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Who was with Volpe?

June 28, 1999

Was police Officer Charles Schwarz wrongfully convicted of holding down Abner Louima in the bathroom of the 70th Precinct stationhouse when Justin Volpe sodomized him with a wooden stick?

In a wrinkle of doubt, federal prosecutors now don't seem to know who or how many cops were in the bathroom with Louima and Volpe.

How else to interpret Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Vinegrad's letter of June 17 to Schwarz attorney Stephen Worth, in which Vinegrad concludes: "Nor should this letter be construed as an agreement by the government that there were only two police officers present in the bathroom when Mr. Louima was sexually assaulted."

Law enforcement sources say Vinegrad's scenario is not inconsistent with the government's prior position and also could accommodate Officer Thomas Wiese's role.

His letter, a copy of which Newsday obtained, adds that in Volpe's guilty plea, his lawyer Marvyn Kornberg informed the government that if called as a witness, Volpe "would testify in substance that an individual other than Charles Schwarz was the 'other officer " in the bathroom during the sexual assault. "It was the government's understanding from Mr. Kornberg's statement that the individual to whom he referred was Thomas Wiese," Vinegrad wrote.

Vinegrad's boss, U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter, has dismissed the fingering of Wiese, calling it part of a conspiracy to protect Schwarz, who Louima never identified. In a telephone interview three days before Vinegrad sent his letter, Carter said that Volpe "has not through his attorney communicated anything to us that is new in terms of an alternative version of events that has been floated before by defense lawyers in the case. All Kornberg offers," he added, "is his client's willingness to confirm a story we already believe evidence indicates is false."

That was the story floated by Wiese attorney Joseph Tacopina to his so-called friends on the Court TV circuit, Johnnie Cochran and Peter Neufeld (who happen to represent Louima). Tacopina told them, supposedly in confidence, that Wiese had seen Volpe inside the bathroom with Louima but never reported the incident. Wiese also flunked a lie detector test. Tacopina did not return phone calls Friday.

 

Perhaps because Tacopina's going to Neufeld and Cochran remains inexplicable, Carter viewed it as another example of the conspiracy for which Schwarz, Wiese and a third cop, Thomas Bruder, face obstruction of justice charges. The catch is that other attorneys in the case - Kornberg, Worth and Bruder attorney Stuart London - say they were incredulous when they learned what Tacopina had done.

This is not to suggest that Schwarz is Little Lord Fauntleroy. Even those who believe he may not have held down Louima believe he had to have known Volpe had abused him. Yet he never reported it.

Still, that's obstruction of justice, which carries a penalty of five years, not life imprisonment.

Marvyn and Steve redux? Kornberg says Worth made "a colossal blunder" by not calling Volpe as a defense witness. Worth says his distrust of Kornberg influenced his decision not to call Volpe. The two also represent cops in the Amadou Diallo case. Kornberg represents Sean Carroll, who shouted that Diallo had a gun. Worth represents Ed McMellon, who began shooting. Does something, or someone, have to give?

The letter. From the archives Maryland's district court in Anne Arundel County, we present police Commissioner Howard Safir's letter to literary agent Esther Newberg on April 30, 1991. If anyone doubts his predecessor Bill Bratton's description of Safir as "the Rodney Dangerfield of law enforcement," this should confirm it.

"As you requested," Safir begins, "this note is to let you know that the 'Sixty Minutes profile will be on next Sunday. It will discuss a number of the more famous cases I worked on . . .

"I recently signed a contract with Columbia Studios to be the creative consultant on a project about Witness Security. So far as is known, the project was never made. . . . Although I tried very hard to get your L.A. office to represent me on this matter, they never returned my calls . . .

"Now for the reason for this note. I have redone the book proposal and some new pages . . . I have also attached a very rough draft of the first twenty pages of the novel I've been working on. The novel was also never published. I am ready if there is any interest to proceed on one or both . . . The pages relative to my meeting with Ollie North is just a small part of the whole story . . . "

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© 1999 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.