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A notable footnote in the jogger saga

February 3, 2003

Mark the name - Detective First Grade Robert Mooney. When the history books are written on the Central Park jogger case, he will be a footnote.

It was Mooney, a 20-year veteran with 14 years in the detective bureau, who conducted the first interview of Matias Reyes, the serial rapist and murderer who last year confessed to raping the jogger and whose DNA matched that found at the crime scene.

It was Mooney's interview of Reyes on May 23, lasting five hours in a lineup room on the ninth floor of the Manhattan district attorney's office, that opened a rift between the Police Department and the district attorney's office.

"The Police Department seized on this interview because no one wants to admit to his boss, 'We got it wrong,'" an official in the district attorney's office said. "The department is known for slaying the messenger."

The Manhattan district attorney has accepted Reyes' statement that he acted alone in attacking the jogger and in December moved to overturn the convictions of five Harlem teenagers convicted of the 1989 crime.

The Police Department says Reyes cannot be believed despite the DNA evidence, and continue to maintain that the teenagers participated in the rape as their statements indicate.

According to sources in both the Police Department and the district attorney's office, here is what happened during that May 23 interview of Reyes that created the law enforcement equivalent of two planets colliding.

Mooney's interrogation began at noon. It was observed through a one-way mirror by his supervisor, Lt. Roger Parrino, and Assistant District Attorneys Nancy Ryan and Peter Casolaro. Ryan is considered a pro-cop prosecutor, having written the reports that cleared the department of wrongdoing in such high-profile fatal shootings as drug dealer Kiko Garcia in the early 1990s; Kevin Cedeno, 16, while carrying a machete, and Patrick Dorismond, who had refused to buy drugs from undercover cops.

Casolaro had prosecuted Reyes for the homicide and four rapes that led to his conviction and incarceration.

After five hours, Ryan stopped the questioning, suggesting a dinner break. She then took over for two more hours, leaving Mooney to press his nose against the glass outside.

Chief Assistant District Attorney James Kindler's explanation at a city council hearing last week was that Mooney had antagonized Reyes and lost his effectiveness.

But at the moment Ryan halted his questioning, Mooney felt he had backed Reyes into a box from which he could not extricate himself.

This, a police official said, exposed Reyes' lack of credibility.

"Reyes was saying something completely illogical. He was offering a different account of what had occurred," the official said. "He was telling about having been stopped as he came out of the park by a police officer from the 23rd Precinct he knew as Blondie."

Mooney then asked him, "How could you have had this conversation in close proximity and he didn't ask about the blood on you?"

Reyes answered that he had only a little blood on his pants.

"Two minutes ago, you said there was so much blood on you, you could smell it," Mooney shot back.

It was then that Reyes grew silent and Ryan ended the interrogation, saying, this was a good time to break for dinner. Mooney was described as furious. Five days later, on May 28, Mooney was not allowed to accompany Reyes to the crime scene.

"Reyes was being kept at Fishkill prison and the plan was to bring him back and have Mooney go to the scene with him to gauge his reactions," the department official said.

But when Mooney appeared at Ryan's office she had left with Reyes, accompanied by corrections officials.

"At 5 p.m. Ryan returned, bubbling about what had happened in the park," said the police official.

"Nancy," Mooney told her, "I don't care what happened. Unless I saw it myself, I can't gauge it."

According to the department official, Ryan apologized, saying it was an oversight. To Mooney, the opportunity was lost forever.

So far, the district attorney's version of events has been accepted by the court and generally by the public. In terms of perception, the Police Department has been routed.

The department's final indignity occurred last week at a City Council hearing. The department's top legal official, Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Stephen Hammerman, and an outside counsel, Michael Armstrong, had been sent to present the department's position.

Hammerman is the former vice chairman of Merrill Lynch who gave up hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary to join the department as a result of 9/11. In the 1970s, Armstrong was counsel to the Knapp Commission on police corruption, which revolutionized the department, and later served as Queens district attorney.

Nonetheless, a member of the committee, Councilwoman Melinda Katz began her questioning with a statement that hardly inspired confidence:

"Who are you guys?"

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© 2003 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.