July 19, 2018
By Edward Conlon
1971 was not a good year to be a cop in New York. The city was dying, everyone agreed, and not from natural causes. In one precinct in Harlem, one in 500 of its residents would be murdered. Citywide, homicide spiked 30 percent. Child pornography was sold openly in Times Square. Over a million people were on welfare, and destitution and blight were rampant. Slumlords found it more profitable to burn their buildings than to maintain them, and corporations were packing up and heading for the suburbs. Race relations were rancorous, as the protest marches of the early 60s gave way to riots, and the rise of Black Power was followed by waves of white flight. You can see the mood of bleary futility in a sampling of Times headlines: "In Brownsville, Looting is a Condition of Life; Robbery at Schools Accepted by People as a Necessity," "Trend Seen in Robbery-Killings of Elderly on Lower East Side," "Squalor is a Way of Life at a Welfare Hotel Here." Assaults on police were surging, and bulletproof vests were not yet standard equipment. Fourteen officers would die in the line of duty in 1971, 11 of them shot to death.
At no point in history was the NYPD needed more, and admired less. The Knapp Commission began public hearings on police corruption in October 1970, leading to two years of headlines about shakedowns and bribes. Investigators told of cops responding to a break-in at a warehouse in Greenwich Village and taking whatever was left to steal. Any cop with a new car, or even a cop's wife with a new coat, would be met with knowing smirks by the neighbors. A greater loss in public support came in January 1971, when patrolmen conducted a five-day wildcat strike over a pay dispute, and only a sudden cold snap—along with the round-the-clock conscription of detectives and bosses—kept the city from greater mayhem. For what it was worth, expectations of what even an ideal department might accomplish were low: Mayor Lindsay believed that crime was a fact of the environment in poor neighborhoods, like asthma. Morale was in a tailspin. Not many cops encouraged their sons to follow them on the Job.
For young cops especially, the chaos and conflict of the Job often inspired a perverse pride and a powerful camaraderie.
And yet recruiting wasn't a problem. In restive times, the stability of a civil service job appealed to the practical-minded, and the boyish promise of adventure persisted despite the grim statistics and gruesome headlines. A 20-year-old contemplating his future in 1971 might see a clip from the Knapp Commission on the 7 o'clock news, with a broken-down grafter telling of how he pocketed cash to let bars stay open after last call. And then he could go out to see The French Connection, with its breathtaking car chases and brilliant detectives. Which story do you suppose meant more to him? He would have walked into the Police Academy every day beneath a sign that read Fidelis ad Mortem—"Faithful unto Death"—without bothering to look up. I did the same, 20-odd years later, when I joined the NYPD.
For young cops especially, the chaos and conflict of the Job often inspired a perverse pride and a powerful camaraderie. There were lots of things to complain about, but boredom wasn't one of them. Dominic Vetrano, a skinny kid from Bensonhurst, was so determined to be a cop that he had himself stretched by a chiropractor to make the 5'8" height requirement. He was assigned to the 9th Precinct, in the East Village, in 1964. Three cops from the 9th were killed in his early years. "Walburger, Murphy, Stefani, I was there for all of them," he told me. He'd taken the psychotic who stabbed Stefani to Bellevue not long before. "He was eating dirt, praying to the sun in Tompkins Square Park." Still, going to the 9th for Vetrano was "the best thing that ever happened to me." He had his steady partner, Danny Brennan, who he trusted with his life. The East Village was its own world, for cops and everyone else.
Jim Liedy, an Irishman from Staten Island with a genially needling half-smile, got there in '68. "I loved the place. Bad as it was, nobody wanted to leave. Kids would come up to us like we were an ice cream truck. 'Can we get a ride?' 'Sure!' We'd let 'em hop in the back, take 'em around the block. One says, 'In front of that building, a guy was loading a gun yesterday...' In the summer, guys would have TVs on the sidewalk, folding chairs. You'd stop by, get into arguments with them over the Yankees, the Mets..."
Some 300 cops worked at the 9th, which covered less than a square mile, most of it tenement buildings, with 78,000 residents. It was substantially Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish, as it had been for decades, while the projects east of Avenues B, C, and D—Alphabet City—were mostly Puerto Rican. Like much of New York, it had been ravaged by heroin and violent crime. Kids played in abandoned buildings littered with needles and broken glass, while the older folks walked past as fast as they could. But the East Village was the least typical of all city ghettos: on the Bowery, skid-row alcoholics were packed into cages with cots for two bucks a night; St Mark's Place was a psychedelic Mecca to rival Haight-Ashbury, with smoke shops and record stores and a gay bathhouse. The Electric Circus was on St Mark's, where Andy Warhol shot movies, and the Velvet Underground was the house band. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and just about everyone else played at the Fillmore East, a couple of blocks away. The Hells Angels still have their headquarters on East 3rd, but they got along with the cops, more or less. Teenage white girls from Scarsdale to Scranton ran away by the hundreds to find something in the East Village—maybe love, maybe fame—and one who grew up in a mansion in Connecticut found both, when she and her sweet-natured, harmonica-playing hippie boyfriend, Groovy, had their heads bashed in by local thugs in a flophouse. All over the country, accounts of the "Groovy Murders" were read as allegory, warning starry-eyed innocents not to wander in the wicked city.
