“To DeSimone and his acolytes, two cold-blooded murderers were freed. To our system of justice, two persons, their innocence always in question, were unfairly tried and convicted.”
Book: Media Meddlers: The Real Truth About the Case Against Rubin “Hurricane” Carter
Authors: Vincent J. DeSimone and James V. DeSimone
Publisher: Hybrid Global Publishing
There are few homicide cases that engender as much controversy and divisiveness as that of the late Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and his friend, John Artis. Convicted twice of “triple murders” they claim they did not commit, both verdicts were overturned, once unanimously by the New Jersey Supreme Court and once by the Federal District Court of New Jersey. Today the murder of two patrons and a bartender at the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, N.J. on June 17, 1966, the crime of which they were accused, technically remains a cold case.
Finally we have a memoir that captures the words, deeds, and motivations that drove Carter’s principal antagonist, Vincent J. DeSimone, who was chief of detectives in Passaic County and a leading figure in Carter and Artis’ prosecution. The book was the result of an effort by DeSimone’s son, James, to bring his father’s manuscript written decades before to the public. A word of caution however, is in order. DeSimone’s memoir presumably ends in 1979, the year he passed away. Since then, information has been uncovered that —in many respects—raises many more questions that are unlikely to be satisfactorily explained.
As often is the case with any memoir, usually what is not included is more relevant and informative than what is. That is certainly the case with DeSimone’s memoir. DeSimone himself clearly anticipated this, prophetically suggesting that, “the case against them [Carter and Artis] is intriguing enough to engender speculation by those who consider themselves as modern-day ‘Sherlock Holmes.’ So I suspect in the next decade we will be hearing over and over again about so-called ‘new evidence’ discovered by the sleuth sayers…”
Subscribing from the start to the view that the “triple murders” of two white patrons and a white bartender were in retaliation for the murder of a black bartender, Elwood Holloway, six hours earlier, DeSimone was glued to this investigative theory. Nothing was about to change his mind, for the circumstances could not have been more obvious to him.
In the title of this memoir alone, DeSimone’s distaste and disgust of the media are blatantly obvious. Referring to reporters, sports celebrities, and concert promoters as “meddlers,” DeSimone’s mind-set is immediately cast as “us against them.” “Very few reporters bothered to look at the total painting, and their failure to do so misled many people into believing that Rubin Carter and John Artis had been ‘railroaded,’” DeSimone argued.
If he had followed his own advice, DeSimone would have looked, investigated, and understood the underworld milieu that was staring him in his eyes, a portrait far more compelling would have exposed a network of, “unholy alliances between police, politicians, and organized crime…[and a department] plagued by corruption and a reputation for racial prejudice…”
As early as 1971, in a research project funded by the United States Department of Justice, Columbia University anthropologist Francis “Fritz” Ianni concluded that, “In Paterson…the Italians [referring to the Mafia] still seem to maintain control [of the rackets]…because they represent the only sure access to political and police protection……the process of ethnic succession is just beginning and so the black organization there still resembles that of its Italian predecessors out of which it is emerging and to which it still owes some grudging fealty.” [emphasis mine]
This was certainly corroborated by the New Jersey State Police between 1972 and 1973. Their investigation of corruption resulted in the arrest of two vice squad detectives and a detective in the prosecutor’s office. They had been arranging the arrests of recalcitrant black numbers operators and taking bribes from the Genovese Family.
For reasons that forever will remain unknown, DeSimone consciously ignores a critical investigative finding by the attorney who was tasked by the late Governor Brendan Byrne with assessing the evidence against Carter and Artis. Commonly referred to as the Hawkins Report named after its author, Eldridge Hawkins, DeSimone acknowledges reading it, but he dismisses its findings and specifically refuses to repeat the names of the persons identified by Hawkins as the actual “shooters.”
According to DeSimone, “their names are being withheld [from this manuscript] because of their [the shooters’] noninvolvement.”
This is a rather mysterious and perhaps even ominous sign that, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” “Noninvolvement” is a rather strong term, particularly given the fact that the Hawkins Report specifically identified Elwood Tuck and Eddie Rawls as the “shooters” at the Lafayette Bar and Grill?
