CHAPTER ONE: THE HOOK
On the morning of Sunday, November 27, 1989, just after first light, the call came over Detective William Oldham's radio. "Ten-thirty," the dispatcher said. "Robbery in progress, 560 Wadsworth Avenue, cross streets 183 to 184, apartment 5G." Oldham was pulling out of the precinct parking lot on Broadway and 182nd Street in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan on his way to breakfast at his favorite diner. A Sunday-morning robbery was unusual, Oldham knew, and 7 a.m. was far too early for most criminals to be out and about. The call sounded like it matched a pattern of impersonator robberies he had been working for months. Two male Dominicans, mid-thirties, one short and muscular and carrying a large black automatic, the other tall and skinny and armed with a silver revolver, were robbing drug dealers by impersonating NYPD narcotics detectives. They operated first thing in the morning, like real cops out to hit a stash house, giving themselves the element of surprise and the appearance of authenticity. The performance of the impersonators was so convincing that the victims sometimes couldn't tell if they were being stuck up by cops or robbers.
Oldham turned uptown and picked up his radio. "Three-Four RIP responding," he said. The 34th Precinct, or Three-Four, covered the west side of upper Manhattan in a stretch from 155th Street to 225th Street, making it one of the largest precincts in the city. Oldham was assigned to Three-Four RIP, the Robbery Identification Program. In the late eighties, the area known as Washington Heights was the cocaine capital of the United States, making it one of the most dangerous and crime-ridden places anywhere. Crack, the admixture of baking soda and coke that makes a crackling sound when cooked (thus the name "crack"), was invented on the streets of Washington Heights. A predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, the avenues were lined with grand old nineteenth-century apartment buildings fallen on hard times. Known as Little Dominica, the area was densely populated, saturated with restaurants, money remittance shops, and bodegas, many of them fronts for laundering illegal money made by peddling cocaine. Dealers were everywhere, operating openly on stoops and in lobbies and on street corners. The police in the Three-Four were overwhelmed, so there was no shortage of action for an ambitious young detective like Oldham.
A "pattern" amounted to two, three, or more robberies with the same modus operandi and physical descriptions of the suspects. Oldham had been investigating these particular impersonators for months. The last robbery in the pattern had occurred a week earlier, another dawn raid of a drug dealer's residence. Oldham had arrived at the scene of that crime as the ambulance pulled up. The dealer was discovered dead, his back welted with burn marks. His daughter, a five-year-old, had her mouth and eyes duct-taped, and had been hog-tied by her ankles and wrists. Oldham had tests run on the hair and fibers on the duct tape. He had canvassed the streets for witnesses. He had talked to his CIs -- confidential informants. He had used the descriptions of the perps to eliminate other robberies he thought were unrelated -- some of them possibly the work of real cops, in particular a police unit nicknamed "local motion."
The investigation revealed that the pattern crew operated like narcotics detectives. They talked to their snitches in the neighborhood, gathered intelligence on dealers, sat in cars on upper Broadway running surveillance. They went after crack dealers, money launderers, people who ran the local su-sus-the informal banks where the poor people of Little Dominica borrowed small sums of money. The impersonators were often mistaken around the neighborhood for real plainclothes cops. They had detective shields, scanners, NYPD raid jackets, bulletproof vests in case they got in a shootout with the drug dealers-or the cops who came to arrest them. They often forced the doors of apartments, weapons drawn, and entered with the speed and precision of experienced detectives. Once inside, they rousted the bleary-eyed dealers and worked methodically. First they cuffed their victims with the cheap toy metal cuffs for sale in local bodegas -- the cops called them Mickey Mouse cuffs. They duct-taped the dealers' mouths. They gathered the occupants into one room, leaving a member of the crew to guard the prisoners while the others conducted the search for a "trap" -- the compartment built under the floorboards or into a closet or wall where cash and cocaine were stored. Dondi estan Lasdrogas? they yelled. Where are the drugs? Dondi esta la caja? Where is the money box?
Impersonator robberies had become a plague in Washington Heights in the late eighties, going down once or twice a day. It was impossible to know the true numbers because the victims were often drug dealers and they would rarely report a robbery, unless a neighbor called 911 or they were shot or stabbed or a large amount of money or drugs was taken -- and the sums involved were frequently huge, involving hundreds of thousands of dollars and kilograms of cocaine. For the most part, the so-called victims would take care of the problem themselves by trying to find out who had ripped them off and going after them themselves. The main reason the robberies came to the attention of the police at all was that midlevel dealers needed to get a complaint report number from the police so they could prove to their suppliers they had truly been stuck-up. Having been fronted drugs with little or no money down, as was a common practice in the cocaine business, the dealers were terrified that their wholesalers would think they had staged the robbery themselves to avoid payment.
Oldham's crew of impersonators were particularly vicious. If the dealers resisted, or refused to give up their trap, the crew tortured them. The Dominicans -- "Domos," cops in the Three-Four called them -used hot irons and knives heated on stoves to burn the backs of the dealers. Once, they drilled a three-inch drill bit into the back of a man's head and left it there after they fled with his stash. In the end, if the dealers still wouldn't give away their trap, the perps might shoot everyone in the apartment, murdering three and four people at a time.