One of the cops who arrived in the 9th in 1971 was Gregory Foster. For someone who came of age during the height of youth culture, Greg didn't spend much time being young. When he turned 22, that November, he was married, with two kids, and he'd served a tour in Vietnam with the Marines. No matter how many intimidating labels stuck to him—black kid from the South Bronx, cop in the ghetto, battle-scarred jarhead—anyone who knew Greg would have described him as low-key and genial, earnest and modest, maybe a little softhearted, maybe a little square. You wouldn't have looked at his babyish round face and sleepy eyes and guessed his resume. His wife could have told you that he was too shy to dance. She couldn't press his uniform shirts to his satisfaction, so he ironed them himself. The squalor of the projects appalled him. He'd grown up poor, too, but his mother would never have let him run the streets dirty and half-dressed, the way kids did there. He was a walking contradiction, and his beat was on Avenue B, from 4th Street to 14th.
To see him with his partner, Rocco Laurie, was to be put in mind of other contrasts. Greg was short for a cop then, with a spreading waistline, and Rocco was 6'1, just over 200 pounds, a weightlifter and weekend athlete. With his strong, straight features and by-the-book attitude, Rocco must have seemed exotically all-American to people on Avenue B, someone from a picket-fenced village in the heartlands, like Clark Kent. As an Italian from Staten Island, with its old world customs and post-war affluence—a place with color TVs and unlocked doors—Rocco was from far away. He also didn't spend much time being young. At 23, he was also married, also a Marine, also a combat veteran, also new at the 9th. Rocco and Greg were more alike than not, in temperament and perspective. Neither man's wife was crazy about their career choices, but Greg had wanted to be a cop since before he knew when, and Rocco took the test after he decided that college wasn't for him. Still, the now-familiar movie trope of black and white cop buddies hadn't been seen much then, on screen or off, and the partners were eye-catching, even in a neighborhood where the street life was a carnival that never left town.
Rocco and Greg had been to stranger places than the East Village. Rocco was with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, stationed near the DMZ in the spring of '69, where he patrolled the rugged border country. He was put in for a Bronze Star after one battle, when 90 men fought off 500 North Vietnamese soldiers who had surrounded them. When Rocco ran out of ammo in his foxhole, he ran through enemy fire to get a grenade launcher. Greg was with G Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines. He won the Bronze Star after trying to save a wounded friend, and the Silver Star for his actions in another battle, five days later. His platoon was ambushed, wounding most of the men and pinning the rest down. Alone, Greg charged the enemy, firing so many rounds that his M-16 began to melt. He grabbed another gun to cover and counterattack until help could arrive. He'd have three Purple Hearts by the time he went home.
Vietnam changed them, but both remained stubborn believers that they could do good in uniform. At first, Greg worked with Andy Glover, another black cop with a few years more experience. Glover was likable and bright, but too easygoing for Greg, who was eager to hit the streets. The older cop laughed when Greg wanted to beat up a wrong-way driver who offered him 10 dollars to get out of trouble: Just write the ticket! In July, Greg wound up filling in with Rocco in a squad car for a couple of days, and they hit it off. Neither was looking to build bridges or break down barriers; Rocco hadn't cared for some of the black Marines he'd served with, and Greg later told his wife that Rocco was the only white person he trusted. Greg thought it would be better for Rocco to ask their sergeant, Fred Reddy, if they could partner up. He also suggested that Rocco say they'd served together in Vietnam.
The war at home might not seem any more winnable than the one they'd left, but they learned not to think too big—call by call, case by case, you could do enough small, good things to make you look forward to going to work the next day.
Rocco and Greg had the same attitude on patrol. They'd give breaks to people who deserved breaks, and they'd hit the ones who didn't like jackhammers. They liked working people, old people, and children, and they didn't like junkies, hippies, or hookers. Greg had a gift with the kids. There were about a dozen Puerto Rican boys, 13 and 14 years old, that he played basketball with, gently chiding them when he heard that windows were broken on their block. Be cool, be cool. Less glass broke after. When Rocco locked up a fellow vet for scoring dope, he paid for his methadone clinic fees when the man gave up his dealer. The war at home might not seem any more winnable than the one they'd left, but they learned not to think too big—call by call, case by case, you could do enough small, good things to make you look forward to going to work the next day.