As would be expected, when a statement from a witness does not comport with the investigator’s preconceived investigative theory, the witness who identified the “shooters,” in this case Annie Ruth Haggins, was deemed a “pesty problem,” and “not credible.” Haggins’ credibility or lack thereof is meticulously dissected by DeSimone, lending one to revisit a famous Shakespearean quote, “the lady doth protest too much me thinks.”
Ironically, the state’s principal eye witness provided a corroborative statement, only to recant at a later date. Moreover, a taxi-driver and a police officer who gave chase of Carter’s vehicle on the morning of June 17, 1966, lent credence in part to Haggins’ version of events. Haggins may have not come across as “credible,” but most witnesses are imperfect.
DeSimone, we can only surmise, felt that it would be unfair to accuse someone of such a heinous crime absent their ability to confront their accuser and be properly cross-examined—a noble consideration to say the least.
Of course, such an inference flies in the face of DeSimone’s distaste for the Miranda decision—his belief that withholding exculpatory evidence amounts to technical violations; and that the judiciary was intimidated and cowered by the unfavorable glare of the media. We will never know DeSimone’s motive for this critical omission.
Furthermore, DeSimone’s characterization of the state’s alleged “eye-witness” Alfred Bello would have proved devastating to the prosecution had this memoir been turned over to the defense in the course of discovery. Referring to Bello as “an opportunist, looking for the best that he could be offered…engaging in gargantuan falsehoods…and exotic fantasies…,” DeSimone’s brutally candid assessment of Bello more than likely would have resulted in an acquittal of Carter and Artis. Nonetheless, the prosecution felt legally and morally comfortable with allowing a jury to opine on Bello’s credibility?
Adding insult to injury, Judge Larner, the first trial judge, and Judge Sarokin, the federal judge who reversed the jury’s verdict after the second trial, voiced publicly their serious doubts regarding the veracity of Bello’s [f]altering and fluid testimony. Nonetheless, DeSimone takes great pride in the fact that his integrity was intact after the jury found Carter and Artis guilty a second time. The jury obviously believed Bello, who DeSimone flatly called a liar?
Which leads this modern day Sherlock Holmes back to this most disturbing observation?
Had Tuck and, specifically, Rawls been credibly investigated as we now know the prosecutor, Vincent Hull, instructed DeSimone to do, the investigation would likely have taken a different trajectory and unearthed a credible motive for the “triple murders.”
Notably, this unexplored motive was hinted at by both Lewis Steel, Artis’ attorney, and Paul Wice, the political scientist and “scholar in residence for the New Jersey judicial system,” in their respective post-analysis of the Carter prosecution, but it was never quite understood in its entirety.
According to Steel, the murders at the Lafayette Grill “could have been the result of a mob hit on a numbers bar that withheld the take,” clearly introducing an organized crime motive.
Wice takes this line of thought a bit further, suggesting, “rumors circulating after the shootings…that James Oliver, the bartender at the Lafayette (Grill) was the primary target of the killers. He had supposedly been taking bets and doing policy (numbers), and a local gang who believed they had a monopoly on these illegal activities, shot him as a lesson to anyone else wishing to challenge their monopoly.”
Ianni, Steel, Wice, and the New Jersey State Police were apparently aware of the organized crime relationships that shadowed this investigation. Apparently the detectives and DeSimone chose not to know?
Agreed, hind-sight is 20-20. Conspiracy theories often are a product of speculation, which DeSimone has preemptively discredited. Nonetheless, any seasoned, street-wise detective during this era would have known about the futile and violent attempts by the black numbers operators to disengage from the Genovese Family, who controlled the rackets in Paterson.
Moreover, any seasoned, street-wise detective would have realized that the assassination of Holloway was more than simply a business dispute over ownership or regaining an interest of the Waltz Inn. The killer, Frank Conforti, had available to him extra-judicial resources that ostensibly could have resolved this “business dispute” in more subtle and less public manner, unless of course, a message was being sent.
