The New York Times

July 27, 2001


Early Interview in Louima Case Provides Spark for Renewed Interest

By THE NEW YORK TIMES

The following article is based on reporting by Kevin Flynn, Alan Feuer and William K. Rashbaum and was written by Mr. Flynn.

Sometime after midnight on Aug. 15, 1997, three police supervisors arrived at Brooklyn's 70th Precinct station house to investigate an officer's shooting of a dog earlier in the day. It was a routine assignment, but hardly a routine time for personnel in the 70th Precinct.

Six days earlier, Abner Louima had been sodomized with a broomstick in the station- house bathroom. One officer had been arrested. The conduct of others was being scrutinized, and several of their colleagues were agonizing over whether to come forward with what they knew of the attack.

One of those colleagues, Detective Eric Turetzky, sleep-deprived and eager to unburden himself as he awaited a scheduled interview with investigators from the department's Internal Affairs Bureau, walked in on the supervisors about 2 a.m. in a back office as they discussed the dog shooting. For the next hour or so, Detective Turetzky gave the supervisors a glimpse of what he had seen on the night of Mr. Louima's assault.

The details of that informal conversation somehow never surfaced in the two criminal trials where Detective Turetzky emerged as a chief witness against two officers ultimately convicted in the assault. Only now, four years later, are versions of what was said emerging from new court documents and interviews with people with knowledge of the latest twist in the case. And the question of just what Detective Turetzky said during that first encounter with investigators has become the focus of intense interest and the critical element in a bid by one of the convicted officers to win a new trial.

Last week, lawyers for the former officer, Charles Schwarz, produced an affidavit from one of the supervisors who interviewed Detective Turetzky that night. The affidavit, from Patrick Walsh, a retired sergeant, says the original account given to him differed substantially from Detective Turetzky's later trial testimony.

In court, Detective Turetzky said that he had watched Officer Schwarz lead Mr. Louima toward the bathroom where he was attacked, an account that was vital to the prosecution's ultimately successful conviction of Mr. Schwarz for having participated in the assault.

But according to Mr. Walsh, Detective Turetzky, during that impromptu office conversation, had in fact said that he was unsure who had led Mr. Louima toward the bathroom. Mr. Walsh's assertion has surfaced quite late for Mr. Schwarz, who has already served two years of his 15-year sentence, and its credibility has been disputed by the federal prosecutors who handled the Louima case. In that, then, the account of Mr. Walsh has added one more layer of contentious ambiguity to a case filled with conflicting accounts.

And it has set off a flurry of activity as prosecutors and police officials re-examine what Detective Turetzky had said that night and try to fathom why Mr. Walsh waited so long to come forward.

Federal investigators have collected the police personnel records for Mr. Walsh, who retired last July, and have interviewed the two other supervisors who were with him that night, according to people with knowledge of the investigation. One supervisor, Sgt. Richard Tully, was unable to corroborate Mr. Walsh's assertion. However, the second, Capt. James Peters, told them that he recalls Detective Turetzky saying that he had a problem distinguishing Officer Schwarz from another officer with a similar haircut.

The importance of the recent developments remains unclear, but yesterday an appeals court ordered the judge at Mr. Schwarz's trial to review the Walsh affidavit to see if a new trial is warranted. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit also ordered the judge to review whether the government failed to hand over evidence that could potentially clear Mr. Schwarz.

One critical task for the courts will be to measure Mr. Walsh's credibility. In court papers filed under seal by Mr. Schwarz's chief lawyer, Ronald P. Fischetti, Mr. Walsh is referred to only as Officer F, and few details have emerged about him. Mr. Walsh, a Staten Island resident, declined requests to be interviewed. But police officials said he had spent his entire 16-year career working in Brooklyn and had retired with a medical disability, relating to a liver ailment.

Officials said that at one point in his career, Mr. Walsh developed a drinking problem that was serious enough to come to the attention of Police Department officials. But they said he was never disciplined for misconduct and none of the eight civilian complaints filed against him were ever substantiated.

Mr. Walsh was contacted by Mr. Schwarz's defense team last spring, after the lawyers heard that he had told patrons of a Staten Island bar where he worked that he had evidence that would help Mr. Schwarz, according to a person who has spoken to Mr. Walsh about the matter. Mr. Walsh, the person said, has said he previously remained silent because he feared that police officials might retaliate against him if he contradicted the prevailing view of the Louima incident, a fear that police officials say was misplaced.

"He's not going to lose his pension over something like that," a senior police official said.

In court last week, federal prosecutors suggested that whatever Mr. Walsh's rationale, they had concerns about his credibility. "We have done a preliminary investigation and have three strong reasons to believe that the allegation is not credible," said Barbara Underwood, a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn.

Federal officials have declined to elaborate, but one senior law enforcement official involved in the case said, "People should not jump to premature conclusions about the veracity of what Walsh says until all the relevant witnesses are heard from in court."

