EDITOR’S NOTE: On Friday, March 5, 2021, a state judge in Queens threw out the convictions of George Bell, Rohan Bolt, and Gary Johnson and castigated the prosecution for withholding evidence that seriously undermined the case. After 24 years in prison, the three men are finally free. They can, however, never get back the years they spent behind bars for a crime that many knew they did not commit.
Ira “Mike” Epstein, decided not to attend the holiday dinner at the last minute. It was December 20, 1996, and the 40-year-old father of two told his coworkers that he wanted to spend time with his family. He returned to his Long Island home in an anxious state. He told his wife, Marie, that he didn’t think he would see her again.
Epstein left his home at around 6:30 the next morning, December 21, according to court documents. He arrived at the East Elmhurst, Queens, check-cashing facility he owned a few minutes past 7. East Elmhurst, a culturally diverse lower-middle class neighborhood that lies just south of LaGuardia Airport, is a relatively quiet, residential area. Epstein pulled up to the store at about the same time as Officer Charles Davis, 38, an NYPD officer working off-duty as a security guard for Epstein.
Sunrise in Queens that day was 7:25 am. There was no moon visible. Daybreak was still twenty minutes away when a group of armed men stole swiftly across Astoria Boulevard in the predawn winter chill, guns drawn.
A woman who had been looking out her window across Astoria Boulevard watched as Epstein began rolling up the heavy front security gate of the store. The armed men crossed Astoria Boulevard and confronted Epstein and Davis, forcing them both into the store. Within seconds, shots rang out. The woman immediately called 911, and reports of a “10-30”—robbery in progress—began crackling across police channels as the gunmen fled the store on foot.
Police records indicate that an NYPD officer arrived on the scene less than two minutes after the shots had been fired. Moving cautiously into the storefront, the officer found Davis on the floor, barely alive. He had been shot in the chest, hip and leg. He was revived briefly in the ambulance en route to Elmhurst Hospital Center, but succumbed to his wounds and was pronounced dead at 8:00 am. Epstein’s body was found further back in the store, killed instantly from a bullet to the heart. When Epstein’s wife arrived at the scene of the crime minutes later, she was hysterical. As the New York Daily News reported in an article that went to print early the next morning, Epstein’s wife claimed he knew something about his impending death, quoting her as saying, “Oh my God! Oh my God! He told me last night.’”
The murders and ensuing manhunts were splashed across the front pages of all major New York newspapers for four days straight.
The Davis-Epstein murders occurred during the Giuliani era, at a time when the city’s hard-changing prosecutor-turned-mayor was building a reputation for “cleaning up” crime. “If you shoot and kill a New York City police officer, the Police Department is going to catch you, they’re going to find you, usually in a short period of time, and then at a minimum you’re going to spend the rest of your life in jail. And in this particular situation, it’s quite possible you’ll get executed,” Rudolph Giuliani told reporters at a news conference after the murders. Over the next four days, an enormous dragnet spread across the borough of Queens. According to police reports, NYPD officers stopped 6,000 cars and interviewed more than 1,000 people, looking for anyone with outstanding warrants. Posters went up all over town offering a $10,000 reward for information about the case.
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On December 23, just two days after the murders, police arrested 20-year-old John Mark Bigweh, a Liberian immigrant whose family had come to New York City when he was an infant. A small-time drug dealer already on probation for a drug case from July, Bigweh was caught in the late afternoon attempting to sell an undercover cop a nickel bag of marijuana four blocks from the scene of the crime. Despite there being no correlation between his petty drug sales and the double-murders, NYPD records show that he was taken to the 115th Precinct in Jackson Heights, Queens, where he was questioned by Detective Maryann Bubelnik.
The 115th Precinct had a decidedly uneven record when it came to getting convictions right. Two murder cases handled by the 115th in 1992 and 1993, both of which ended in guilty pleas, were later overturned, with the two individuals eventually being released from prison—though not before years of wrongful incarceration. The City of New York had also been sued by a man who claimed that Detective Bubelnik and Detective Frank Bovino had framed him for murder. That case was settled out of court. In 2010, a former NYPD officer told The Village Voice about his experience working as a rookie at the 115th, where he was mandated to make two arrests, issue thirty summonses,and conduct eight stop-and-frisks a month. He told the Voice that he was ordered to take arrests despite not actually witnessing the misconduct.