Small good things weren't enough for many African Americans at the time. There had been a decade of epic legal victories, from Brown v Board of Education, in 1954, through the Civil Rights Act of 1965, in which virtually every form of racial discrimination had been banned. The exhilaration faded with the riots and assassinations that followed. From Watts to Harlem, kids were still going hungry, schools were still lousy, and good jobs were still hard to find. And the streets were getting meaner, with addicts and muggers on every corner, while cops often treated black people with indifference or hostility, as if they couldn't tell them apart, or wouldn't bother trying. In Brooklyn, detectives beat a simple-minded black drifter into confessing to the murder of two white girls in Manhattan, a travesty that was cited in the Miranda decision. Something had to be done, many felt, something radical, different in both direction and degree. In Oakland, where white southerners had been recruited to police the burgeoning black population, the Black Panther Party was formed.
Violence was not a betrayal of ideals, but an expression of commitment to them.
Young people of all colors lionized the Panthers for their iconic style, their uncompromising resistance to racism, and the social programs they ran in poor areas. But the Panthers had little use for the mainstream civil rights movement; they believed America was beyond redemption or repair. Their model was Chairman Mao, who had killed millions in the famines of the Great Leap Forward, and millions more in the paranoid terrors of the Cultural Revolution. Violence was not a betrayal of ideals, but an expression of commitment to them, and there could be no progress without bloodshed. The Black Liberation Army was the "direct action" underground of the Party. It took shape after the police killings of Chicago Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, in December, 1969, in a predawn raid which was credibly described as an execution. From then on, its concept of "self-defense" would become increasingly expansive.
The Panthers never saw a domestic version of the Great Leap Forward come to pass, but the party's effect on its members was profoundly transformative. They urged ex-cons to pick up books, and college kids to pick up guns. One of the college kids was Joanne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, who beat the rap on a variety of charges, including the stabbing of a tourist in a hotel room, a kidnapping, several bank robberies, and blowing up a police car with a grenade. Robert Vickers, a two-bit junkie burglar, quit his habit to run both a Panther health clinic and the clandestine armory beneath it. He was involved in two police shootings, in Harlem, in 1971, and in Newark, in 1972, in which three cops were seriously wounded. He served six years in prison, and attempted escape twice, once enjoying a brief period of freedom. When he was recaptured, he had a list of home addresses of prison guards. No one could fault him for a lack of commitment.
If Vickers hadn't been in the BLA, his life would likely have been a series of aimless misdemeanors. If Chesimard stayed in school, she might have wound up on the faculty. But both would have considered those lives to have been wasted. The cause demanded everything and justified anything. Whoever stood in the way was fair game, and some stood in the way more than others. To talk of good cops and bad was a distinction without a difference.
On January 27, 1972, you could see that history was on the march, though where it was going was anyone's guess. The Times headlined the Paris peace talks: "Hanoi and Vietcong Decry Nixon Peace Proposals; Kissinger Explains Goals." The off-lead story covered the firebombing of the Midtown offices of Sol Hurok, a Russian-born Jewish impresario who brought artists such as the Bolshoi Ballet to the United States. A woman was killed and 13 were injured. The Jewish Defense League, which had been harassing Hurok to protest the treatment of Soviet Jews, was believed to be responsible, though no one was convicted of the crime. A man demanding $200,000 hijacked a flight from Albany to New York, and was killed by an FBI agent when the plane landed in Poughkeepsie. He was the unemployed father of seven, overwhelmed by medical bills. The State Board of Regents agreed with Governor Rockefeller that City College should start charging tuition. It was a cold day, threatening snow.
Jim Liedy usually walked a footpost, but he filled in a patrol car with Bill Grawso, whose usual partner was out sick. "It was a funny night," he recalled. "Busy. Cold and cloudy. Snow was coming. Damp. I said, 'We're gonna get a heavy run tonight.' We saw Foster and Laurie just before. Ten o'clock? A prowler call, 348 East 10th. The streetlight was out. They had their flashlights. We talked a while, then moved on. Whoever was there was gone. 'Unfounded.'"
Dominic Vetrano saw Greg and Rocco just after. "There was a call for a domestic dispute, maybe half an hour before. 636 East 11th Street. I can't remember the apartment number, but it was the top floor. We put it over the air, 'Central, Sector Eddie...' There was a squelch on the radio, somebody else was talking. When me and Danny saw Foster and Laurie there, Danny says, 'Why didn't you tell us you had it? You coulda saved us the trouble, walking five flights of stairs!' It was jokey, we weren't mad. And the radios the footmen had were new. We asked if they wanted a lift back to the precinct. It was a cold night, and it was getting late. They said, 'Nah, we're gonna take a slow mope back to the house.' That meant they wanted to walk, maybe pick up something, make a collar."
After Brennan and Vetrano left, they were waved down by the victim of a mugging. Just before eleven, they saw Liedy and Grawso on 12th and A, and they pulled up their patrol cars alongside each other to talk. Their windows were open, but they didn't hear a thing until the radio broadcast the heart-jolting beep beep beep beep that heralds the emergency of emergencies: 10-13, all units, officer in need of assistance, 10-13, 11th Street and Avenue B...