By mid-November, the impersonator pattern had gone fallow. It was one of three patterns Oldham was working, along with a dozen single robberies of liquor stores and bodegas in the neighborhood. Cases came and went in the normal rhythm of the robbery squad in the Three-Four. Waiting for a break was a big part of police work. There was pressure from superior officers to close cases quickly-to say a complainant was uncooperative, or all leads had been exhausted, or to reclassify the pattern as larceny or burglary so it was no longer on the books of the Robbery Squad. But Oldham dragged cases out. It was his nature. He didn't see the point of getting rid of cases. The aim was to solve the problem, not accumulate good stats or impress the bosses. The longer he had to look at a case the more he would understand the pattern and its elements. Playing for time gave him greater odds of getting lucky. Not an early riser, Oldham had come to work early that Sunday morning by chance but he was still thinking about the pattern and he was ready to take advantage of a break. Luck was like that: you make your own.
The call to Wadsworth and 183rd Street was only three blocks north of the precinct house. Oldham sped through the deserted Sunday-morning streets, making it to the job in under sixty seconds. The building was an eight-story tenement, with a dingy, cavernous yellowed marble lobby covered with graffiti. There was an elevator but Oldham didn't take it; he didn't want the elevator to open and find himself face-to-face with the bad guys. Oldham drew his gun, a five-shot Smith & Wesson, and took the stairs up five flights. He stood outside the door of apartment SG listening. Inside, a man was screaming in Spanish. He was being beaten and pleading for his life.
Waiting for backup, Oldham had no way of knowing exactly what was going on inside the apartment. Two uniformed officers responding to the call emerged from the stairway and joined Oldham in the hallway. Oldham banged on the door loudly and identified himself: Police! Polida! The screaming stopped. A few seconds passed and then the door opened. Oldham and the two other cops backed away, guns aimed at the door. A heavyset Dominican man, bleeding profusely from the head, his hands cuffed behind him, was shoved out and fell to the floor. The door shut again. One of the uniformed cops started kicking and beating the victim for no apparent reason other than the fact that he was probably a drug dealer and, therefore, no victim at all. Oldham turned for a moment and watched the random, brutal violence-the kind of thing that happened in the Three-Four all the time-and returned to the door and the job. Usually, when the police arrived at an apartment, the perps knew there was no way to escape and would give up. This time, it was going to take force to get whoever was in there out.
Oldham signaled and stepped aside and let one of the uniformed cops kick the door open with one sharp blow near the lock. A dimly lit twenty-foot hallway lay ahead, bathroom to the left, living room at the end. Oldham and the other cop entered the hallway. Police working Washington Heights made forced entries often. The frequency and routine led to a dangerous nonchalance. Oldham had not waited for more backup. He did not gain cover by taking the bathroom first. The truth was that he was half expecting to find real narcotics detectives in the apartment. Making his way along the hall, the last thing Oldham wanted was to get in a shootout with fellow officers.
Other Cases Not Sent to Prosecutors or Not Officially Recorded
The Commission found evidence of other police corruption cases not being recorded in official IAD files or sent to prosecutors.
First, as evidence presented at the public hearings demonstrated, although the Department is supposed to notify each District Attorney about all serious police corruption cases within his jurisdiction and provide daily "logs" of all allegations of serious corruption, we found this was not always done. Our investigation revealed that during 1991 and 1992, IAD failed to provide approximately 230 cases of serious corruption to prosecutors. These cases ranged from officers associating with and protecting drug dealers, to running license plate checks for organized crime figures and conducting unlawful raids.
Second, although all corruption allegations are supposed to receive "C" numbers  and an official entry into Department records we found some serious corruption cases that were given "No C" designations by IAD's commanding officers, including allegations of officers dealing drugs, protecting drug dealers, committing thefts. One "No C" case included an allegation of theft against Alfonso Compres, an officer recently arrested in the 30th Precinct. A "No C" designation means the case does not contain a specific corruption allegation, is for information only, and is not to be sent to prosecutors. Thus, IAD did not forward these cases to prosecutors or enter them in official IAD records. When questioned in a private hearing, an IAD officer who supervised the unit that handled some of these cases, lieutenant John O'Brien, testified that he did not know why some of them were given "No C" designations, which were approved by IAD commanders.
Third, we also found that IAD all too readily classified police corruption allegations as "police impersonation" cases, and sent them to investigative commands outside Internal Affairs where they typically "died on the vine," as Sergeant Webber told us. In past years, approximately 10 percent of all allegations that came through the Action Desk were classified "police impersonations," often on no other basis than the Action Desk officer's uninformed judgment. IAD classified approximately 1,500 police corruption allegations each year as police impersonation cases.
The Commission's review of 4500 police impersonation cases for one year revealed many serious corruption allegations that IAD should not have categorized at the outset as police impersonation cases. Indeed, an early case against a former police officer and convicted murderer, Robert Cabeza, was incorrectly labeled as a police impersonation case. Other allegations classified as police impersonation cases included officers protecting drug dealers, unlawfully raiding apartments, and using drugs -- the identical type of wrongdoing the Commission uncovered through its field investigations. The result of these misclassifications: the total "official" number of annual police corruption allegations is minimized, and many police corruption cases are never investigated as such.
-- The City of New York -- Commission Report: Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Procedures of the Police Department, by Milton Mollen, Chair
As Oldham neared the living room, a man stepped into the hallway and pointed his gun at Oldham's chest. Oldham registered nothing about the man's appearance: he stared directly at the mouth of a black automatic. The man pulled the trigger.
Click. The gun misfired.
It was the clearest sound Oldham had heard in his life.
In a panic, he turned and ran. He had been shot at four times as a cop, and he had shot at perps twice -- and it wasn't the first time he had run away from a man with a gun -- but there was no time to feel anything but blind terror. Tripping on one of the uniformed cops as he fled, Oldham shot wildly over his shoulder in the direction of the bad guy and leapt through the door.
