2010-02-05 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Commentary By Howard Schwach

I wrote my first story about Kareem Bellamy and the murder of James Abbott in the April 4, 2008 issue of The Wave, nearly two years ago.

Since that time, the story of the man who was convicted of depraved indifference murder in 1995 has been the subject of more than a dozen stories in The Wave.

This year, The Wave has been praised by the Village Voice as the “Best Community Newspaper in NYC,” and by New York magazine as one of the “Best Things To Love About New York.” Both of those journalistic giants mentioned the way we have followed the Kareem Bellamy story as one of the great things about the paper.

The Village Voice said that the way we handled the Bellamy story “was worthy of any newspaper in New York City.”

High praise indeed.

Yet, people get confused. There are so many people involved in the story and the story has so many twists and turns that people call and ask which character we were talking about in a certain issue, as if the whole sage was some deranged soap opera.

Damon Runyon (of “Guys and Dolls” fame) had his Harry the Horse and Nicely-Nicely, the Bellamy case has “Ish,” “Country Mike,” “Turk, “Yo Yo” and “Black Cloud.”

So, for those who have been following the story and those who want to follow the saga in the future (it ain’t over till the fat lady sings), here is a quick scorecard that will help you sort out the players.

James Abbott: Although Abbott is one of the central players in the story, he never even got on stage before he died on an Arverne street. On April 9, 1994, Abbott was stabbed to death coming out of the C-Town Superarket on Beach 47 Street and Beach Chanel Drive (where it was located at the time) by two men. His death touched off a search by a 101 Precinct detective who soon got sick and retired. No other detective was ever assigned permanently to the murder.

Kareem Bellamy: Kareem Bellamy plays the role of the tragic figure in this drama. A few days after the murder, Bellamy was picked up with an open container of beer by two detectives who were looking to talk to him. “What did I do, murder somebody,” he asked the detectives as they placed him in their car.

They looked at each other and figured that he was as good as anybody else for the murder. They showed his photo around and got some luke-warm hits that pointed to him as possibly being involved in the murder. Detectives today tell me that the Bellamy arrest was the sloppiest piece of police work they have ever seen.

Bellamy was convicted in 1995 after a trial that was taped and later shown on the television show, “The System.” Bellamy was accused of murder and depraved indifference murder by the District Attorney.

He was acquitted of murder by his jury, but found guilty of depraved indifference. With Kareem still protesting his innocence years later, his father sent out tapes of his trial and a plea for help to dozens of attorneys all over the local area. He found one willing to help.

Anna Simmons: On April 15, 1994, a woman who identified herself as Anna Simmons, a worker in a coin laundry near the murder scene called the detectives. According to the DD5 report written at the time, Simmons said that she overheard two men involved with the feared Regulators Gang – Rodney (Turk) Harris and Levon “Ishmael” Melvin – bragging about the murder. According to Simmons, the two said they waited for him to come out of the supermarket and snuffed him, possibly because he would not become part of the gang. She then disappeared from the scene even to today. Private investigators came to Rockaway in 2008 looking to pick up her trail, believing that she could clear Bellamy of the murder.

Tom Hoffman: Hoffman, an attorney, was one of the people who were sent a tape of the trial by Bellamy’s father. Hoffman originally threw the tape in the garbage, but later retrieved it and took a look. He took the tape and the papers from Bellamy’s case to a prestigious law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore in Manhattan. The firm de-cided to take the case pro bono (without cost) and to try to find evidence that Bellamy was innocent of Abbott’s murder.

Joe O’Brien: A former FBI agent, O’Brien was hired by Cravath, Swaine to find new evidence. One of the FBI’s top agents, O’Brien is credited with bringing down Mafia Boss Paul Castellano, the head of the Gambino crime family. He later wrote a best-seller “Boss of Bosses.” He quickly realized, however, that his FBI expertise would not play well in the Rockaway housing projects where the truth lie, so he suggested that the law firm hire a retired detective who had worked that area at the time of the Abbott murder and who was not a private investigator in Florida.

The firm agreed.

Ed “Black Cloud” Henson: The judge involved in the recent hearing called Henson “a colorful character,” and he is right. Henson, who worked first as a detective for the housing bureau and then for the 101 Precinct when housing was merged with the NYPD, got his nickname from Rockaway housing project denizens who said that a black cloud was coming when they saw Henson nearby. When he was contacted by Tom Hoffman, Henson originally said that he didn’t do defense work and turned him down. He later told me that he had spent so much time putting the bad guys in jail that he didn’t want to let them out. After looking at the case file and the DD’s and the tape of the trial, however, he decided that “there were obvious problems with the case,” and that he was “shocked” at the way the original detectives had worked, especially the failure to follow up on Anna Simmons and her information.

Next week, “Yo Yo,” “Turk,” and Steven Silberblatt.

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