Greg was shot eight times and dropped to the sidewalk. Rocco was hit six times.
Minutes before, Greg and Rocco had finished taking the report at the domestic dispute. They walked west on 11th to Avenue B, where they saw a double-parked car, and checked in at a diner to ask if anyone knew whose it was. No one did, so they headed back, passing three men on their way. When the men were a few paces behind the cops, they turned and opened fire.
Greg was shot eight times and dropped to the sidewalk. Rocco was hit six times. He stumbled forward, reaching for his gun. He had taken five bullets in the arms and legs, one in the neck. He fell and lay on his side. A witness heard one of the killers yell, "Shoot 'em in the balls!" They began to shoot again. Greg was shot three times in the eyes, and blood and brains pooled onto the sidewalk. Rocco was shot in the groin. He was still alive. The shooters reached down to steal the cops' guns, and two of them took off in a waiting car. They didn't wait for the third, who was dancing in the street, firing his gun in the air like a cowboy in a movie.
When the call came over the radio—10-13, all units—Vetrano and Brennan were facing south, so they raced against traffic on 11th to respond. They didn't see anything at first, so Vetrano picked up the radio. "'Anything further, Central?"
He told me, "And then I see 'em on the sidewalk. There was light from the store, it reflected off the gold buttons of their uniforms. It started to snow."
Liedy and Grawso arrived moments later, from across 12th, down B. Liedy remembered a small crowd gathering around the bodies. He knew at once that Greg was dead. "I had his hat. Had a hole in it. The band was hanging off."
"I remember cradling him, picking him up, carrying him to the back of Liedy's car."
Other cops came, tires screeching, lights flashing, sirens blaring. As Liedy went to pick up Rocco, he yelled to them, "Don't leave Foster on the street!"
Vetrano said, "Foster's head...there was more than just blood. I saw a round in the sidewalk, stuck in it. I said, 'Motherf—s shot them when they were down...' I picked up Laurie—he was closer, on the right, and Foster was on the left... I remember cradling him, picking him up, carrying him to the back of Liedy's car. There was blood, brains on my jacket. They were the new leather jackets. Blood in the zipper."
After the four cops carried Rocco to the car, Liedy took the wheel, Grawso beside him. "Danny was holding him in the back seat, like a baby." Rocco's legs stuck out of the back door. Someone said that it was cold, they should try to close the door, but Liedy took off. "There were so many cars there, I had to drive on the sidewalk by Tompkins Square Park to get past." When a cab blocked their way, Liedy yelled out, "'Move the f—ing car!'"
Cops from the next precinct sealed off the streets so they could race to Bellevue, less than a mile away. Liedy and the others went with Rocco into the hospital. "There was this much blood in the back seat," he told me. He made a pinching gesture—an inch, maybe. "We saw the hole in his neck, but we didn't know he was shot in the back, too. He was, we were saturated in blood." It seemed as if the families arrived almost instantly—the Fosters from the Bronx and Queens, the Lauries from Staten Island. It was pandemonium, with scores of cops, wailing relations, doctors running around trying to sedate everyone. Rocco's mother passed out. "I was in la-la land," Liedy said. "I was covered in blood... Didn't it just happen ten minutes ago?"
We were at his house in Staten Island last December when we talked, but Liedy sounded as if he'd just left the hospital. He went with Bob Daley, a deputy commissioner who dealt with the press, to watch the operation through the window of the surgery. "Six, seven doctors, they're working on Rocco, he's lifting his arms, fighting..." To show how it looked, Liedy leaned back in his chair and spread his arms wide, bringing them slowly together. I couldn't tell if he meant that Rocco was trying to push them away, or to hold someone close, one last time.
"Murphy was there," he went on, meaning the police commissioner. "His suit was wrinkled, like he just grabbed it off a chair. He was upset, I give him credit for that. I went with him to a washroom, to talk. He says, 'Didja get any shots off?' I tell him no, they were gone before we got there. Murphy says to me, 'You did a good job.'"
Liedy paused and shook his head: No, they hadn't. "They got away."
In the days that followed, the city of cynics seemed united in grief. There was an aura of martyrdom to the deaths, and Sgt. Reddy helped feed the legend when he told the Times that Greg and Rocco were best friends who'd survived Vietnam together. But many didn't have to pick up a newspaper to know what kind of heroes had been lost. Kids from Avenue B came to Greg's wake with a letter signed by 11 of them: Mr. Cool, if I ever have the temptation of getting into trouble, I'll close my eyes and I'll believe I'll see you walking down the Ave, cool as always, going into our clubhouse and asking us—"Are you keeping Cool, kids? ...We know that you are still with us... From now on, other cops will be "Mr. Cool" to us, but none as cool as you. If anyone claimed the NYPD was nothing but a bunch of racists and crooks, the names of Foster and Laurie shut them up quick.
