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Saturday February 8, 1973

I never thought I’d be a cop on the take. Hell, I never planned on being a cop period. My goal was to follow in the footsteps of my older brother Scotty and join the fire department. Succumbing to family pressure to not follow Scotty and carry on our tradition, I took the police test first, since it came out before the fireman test, and despite my best efforts, I passed. Once I did so, my father, himself a retired police officer told me to forget taking the other test. So, in the summer of ’67, I began my probationary year, placed in the worst shithole in the Bronx, the forty-first precinct, known to all as Fort Apache. I am now in my sixth year in this purgatory. 

      Last year the 4-1 dealt with roughly eleven thousand crimes, four thousand of which were assaults, robberies or rapes. There were a hundred and one homicides alone in the South Bronx in ’72, numbers which hardly motivates one to follow the advice of our Department Commander, Inspector Gary Leary to ‘go out and do well.’ How does one ‘do well’ when they work in hell?

     Being on the take is a way of life not just here in the 4-1, but all over the city, despite the Knapp Commission’s efforts. The guy who got me into it was my first partner, Jimmy Norelli. Jimmy and I had the eight at night to six in the morning shift from Tuesday to Saturday, cruising around the battlefield in our radio car, which was held together with rubber bands and prayer. Each Tuesday night, at the start of our shift, Jimmy and I would drive out to this old warehouse and meet these colored guys, Omar and Macho and pick up a decent chunk of bills. Later that evening, we’d stop off for coffee at this ratty little diner where we’d meet up with four other cops where they divided out the bills five ways. It generally amounted to roughly three hundred each per week and it was payment for their not hassling Omar and Macho and letting them conduct their ‘business’, be it drugs or prostitution or whatever. After roughly two months, Jimmy realized I was a good cop and wasn’t going to rat them out, so he asked me if I wanted in. Three hundred a week? I couldn’t say yes quick enough. Doing so wasn’t a matter of ethics, it was a matter of survival, you needed your partner. If you showed yourself to be less than reliable, well…go ask Frank Serpico how that worked out for him.

     We had a good thing going for a while. Anytime anyone tried to muscle in on Omar and Macho, we’d lean on them, make life miserable until they had enough and moved to another neighborhood. Of course, as time went by we raised out prices, up to four-fifty a week. However, our co-supervisor, Sgt. Gus Falcone separated Jimmy and I in March of 1970, saying that being apart would ‘get my career pointed right’. Jimmy got moved to a different shift and partner and for three years now, I’ve been paired up with Ronny Imbimbo, a nine- year vet, who is also a ‘good’ cop. He isn’t skimming dough off the neighborhood filth, but he won’t give me up for doing so. I now pick up my cut directly from Omar.   

     I was still doing my same Tuesday through Saturday shift. Ronny and I had recently been assigned to the street crime division, young guys in plainclothes who were looking for advancement. Ronny and I hadn’t really wanted the detail, but Sgt. Falcone pushed us in, especially me. He knew we had good knowledge of the streets and the creatures that haunted them.

     Tonight, Falcone was briefing us on something new. “Okay, so we’ve got some extra fun to deal with. We’ve got a joker been going around hitting the jewelry and pawn shops around the area. Goes strictly for the diamonds, doesn’t touch anything else, doesn’t go into the backrooms or offices. Gets in through the rear, seems to know the neighborhoods. Moves in and out like a phantom.”

Officer Bill Garner raised his hand. “Sarge, still can’t figure why these new jewelry shops have opened over the last year.”

“Beats me Bill, guess some idiots think they can class up the area. Point is this, robbery can’t do much, stuff’s probably been long fenced elsewhere. Day shifts have been working it, but nothing.”

‘Burglar alarms?” questioned Rico Patrone Jr, whose father was big deal with the transit department.

“He either cuts them or they aren’t turned on,” Falcone replied. He was bald save for a ring of sandy blond hair and his face had been weathered by years of dealing with the worst this city had to offer. “ You guys all know the terrain, you know the people. Get out there and see what you can get. If you’re lucky maybe we can get him in the act.”

     Only three types of people go out at night; police, criminals and potential victims. You come to learn a lot from the streets, it’s the best education. In my first month I learned not to walk too close to buildings in case someone drops something on you, and always check the police call box phone before you use it, someone might’ve put dog shit on it. You learn how a criminal thinks and acts, to the point where it’d be easy to become one yourself. The South Bronx is an arsenal, filled with every type of firearm, yet we’re expected to maintain order with nothing much stronger than a cap gun. The nighttime hides much of the ugliness of the Bronx, with its burned out and deserted buildings, which gives sanctuary to the twenty thousand drug addicts. After years of passing through these streets, passing grim tenements whose eyes have seen better days, you wonder what’s the point. People here don’t care about themselves, let alone about us. Sewer workers have it better.