In the hallway, Oldham called the dispatcher. "Three-Four RIP shots fired," he said. "Shots fired."
In minutes, the building was swarmed by police. "We fucked up," Oldham said to the uniformed cop who had followed him into the apartment, both of them out of breath from the close call. The police sent to cover the rear exit radioed Oldham and said they had found an injured male lying in a bloody heap in the courtyard facedown on top of a silver gun. One of the robbers had climbed out the window of the living room onto the ledge in an attempt to hide; he had lost his grip and fallen five floors. So there was one less bad guy in the apartment. "We have to go back in," Oldham said to the two uniformed cops. Reluctantly, they reentered, this time creeping along the hallway and taking cover in the bathroom. Policia, Oldham yelled. Dame la pistola! Give me the pistol!
A gun skittered across the floor of the living room into the hall -- a black automatic.
Oldham entered the room and found Jorge Ramone standing with his hands raised toward the ceiling. An NYPD raid jacket and bulletproof vest and detective shield were on the floor. Ramone was cuffed and taken away by the two uniformed cops, who beat him as they left the apartment. Oldham sat by himself on a plastic-covered love seat and waited for the duty captain to arrive. After an officer discharged his weapon there was always an investigation to ensure the officer wasn't drunk, drugged, psychotic. Oldham felt blessed. He was alive. No one had been shot. The bad guys were going to jail. But he also wondered how his job had turned into such a swirl of contradictions.
"I loved being a cop. I loved everything about it. I loved the uniform when I was in uniform. I was an armed social worker, psychologist, vigilante. People come to New York City from all over the world to become actors and musicians and Wall Street brokers. I didn't want to be famous or rich. I wanted to put people in jail. The attraction for me was the crime. New York was the financial and cultural center of the world, but it was also the criminal center of the world. What made people afraid of the city was the draw for me. Crime was everywhere, but in New York City it was for real. Criminals were smart and resourceful and determined. Crime was organized."
Oldham was an unlikely cop, by class, culture, and education. He had spent his earliest years in the leafy suburbs of Haverford, Pennsylvania, a town along Philadelphia's Main Line, one of the wealthiest areas in the country, while his father went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. The family then moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He attended the prestigious Quaker school Sidwell Friends, along with Bobby Kennedy's kids, and spent his summers at an exclusive suburban country club, which he boycotted as a teenager because it excluded blacks from membership. In the early sixties, Oldham's father went to work for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the goodwill arm of the State Department, and moved to Vietnam to set up hospitals for wounded civilians. Oldham was sent to high school in Taiwan, where he learned to speak Mandarin, and afterward to boarding school in New Delhi, India. Upon graduating from high school in 1971 and returning to America, Oldham learned his younger brother, Ben, was dying of brain cancer. The two set out with Oldham's best friend, Bim, to travel through Europe together. Always an outsider, required by circumstances to take on the responsibilities of an adult while still a boy, Oldham was forced to learn hard truths early in life. "My brother didn't die quietly. He was angry and difficult and headstrong. I loved him and I knew he deserved better care than I could offer, but that wasn't going to happen. At a young age I was disabused of the romantic ideas of youth." A year later his brother went on to Nepal to die in his father's home.
Back in America, an eighteen-year-old cut loose from his family, Oldham drifted and wandered through the early seventies. He got a job refurbishing antiques for the White House and Smithsonian. He dodged the draft for the Vietnam War, refusing to register. He painted houses and waited tables and managed a stereo store. In 1974, after he was arrested for having an open container of alcohol in a public place, Oldham served three days in county jail in Florida. Soon thereafter, his life took a sudden and unexpected turn. In 1975, he joined the Washington, D.C., police force. "To this day I really don't know why I did it. All I knew about being a policeman came from the movies. I had barely met a cop in my life. I've thought about it a lot and never figured it out. I knew I didn't enjoy being arrested, I wanted to do the arresting. Public service work was ingrained in my family. Doing good, as corny as it sounds, mattered. As soon as I got on the street, I found being a cop was fascinating, especially for a young white kid in a city where black and white rarely mixed -- it was the chocolate city and its vanilla suburbs."
In the seventies a heroin epidemic was burning through Washington, D.C., and people were dying left and right -- Oldham once handled three murders in a single night. He was young-looking, five-eleven, and only 125 pounds. He had the body of a starving junkie. He volunteered to go undercover. Oldham bought heroin from dozens of people. Some of the heroin was so pure the Drug Enforcement Agency started surveilling him to see where he was buying it. "The DEA almost got me killed. They were so obviously set up on me that it tipped the dealers off I was a cop. By the time I was done with that case, thirty-three people were in jail and I had shut down a Thai distribution network operating out of a gas station. But I hated undercover work. I got tired of lying to people and pretending to be friends to people I wasn't. I went back to patrol. Pretty soon I began to see that in D.C. crime wasn't interesting enough. It was the same murders over and over again. Domestic disputes ending in violence. Fights over small amounts of drugs. Killings over street dice games. There was no variation, no story to it. Crime was rampant but organized crime was nonexistent. I wasn't learning anything. I started thinking about moving to New York or Los Angeles, the crime capitals. I applied to both police forces and was accepted by both, but it really wasn't a close decision in the end. L.A. was attractive but the pull of New York was too strong. The close urban structure of the city was appealing. Cultures rubbed up against one another -- legitimate and criminal. If you did a Chinese gang case in New York, it was like traveling to a foreign country. You ate the food, met the women, got immersed in the culture. New York had diversity, variety, and scope."