St. Patrick's Cathedral was offered for a joint funeral, but the spectacle was too much for Adelaide Laurie, who wanted her husband buried from Blessed Sacrament, in Staten Island, where they were married. The funerals followed each other, on the same day, and thousands of police came from all over the country to stand at attention as the bells tolled and the bagpipes played. Jackie Foster collapsed in the cathedral. She was a widow with two children at 19 years of age. The motorcade extended over a mile as it crossed the Verrazano Bridge, the longest in the world at the time. It had opened seven years before, but the era when the city undertook great works that brought people together seemed to be long past.
At the 9th, the pageantry provided only so much comfort. The cops had heard the rumor that one of the big chiefs from downtown had fulminated at the hospital, "I bet they were on the take! I bet somebody got 'em because they were dirty!" At Rocco's wake, a member of the honor guard watched as Adelaide hugged her dead husband, asking him why he'd left her. She refused to allow him to be buried in his police uniform. According to Al Silverman's intimate biography, Foster and Laurie, Jackie argued with her in-laws over whether Greg's wake should be in the Bronx or Queens. The family wanted an open casket, and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association flew in a specialist from California to do what he could. At the wake, cops had to pull Jackie away whenever she tried to touch her husband's face, which was held together with a veil.
Cops didn't have to know the men to take the loss like a death in the family, and grief was compounded with rage and confusion. You didn't want to die trying to stop a robbery or a fight, but it happened. You knew the risks when you signed up for the Job. But to be killed in the course of a political argument you didn't know you were having? A ragged pack of fanatics had formed a study group, and come up with a theory about justice and power: Whoever puts on a blue uniform deserves to die, and you can't do anything to stop it. On the second count, at least, the police had no ready reply. With each day that passed without arrests, the knife in the back kept on twisting.
The moment of unity that the funerals inspired was not to last.
Liedy and Vetrano realized that the shooters might have driven past them while they talked on the corner, as their car was later found abandoned by the subway on 14th Street. Why didn't we notice? Vetrano couldn't stop thinking about how things would have been different, if Greg and Rocco had accepted a ride. Why didn't I just tell them to get in the car? Another cop on a nearby footpost, whose partner made an arrest, was sent out to finish his tour with Greg and Rocco. He was two blocks away when they were killed. What if I got there, a minute before? Could I have helped, or would I be dead, too? Liedy found out that the taxi blocking his way had the third shooter in the back seat. "The cabbie was an Italian guy, maybe a month in the country," he told me. "I saw him at the precinct, a couple of days later. When he saw me, he cried."
The moment of unity that the funerals inspired was not to last. The New York State Assembly failed to pass a resolution expressing sympathy for the loss, after a denunciation of the war in Vietnam was added to the text. When a then-obscure group called the Black Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the murders, as well as two recent attacks on cops in Brooklyn—a stabbing and a shooting that hadn't been widely reported—Bob Daley held a press conference at the 9th to say that it was an act of "guerrilla warfare." The city seemed unready or unwilling to believe it, and the announcement didn't get much attention from the press. Mayor Lindsay was running for president, and the premise of his candidacy was that he'd kept race relations in the city below the boiling point. The notion that there was a war on police was unwelcome at City Hall.
The BLA was behind over 50 bombing, stabbing, and shooting attacks on police across the country.
It must have been frustrating for BLA to have its declaration of war go unnoticed. Its campaign of domestic terrorism would be the most extreme since that of the anarchists, early in the 20th century, and would remain so until the jihadis of today. And Foster and Laurie were not its first victims. They weren't even the first pair of partners, black and white, who had been assassinated in the city. The previous May, Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini were shot down in Harlem. Two days before, two other cops were machine-gunned as they guarded the home of the Manhattan DA, though they survived. A letter claiming credit for both crimes was written on the same typewriter, and arrests were made in both cases. Other, sketchier groups had used the term "Black Liberation Army" in the past, and it was loosely assumed that the threat had been dealt with.
The BLA was behind over 50 bombing, stabbing, and shooting attacks on police across the country, killing at least 15 officers. According to Bryan Burrough, who profiled the BLA and other radical groups of the era in Days of Rage, its nominal leader, Eldridge Cleaver—then a fugitive in Algeria, after an earlier police shooting—wanted the cells to be autonomous, to prevent infiltration, but the lack of structure also guaranteed chaos. The New York cadre who shot the cops guarding the Manhattan DA had no idea who shot Piagentini and Jones.
The police now needed police escorts.
