March 7, 2000

Guilty of Cover-Up

Jury: Schwarz, 2 colleagues lied about Louima assault

By Patricia Hurtado Staff Writer

FORMER NEW YORK CITY police officer Charles Schwarz and two colleagues were convicted yesterday of conspiring to conceal Schwarz' role in the sexual assault of Abner Louima three years ago.

The federal jury of six blacks, five whites and one Latino concluded that Schwarz, Thomas Bruder, 33, and Thomas Wiese, 36, lied to cover up Schwarz' role in the Aug. 9, 1997, assault in a restroom of the 70th Precinct station house in Brooklyn.

Schwarz, 34, convicted last year of restraining Louima while Justin Volpe sodomized him with a wooden stick, looked initially stunned, then enraged as the verdict was announced. He cursed at his lawyer, Ronald Fischetti, and said, "They're -- -- -- liars."

He reddened then punched the air angrily with his fist as he was led away by U.S. marshals, and could be heard cursing and yelling from a holding pen adjacent to the courtroom, "They convicted me twice. Two -- -- -- times."

Schwarz faces up to life in prison for his federal conviction last June for depriving Louima of his civil rights.

No sentencing date was set yesterday, but all three face up to five years imprisonment on the conspiracy convictions.

Louima was not in the courtroom, but at a news conference after the verdict, Samuel Nicolas, a cousin and family spokesman, said: "This is not a happy occasion for us. We are not opening champagne bottles. Abner is still recuperating ... Now we can start the healing process."

U.S. District Court Judge Eugene Nickerson, who presided over the case in Brooklyn, yesterday set an April 7 return date for the defendants.

When the verdict was announced, Bruder stared in disbelief, saying: "There is no justice. This is a travesty."

Apparently overcome by emotion, he first put his head down on the defense table and then buried his head on the shoulder of his lawyer, Stuart London.

Wiese stared straight ahead, but after the jury was led out of the courtroom, he then embraced Bruder.

The defendants' supporters and their families erupted with the verdict: Bruder's girlfriend burst into tears and Wiese's mother collapsed in the hallway outside the courtroom, sobbing: "I taught him to tell the truth. You told the truth."

Her son cradled her in his arms, saying, "I did, mom."

Bruder told his mother, Doris, and supporters: "You tell the truth and this is what happens. Nobody's stronger than me in this whole damn building. We're going to fight this, it's not over."

Schwarz' wife, Andra, hugged her mother-in-law, Estelle Ohnmeiss, and sobbed as Fischetti comforted them, saying, "I'm sorry. I did all I could. It ain't over."

Bruder and Wiese, who both remained free on $100,000 bail, left court without comment. Both were cleared last year of beating Louima in a squad car en route to the precinct, but were immediately fired from the force with yesterday's conviction.

In a prepared statement, Giuliani said he respected the panel's verdict, saying, "I'm sure that all New Yorkers and police officers find the behavior of the defendants in this case and the related case to be reprehensible."

Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, who was on last year's prosecution team, told reporters outside the courthouse, "The verdict should send a message that within the Police Department there is no greater betrayal of the badge and of the brotherhood than to ensnare a fellow officer in a web of lies and in deceit."

Alan Vinegrad, Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney who headed both prosecutions, said, "I thought Schwarz' testimony was incredible on its face... Obviously they found him guilty notwithstanding his testimony that he had nothing to do with what happened in the bathroom, nor with any coverup."

Fischetti asked federal prison officials to place his client on a suicide watch, saying Schwarz was "devastated."

"I am convinced he was never in that bathroom and we will make appeals from now until doomsday to prove that fact," Fischetti said.

Defense lawyers argued during the trial that Schwarz was never in the bathroom, and therefore no cover-up occurred. They called Volpe, who is serving a 30-year prison term after pleading guilty to the assault, as their first witness. Schwarz also took the stand and proclaimed his innocence.

Prosecutors Vinegrad and Lauren Resnick charged during the trial that the defendants gave ever-changing stories to investigators and colleagues about who they saw escort Louima to the bathroom to give Schwarz an alibi.

They charged that the defendants concocted and updated their stories to clear Schwarz through scores of telephone calls during a four-day period as witnesses came forward.

Initially, Wiese and Bruder told investigators that Volpe alone led Louima to the bathroom. But after a rookie cop, Eric Turetzky, identified Schwarz as the officer he saw lead Louima past the cells in the direction of the bathroom, both changed their story to say that Wiese and Volpe led Louima to the bathroom.

Wiese even told state investigators that he had stayed outside throughout the attack petting a puppy but upon hearing a noise, entered the bathroom and rescued Louima. A day later, Bruder changed his story to include this detail about Wiese and the puppy.

Volpe testified Schwarz was not in the bathroom during the assault but also insisted that Wiese had been in the bathroom throughout the entire assault but never stopped it.

And Schwarz and Wiese initially told a police union trustee that Volpe alone led Louima away from the precinct's front desk. But when Schwarz testified, he said he thought Wiese led Louima away. Schwarz also testified he had been outside the precinct searching his police cruiser for contraband at the time of the attack.

The case is not the last prosecution stemming from the attack: two Street Crime Unit officers, Rolando Aleman and Francisco Rosario, are slated to go on trial next for conspiring to make false statements to federal investigators about what they saw the morning of the attack.

Louima's multimillion-dollar federal civil lawsuit against the city and police union is also pending.