The Waltz Inn and the Lafayette Grill, as well as the Night Spot, which was owned by Tuck, were well known numbers venues and host to other vice and underworld activities. Artis and everyone who was part of Tuck’s “Association,” were well-aware of Tuck’s “connections.”
DeSimone’s memoir makes no mention of these remarkable indicators. Investigative curiosity alone should have commanded and demanded an exhausting inquiry. Instead, he simply accepted Conforti’s confession and chalks up Holloway’s murder to an act of passion-provocation—a legal defense—as opposed to pre-mediated murder carried out by a competing numbers operator—The Genovese Family. Make no mistake. There was good reason that Eddie Rawls, who had motive, was visibly angry and threatening retaliation. His step-father Elwood Holloway was brazenly assassinated by Frank Conforti. He was rightfully concerned that Conforti would escape arrest and prosecution. Rawls was well-aware of the connections between the Genovese Family and the Paterson Police. As it was, Conforti was convicted of manslaughter. He was out of prison before the second trial of Carter and Artis began in 1976. DeSimone’s memoir is noticeably silent on these salient and what should have been investigative-altering avenues to pursue.
None of this, of course, vindicates or convicts Carter and Artis. Whether or not the bartender James Oliver at the Lafayette Grill was the intended target and the patrons were “in the wrong place at the wrong time” will ever be known. What is quite obvious is that both DeSimone and the Paterson detectives chose an investigative avenue that ended up in a dead end: racial revenge, the defining and judicially-eviscerated motive that was studiously avoided in the first trial and passionately embraced in the second trial.
Had this dispute between the competing numbers operators been the predicate for the murders at both the Waltz Inn and the Lafayette Grill, the prosecution would have had a credible motive—one that made far more sense but was much more costly, both politically and career-wise.
This obsession with the racial revenge motive and the failure to turn over exculpatory evidence as a consequence of the state’s need to rehabilitate Alfred Bello will always remain the Achilles heel of this failed prosecution. In retrospect, “convincing” Bello to become a witness to the murders now takes on a new meaning in 2019—forty years after DeSimone completed his memoir.
DeSimone is effusive in describing the attributes of detective Robert Mohl, who was instrumental in “convincing” Bello to meet with DeSimone three months after the “triple murders.” He proudly attests to Mohl’s investigative acumen, describing him as “calm, methodical, firm and reasonable … [who] knows how to sell himself to suspects…if you ever have to face arrest, Bob Mohl is a good choice to be arrested by, if you want to get everything off your chest.”
We now know as a consequence of a recorded conversation or confession, that the state’s only “eye-witness” Alfred Bello was physically assaulted by Mohl on at least one occasion. Surely a court would have been quite alarmed had this been known either at the trials or during the appeals. Moreover, the defense would have had another legal avenue to pursue. “Witness tampering” and “obstruction of justice” are not something the courts speak kindly to, particularly in a “triple murder” case as racially-incendiary as this case was and continues to be.
Again, DeSimone’s memoir raises additional legal inquiries: were any of the prosecutors aware of this memoir which was secreted in a safety deposit box, the 40 hours of recordings by DeSimone, and the physical assault visited upon the State’s only “eye witness” Alfred Bello? While the answers will likely not be forthcoming, it demonstrates why the appellate courts repeatedly reversed two verdicts. That this “triple murder” has never been solved lies with the utter disregard of due process—the bulwark of our system of justice.
To DeSimone and his acolytes, two cold-blooded murderers were freed. To our system of justice, two persons, their innocence always in question, were unfairly tried and convicted. Nothing defines the term “railroaded” more clearly than that.
Hopefully, the legacy of Vincent DeSimone can ultimately come down to the integrity that he instilled in his son James. James had the temerity, courage, and tenacity to publish his father’s memoir, allowing all to see the tortured route that plagued this mis-guided investigation and career-defining prosecution.
As is often said, “justice is a journey.” DeSimone’s memoir demonstrates just how many potholes and detours you will likely encounter on this lonely trip.
Frederick T. Martens retired from the New Jersey State Police as a Detective/Lieutenant and the Pennsylvania Crime Commission as its Executive Director. He has investigated corruption and organized crime in Paterson, New Jersey in the 1970’s and 1980’s.