According to Detective Bubelnik’s report, which was disclosed by the NYPD in a complaint follow-up report, Bigweh informed her that an hour or so before the murders occurred, he ran into George Bell and Gary Johnson, two friends from the neighborhood. Bubelnik wrote in her report that Bell had flashed a handgun and mentioned a possible robbery, but Bigweh declined to participate, stating that he “wasn’t down with it.” Later, on two occasions, Bigweh would testify that he didn’t say anything of the sort. “She asked me where I was the previous night and I told her who I was with and that’s it,” he said in court.
Bigweh was taken to Queens Central Booking to be arraigned on the marijuana charge, but then inexplicably returned to the 115th, according to the NYPD report. There he was interrogated by Lieutenant Vincent Mazziotti and Detective Michael Falciano. As was—and continues to be—the norm in New York City, neither of Bigweh’s interrogations were recorded.
Police records show that Bigweh signed a form waiving his Miranda rights at approximately 4 on the afternoon of December 24. Mazziotti and Falciano wrote out Bigweh’s revised statement. After hours with the detectives, Bigweh was now saying that he had been a “lookout” for a robbery gone wrong. In this statement, he said that after running into Bell and Johnson, he climbed into a minivan with two other individuals—someone named “Roti” and “Jason,” the driver. Bigweh purportedly saw “Roti” and Bell fire at the victims outside the store. Later, he would change his statement again and claim that he could not see who did the shooting.
Under pressure to continue to cooperate with the detectives, Bigweh led police to both George Bell and Gary Johnson. Bell, 19, lived in Jackson Heights with his mother. He worked as a stockboy at Old Navy, and had no criminal background. He was good friends with Johnson, 22, of Corona. Just before midnight on Christmas Eve, a swarm of cops descended on Bell’s Jackson Heights home and arrested the two. Bell was interrogated at the 109th Precinct in Flushing from approximately 4:30 am until 9:30 am, according to police records. Mid-morning on Christmas Day, he signed a confession written out by detectives claiming responsibility for the shootings. Bell’s trial attorney, Mitch Dinnerstein, said that the detectives told Bell that if he didn’t confess, he would never see his mother again. Bell has since recanted, reiterating that detectives coerced the confession through threats and physical violence. Johnson signed a nearly identical confession the same day, claiming to have acted as a lookout.
The last two “suspects” were bewildering from the start. Bigweh couldn’t give any information other than two first names, “Roti” and “Jason.” He told detectives he didn’t know where they lived, so police enlisted the help of a crack-addicted informant from the neighborhood, who led them to Rohan Bolt, a 35-year-old owner of an East Elmhurst Caribbean restaurant and father of two. Mid-afternoon on Christmas Day, law enforcement arrested Bolt in the parking lot of an East Elmhurst grocery store, despite his protests that his nickname was “Jabba,” not “Roti.” Bolt never confessed.
The final suspect, Jason Ligon, signed a statement five months later admitting to driving the getaway car—a statement that aligned precisely with the others’ confessions written by the police. There was just one problem: Ligon was not even in New York City at the time of the murders. (A private investigator eventually discovered that Ligon was registered in a Washington, DC, hotel at the time of the crime.) The district attorney’s office dropped the charges against Ligon in 2000 once all of the other defendants had been convicted, but not before he spent three years on Rikers Island. “Jason” was never found.
On Christmas morning, with the first two suspects in custody, the mayor’s office announced a press conference. As Bolt was being arrested, Giuliani was publicly praising the detectives involved for their swift action and successful arrests, even though there was no hard evidence implicating the men. The murder weapon was never found, and fingerprint analysis of Epstein’s check-cashing store eliminated all of the defendants. According to NYPD records, a man using a payphone 170 feet away from the store at the time of the murders was taken to One Police Plaza to be questioned as a witness. Despite spending eleven hours with the police, he maintained that he could not provide descriptions for the police sketch artist, insisting that hoods had obscured the faces of the perpetrators.
