“This is exactly the kind of revolving-door justice that puts criminals on the streets to victimize and kill again,” said Mary Beth Ruotolo-O’Neill, whose police-officer husband, Thomas Ruotolo, was murdered in 1984 investigating a stolen moped.
“Had he committed this crime today, he would have been given life without parole, which is the only appropriate sentence absent a death penalty,” said Linda Sledge, speaking of the man who killed her husband, Cecil Sledge, in 1980 during a car stop.
Keep 'Em Locked Up
The pair, who teared up during their presentations, were among a group of police widows at a Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association press conference Aug. 7 calling for Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature to take action to stop the release on parole of convicts who killed police officers.
Union President Patrick J. Lynch said it was a safety issue for the general public: “If they would kill any of these police officers, what chance do you have walking to the subway?”
He said 59 officers were killed between the time the state’s death-penalty law was invalidated and the time the state created the penalty of life without parole. Convicted cop-killers are now generally sentenced to life without parole, but before it became law they were given 25 years to life.
Under that sentence, they are eligible for parole every two years after serving the minimum, meaning that every two years the widows and other relatives have to appear before a parole board to make victim-impact statements.
‘That Knock on the Door’
“They go before the parole commission and tell the story of their husbands, and, more importantly, how their lives have changed since he was so viciously killed,” Mr. Lynch said. “They have to live it again. They have to go back to that knock on the door.”
The PBA’s position is that cop-killers should never get out of prison. The union was shocked and angered in the spring by the release of Herman Bell, one of three members of the Black Liberation Army who ambushed and shot to death Officers Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones in 1971.
Mr. Lynch blamed new parole guidelines put in place under Governor Cuomo under which “the nature of the crime—regardless of how heinous, barbaric, sadistic or depraved—is no longer a factor...Under the new guidelines, if a killer admits to a crime and says they’re sorry, the jail doors slide open.” The new guidelines emphasize education, remorse and other behavior and achievements in prison.
Mr. Bell was released in Brooklyn this spring, although the PBA and Officer Piagentini’s widow continue to fight the parole decision in court. Robert Hayes, another BLA member who killed Officer Sidney Thompson in 1973, was also granted parole. So was Jose Diaz, who was firing a machine gun at a rival drug dealer in 1990 when he instead hit and killed Assistant Bronx District Attorney Sean Healy.
On Deck for Parole
Two more cop-killers are coming up for parole: Anthony Bottom, another of the men who ambushed Officers Piagentini and Jones, and Salvatore Desarno, who killed Officer Sledge. (George Agosto, who killed Officer Ruotolo, is not up until 2023.)
“The PBA is working with legislators to pass a law that will close the giant loopholes in existing guidelines that are letting murderous monsters return to our streets,” Mr. Lynch said.
He urged citizens to hold their legislators’ feet to the fire and to use the “Keep Cop-Killers in Jail” button on the PBA’s website to send letters opposing the release of those who kill police officers.
Ms. Sledge said, “It is appalling that a man who was a known, dangerous criminal was out on parole when he murdered my husband. Cecil was a wonderful man, a loving father and a great and proud police officer. It is difficult for me to even imagine how any right-thinking person could consider for a second letting Sal Desarno back onto our streets, where he will most certainly return to a life of crime and violence.”
‘This Horrible Man’
“This horrible man denied me and my two children a wonderful husband and loving father,” she continued. “We no longer hear the words accountability or punishment used regarding murderers in prison. But accountability and punishment are and should always be part of the sentence.”
Ms. Ruotolo-O’Neill said, “My husband, Tommy was a funny, bright and beautiful man. He had a master’s degree in social sciences and asked to be assigned to the 41st Precinct where he could put that education to use for the good of the community. He loved being a cop and he loved the people in the 41.
“But in doing so, he encountered career criminal George Agosto, who had stolen a moped. When confronted by Tommy and his partner, Agosto murdered my husband, shot and wounded his partner and also shot an off-duty officer who was on the scene.
“This was not his first kill. He murdered my husband while out on parole. This is exactly the kind of revolving-door justice that puts criminals on to our streets only to victimize and kill again. It sickens and worries me that the harshest penalty this cop-killer could get was 25 years to life with eligibility for parole. We must close this parole loophole that lets cop-killers out of prison, because cop-killers should never be allowed to walk our streets again.”
Officer Sledge, 35, had stopped a car driven by Mr. Desarno, who had just been released on parole. The officer knew Mr. Desarno, and knew he should not be driving. Mr. Desarno “shot PO Sledge as he approached the car and then backed the car over him,” the PBA said. “The officer was dragged by the car for several blocks.” In addition to his wife, he left a 3½-year-old son and a 9-month-old daughter.
Gassed Up Stolen Moped
Officer Ruotolo, 30, and his partner, Officer Tanya Brathwaite, were responding to a radio call of a stolen moped when they saw Mr. Agosto filling it with gas. The suspect, who was on parole for manslaughter, opened fire, killing Officer Ruotolo and wounding Officer Brathwaite. She was able to fire a shot in return as she fell to the ground.
An off-duty officer using a nearby pay phone, Hippolito Padilla, fired five shots and was wounded in the abdomen. Mr. Agosto was arrested at Lincoln Hospital, where he went for treatment of his gunshot wounds.