Oldham joined the NYPD in 1981 and moved to an apartment in Hell's Kitchen on the west side of Manhattan. The modern age of the gangster was at its peak in the early eighties, before law enforcement and drugs took their toll on organized crime. The city was carved up into territories. Rackets overlapped -- drugs, gambling, loan-sharking, extortion -- but ethnic gangs catered to their respective ethnic populations and the turf boundaries were clear. The Westies, an extremely violent Irish gang who sometimes did "wet work" for the Gambinos, controlled Hell's Kitchen. Uptown, in Harlem, the West Brothers, the Vigilantes, and PC Boys fought for streets and corners. Colombians ran College Point and Elmhurst. The Ghost Shadows and Flying Dragons dominated Chinatown. And in Brooklyn and Staten Island and Little Italy and the Bronx and Queens -- everywhere in the city, and in every racket worth working -- there were the five families of the New York mafia, by far the largest, most sophisticated organized crime enterprises.
From his first day in the police academy in New York, Oldham was an outsider. He wasn't a native New Yorker. He wasn't Italian or Irish, and therefore didn't belong to either of the tribes who ran the law enforcement establishment. As a general rule, uptown and the Bronx were predominantly policed by cops with Irish blood, and Brooklyn and Staten Island were considered Italian territory. Queens was a mix. The smaller but important groups in the force -- black, Hispanic, Asian, women -- all had benevolent associations to look out for their own. As a young WASP male, Oldham was in a tiny minority. He rarely socialized with other cops. Broke, he spent his days off in the reading rooms of the New York Public Library and he went to night school at Hunter College to take courses on logic and Shakespeare and Milton's Paradise Lost-and to meet girls. Oldham didn't go to bars like the Seventeen Steps, so named because it was precisely seventeen steps from the front door of the Three-Four station house. He didn't go to the parties they called ten-thirteens -- radio code for "officer in distress." He didn't go to funerals or barbecues. He kept his work and private life separate. Oldham knew what he didn't want to be under any circumstances -- a rat!
"In the academy in New York, when you're training to become a cop, sometimes 'the brass' takes you aside and asks if you to want to be what they call a 'field associate.' They make it sound like you're going to be a special undercover cop, the eyes and ears of the department, a crusader fighting corruption. They promise you'll quickly become a detective. But really you'll just be snitching on other cops. You'll tell them cops are drinking beer in the locker room. Cops are taking money. Getting laid at lunch. Sticking up drug dealers. I passed. I didn't join the police department to police the police. All I knew was I wanted to arrest bad guys. And New York City had plenty of bad guys."
The seriousness of drug-related corruption must not be minimized. Many have mistakenly characterized today's corruption as cops "merely" stealing from drug dealers -- or, in other words, punishing those who deserve to be punished. This is wrong. Today's narcotics corruption involves not only cops stealing from dealers, but cops using their authority to permit dealers and narcotics enterprises to operate freely and flourish on the streets of our City. Even worse: today's corruption involves officers using their police powers to actively assist, facilitate and strengthen the drug trade. Thus, the victims of corruption are not the drug dealers on the streets of East New York. Indeed, they are often corruption's beneficiaries. The victims of today's corruption are the thousands of law-abiding individuals who live in the high-crime, drug-ridden precincts of our City. They are victimized not only by the crime and drug trade in their neighborhoods, but by the assistance of officers who protect drug dealers rather than provide the police protection and services the public so desperately needs. Furthermore, cops who associate with drug dealers in the open view of the public breed cynicism among citizens. It breeds the sense of abandonment and hostility that poisons relations between the community and corrupt and honest cops alike. And corruption victimizes the millions of law-abiding residents of this City who depend upon the credibility and effectiveness of the police to fight the war against crime that threatens us all.
-- The City of New York -- Commission Report: Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Procedures of the Police Department, by Milton Mollen, Chair
Oldham's first assignment was foot patrol in Times Square. The area was radically different in the early eighties with 42nd Street- "the quarter and the deuce" -- packed with peep shows and perverts and junkies. There were more than two thousand murders a year in New York City in those years, and twenty thousand shootings and stabbings. "I was afraid to walk along 42nd Street -- and I was carrying a gun," Oldham recalled. "Organized criminals weren't the danger. It was the wolf packs gone wilding in the streets, or kids on a crack attack. They would kill you if you weren't careful and smart. I had a six-shot in my holster and I had a five-shot in my pants pocket, but that wouldn't be enough against a wolf pack if they wanted to wrestle you for it. I always had my hand on my pocket gun when I walked patrol."
After six months on a foot beat, Oldham was transferred to the Two- Four, a precinct that covered the Upper West Side of Manhattan from 86th Street to 110th Street. It was supposed to be a favor for a young cop, with the neighborhood's singles bars and reputation for pretty women. The Two-Four had crime but it was tame compared to other parts of the city, and Oldham agitated for more action. Farther uptown, in Harlem, the Two- Eight was the smallest precinct in the city, but in 1983 it had the most murders. The two precincts shared a radio band and Oldham listened longingly to the calls coming in from the Two-Eight -- shootings, stabbings, beatings. He was dying to be in the thick of it. "Then I got lucky. A female officer I knew in the Two-Eight, the only woman in the precinct, was being dogged to death by the other cops. They would give her bad posts, like standing on the corner of 116th and 8th Avenue by herself, which was a truly frightening place to be then. Her partner would take off in the car from a call, as a joke, and leave her standing alone at the scene to walk back to the precinct. If there was a DOA in an apartment, she would be assigned to guard the corpse, and in those days that meant sitting with a putrefying body for twenty-four hours or longer before the meat wagon turned up. The stench was awful. Eventually, this woman took herself hostage in the 'ladies' locker room of the precinct. It was a break for me. I offered to do a 'mutual' with her -- to swap precincts. Nobody was trying to get into the Two-Eight. Everyone was trying to get out. But I wanted to be there. I wanted to be busy. Cops were called 'rollers,' and I wanted to rock and roll."