The two years that followed were a trial by fire for the NYPD. Many brought shotguns from home to carry on patrol. The BLA weren't the only people killing cops: In April, 1972, four patrolmen in Harlem were lured into a Nation of Islam Mosque on a false 10-13 call. One of them, Phillip Cardillo, was murdered. Fearing a riot, the NYPD ordered detectives to leave the scene. Evidence wasn't collected, and witnesses weren't detained. No one has been convicted of Cardillo's murder, and neither Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy nor Mayor Lindsay went to his funeral. Bob Daley quit the NYPD soon after. In January, 1973, eight cops were wounded and one killed after the robbery of a gun store in Brooklyn turned into a 47-hour hostage standoff. The perpetrators were Sunni Muslims arming themselves against the Nation of Islam, who had tried to kill their imam in Washington, DC, in a house owned by Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. The Nation's hit team missed the imam, but they killed seven people, five of them children, three of whom were drowned in a bathtub. Four days later, two BLA members were killed, and two detectives were shot, during a gun battle in a Brooklyn bar. Within a week, two pairs of police partners were ambushed and shot in Brooklyn and Queens. Two were brothers, Carlo and Vincent Imperato, and the department subsequently forbade close relatives from working together. Murphy authorized overtime shifts for off-duty cops to tail patrolmen in their own cars. The police now needed police escorts.
By the end of 1973, two of the men believed to have killed Greg and Rocco were dead. Twymon Meyers died in the Bronx after a shootout with police. He'd escaped capture after another police shootout in St. Louis the year before that took the life of the second killer, Ronald Carter. Rocco's gun was found at the scene. Henry "Sha-Sha" Brown was arrested, and brought back to New York to stand trial. He was acquitted, but went back to Missouri to serve a twenty-year sentence. It wasn't true justice, cops felt, but there was an element of the poetic kind. Ballistic tests showed that Ronald Carter hadn't been shot by St Louis police, but by Sha-Sha Brown. One of the men who killed Rocco was killed by Rocco's gun.
In Bob Daley's extraordinary memoir, Target Blue, he wrote that the NYPD was like a football team, caring only about next week's game. Though the murders of Police Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in December, 2014, were a savage reminder of the earlier case—Ramos had previously worked as a school safety officer at the Rocco Laurie Intermediate School, in Staten Island—the adage is at least half-true, at least at headquarters. At One Police Plaza, dwelling on the past is mostly confined to crime statistics, last week's or last year's, to see what's working and what isn't. And whatever worked, worked wonders: In 1971, there were 46 murders in the 9th precinct; in 2016, there were none. The stretch of Avenue B that Greg and Rocco patrolled is still mostly lined with turn-of-the-century tenements, but now the storefronts are filled with boutiques and cafes. A loft on Avenue B was recently listed for $8,750 a month. There is no memorial to them on their old beat, but there is one to a tangential tragedy, the Andrew Glover Youth Program. Greg's first partner was gunned down in 1975, along with Sgt. Fred Reddy, when they told a man wanted for robbery to move his double-parked car. Glover left a wife and child, and Reddy left a wife and six children. They were the last cops killed in the line of duty at the 9th.
New York is a different city now, and the NYPD is a different department. But memories of that night haven't faded for those who lived through it. When I visited Dominic Vetrano, the first thing he showed me was his leather jacket, which once had been covered with Rocco's blood. He told me that his wife called his partner's wife as soon as news broke, and both women called the 9th: "The guy at the desk tells 'em, 'We can't say who, but your husbands are okay.' I went to Street Crime a couple of months after. Danny got promoted to sergeant. He goes to the 19th, on the Upper East Side. Now, he's got it made, a nice easy gig. One of his first days there, a guy walks into the precinct, shoots him in the throat."
In 1971, there were 46 murders in the 9th precinct; in 2016, there were none
Brennan survived, and Vetrano didn't lose his composure when he told me about it. He was less steady when he recalled meeting Jackie Foster in 2012, at the 40th anniversary ceremony at the precinct. "I wrote letters to both wives back then, but I didn't say I wished they took the ride from me and Danny. If they didn't walk back... Anyway, I didn't get to talk to Adelaide, but I talked to Foster's wife. I said who I was, asked if she got my letter. She said, 'I did, thank you so much...' I said, 'Do you mind if I give you a hug?'"
Vetrano choked up for a moment. 'That closed the door for me on that."
The door never closed for the families. Jackie Foster died two years ago, but she had her children, Gregory, Jr., and Tyisha, to remind her of her husband. As for Adelaide Laurie, no one is ready to be a widow at the age of 24, but the life she led until then made her loss barely survivable. Her mother died when she was 10, her father when she was 14. She met Rocco in grammar school, and was devoted to him with a fearful need. She lived in dread when he was in Vietnam. After he became a cop, she didn't relax when he left for work until he came home at the end of his shift. She still lives in the house they shared, and she hasn't remarried. Adelaide became friendly with Jackie, but it always hurt when Jackie urged her to move on. (As it happened, Jackie never remarried either). Rocco wanted kids right away, but Adelaide didn't want to rush things. She thought they had time.
