Remembering Cardillo and the Mosque
April 13, 2009
It is one of the most disgraceful episodes in NYPD history: the unsolved murder of police officer Philip Cardillo, shot inside a Harlem mosque 37 years ago this week.
Police brass caved in to political pressures and released a dozen suspects without first identifying them, dooming any chance of justice from the start.
As Manhattan-prosecutor-turned-best-selling-author Robert Tanenbaum put it, “Politics was placed over justice. It’s a classic case of political pressure interfering with doing the right thing.”
Arriving at the 24th precinct, where the investigation was moved after the shooting, Tanenbaum found uniformed cops in tears over the suspects’ release, while a group of Harlem politicians demanded the police release four other suspects they had rounded up.
“I have never seen officers in uniform so dispirited,” Tanenbaum said recently. “They were stunned by the audaciousness of the Harlem politicos running around, thinking they could control a criminal investigation into the shooting of a police officer.”
Thirty-seven years later, the repercussions of that day still haunt the department, growing stronger amidst an empty call by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly for a renewed investigation and an emptier call by two other former prosecutors for a federal probe.
Perhaps most pernicious is that blame for the suspects’ release continues to be assigned along racial lines.
Was their release orchestrated by Deputy Commissioner of Community Affairs Benjamin Ward, as many believe, who 11 years later became the city’s first black police commissioner?
Or was it ordered by the cigar-chomping, white Chief of Detectives Al Seedman, as a secret department report revealed?
It’s no wonder city officials feared unrest at the time of Cardillo’s murder. That was an especially dangerous period for police officers. A radical group known as the Black Liberation Army had declared war on law enforcement and had masterminded the shootings of cops nationwide. Between May 1971 and January 1972, the BLA shot six cops in New York City, killing four.
The mosque incident, on April 14, 1972, began with a telephone call, falsely claiming that an officer needed assistance at 102 West 116th Street. The caller did not mention the building was Nation of Islam Mosque Number 7, headed by the notoriously anti-white minister Louis Farrakhan.
Cardillo and his partner Vito Navarra rushed inside the mosque. As other officers arrived, mosque members forced most of them outside, leaving Navarra, Cardillo and two other officers surrounded. All but Cardillo fought their way out. He was shot in the side, his service revolver taken. Police later recovered it in the reception room with a spent bullet.
Meanwhile, an angry crowd of 1,000 had gathered. For the next three hours, a riot raged.
To end it, police allowed a dozen suspects in the mosque’s basement to leave without identifying them, then moved the investigation to the 24th precinct on Manhattan’s West Side.
Six days later, Cardillo died. He was 32 years old, the father of three. The day of the funeral, his commander, Deputy Inspector John Haugh, resigned in disgust, blaming the NYPD for failing to affirm publicly that Cardillo had acted properly on entering the mosque.
Within days, the department issued written rules for 16 “sensitive locations,” including Nation of Islam Mosque Number 7, forbidding officers from entering such places without a supervisor. It turned out there had been an unwritten agreement with Mosque Number 7.
So strictly did the department interpret these rules that, because of objections from the mosque, ballistics technicians were prevented for the next two years from gathering evidence from Cardillo’s shooting.
In 1974, the dean of the mosque’s school, Louis 17X Dupree, was indicted for Cardillo’s murder. Though many have claimed credit, Dupree’s indictment appears to have resulted from the efforts of two retired detectives, Edwin Gilmurray and John Dusenchek, who, while working for Chase and Citibank, arrested an informant for fraudulent use of stolen credit cards. The informant, Foster Lee Thomas, provided evidence against Dupree.
Without ballistics evidence to refute him, Dupree claimed at trial that either another cop had shot Cardillo or Cardillo had shot himself. He was ultimately acquitted.
In 1980, a Manhattan grand jury under D.A. Robert Morgenthau issued a report on the shooting that excoriated the department. The police investigation, the grand jury said, had been “curtailed in deference to fears of civil unrest in the black community. … The long-term interests of justice in apprehending criminals were overridden by the short-term concern of preventing civil disorder.”
Citing the release of the Muslim suspects, the grand jury specifically criticized the department for “inexcusable detective procedures.”
Within the department, blame fell upon Ward who, as Deputy Commissioner for Community Affairs, had rushed to the mosque after the shooting. Although Ward denied releasing the suspects, saying that as a civilian he had lacked the authority, no one believed him.
So furious was the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association that its president, Robert McKiernan, declared in its official publication “Front and Center” that Ward “should either resign or be fired.”
In 1983, after Mayor Edward I. Koch announced Ward’s appointment as New York City’s first black police commissioner, Newsday reporter Gerald McKelvey discovered a document known as the “Blue Book,” which was the NYPD’s secret report on the Cardillo shooting.
Officially entitled “Report and Analysis of Muslim Mosque Incident of April 14, 1972,” it had been prepared between March and June, 1973, under James Hannon, the Chief of Operations, then the department’s highest ranking uniformed officer, and had been circulated only among the top brass.
It stated that, before Seedman arrived, Ward and Farrakhan “took the position that the street would return to normal if the police were removed from the area, including the mosque.”
When Seedman arrived, the Blue Book continued, he “assumed the responsibility of the investigation.”
“These facts, plus uncertainty that all persons involved were in the basement, led to the reluctant decision by Chief Seedman to move the investigation to the 24th precinct on the promise of mosque officials to produce the detainees thereat,” the Blue Book read.
Seedman, the Blue Book added, “continued his investigation in the Mosque but after about 15 minutes either Rangel [Congressman Charles Rangel] or Farrakhan approached him and told him that they had better get out of the Mosque or there would be trouble; that they could not control the crowd outside. Seedman now felt that with the reduced uniform presence protecting the scene outside, he was in an untenable position.”
Interviewed in 1983, Seedman, who had retired two weeks after Cardillo’s shooting, acknowledged he had ordered the suspects released. Asked why he hadn’t acknowledged it before, he answered, “What good would it have done?”
Today, many police officials continue to support him and to denounce Ward. Retired Captain Ed Mamet says that, when Ward was considered for police commissioner, “Seedman told me that he was pressured by Ward and Rangel, who told him that if he didn’t release the prisoners they were sure there would be a riot.”
A recent book, “Circle of Six,” by retired detective Randy Jurgensen— who during the riot was struck in the head by a brick — makes no mention of Seedman’s role in freeing the suspects.
Instead, Jurgensen blames then Mayor John Lindsay, Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy, Chief of Department Michael Codd, Rangel, Farrakhan and Ward.