The Two-Eight station house was at 121st Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, a new concrete, prisonlike, triangular building that took up the whole block; the previous precinct house had been burned to the ground. Inside, the station was a madhouse. A uniformed cop working station house duty at the door named Spuds McCormack would pull his gun on Oldham when he arrived for a shift. "Slap leather or draw!" McCormack would call, with a beer in one hand, and then he actually drew and Oldham was supposed to beat him to the draw. At the desk, neighborhood residents would argue their cases in front of the desk lieutenant who served as the judge and jury. "He decided there and then who was arrested and charged and who was let go. Screaming and fighting and crying and domestic disputes constantly echoed through the precinct house. In the back there was a kitchen where cops drank beer and ate hot dogs. The commanding officer of the precinct was only seen when he would turn up once a week, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, to collect his pay. Downstairs there were bunk beds and lockers and showers, where cops estranged from their wives lived for months at a time. In the basement next to the lounge was an escape tunnel, built in anticipation of the station house being burned down again.
"There were shootouts on the street all the time. 'Exchanges of gunfire,' as we said in police reports. If a perp in a cell was taking a beating, no one would even look up. If a cop was troubled -- too violent, drunk, burned out -- he would be taken off the street and assigned to sweep the floor or work security in the station house. Every precinct had two guys like that-the Mop and the Broom, they were called, the Man on Post and the Station House Sweeper. It was a different time. Cops looked after cops, even if that meant looking the other way. The truth is that I liked cops. A lot made substantial sacrifices. They were away from their families. They got shot. Many of them got hurt really badly -- hit by a car, stomped by a gang, stuff like responding to a domestic disturbance and the old lady throws hot grease on you because she doesn't like the way you're beating her husband who just got through beating her. They weren't heroes, you don't get a medal or a promotion for that, but I really admired those guys."
The NYPD was a society within a society, forty thousand cops living in their own city-size world. In many parts of New York, particularly black and Hispanic areas, the NYPD was an army of occupation. Most of the cops were white, many from towns outside the city, and they had no clue about urban life, few street smarts, and little sense of proportion when dealing with humanity in all of its complexities. Oldham immersed himself in the city, living in Harlem and Chinatown and the East Village. He felt at home. He liked the pace of the streets, the Indian and Chinese restaurants, new-wave clubs on the Lower East Side. His friends were reporters, artists, and dancers -- circles that few cops moved in. He hated it but he was always known as "Bill the cop" by his Manhattan friends. The precinct houses, courts, and Rikers Island jail were part of New York's underworld, little known to outsiders, but Oldham was interested in people of all kinds -- Wall Street brokers, fashion designers, chefs. The endless supply of characters and contradictions drew him ever further into life in New York.
But being a cop in the city did not protect Oldham from the dangers elsewhere. On September 1, 1983, he lost his second brother, John, who was a passenger on Korean Airlines Flight 007, the airplane infamously shot down by Russian fighter jets over the Sea of Japan. "John was a Fulbright scholar. He was a star student at Andover, Princeton, and Columbia Law School. He was flying to China to teach for a year. He was my second brother to die -- I had no others. My brothers meant everything to me. John and I had a close relationship. We were competitive. He was a straight arrow, the smartest kid in class, the one you could rely on. I was wild, lost. I was stricken. They took me off the street until I got better."
In the Two-Eight as part of the duty chart for NYPD patrol, Oldham had to work midnights one week out of every six. Historically, cops who chose to work steady midnights wanted to operate without supervision. The midnight shift at the Two-Eight was no different. Drug robberies, or "rips," by the police were common occurrences and many of the cops on the midnight shift in the Two-Eight wound up in jail. "If the cops knew there was a dealer doing business and there was a lot of money in a particular apartment, they had to invent probable cause to gain entry. They would have their wives or girlfriends call 911 and report, 'There's a man beating his wife in apartment 3D.' The cops sat in their car in front of the building for a couple of minutes. The call went out from the radio operator for a 10-34 -- assault in progress -- in apartment 3D. The cops would pick up the radio and say, 'I'll take it.' One minute later they're in, no warrant, no probable cause, no witnesses. They'd clean it out and take off."
Oldham knew what was going on, or at least he had a good idea, but he was never invited into the inner circles. The truth was that he didn't care. Not really. There was a difference between stealing a drug dealer's money and a cop taking the dealer's drugs and becoming a dealer himself. Even so, Oldham had never snitched on another cop, just as he had never worked on an investigation into police corruption. He didn't aspire to be Frank Serpico, the NYPD undercover cop who risked his life to reveal pervasive corruption on the force in the late sixties and early seventies. Serpico, the movie, had been part of Oldham's inspiration to become a cop. It was the man's independence and integrity he admired, not his self-righteousness nor the crusade to free the NYPD of corruption. The distinction came naturally to Oldham. "I thought of myself as honest. There were plenty of cops sticking up dealers, but most ot them were pretty good cops. I know that doesn't make sense, but there was a lot of gray area and that's where most of us had to live. I didn't have a family, four kids, trying to survive on a patrolman's salary. I wasn't holier-than- thou. "
The cops on midnights at the Two-Eight were always on the lookout for any clue that there was a field associate in the precinct who might rat on them. Oldham seemed a likely sort. He was a loner. They nicknamed him Sid Vicious. He had spiked hair and he was skinny and he had a reputation for being unusual upon arrival. Oldham and his partner were constantly waved off jobs when they worked midnights. It happened so often that Oldham took to keeping a small black-and-white television set in the patrol car. His partner was straight as well, as clean as the night was long, and the two of them would watch movies to while away the hours, biding their time until they were cycled out of midnights.