When I spoke with her, she said, "Rocco was everything to me. He was my whole world... It took me a long time to be able to function. I didn't know it, but I was pregnant when he died. I had a miscarriage. I thought, 'Why is God doing this to me?'"
No case gets better with age. In other jurisdictions, fresh looks at old BLA killings have had mixed results: In Atlanta, in 2001, a man was convicted of the 1971 murder of an officer; in 2007, San Francisco charged eight men with a police murder from 1972. Two defendants—the same men who killed Piagentini and Jones—took weak pleas, adding no more time to the life sentences they were already serving, while the charges against the rest were dismissed. Though most of the physical evidence in the Foster and Laurie case has been lost, the investigation is very much alive.
Days after the murders, the NYPD released photos of nine suspects, and two remain of intense interest to law enforcement. One is Joanne Chesimard, a fugitive on the FBI's Most Wanted list. After her conviction for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper, she escaped from prison, with the assistance of the BLA. She eventually made her way to Cuba, where she was received as an honored guest of the Castro government. The other is Robert Vickers, who was convicted in one police shooting, and acquitted in another. Over the years, he'd admitted to police that he was in the East Village that night, and that he and Twymon Meyers had agreed to take part in some sort of "action" planned by Chesimard. His fingerprints were found on a bomb-making manual found at the scene. But he claimed he'd taken LSD, and he'd passed out before he was supposed to meet up with them. In his version of events, his bad habits had brought him good luck, for once.
Now, he is an inmate in Coxsackie prison in upstate New York. He is 67 years old, and he was in a hospital bed when I went to visit him, recuperating from back surgery. He told me that he didn't expect to leave prison before he died, or even his bed. He had a flowing white beard, a wry sense of humor, and a deep belief that he'd been wronged. We talked for an hour and a half.
While writing this story, I wasn't sure if I was pretending to be a cop, or pretending not to be one. I had retired from the NYPD five years before, and didn't expect to come back. Nothing would have pleased me more than for Vickers to break down and confess, but I had no expectations that would happen. He'd been grilled for almost half a century about the murders.
Esquire magazine had commissioned me to write about Foster and Laurie, and I told Vickers that was the reason for the visit. I didn't tell him what I used to do for a living. Or that I was there on the 45th anniversary of the murders. Or that two of my old partners, John Timpanaro and Jose Morales, had worked on the case. Still, Vickers suspected that I was a cop, asking for ID and wondering aloud what I was really there for. But he talked nonetheless, maintaining that he had nothing to hide.
"I can remember Jim Crow days," he told me. "Going down south to visit my grandparents, we'd have to switch in DC, get in the back of the bus... My older brother took me to see Malcolm on 125th Street. I remember him saying, 'You can be part of the problem, or part of the solution.' Before then, I was part of the problem. Stealing, doing drugs, from the age of 16... I remember Huey Newton talking about the lumpenproletariat. It's from Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. It's about how street people become revolutionaries, how we participate in the struggle for our liberation."
"I never was in the Black Liberation Army. I was in the Black Panther Party... Nobody asked me if I wanted to join the BLA. I was put there by The Daily News."
Vickers joined the Panthers because the police "were waging war on us." He'd just finished collecting donations for the breakfast program, he told me, in April 1971, when he ran into a couple of Panthers on the street. "One fateful day, I was thrown into the mix. There were four or five of us. The police rolled up, and—I don't know why—they told us to get in this hallway. We complied, to a certain degree. One of my party... All hell broke loose. The cops got shot. Kimu got shot. Russell got shot and killed. I got shot, but I got away."
For the next 16 months, he lived underground, moving from house to house, city to city. He was arrested after the police shooting in Newark, in August 1972. He was succinct in his account of it: "I was with friends. There was an argument. Someone pulled a knife, and my friend pulled a gun. Cops came."
When I asked him if his underground days were exciting, he was quick to reply, "No! It was very foolish. It was scary, but I wasn't petrified. We had a lot of support, and the support gives you energy. Gives you courage."
Still, he insisted, "I never was in the Black Liberation Army. I was in the Black Panther Party... Nobody asked me if I wanted to join the BLA. I was put there by The Daily News. Nine of us, they put our pictures in the paper. None of us had anything to do with it. Well, some of us did, but some of us didn't. I didn't believe in that kind of warfare. Some people did. Random assassinations? To shoot somebody in the back, they'd have to be guilty of something terrible."
"I was in charge of a hit squad. There was homicide involved, and that's all I'm gonna say..."
Asked if he'd make the same choices, knowing what he knew now, he thought for a moment. "Everything's clearer in the rear view mirror. Shoulda coulda woulda... Now? No, of course not. Only a foolish person would... Nobody likes war when you been in it. And that was war. My destiny was chosen for me. If I could have chosen? I don't know..."
