Without Fear or Favor
TELEVISION CORRESPONDENT PETE VANSAND GROANED as his driver turned onto Centre Street and they saw the seething crowd in front of the Criminal Courts Building. Both sides of the street swarmed with agitated people, as if someone had stirred up an ants’ nest in Lower Manhattan. Everywhere he looked, people were shouting—some actually shrieking in their excitement—adding to a cacophony of outraged honking as yellow cabs, delivery trucks, and passenger cars tried to navigate around pedestrians who darted back and forth across the street.
The angriest and loudest voice blared from the small grassy park opposite the massive gray edifice. A short, cadaverous-looking black man on a bullhorn urged the crowd. “What do we want?” He cupped his ear to hear the response.
“JUSTICE!” the crowd screamed.
“When do we want it?”
On the sidewalk in front of the building, a cordon of black-uniformed riot police in helmets and carrying clear polycarbonate shields stood shoulder to shoulder in a large semicircle. Their job was to keep the mass of amped-up demonstrators and curious onlookers a safe distance away from a bevy of microphones that news crews had arranged at the top of a small flight of stairs leading to the entrance. More officers, in both uniforms and plainclothes, patrolled the sidewalk outside the human barrier, on alert for danger.
“Jesucristo!” swore Vansand’s driver, Julio Escobar, who doubled as his cameraman. “Going to be hell to park, and I got to carry that heavy-ass camera. Looks like the freakin’ circus is in town, man.”
“More like somebody left the doors open on the Bellevue psych ward and the inmates got out,” Vansand muttered.
“Good for ratings.” Escobar shrugged with a sigh.
“Not for us if we don’t get set up in time.”
“I’m not the idiot who sent us on that fluff story to Coney Island.”
“Stupid news director,” Vansand agreed. He was growing more agitated as traffic slowed to a crawl.
“WHAT DO WE WANT?” the speaker bellowed.
“JUSTICE!” the crowd screeched.
Even with the windows of the van rolled up to keep out the oppressive summer heat, Vansand recognized the strident baritone of the man on the megaphone as that of Reverend Hussein “Skip” Mufti, an “activist” Baptist minister from Harlem known more for his inflammatory politics than his work in any church. The journalist scowled. He thought he had an “understanding” with the
reverend for exclusivity on interviews, but Mufti had been enjoying the current crisis by eagerly accepting every invitation from the national news shows that had flocked to Gotham. He’ll come crawling when the big dogs are gone and I’ve got the best soapbox in town, Vansand thought. Ol’ Hussein likes his expensive dinners and bottles of wine on the station’s credit card, but he’s going to have to do some serious ass kissing to get back on my good side.
Vansand checked his Rolex. It was five minutes until two o’clock, when New York County District Attorney Roger “Butch” Karp was due to announce his decision on whether to charge an NYPD officer for shooting an unarmed black teenager a month earlier. And Karp was known for being on time. The district attorney was also known for his dislike of press conferences and the media in general. But he’d had little choice this time. The streets had been roiling ever since the shooting. A young Asian police officer, Bryce Kim, claimed that the teenager, Ricky Watts, surprised him on the stairway of a tenement in Harlem and fired a gun at him. Kim shot the teen, who had then staggered down four flights of stairs before collapsing and dying outside the building.
According to Vansand’s sources at the NYPD, there was little hard evidence that a shot had been fired at the officer. No gun had been found on the teenager, nor had the crime scene investigators found a bullet or shell casing from any gun other than the officer’s. Only the officer’s partner and one elderly woman reported hearing two shots. A number of other witnesses, however, had come forward contending they’d heard only a single shot. Even before the shooting, the city was tighter than a 42nd Street hooker’s skirt. A
week earlier, a police officer had been executed at a park in Harlem by members of a group calling itself the Nat Turner Revolutionary Brigade. That was when Vansand got his first call from someone who called himself “Nat X,” who then met with him in an abandoned building in Harlem and allowed his film crew to record his statement “as the founder of the Brigade.” Wearing a handkerchief to hide his face, and disguising his voice, the self-described revolutionary had declared that the shooting was “a justified act in the war between the police and the black community.”
Needless to say, the police were on edge after that and so was the community. So when Ricky Watts was shot by Officer Kim, the scene at the shooting had threatened to explode into chaos. Agitators who arrived even before the ambulance had accused the police of, in the words of Mufti, “a revenge assassination of an unarmed and innocent young black male” in retribution for the cop’s murder. It didn’t help that the police who responded shortly afterward were looking to knock heads. Only the professionalism of their sergeants and commanders kept more violence from erupting.
However, since then, several “peaceful” demonstrations organized by Mufti and others under the banner of the Black Justice Now movement had devolved into riots that included burned police cars and looted businesses, as well as assaults against police officers, the media, and onlookers. Mufti publicly decried the violence and called for restraint, but always with the caveat—when the television cameras were rolling—that ultimately the police were to blame for “waging war on young black men.”
A week before today’s press conference, the New York City Council—of
which Mufti was a member—passed a resolution urging Karp to “act with alacrity to right a terrible wrong that caused an innocent young man’s senseless death and restore the public’s trust in the New York Police Department and District Attorney’s Office.” Karp had responded through his spokesman that the “officer-involved shooting” was still being investigated and that no charges would be filed “unless and until the evidence warrants it, and a grand jury has returned an indictment.” The statement, or more accurately Mufti’s denouncement of the statement, set off another round of violent protests.