Desperately trying to obtain identifications of the men they were convinced were guilty, police took the witness back into custody yet again on the 26th to make him view lineups with Bell, Johnson and Bolt included. He did not pick anyone out during the first lineup, but approximately two hours later, after a second lineup, he picked out Bell and Bolt. According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentifications account for almost 75 percent of all wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing.
The prosecution did not have a strong case against Bell, Johnson and Bolt. The most damning evidence was Bell and Johnson’s confessions, but with no recording of the interrogations, as well as their subsequent recantations and claims of police coercion, the value of their confessions was compromised. The eyewitness’s identification of the men was similarly flimsy.
Protecting the innocent should be just as critical to the success of the criminal justice system as convicting the guilty. Yet in a prosecutorial culture that both emphasizes and rewards conviction rates, it is unfortunately acceptable for the prosecution to bolster weak cases in ways that are decidedly unprincipled, including bartering for jailhouse witnesses in exchange for reduced sentences.
Reginald Gousse was born in Haiti. When he was 10 years old, his family moved to Queens. After his first arrest in 1990 at the age of 17—for a robbery in Florida—he was regularly incarcerated, prison records show. By 1997, with several felonies on his record, a judge ordered that he be deported back to Haiti after serving out his sentence. But that’s not what happened.
When Gousse was released from custody later that year, the deportation order remained in effect, but, inexplicably, no action was taken. Then, in 1998, he was arrested again, this time for impersonating a police officer in order to pull over a car, and then kidnapping and threatening the driver—a manager of a Staples store that he wanted to rob—at gunpoint. Gousse returned to jail.
In the summer of 1998, awaiting trial on Rikers Island, Gousse claimed to have struck up a friendship with his cellmate, George Bell, who had been at Rikers since 1996. That fall, Gousse wrote to the prosecution, telling them that he had acquired important evidence in regard to the Davis-Epstein murders. According to trial transcripts, he asserted that Bell had confessed his role in the crime to him, and that Gary Johnson had been next to him, nodding his head in corroboration. Bell’s lawyers claimed in court that all of the information that Gousse “supplied” to the prosecution (including some erroneous facts) was gleaned from the stacks of newspaper articles and legal papers about the case that Bell kept in his cell.
According to the New York Daily News, Gousse’s statement alleged that “Davis, bleeding and on the floor, said, ‘I hope you burn in hell.’ Bell stopped and told the officer ‘You’re going to be there first,’ and shot at Davis again. The gunman allegedly bragged to Gousse, ‘I am glad I killed him, because he was a Giuliani foot soldier. I am glad I killed him because he was a cop.’ ”
The prosecution jumped at this statement, eager to secure three convictions in a case staked on shaky evidence. Gousse became the star witness at Bell’s trial, and on the “strength” of his testimony, Bell was convicted of the murders in 1999 and sentenced to life without parole. Later that year, Johnson was convicted and sentenced to fifty years to life. In 2000, Bolt was convicted and sentenced to a minimum of fifty years. John Mark Bigweh, the man who had brokered his initial cooperation with the police, attempted suicide by aspirin overdose a month after the murders, according to the Village Voice article, but in an ensuing plea deal he was sentenced to five years for attempted robbery, instead of the potential fifty years for accessory to a double murder. After serving out his sentence, Bigweh was quietly deported back to Liberia and cannot be found.
For the three defendants—all young black men with no economic or political clout—the word of Reginald Gousse, a career criminal attempting to secure favorable sentencing for his own crimes, came to mean the difference between conviction and acquittal.
As a reward for his testimony, prosecutors stuck to their end of the bargain and recommended in a legal filing that Gousse receive just five years for his crimes, instead of the twenty-one years he might otherwise have received. (Though Gousse had pleaded guilty to his crimes in 1998 and 1999, he had not been sentenced.) Richard Brown, the Queens District Attorney, also allowed Gousse to retroactively withdraw his guilty plea for a 1992 Robbery charge (for which he had already served the sentence) and let him plead to a lesser charge that did not carry a deportation order. Prosecutors then allowed him to delay sentencing for his other crimes until 2004.
