was in the bathroom with him may shorten his sentence.
Abner Louima lives in the Miami area with his family.
In conclusion, BELLOMO stated that if it happened (the alleged assault and sodomy on ABNER LOUIMA) then they (the participant(s)) "can rot in hell."
Final paragraph from Bellomo's FBI interview
1The first two primary sources were the interviews conducted with Officer Bruder (8 November 1997) and Patrol Supervisor Bellomo (30 October 1997) by the FBI. The interview documents are not first person transcripts. Also, some of the "testimony" of the interviews may have been to deflect blame, incriminate others, or cover up the mess it became. Bellomo was charged with making false statements during that interview.
The second primary source was the court's "memorandum and order embodying its findings and conclusions as to Volpe’s sentence," read into the record as part of Volpe's guilty plea. According to it, "the record is more than adequate to support findings of fact as follows." It is the main record with the least possibility of tainted "facts." Unfortunately, it, too, is not sacrosanct (particularly as to whether Schwarz was part of the bathroom assault).
The third was the Johnnie Cochran memo which is more a look at some background of the cover up. Less weight was given to it, though the implications when viewed with other statements and testimony are not always easy to dismiss.
Numerous newspaper articles were also used from the time of the trial. The only thing missing was a trial transcript (which would have made this even more unbearably long). Given the sources I had, I pieced togetherusing my best judgmentwhat I feel to be a good representation of what happened. This does not mean that every detail or conclusion is necessarily accurate, due to limitations inherent in the sources. Further, since most of the case is based on testimony of numerous people and people who allegedly lied for one reason or another at one time or another, the complete details are unlikely ever to be known.
FBI interviews: Int-B (Bruder), Int-B (Bellomo), Cochran memo, and NYPD report can all be found at: www.thesmokinggun.com/torture/torture.shtml
Court transcript for the guilty plea (NYLJ, New York Law Journal) can be found at: www6.law.com/ny/links/volpe.html
Numerous articles about the trial and other helpful material at: http://www.courttv.com/national/louima/
Timeline and links to news articles: crime.about.com/library/blfiles/bllouima.htm?once=true&