February 18, 2000

Volpe's Version of Louima Torture

By Patricia Hurtado. STAFF WRITER

Justin Volpe, the disgraced former police officer who admitted to one of the city's most horrific incidents of police brutality, testified yesterday that Officer Charles Schwarz was not with him when Volpe sodomized Abner Louima in a 70th Precinct bathroom. Volpe, serving a 30-year prison term for the Aug. 9, 1997, torture of the Haitian immigrant, gave his first public account of the attack as the first defense witness in the federal conspiracy trial of Schwarz and Officers Thomas Bruder and Thomas Wiese. Last year, a federal jury convicted Schwarz of restraining Louima while Volpe sodomized him with a stick. Bruder and Wiese were acquitted of beating Louima in a patrol car en route to the precinct house.

In this trial, defense lawyers maintain Schwarz was wrongly convicted. And because Volpe acted alone, they say, no conspiracy occurred. Volpe, wearing a borrowed navy blazer, tie and gray pants, was called as a witness by Schwarz' lawyer, Ronald Fischetti. He appeared less cocky than during his days in court during last year's trial, before his guilty plea. But during 21/2 hours on the stand, Volpe insisted to jurors and spectators in the packed courtroom that he only wanted "closure" for himself and all those involved.

"Two months ago, I was sentenced to 30 years in prison," Volpe said, his voice husky with emotion. "I want to do that time with a clear mind, with a clear conscience. Part of me reclaiming my life is to tell the truth about what happened that night, because there's obviously a lot of confusion about what happened, and I can't live with myself and do my time in peace by knowing that another man is paying for the crimes that I did. It has nothing to do with friendship; it just has to do with doing what's right in my heart."

Several times, Volpe repeated, "I never saw Schwarz in the bathroom at any time." And he finally said, "When I was in the bathroom, the only officer who assaulted Mr. Louima was myself." Prosecutors charge Bruder and Wiese gave several false accounts to federal and state investigators to cover up Schwarz' role in the bathroom attack. If convicted, they could face up to 5 years in prison.

In a surprise statement, Volpe testified Wiese was present in the bathroom throughout the attack but said Wiese stood by the door and never touched Louima. That contradicted the account Wiese gave to investigators from the Brooklyn district attorney's office and the police Internal Affairs Division on Aug. 17, 1997. In that statement, Wiese said he escorted Louima into the bathroom but maintained that Volpe walked the prisoner inside.

Wiese said he heard a noise in the bathroom but waited about two minutes before going in and discovering Volpe standing over Louima with a stick in his hands.

Wiese said he pulled Louima away from Volpe by Louima's ankles. Wiese's lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, declined to cross-examine Volpe on the conflicting accounts. Assistant U.S. Attorney Lauren Resnick, on cross-examination, asked Volpe how he was able to sodomize Louima without any assistance. "It's your testimony that you were able to insert the stick in that position with enough force to tear a one-inch hole in his rectum and a one-inch hole in his bladder?" Resnick asked, referring to Louima's injuries.

"I don't recall what the exact injuries were; I just testified what happened," Volpe said. Resnick suggested in her questioning that Volpe had a reason for saying Wiese was in the bathroom: Wiese had told investigators that he saw Volpe standing over a prostrate Louima in the bathroom, she pointed out.

But Volpe denied he was angry with Wiese, though he conceded, "I wasn't happy with him." When Resnick asked why Volpe for two years had maintained his innocence, Volpe replied, "We can sit all day. I lied to everyone; I lied to myself; I lied to my lawyer; I lied to my parents. I don't mean to get upset ... You keep asking me; we'll be here all day."

Volpe also said he never met with Schwarz, Bruder and Wiese on Aug. 13, 1997, in the precinct basement to concoct a "cover-up story."

After court adjourned for the day, Samuel Nicolas, one of Louima's cousins and a family spokesman, told reporters, "Mr. Volpe doesn't have any credibility with this family ... He's protecting the other officers. The 'blue wall of silence' still remains." Schwarz was heartened by Volpe's testimony, his lawyer, Fischetti, said. "I believe he testified truthfully, but it's a matter for the jury to decide."