From the moment of his conviction, Mr. Schwarz has argued that he was the victim of a misidentification. Over months of court wrangling in connection with his appeal, his claim has been supported by two of the officers convicted with him. Justin Volpe, who was convicted of sodomizing Mr. Louima with the stick, has testified that Officer Thomas Wiese was the one who escorted Mr. Louima to the bathroom. Mr. Wiese has also said that he led Mr. Louima to the bathroom, but he has denied aiding the assault.

Federal officials, meanwhile, have defended the prosecution of Mr. Schwarz as completely supported by the evidence. In court last week, Judge Jose Cabranes of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals noted that another officer, who never testified at Officer Schwarz's trial, supported Detective Turetzky's account.

On the night he entered the 70th Precinct station house, Sergeant Walsh was assigned to the Brooklyn South Investigations Unit, which examines allegations of minor misconduct by officers and reviews instances when they fire a weapon. Joining Sergeant Walsh in the precinct captain's office, where they reviewed the incident of the shot dog, was his partner, Sergeant Tully, and Captain Peters, who was the top administrative officer on the overnight shift in Brooklyn that night.

The three men had no role in examining the Louima incident, which was being investigated by the Internal Affairs Bureau, a unit that handles more serious allegations. But Detective Turetzky did not know that when he approached the office, looking for his commander. According to Detective Turetzky's trial testimony, he spent roughly the next 90 minutes talking to the men in that room, although it is not clear how much time was spent specifically discussing Mr. Louima.

During the conversation, Detective Turetzky was quite clear in identifying Officer Volpe as the man he saw carrying the broomstick, according to a person who has seen Mr. Walsh's affidavit. But Mr. Walsh claims that Detective Turetzky told him several times that he could not say whether it had been Officer Schwarz or Officer Wiese who had led Mr. Louima toward the bathroom because, according to the affidavit, "he only saw them from the rear and Wiese and Schwarz look alike from that position."

When Sergeant Tully was interviewed by federal investigators this week, he said he could not support Mr. Walsh's account, although it is unclear precisely why. But Sergeant Tully has acknowledged that his former partner, Mr. Walsh, has talked in recent years about what he believed was Detective Turetzky's inability to identify Officer Schwarz, according to a person with knowledge of Sergeant Tully's account.

The third supervisor present that night, Captain Peters, told federal officials on Wednesday that he did not recall that anyone in the room that night had ever asked Detective Turetzky a question about who had led Mr. Louima toward the bathroom, a person with knowledge of the investigation said. But Captain Peters did recall, the person said, that Detective Turetzky had said he found it difficult to tell Officers Wiese and Schwarz apart.

Captain Peters also recalled, the person said, that at one point in their conversation, a police union delegate entered the room and the delegate's sudden appearance seemed to make Detective Turetzky uncomfortable. The captain escorted the delegate out of the room, the person said, but when he returned minutes later Detective Turetzky decided to call the Internal Affairs Bureau, with whom he already had a scheduled interview at 8 that morning.

A captain and two lieutenants from Internal Affairs arrived at the station house about 4 a.m., according to trial testimony, and took Detective Turetzky to an office at Nazareth High School for a formal interview.

According to a transcript of the tape-recorded interview, Detective Turetzky told the investigators that he was certain that Officer Schwarz had been the one who had led Mr. Louima toward the bathroom. "You're positive of that?" Capt. Barry Fried asked. "Yes," Detective Turetzky replied.

In his affidavit, Mr. Walsh contends that police officials were not interested in hearing about any discrepancies in Detective Turetzky's account, a charge police officials denied. Mr. Walsh says in the affidavit that he offered to write up a report of his conversation with Detective Turetzky, but an Internal Affairs captain at the station house that night told him not to. Two weeks later, he says in the affidavit, he was contacted by a lieutenant from his unit, to whom he recounted the details of his interview with Detective Turetzky, but no one contacted him further.

Others in the department then counseled the sergeant that to pursue the matter would invite trouble, Mr. Walsh wrote in the affidavit, according to a person who has read it. "Regrettably," the affidavit says, "I followed their advice."

Police officials said neither Mr. Walsh nor the other supervisors who met with Detective Turetzky in the station house that night filed notes or reports that detailed their conversation, but that that was not irregular.

For one thing, police officials say they are not convinced that the encounter between the supervisors and Detective Turetzky amounted to much more than a casual conversation. Secondly, the officials said, once the officers from Internal Affairs arrived, they had no reason to believe that Detective Turetzky would do anything but repeat the same story for them on tape at a more secure location.

Federal investigators have said they were surprised last week by Mr. Walsh's allegations. The investigators had not interviewed him or the two other supervisors during their initial investigation because they were unaware of any possible discrepancies in Detective Turetzky's statements, a senior law enforcement official said. Now, in addition to the three supervisors, the investigators plan to interview the officers from Internal Affairs who interviewed Detective Turetzky, and the detective himself.

Mr. Schwarz's lawyer, Mr. Fischetti, said he found it incredible that prosecutors had failed to interview Mr. Walsh. "The only answer I can come up with is that they knew Walsh could not back up Turetzky's story," he said.