    It was surprisingly quiet, just the normal sounds of the city. Usually the music of the night around here are sirens, but not tonight. It was quiet. Way too quiet.

“Think your boy Omar knows anything about this?” Ronny asked. I was surprised he mentioned the name, usually he didn’t acknowledge my association with Omar.

“I don’t know. It’s not in his line.”

“He still might know something.”

“Let’s find out.”

     Omar lived in a rat-infested apartment building about five blocks from our outpost. As Ronny and I pulled up, we got some nasty looks from two P.R.s who were toying with their blades on the front steps. They wordlessly moved out of our way, but you just know they’d give anything to plunge those blades into us. Omar lived on the third floor and as we walked up, the unmistakable scent of weed filled the hallway. The hall was lit by a single bulb hanging from a fraying wire, a fire just waiting to happen. Bags of garbage sat outside some of the apartment doors, and sounds of babies crying could be heard. We banged on his door a couple of times and from behind us, we could hear chains being removed from their locks. A few curious heads popped out to see what was up. Finally, Omar opened and we went in, pushing the door hard as if we were busting him.

“Man, what the shit is this?” he spat.

“Relax,” I told him.

“We want to ask you a few questions,” Ronny said.

“So ask.”

“Know anything about a string of diamond robberies?”

He smiled. ‘Yeah, I heard about them.”

“And?”

“And what? Some cat told me about them. I ain’t know nothing beyond it.”

“Bullshit,” Ronny said.

Omar looked at me. “Yo, tell Dirty Harry here that ain’t my bag.”

“Come on, give us something. Playing stupid doesn’t look good on you,” I said.

“It ain’t me nor anyone in my crew. It’s got to be someone else. A pro. Or a cop.”

“A cop?” Ronny asked.

“The cat knows the area. Knows when and how to hit. He can move about without arousing suspicion. Now who else but a cop could do that?”

    For the next few hours, Ronny and I drove around thinking about what Omar said. Both of us didn’t want to admit the possibility.

“All units, all units, robbery in progress, Friedman Jewelers, Hoe Avenue at one hundred seventy-first street.”

Ronny flipped on the siren. “Car twelve in vicinity, will respond!” I shouted into the car phone. We were less than six blocks away. Suddenly, he flipped off the siren.

“Let’s not announce our arrival,” Ronny said. We slid quietly up to the curb in front of the jewelry store which was on the corner of Hoe and a hundred seventy-first street. Sure enough, we could see a tiny light beam from a flashlight moving about. The streetlights on this corner were all out and the DPW was slow to fix it, so we were blessed with the cover of darkness. Ronny motioned that he’d cover the rear and I nodded and motioned I’d take the front. My heart was pounding hard. Even though I’d been through this hundreds of times before, the risk of getting shot always got my adrenaline up. The tiny light inside was still, whomever it was had found what he wanted. I crept towards the entrance, head down, and gently tested the door knob. Locked. The door seemed to open in, so if I had to kick it in, the momentum was with me. I could hear the sirens from the backup unit approaching and I knew our element of surprise would only be a few seconds more.

“FREEZE! POLICE!” I heard Ronny yell from inside. Suddenly, there were shots fired, and I saw a  shadowy figure approaching the front door. I stood up and yelled “FREEZE!” to no avail. A shot rang out and crashed through the glass, grazing my arm. I pumped three shots in rapid succession, and the figure crashed through the door, face down. Just then the backup unit screeched to a halt and officers Mike Bonino and Luther Hayes bolted out. Lights from some of the buildings came on and I could see the shadowy silhouettes of people looking uneasily out. Ronny stood at the doorway, clutching his shoulder.

“Get an ambulance,” he calmly said to Bonino, who ran back to his squad car. Hayes rolled the suspect over. Even in the dark, we could make out the bloody face and we stood in shock. It was Jimmy Norelli. He was dead.

     Ronny and I were stitched up, but he was kept overnight at Lincoln Hospital, so I returned to the station to type up the report. It was hard to wrap my head around the whole thing, around the fact that my first partner was dead. We found out from his wife that he’d gotten hooked on heroin and needed to steal to pay for his habit, he was blowing through his four -fifty as soon as he got it. Even though I hadn’t seen Jimmy in forever, seeing him dead left me shaken and sick. Maybe part of me realized that had Jimmy and I not been busted up years ago I might’ve been in that store with him tonight. Life is full of many streets, I was now determined not to follow the one that killed Jimmy. I would no longer take my cut from the filth of the Bronx.

     Cracking this proved to be a big deal to the brass, or at least they made it seem that way, hurting for any positive publicity. Inspector Leary in fact said this might push us uptown, to the more desirable precincts. I said thanks, but I was happy where I was.

Bio: Scott Sinclair writes in Fanwood New Jersey. He has one novel published titled 'Murder Me My Darling' and has had work published in Every Day Fiction. He has covered the NFL and Women's Soccer for Sports Illustrated and VAVEL USA.

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