While he was responding to an overdose in a building at 116th Street and 8th Avenue one midnight, Oldham's TV was stolen from the patrol car. It had to be a desperate junkie; no one in his right mind would be foolish enough to steal from a police car in the Two-Eight. When Oldham's shift ended, the cops going out on the day shift got word of the theft. They shut down 8th Avenue for four blocks and went into the street with "hats and bats" - helmets and sticks. The cops beat everyone: junkies, dealers, kids hanging out on the corner. Oldham's television wasn't the point. Power was the point. The precinct cops were telling the dealers and junkies that they were never ever to fuck with the police. Never. Ever. Oldham got a call that morning from the desk sergeant saying that he had received calls offering expensive color TVs and cash for a replacement. The upheaval in the neighborhood was interfering with the drug trade and the dealers wanted to get back to business. Oldham told the sergeant he just wanted his TV back. He didn't want more than had been taken. Later, there was another call and a cop was sent to an apartment building on West 117th Street. The cop knocked on the door of the apartment. A door down the hall opened and a black hand emerged with a bag containing a small black-and-white TV; brand and size matched exactly to Oldham's. Inside was a note, "If you need accessories call this number."
Nightraiders meet rageA single spark can start a prairie fire. -- Mao Ze-dong
Prisons are repositories of rage, islands of socially acceptable hatreds, where worlds collide like subatomic particles seeking psychic release. Like Chairman Mao's proverbial spark, it takes little to start the blazes banked within repressive breasts.
I thought of that spark one morning recently when I heard an eruption of violence that hit Huntingdon's B block, snatching the writer from the false escape of dreams.
A white man's rural twang spat out a rhetorical question: "Oh! You like hurtin' people, huh?" Punches, grunts, thuds, and crunches echoed up the steel tiers, awakening the groggy into sudden alertness.
"Getta fuck offa that man!"
"Leave that man alone, you fat, racist pussy!"
A quiet morning on B block was shattered, as much by the yells of fearful rage as by the blams of baton on flesh and bone. Predictably, the beating and taunts continued, until the man was thrown into a locked shower and was able to call up to others also locked in and inform them of what had transpired.
"Who is it, man?" "What's yo name, dude?"
"Tim ... "
"Tim Forrest," he answered, sounding hyped but guarded.
"What happened, Timmy?"
"They rolled on me, man, for fighting that dude, Weaverling."
The voice was familiar, because he recently worked over on B block as a tier runner for several months, lugging food trays and handling other menial block-maintenance chores, working around death row and disciplinary prisoners. I liked the guy -- thirtyish, slight of build, with an outgoing personality -- despite our strong political differences.
"You can't fight these people, Mu," Tim opined, adding "You can't beat the system." I sniffed in strong disapproval, but he ignored my argument. So we rapped music, a common love, and I enjoyed his melodious tenor crooning.
Timmy? Fighting a guard? Fighting a slew of guards?
By Friday, the rumor spread of Tim's treatment at B block, and following midday Jumu'ah  services, more than fifty men converged on the prison's center to demand an end to the brutal beatings of cuffed men. Caught by surprise, ranking security officers assured the angry black throng that no such beatings would occur, and urged dispersal. By nightfall, an uneasy quiet loomed over the central Pennsylvania prison. Come Saturday morning, lockdown was launched -- no movement, no jobs, no recreation, no trays served -- a regimen of utter restriction.
Overnight, Pennsylvania's most repressive jail became Pennsylvania's largest "hole."
The weekend passed in lockdown, and on Monday, when a mournful siren sounded, there was confusion, disbelief, and then a smattering of applause as some assumed jailbreak, which usually precedes the sounding of the township-wide alarm.
The foghorn cries faded, then cried again, then faded, and then cried anew. Confusion overtook jubilation, and the applause faded to embarrassed silence.
Walkie-talkies snapped to life, and the ring of keys sounded throughout the jail, as all three shifts converged en masse at dusk. Armed, armored squads went from cell to cell, pulling, cuffing, punching, bludgeoning, kicking, brutalizing naked prisoners. Men were handcuffed, seized, dragged outside, and thrown into cages, naked, beaten, and bloodied. Huntingdon's revenge for Friday's loss of face rivaled Dixie slavocracy for its premeditated racist raids.
Men, naked, unarmed, awakened from deep sleep, fought back against the rural mob, bravely, perhaps none too wisely. By Tuesday morning, unofficial reports put the injured at twenty-seven staff, nineteen inmates, with A block in shambles, as lockdown continued. By Wednesday, the cages were being hosed down, traces of blood washed into drains to feed the Juniata River, washed away.
As of this writing, the lockdown -- no showers, no jobs, no movement, no recreation -- continues, as Huntingdon prison becomes Huntingdon hole. One participant in the bloody fracas, asked to tell what happened, answered, "It's just like Mao said, man -- "One spark can start a prairie fire'!"
