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Maybe the richest man in the prison

September 24, 2004

Although only 20, Dante Johnson may soon collect millions of dollars from the city.

But despite an unprecedented break by the Manhattan district attorney, Johnson may be collecting in a prison cell.

On May 26, 1999, just three months after the fatal police shooting of Amadou Diallo, Johnson, then 16, was with a group of teens near Undercliff and Sedgewick avenues in the Bronx. As police approached them, the teens scattered.

Mark Conway, a cop with the Street Crime Unit, the same unit whose officers shot Diallo, pursued the unarmed Johnson in his patrol car, trying to grab him through the driver's side window when his gun went off. Johnson was shot in the stomach and critically wounded.

Conway was convicted of negligent assault, one of the rare times in the state that an on-duty officer was convicted of shooting a civilian. Because the crime was a misdemeanor, Conway was not given jail time and kept his job.

Johnson sued the city for $20 million.

Then in May 2003, Johnson was arrested in the Bronx with two others in a car stolen at gunpoint from a woman at 10th Avenue and 42nd Street. At the 10th Precinct station house, Johnson slipped out of his cuffs and jumped from the third-floor window. He was rearrested and charged with robbery and escape.

In a plea deal as apparently unprecedented as Conway's conviction, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau allowed Johnson to plead guilty to first-degree robbery, which carries a minimum 7-year sentence. But instead of prison, he was allowed to enter a rehabilitation and counseling facility in Vermont. If not arrested again for five years, the carjacking arrest would be expunged.

This week, Johnson was arrested in the Bronx for allegedly possessing 19 vials of crack. He was immediately arrested in Manhattan on the carjacking warrant and imprisoned, pending an Oct. 15 hearing before Acting State Supreme Court Justice Bonnie Wittner. The arrest came the day before Johnson's mother was to be deposed in his suit against the city.

Johnson's criminal attorney, Toni Messina, says Johnson's plea bargain may still hold.

"There is some possibility that the cops are out to get this kid," she said. "They are from the 46th Precinct, the same precinct as the original shooting. If we get in front of a jury, they will find him not guilty

"The DA in the Bronx hasn't indicted him yet," she added. "So far, the DA in Manhattan and Judge Wittner are being open-minded."

A noose and a bouquet. Those were the two symbols displayed at the strife-torn 42nd Precinct station house in the Bronx.

Anthony Miranda, a retired sergeant who heads the National Latino Officers Association of America, contended earlier this week that white officers in the precinct displayed a noose as a symbol of discrimination against nonwhite officers.

State Sen. Ruben Diaz visited the precinct and said the noose recalled his time in the military in the south in 1960 when he was subjected to discrimination as a Puerto Rican.

At the station house, a squat old building on Washington Avenue some blocks east of the courthouse, no one was talking about the noose.

The commanding officer, Deputy Insp. James Guida, and the No. 2, Capt. Edward Edwards, were said to be out.

Looking around the station house, this reporter spotted another symbol to the right of the entrance - three small memorial plaques. The first read: "Walker Fitzgerald, killed in the line of duty Sept. 6, 1997." The second was of Officer George Mead, "who gave his life in the performance of duty, Oct. 10, 1973."

The third was of Det. Philip LaMonica, killed in the line of duty on Sept. 21, 1952. The day before had been the 52nd anniversary of his death. Beneath his plaque was a bouquet of flowers with the words "In Loving Memory."

Seen: Howard Safir at One Police Plaza for a Shomrim Society ceremony of Jewish officers at which "the greatest police commissioner in the history of the city," as former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called him, was described as the department's first and only Jewish police commissioner. Safir sat a couple of seats from Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, although the two didn't speak.

Heard: Only faint applause when Safir's name was announced.

Staff writer Sean Gardiner contributed to this column.

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© 2004 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.