New York Daily News

February 27, 2008 

20 years ago, a cop was shot and NYPD began crushing drug gangs

First, there was a tap on the window of an NYPD patrol car - quickly followed by five bullets pumped into the head of a rookie cop in the early-morning hours of Feb. 26, 1988.

The murder of Officer Edward Byrne was a message from brazen dope dealers: No one in New York City was safe, not even a uniformed cop guarding a witness to a drug case.

Officer Edward ByrneThe city got the message - and the callous murder became a key turning point in the war on crack.

"The assassination of Police Officer Eddie Byrne was a ruthless act that captured the city's attention like few others," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.

That year, there were 1,896 murders in the city. Tallies taken in the late 1980s estimated the majority of homicides were drug-related.

Byrne, barely 22 years old, became a rallying point for a city sick of murderous drug kingpins like Howard (Pappy) Mason, who ordered the hit from his cell, and the street boss who sanctioned it, Lorenzo (Fat Cat) Nichols.

"These guys were vicious, and they wanted to show that they could get anybody," said retired NYPD Officer George Reynolds, a union delegate in Queens' 103rd Precinct when Byrne was killed. "It was a wakeup call."

Byrne was alone in a marked police car guarding a Guyanese immigrant who had the nerve to call police when Mason's crew dealt crack on his doorstep.

Drug crews, in retaliation, firebombed the witnesses' home at 107th Ave. and Inwood St. in South Jamaica, prompting police to post around-the-clock protection.

Mason ordered the hit and fronted $8,000 for the deed. The reason was pure retaliation for the NYPD dissing him on the street, busting him on a gun charge and thinking it could protect a witness.

"Mason was a wild guy. He felt that he was untouchable," said retired NYPD Detective Richard Sica, who worked on the Byrne slaying case.

Testimony at the trial showed that vengeful dealers had driven by the home at least twice but decided it would look weak to kill a female cop or a black officer.

So they picked Byrne, blue-eyed and Irish, to represent all city cops.

Arriving officers found Byrne sitting upright in his cruiser, a folded copy of the Daily News and a portable AM-FM radio on the seat.

"We [raced] over there. On the way, we tried to raise him on the radio. Nothing. We flew down there, rushed him to the hospital and told his dad," said NYPD Officer Tony Keller who, with his partner, was the first on the scene. "It was an execution."

Byrne's murder led to the creation of the NYPD's Tactical Narcotics Teams, which made street-level buy-and-busts.

Fat Cat, Pappy and the major drug crews were broken up. Open-air drug markets were disbanded or forced indoors. The next 20 years saw the city's homicide rate plummet to just under 500 last year.

Four suspects were busted in Byrne's killing: Todd Scott, David McClary, Scott Cobb and Philip Copeland.

Scott and McClary shot Byrne. Cobb was the getaway driver and Copeland was an enforcer who made sure the other three carried out the execution. All four were convicted and are eligible for parole starting in 2013.

"It did make a difference," said Sica, who with his partner pulled one of the killers - Scott - from a closet where he had been hiding.

"People had been dying for years, but it made the country aware of what was going on with crack and narcotics," Sica said.

The white-and-gray shingled house at 107th Ave. and Inwood St. has been razed. The city bought the property, and a developer plans to build affordable housing at the site.

Tuesday morning, cops from across the city will gather at the spot to pay homage to Byrne's memory - and legacy.

"We very much appreciate the way people honor my brother's death," said his sibling, attorney Lawrence Byrne. "It's a tribute to his sacrifice that people still remember not only his loss but also the sacrifice so many other people have made to make the city a safer place."

agendar@nydailynews.com