At sentencing in 2004, Assistant District Attorney Brad Leventhal recommended Gousse’s immediate release. He was set free in March of that year.
Less than a year after Gousse’s release, James Gottlieb, the assistant manager of a Long Island bank, was pulled over by a vehicle with flashing lights and a wailing siren, just a mile from his home. Unbeknownst to Gottlieb, the vehicle pulling him over did not belong to the police, but to Gousse, again impersonating an NYPD officer. Gousse walked up to Gottlieb’s car and demanded the keys to the bank. Gottlieb refused. Gousse shot Gottlieb twice, once in the arm and once in the leg. Gottlieb lived long enough to tell police what had happened, but died of blood loss in the hospital just over an hour later. He left behind a wife and three children.
It has been nearly two decades since the Davis-Epstein murders, and George Bell, Rohan Bolt and Gary Johnson all remain incarcerated. Bell, 19 at the time of his arrest, is now 37. Bolt is now 53. Johnson is 40. All three are housed at Green Haven Correctional Facility, a sprawling concrete complex that is surrounded by walls that are thirty feet high. All three continue to maintain their innocence.
Despite the long passage of time, the case remains shrouded in mystery. Who was “Jason”? How could an eyewitness identify hooded perpetrators in the pre-dawn winter light? Given that detectives wrote out a confession that turned out to be fabricated, aren’t all the defendants’ statements suspect? And why did Epstein know that his life was in danger?
Retired NYPD Detective Pete Fiorillo has been troubled by these questions for a long time. Fiorillo was introduced to the case because a handful of the detectives initially involved were acquaintances, and he was pleased to see Giuliani recognizing their efforts in bringing about justice. “I had no intention of looking at it for the purpose of taking it apart,” he said. But the more he learned, the more his doubts grew until he became convinced that the investigation and trial were irredeemably flawed.
“This case represents a total breakdown of the criminal justice system from the bottom to the top: the police that investigated this case; the DA that prosecuted the case; the judge that tried all three cases,” said Fiorillo. “They just didn’t have the courage to do the right thing.”
Fiorillo has become a champion of Bell, Bolt and Johnson’s innocence, relaying their story to anyone who will listen. And if the Davis-Epstein case had unfolded just one county to the south—in Brooklyn—his concerns might have found a receptive audience. The Brooklyn DA’s office is in the midst of a massive review of thousands of convictions from the 1980s and 1990s, when violent crime scarred New York, and police and prosecutors were hungry for arrests. The DA initiated the review in the spring of 2013 after a man who had been in prison for more than twenty years was cleared of a high-profile 1990 murder amid accusations that the detective on the case had framed him. The review, which is being overseen by the Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit, has focused particular attention on cases that rely on either a single eyewitness or a suspect’s confession. In total, ten convictions have been overturned.
The Brooklyn review is almost certainly the most muscular attempted by a prosecutor, but Conviction Integrity Units—which review claims of innocence and investigate shaky convictions—have been popping up across the United States. In 2012, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman established a statewide Conviction Review Bureau, which works with district attorneys across the state to identify potentially problematic convictions. More localized Conviction Integrity Units now exist in the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Queens, however, with a population of over 2.2 million, has no such safeguard in place to review questionable convictions; nor do the Bronx and Staten Island. For Bell, Bolt and Johnson, this means their claims of innocence will likely continue to fall on deaf ears.
In this, sadly, they are not alone. In the many places where there are not yet conviction integrity units, the best hope for men and women claiming wrongful conviction remains DNA evidence. Yet despite the occasional high-profile DNA exonerations, with their triumphant scenes of defendants being walked out of court decades after being wrongfully imprisoned, exculpatory DNA evidence—the gold standard in overturning wrongful convictions—is available only in a remarkably small percentage of cases. The vast majority of wrongfully imprisoned men and women do not have any biological evidence available in their cases. Their stories look a lot like those of Bell, Bolt and Johnson, and for them, the future looks bleak.
English jurist William Blackstone famously said, it is “better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.” Unfortunately, our justice system makes it is all too easy to achieve just the opposite.