2009-05-01 / Columnists

It's My Turn

The Bellamy Case, Part III
By Jonah Engle, Danielle Friedman, And Venkat Srinivasan Graduate Students, Columbia Journalism School

In early 2008, the defense decided their last best hope of exoneration for Bellamy was to search for their case's Holy Grail: the elusive Anna Simmons. They hired a private investigator, Joseph O'Brien, a retired FBI Special Agent who earned his mettle bringing down New York Mafiosi throughout the 1980s. He later wrote about it in the New York Times best-seller "Boss of Bosses."

In January, O'Brien set out for Far Rockaway. While homicides and crack were down, the area had changed little since the mid 1990s. In the old C-Town lot stood a shiny Dunkin' Donuts/ Baskin Robbins. And in an attempt to breathe fresh life into the dreary coastal neighborhood, the New York Housing Authority renamed the Edgemere projects, where Bellamy and Abbott once lived, the Ocean Bay Apartments.

Along with asking for information about Simmons, O'Brien hoped to create some 'chatter' about Abbott's murder and the possibility that an innocent man might be locked up for it. After fruitless attempts, however, he realized that he needed the help of someone who knew the area - its people, streets and politics, as well as NYPD procedures.

The 101st Precinct knew just the guy. At 6 feet 6 inches, 280 pounds, and with a thick Brooklyn accent, Edward "Black Cloud" Henson commanded authority. He'd spent 20 years with the New York Police Department and New York City Housing Police, rising to the rank of first grade detective. Henson began covering Far Rockaway in 1988, when the area "looked like it had been bombed." For 13 years, he worked as a homicide detective in the area's housing projects. Eventually, in March 2002, he decided he'd had enough and retired. He turned in his badge and moved to West Palm Beach, Florida.

In mid-January 2008, though, Henson got a call from Hoffman. "Hoffman was really passionate on this case," he remembers.

Henson was reluctant. "I spent 20 years getting these guys in jail," he told Hoffman. "I'm not getting them out of jail."

But Hoffman pleaded, and Henson eventually said that he would think about it. He watched the episode of the "The System" and examined the police records. "I could see there were some very obvious problems with the case," he said. For one, he was surprised the detectives never pursued a second suspect after arresting Bellamy. ("I don't know how they got it past the supervisor," he said.) And he was shocked that they didn't work harder to locate Simmons or follow up on the names she provided. He agreed to fly up to New York and help.

On Jan. 12, after failing to dig up any information at local laundromats where Simmons may have worked, Henson and O'Brien stopped by the Ocean Bay projects.

They were chatting with residents, just "shooting the shit" - Henson knew some of them from his years working the area - when a middle-aged man rode up to them on a bicycle. Henson recognized the man as Michael Green, also known as "Country Mike."

"I got to talk to you," Henson remembers Green yelling out. The group started to break up. "That motherfucker didn't do that murder," Green told them, Henson recalls. "Don't talk here, everybody's looking at you right now," Henson said. Green told them to meet him at his building.

They waited for Green in the hallway. He arrived a few minutes later.

"That motherfucker, Ishmael Melvin, killed that kid," Green said to Henson. "Him and Turk killed that motherfucker."

Green was telling the detectives this, he said, because he wanted to help them get an innocent man out of jail. He said that he had known Levon Ishmael Melvin for years, worked for him, and was godfather to his children. Rodney "Turk" Harris was a buddy of Melvin's. When Melvin heard that O'Brien and Henson were sniffing around in the area, he worried that Harris might give him up, and he confided in Green. Melvin told him that "he stabbed the guy about seven times because he wouldn't stop messing with his woman."

"My heart just stopped," Henson said.

Melvin and Harris were the same men Anna Simmons had implicated 14 years earlier. They were both members of "The Regulators," a local gang whose signature look was a hood, she said.

"I called Hoffman," Henson continued. "I said, 'I think we just got your boy out of jail, if this pans out.'"

A few weeks later, Hoffman brought Green to Cravath's offices, to get a sworn affidavit from him. Once again, Green detailed Melvin's confession.

Finally, to lock in their case, they devised a plan with Green: He would capture Melvin's confession on a hidden tape recorder. It went off without a hitch.

"You mean you told him to leave her alone, and he wouldn't leave her alone," Green says on the tape.

"Yeah, he wouldn't listen to me, so I had to do what I had to do," Melvin says.

"So you stabbed him?" "Yeah."

"How many times did you stab him?"

"Stabbed him about seven times or something like that," Melvin says.

Green brought the tape directly to Hoffman, who was waiting nearby.

Hoffman called up Henson. "We got a tape," he said.

The defense finally had the next best thing to DNA evidence: a taped confession from another suspect. Justice Joel L. Blumenfeld, the presiding judge, heard the tape, vacated Bellamy's conviction and ordered a retrial.

For Bellamy's family, it was a long overdue vindication. "He was innocent from the beginning," said Howard, his stepfather. "That's what was tearing me apart."

The D.A.'s office never conceded Bellamy's innocence. "Overturning a conviction is a monumental event," said Glenn Garber, a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on post-conviction exonerations. "Prosecutors don't like to admit they did things wrong."

Instead they offered him a deal: plead guilty and be let go based on time served. Bellamy flatly refused. "Standing up for the truth, for me, is more important than my freedom," he said. He wanted his retrial. "If God wants me back in jail, that's the way it should happen."

On Aug. 14, after spending 13 years behind bars, Bellamy walked out of jail on a $150,000 bail. "Words can't express how happy I am," he said as he pumped his fists and hugged his family and Hoffman.

But the new evidence had already begun to unravel. The same day that Bellamy stepped out of jail, Melvin and his lawyer, Eugene Levy, contacted Leventhal. Melvin said it was not his voice on the tape and denied stabbing Abbott. He also said that he'd heard detectives were looking for him in his neighborhood the previous winter. Henson was "saying I did the murder, hanging out in front of stores buying people beer," said Melvin. Henson threatened that the police and prosecution were "going to get him." At a recent court hearing, he said Henson had been after him for years.

The same tape recording that freed Bellamy would soon threaten to send him back to jail and leave his lawyers and the two detectives fighting for their reputations.

Melvin and Levy met with the A.D.A. in September. Once he heard Melvin's voice, Leventhal, who always doubted the authenticity of the tape, said he immediately knew Melvin wasn't the person confessing on the recording. The cascade began.

Leventhal then questioned Green about the tape. "Country Mike" admitted it was a fraud and that he had paid a "Johnny" $100 to pretend to be Melvin. Jonathan Tatum, a young man who drives a dollar van, a local transportation service in Far Rockaway, said he was the other voice on the tape.

Green then turned the tables on Bellamy's lawyers. "I helped create this false evidence because I was paid thousands of dollars by the attorneys for Kareem Bellamy," Green told the Queens D.A.'s office in a sworn statement. He not only denied speaking with Melvin about Abbott's murder, but he also contradicted Henson's assertion that he'd biked up to him in the Ocean Bay projects to tell him the story. Green said everything on the tape was based on information given to him by Henson, O'Brien and Hoffman.

Leventhal then set his sights on Henson and Hoffman, alleging that they were connected to the fraud. Rather than charge Green with perjury, the Queens D.A. granted him immunity in exchange for his cooperation.

On Oct. 31, the court took up the matter of the tape.

More next week.

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