October 1989 -- Live From Death Row, by Mumia Abu-Jamal
Corruption was pervasive in the force despite occasional attempts at reform. As a result, corruption inevitably became a factor in Oldham's career path-not as a temptation but as something he had to be careful to avoid. He had long accepted that promotions in the NYPD were based on politics, connections, connivance. To get ahead, a cop needed a "hook"- someone higher in the hierarchy to pull him upward. Oldham's hook was his lieutenant in the Two-Eight. In 1983, the Two-Eight came to national attention when a black Baptist minister was pulled over by the police and badly beaten. A federal congressional inquiry into police brutality followed, which led to the revelation of the corruption of the midnight shift. But before the inquiry began, Oldham's hook had him transferred to the Manhattan North Task Force. It was a way of protecting Oldham from the coming scandal, which could hurt the young cop's reputation. Oldham was moved to the Intelligence Division, working on desks assigned to monitor violence in the Jewish and black communities, and then transferred to the Diplomatic Protection Unit guarding heads of state. He had a spell in the robbery squad in Queens and was shifted back to Manhattan Robbery before returning to the Three-Four RIP.
Oldham was thought of as someone who moved around a lot. He was restless. But he had good numbers -- he had jailed more than a hundred criminals since he joined. Oldham knew the force wasn't a meritocracy. Politicking was how officers frequently got ahead in the NYPD. The way a cop got a decoration or medal was to write a report about his own heroics. The identity of an officer's hook was a closely guarded secret. Oldham did well in the force but he didn't play the game.
Throughout the seventies and eighties, the government of New York City lurched from financial crisis to crisis. The NYPD was often shortchanged, with the consequence that fiscal constraints determined the number of promotions given out. Finally, in June 1987, Oldham was promoted to detective. He had not campaigned for the promotion, as many officers did. He enjoyed uniform work and patrolling the streets. But as soon as he started working as a detective, he discovered he had found his true calling in life. "I was born to be a detective. In my family nothing was ever quite the way it seemed. My father set up hospitals for civilian war casualties in Asia during the Vietnam War. It wasn't said but clearly the projects were funded by the CIA. He had two families, one family in Vietnam and one in a safe haven. My mother later worked for a naval intelligence agency in Washington. She was a Southern belle, with genteel manners, but she knew how to find weakness and exploit it. That is a very useful quality to have as a detective. All the moving around as a kid taught me to size up new environments quickly. I listened, watched, tried to figure how things worked. What piece was missing, or hidden, or illusive. How to lay down the last piece of the puzzle."
Cops and criminals were supposed to be enemies, but in many ways they reflected one another. For generations, the most corrupting influence on the police was crime that seemed victimless: gambling, prostitution, bootlegged liquor. Some cops were grass-eaters, paid to graze on the bribes and look the other way. It was easy for an officer to convince himself that no harm was done by allowing a willing adult to lay a bet or take a drink, and so it followed there was no harm in skimming a few bucks from the enterprise. But every wave of drugs that washed over the city came with its own particular flotsam of crime. By the end of the eighties, the drugs and cash in Washington Heights had brought out the worst in people. Blood and money flowed in the gutters. The sums of money involved in illegal drugs were enormous. While neighborhoods and lives were torn apart, for some it was a gold rush, including members of the NYPD. Grass-eaters became meat-eaters, out on the street hunting money and coke like the criminals.
"The sentences for drugs were severe. If a dealer got banged out for drugs, he was going away for twenty years. This changed the way dealers did business. People snitched and gave people away to save their own skin. In response, dealers went to work in cells. The same thing happened with cops. Guys hung tight in small units. They didn't rely on a pad paid to everyone in the precinct the way it had gone for decades. Corruption was entrepreneurial. It was every cop out for himself. If a cop took a hit and was arrested, he couldn't rat out a whole precinct or shift. The stickups were secret -- but an open secret. I didn't know for sure who was sticking up dealers, and no one was going to tell me. I wondered how many cops came to the Three- Four to make money.
"The atmosphere of corruption infected the force, and cast suspicion over a lot of innocent cops. I never took a dime but was accused of taking money from a drug dealer, after I arrested a dealer named John John Smith at 156th and Broadway. He was one of the original crack dealers, one of the first to use closed-circuit TV to watch us watching him. I fucked with him unmercifully. We would paint the lenses of his cameras. Roust his street touts. His mother was part of the crew. She ran a little candy store on Amsterdam Avenue and I'd spend time there just to disrupt their routine. After a while, when their patience ran out, Smith decided he wanted to get rid of me. The easiest way to get a cop was to make an Internal Affairs complaint, saying he was dirty. His mother made the complaint. She said I had stolen money from the candy store. The complaint was unsubstantiated. That didn't mean it was false, or that I was found not guilty. The finding meant it couldn't be proved or disproved. A lot of things went like that in the Three-Four."
By the end of 1989, Oldham had learned to appear to be turning a blind eye to his surroundings while keeping both eyes wide open. Earlier that year he worked a pattern of knifepoint robberies on the west side of Washington Heights. The perp waited inside the lobby of large apartment buildings standing at the top of the steps to the basement. As a woman entered alone he would run to the basement and push the elevator button. When the woman got on the elevator it would first go down to the basement. The robber would be waiting, knife out, as the doors opened. The pattern included opportunistic rapes and sexual abuse. After a particularly vicious attack, Oldham questioned the victim. He showed her the mug shot books in the Three-Four. She was an extremely motivated witness. She wanted her attacker caught and punished. After an hour of looking through photos she picked a light-skinned Hispanic man named Hector Moreno. Oldham didn't like using the photo books for IDs as a rule; the books were filled with photographs of neighborhood criminals, and the sight of faces was highly suggestive to witnesses. He believed victims too often selected the face in the mug book that most resembled the perp, and not the actual perp.