After finishing his prison sentence in New Jersey, Vickers moved upstate to Saratoga County, got married and raised kids. For 19 years, he had a job with the Department of Public Works, and he ran a clothing store on the side. After his wife died, in 1995, he relapsed into heroin addiction and alcoholism. In 2015, he went on trial for six counts of selling heroin to an undercover with the Albany PD, with the total amount exceeding four ounces, in the course of a larger investigation directed by the Intelligence Division of the NYPD. Vickers took the stand to proclaim his innocence under a highly technical and wholly inaccurate reading of the law: Real dealers don't use, and I was using plenty. This was entrapment, he claimed. He was convicted on all counts, and received a sentence of 21 years.
Vickers told me that the only reason that he was in prison was because the NYPD believed he'd killed Foster and Laurie. That's not true, but the NYPD did take great pains to find several confidential informants, or CIs, who recorded their conversations with him as he committed other crimes. Among them was a distant relative who suddenly became a close associate with a pressing problem: he'd stolen two kilos of heroin, he said, and he needed to kill the dealer he stole from before he was killed himself. Vickers offered his help with the murder plot: he accompanied the CI on a recon trip to the Lower East Side for the hit, and provided him with a .22 pistol. He drew an accurate diagram of how to build a bomb. Had he not testified, none of the video in which he talked about anything but drugs would have been shown to the jury. Vickers might have been drunk when he spoke to the CI, but he sounded cold sober on the subject of murder, and he went on about it at length.
"It's always easy to pop a motherf—r, but getting away with it, that's the main thing... I did get away, but I got away because we had an apparatus set up... We had doctors. We had safe houses. We had other couriers...
"I was in charge of a hit squad. There was homicide involved, and that's all I'm gonna say... I been in some shit that I don't want to talk about. There's no statute of limitations..."
Despite his repeated denials of killing Foster and Laurie, he was just as emphatic in insisting he'd never admit to murder, which was the only crime he could still be charged with. "I was against random assassinations," he said on video, as he'd told me. But in the recording, he added a persuasive qualifier. "I earned the right to speak. I earned my bones."
At his trial for the 1971 Harlem police shooting, Vickers took the stand and said he didn't have a gun. On video, he said that he was surprised that he'd been acquitted. He'd shot his way past the police, and he'd carjacked a taxi at gunpoint to get away. The responding cops had been hailed by a passer-by who heard the men talking about robbery. On video, Vickers admitted he'd been talking with the other Panthers about ripping off drug dealers; those proceeds might well have been the "donations" to the breakfast program he told me about. When he was underground, he mostly did payroll robberies: "We used to stick 'em up prolifically, you know what I mean?" He rattled off the recipe for a fuseless Molotov cocktail as if he'd made one an hour before, with potassium chloride, sulfuric acid, and Ivory Snow laundry detergent, the last included so the burning compound would stick "like napalm" to skin. He added, "That was my specialty, bombs and weapons."
Vickers would do more time for handing bags of dope to the police than he did for shooting them. Was that sad? Was that wrong? There was blood on his hands, I was sure. But whose? When I asked who he admired most from his underground days, he named Chesimard and Meyers, who were responsible for the random assassinations he took such pains to deplore. At one point during the sting operation, he excitedly told a CI about his time in Philadelphia, "They killed two cops in Fairmount Park. I was with him, Russell Shoats, and they blew up a police station parking lot with a hand grenade."
As it happened, they only killed one cop in the park that night, in August 1970. There were two separate ambushes of police, but the other officer, who was shot twice in the face, survived. Shoats is serving a life sentence for the murder. Suffice it to say that the matter is being looked into; I made sure of that.
Once a cop, always a cop. Vickers wasn't wrong to be suspicious of me. After I wrote this piece, I was offered a civilian job at the NYPD, something along the lines of what Bob Daley did. (When I informed Esquire that I intended to accept, they felt that the conflict of interest prevented them from publishing this article). I wish the change in status meant I could say more about the case, or do more for it. But I've investigated homicides as a detective, and I've reported stories as a journalist, and the jobs are more alike than not. You can argue all you want, but the facts have to speak for themselves.
There are reasons to believe that Vickers is guilty, and there are reasons why he hasn't been charged. Defense counsel would claim that his fingerprints on the bomb-making manual don't make him a killer any more than his prints on a motel bible would make him a Christian. BLA cells were fluid, as its members lived on the run, and there were others in the area that night. Reasonable doubt remains. But so does some hope of justice for Greg and Rocco. The Patriot Act allows for federal prosecution of acts of domestic terrorism such as the BLA committed, no matter when they occurred.
One source interviewed by the NYPD met Vickers soon after the murders, when both were underground. He said that Vickers described in detail how the bodies were maimed, long before that information became publicly known. Other witnesses might still be found. Maybe they'll name him; maybe not. The clock has not yet run out.
Vickers told me, "By giving me 21 years, they have not given justice to Foster and Laurie. That's not justice for them." The NYPD would agree with him on that point, at least. It remains an open case, and an open wound.