Grace Russell holds the badge and photo of her slain husband, Officer Michael Russell, in her Amityville, New York home on Wednesday. Officer Russell was shot and killed in East New York 40 years ago. (Kendall Rodriguez for New York Daily News)
The state Parole Board quietly shuttered an online service created to send letters opposing the release of NYPD cop-killers straight to the agency, with as many as 200,000 messages left in limbo since 2014, the Daily News has learned.
The bizarre discovery was made last month by Grace Russell, whose husband Michael Russell, 30, was shot and killed in East New York in 1979. The widow stumbled across the colossal foul-up when she asked parole officials last month how many letters came in opposing the release of her husband’s killer Sergio Voii, who is up for parole March 18.
“We were doing a letter writing campaign and the (Police Benevolent Association) website made it easy for us to get people to write the parole board,” Russell, 69, told the Daily News. “Out of curiosity, my daughter wonder how many they had gotten. I asked and a (board official) said actually that was only good for two years. I was shocked and then I got angry.”
Under a 2012 deal between the PBA and the Parole Board, people could click a link on the union website, write a letter of opposition, and send it directly to parole in a couple of easy steps.
But unbeknownst to the union, the Parole Board discontinued the program in 2014. Since then, as many as 200,000 letters opposing parole for cop killers — including 48,500 in 2018 — never reached the desks of the commissioners.
“People were thinking they were writing all these letters and in reality nothing was happening,” said Russell, who reached out to the PBA. “That’s just wrong. I don’t know where the fault lies, but the board should have said something.”
While the e-mail link was down, convicted cop-killers Herman Bell and Robert Hayes were released by the parole board last year.
On Wednesday, an angry PBA President Patrick Lynch sent a letter to board chair Tina Stanford demanding the immediate reinstatement of the program.
“By failing to communicate to the PBA, the board has deprived hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers of their right to make their voices heard as part of the parole consideration process,” Lynch said in the letter.
The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said it’s reviewing the union’s concerns.
Soon after the program was created, the volume of letters required parole to bring on extra people to handle its rapidly-filling inbox.
Lynch said the PBA was completely unaware that parole had discontinued the program, adding no time limit was ever set. The union has continued to spend money on radio and print advertisements to encourage people to use its website to send letters to the board.
“With each interaction with DOCCS’ Parole Board, a state agency that reports to the Governor, it becomes even more clear that this is a rogue agency over which no one exercises any control,” Lynch said, noting that the board voted to release Bell over the objections of the union and relatives of slain cops Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones.
“It is no surprise that DOCCS Parole Board has no interest in considering the public’s opinion regarding the release of cop-killers back onto their community’s streets,” Lynch said.
On Aug. 2, 1979, Michael Russell, an officer with the 75th Precinct, was at bat at a community softball game between cops and shop owners in East New York when Voii and three friends hopped a fence and cut across the field.
Voii had words with a shopkeeper named Eddie Burgman, pulled a gun and shot him to death. Russell, who was unarmed, dropped his bat and chased Voii, catching him just as he mounted a fence. During a struggle, Voii shot Russell in the chest — with the cop died on the way to the hospital.
Grace Russell ran a nursery school while she raised the couple’s two children, Jessica, 43, and Donald, 40, who were three and one when their father was murdered. They will never recover from their loss.
“Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday, other times, like I’m watching a movie about someone else,” the widow told The News. “With my children, it’s very raw. Now that they have children, it’s something they think about even more.”