Oldham found Hector Moreno and arrested him. It seemed a straightforward case. Oldham did a lineup at the precinct. Five "fillers" of similar age and race were collected from a homeless shelter and brought into a room with a two-way mirror. The witness viewed the lineup and identified Moreno. Oldham interviewed Moreno after the lineup. He told Oldham he was a drug dealer -- a rare confession -- but not a robber or rapist. Oldham checked out his story. Everything he said appeared to be true. Moreno had a nice car. He lived in a nice apartment. He had no reputation in the neighborhood as a stickup guy or a sexual predator. The lineup identification by the victim was persuasive but not decisive. Just because Moreno was a drug dealer didn't mean he was a liar, or Oldham's knifepoint-pattern perp.
"I asked myself, 'Why would a drug dealer with money be doing small-time robberies of women in elevators?' The answer was he wouldn't. In all walks of life, in my experience, people stay with what they know. A knifepoint robber may go to guns and murder, but a drug dealer is a businessman. He might escalate to heroin or try dealing pot or go legitimate. But he's not going to do knifepoint robberies. Running a successful drug operation isn't for morons. Moreno would know he faced five to fifteen years for stealing the twenty-five or maybe fifty bucks the victim was likely to have in her purse. Perps who do knifepoints tend to be desperate junkies, teenagers, or idiots. The thing about robbery patterns is you can look at them and know what you're dealing with. If the robberies are daily and sloppy, your perp is probably a crackhead on a mission. If it's more sophisticated and organized, it's probably a professional stickup artist. If the pattern dies, you wait to see if your guy was killed or jailed or moved or hurt. Moreno didn't fit the elevator pattern other than race and gender and resemblance in appearance. It was a case of bad identification. I didn't have a reasonable doubt, I absolutely knew he didn't do it."
Oldham went to see the young Manhattan district attorney who had caught the case and told him he didn't think Hector Moreno was the robber. The DA promised to talk to his supervisor. Before going in front of the grand jury to testify in the Moreno case, Oldham asked the DA what had happened. The DA said they weren't dropping the charges. Oldham asked to see his supervisor, the chief of Trial Bureau 20. The bureau chief suggested they offer Moreno a polygraph. Moreno took the polygraph and passed. Oldham thought the case was done. Days later, Oldham asked the bureau chief if the charges had been dropped. He looked at Oldham and said no.
"The bureau chief was a jerk. In retrospect, he wasn't that old, maybe thirty-five. He thought he knew better than the man on the street, which was impossible because he only knew what we told him. He was convinced he was right. He said the polygraph was for my benefit, to convince me, not them. He said Moreno may have passed the lie detector, but he must be a liar because he said I hadn't read him his rights, and I had testified under oath that I had read him his rights. It put me in an impossible position. If I hadn't read him his rights when I arrested him, and of course I hadn't, I couldn't say that. I was being sandbagged. I knew it. He knew it. Moreno's guilt on the robbery didn't matter. He was a drug dealer and he was going to jail. The one thing prosecutors hate is dismissing an indictment. They think it reflects on them badly because they have presented the case to the grand jury. It's an institutional sensibility and it has nothing to do with reality or justice."
As the trial neared, Oldham approached the judge and told him that as the detective on the case he didn't think Moreno was guilty. The judge said he couldn't dispose of the charges; they would have to let the jury decide. Moreno took the stand and offered the defense that he was a drug dealer not a small-time stickup artist. "The jury was not sympathetic to that argument. He was trying to say he didn't commit one kind of crime by explaining he committed another kind of crime. To the average juror, all they heard was that he was a criminal. They found him guilty of robbery in the first degree. He got five to fifteen years though I was sure he hadn't done it, and the elevator-knifepoint pattern continued without interruption. It was disheartening and instructive. When I started out as a cop in D.C. I was unbelievably naive. For a long time after I came to New York, I put on the NYPD uniform and I went out to do battle for 'truth, justice, and the American way.' But life doesn't always work out like that. Washington Heights muddied my view of police work."
The day before Thanksgiving in 1989, the day after he was nearly killed by the impersonator, Oldham was sent to a department psychologist as required by the department after a shooting incident. He told the psychologist he was feeling fine. But on Thanksgiving Day he was depressed. "I don't feel things a lot of other people do. You don't last in this business if you do. You become pathetic if you're overly empathetic. You're supposed to be someone other people can look to when they need strength. I always thought of myself, rightly or wrongly, as being capable in these situations. I thought I was good at police work. But I realized the bad guy could have killed me. I had lost control of the situation. The adrenaline rush of surviving the raid on the apartment had been replaced with thoughts of how close I had come to death."
The next week, Oldham went to collect the two impersonators in lower Manhattan to take them to be arraigned. The perp who fell five stories was in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. The one who had tried to kill Oldham was so badly beaten his head looked like a purple baseball -- his head was shaved and laced with stitches. "He didn't recognize me and I didn't recognize him. It was as though we had never met. It was eerie. It was clear to me that cocaine wasn't worth dying over. I wanted to work for victims who were innocent, not act as a mediator for drug dealers' disputes. I wanted to make my own cases."
That afternoon, Oldham got a call from his lieutenant in the Two- Eight. His hook was now in the police commissioner's office. He had the power to influence the direction of careers, to help a detective rise to an assignment in headquarters or be sent to one of the precincts reserved for malcontents or cops with bad reputations. For years Oldham's hook had been watching his progress. "I see from the twenty-four-hour sheets you were in a shoo tout the other day," he told Oldham. "You don't want to be running around like that anymore. We want you downtown. Pick a command and call me tomorrow."
Oldham knew the offer was both an order and a reward. He called back the next day. He had decided where he wanted to be assigned. ''I'd like to go to the Major Case Squad," he said.