The national media, sensing a story that fit their narrative of out-of-control, racist police officers gunning down innocent black men, flocked to Gotham, and Mufti seized the moment. He’d shrugged off his gentleman’s agreement with Vansand and latched on to and further sensationalized the massive media circus response. Making the rounds, he’d complained that Karp was stalling for time so as “not to anger his friends in the New York Police Department, who want this to all blow over.”
Others in the Black Justice Now group had used even less restraint and accused the district attorney of plotting a cover-up with the NYPD brass. Nat X had arranged another interview with Vansand. “The oppressors of the white state have carried out an open season of murder against black men. Therefore, they, and anyone who supports them, white or black, are legitimate targets of the Nat Turner Revolutionary Brigade.”
As if that wasn’t enough, three police officers, including a lieutenant, had been arrested and charged with murdering one of Mufti’s
colleagues, Imani Sefu, and the attempted murder of Mufti himself. The reverend’s clout with activists and the media nationwide had skyrocketed, and he was enjoying every minute of his near martyrdom.
Vansand knew Karp was stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Even though he’d moved swiftly to indict the officers, Mufti and others had been even quicker to exploit the accusations as proof that the system was racist and corrupt. And no matter what decision Karp reached regarding the Ricky Watts case, one side or the other was not going to like it, and the city would be rocked with violence and, perhaps, the further spilling of blood. But Vansand also saw it as a much-needed personal opportunity.
Graduating college with a television journalism degree some twenty-five years ago, Vansand, whose real last name was Potts, had been tall and handsome in that innocuous television sameness, with a pleasant voice. He landed a job working as a weatherman for a station in Des Moines. Popular with female viewers, he’d worked his way up from weatherman to weekend anchor to the daily evening news anchor, and he even won a regional Emmy for coverage of a tornado that had wiped out a small farm town. The actual reporting had been done by others, and he’d just supplied the face and voice for the script. But it was enough to get the attention of RealNews, one of the big network television newsmagazines.
RealNews had made him a star on the national scene, where he’d become known for his “ambush” journalism and willingness to slant stories in whichever direction he perceived would give him the best ratings. But that was all in the past. He’d fallen prey to the
ravages of age, which moved at an accelerated pace in the TV news business. Seemingly overnight, he developed a paunch around his midsection and a wattle beneath his once firm chin that along with the puffiness under his eyes had resisted the best efforts of a plastic surgeon.
Two years earlier, RealNews had let him go with a retirement party and the Rolex, which reminded him daily of when he’d commanded that kind of money and prestige. He missed both, though he landed what most television desk jockeys would have considered a prime job with a New York City station. The owners hoped his name and former national prominence would result in better ratings, even if he was getting a little long in the tooth. They’d created the “Vansand Action Team” that consisted mostly of himself and Escobar and dispatched him for “special reports” that ranged from hard news to that day’s hot-dog-eating contest at Nathan’s in Coney Island.
He dreamed of the story that would get him back to the big time, where he could then fade gracefully to television news dotage. Like they do at 60 Minutes, he thought ruefully but with some hope. He firmly believed that could happen, now that the story was New York City on the brink of the worst riots since Los Angeles exploded in 1992 after the Rodney King decision. He knew he wouldn’t be able to keep it all to himself; it was getting too big, and the national media, including RealNews, had more resources and time to devote to it. But he was determined to do whatever it took to stay out in front.
Although he’d been disappointed that Reverend Mufti had been
about as loyal as a prostitute at a Shriner convention, it was no great surprise. But Vansand had something the other news teams didn’t: Nat X. Several times since the Ricky Watts shooting he’d called in advance to tell Vansand and Escobar where to position themselves for the best footage of the scripted violence that erupted during the protest marches. Just that morning, Nat X had told him that “something big is going to go down at Karp’s press conference.”
“Like what?” Vansand had asked, thrilled at the insider information.
“Ain’t going to tell you, my man,” Nat X replied. “Can’t trust no white man with that kind of information. But I got it set up for you. Make sure you take Oliver with you and keep the camera rolling on him.”
Vansand had frowned. Oliver Gray was his intern, a young black journalism student at NYU whom Nat X had asked Vansand to take under his wing a week earlier. “He’s the cousin of a friend of the female variety,” Nat X had said, “if you know what I mean. She’s going to be grateful, I mean really grateful, if you do this for me. He’ll act as a middleman between me and you, too.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Vansand had responded. “I don’t have an intern budgeted and I don’t know if the station . . .”
“Figure it out, Pete,” Nat X told him. Then his voice grew cold. “I’d consider it a personal favor, but if you can’t do it, I’m sure some other television station could use a bright young man like Oliver.”
So Vansand had met the young man at the station. Thin and scholarly-looking, Oliver Gray seemed nice enough. Well-spoken and polite. The station hadn’t objected to Vansand taking on an
unpaid intern, and Gray had tagged along with the Vansand Action Team all week.
That morning when Vansand arrived, Gray was already waiting for him. The young man seemed excited and nervous at the same time. He repeated Nat X’s promise that “something big” was going to happen at Karp’s news conference. The newsman had gone into the morning’s news-planning meeting crowing about the scoop he anticipated. But the news director insisted the team cover the hot-dog-eating contest first. “We need something light between all the heavy stuff,” the director, who wasn’t even as old as Vansand’s son by his second wife, said. “You’ll have plenty of time to get back for the press conference.”
However, the director had not counted on a traffic jam coming back over the Brooklyn Bridge that had Vansand cursing as Escobar pulled up to the area of the street that had been cordoned off for the news vans. All the spots were taken, and a beefy traffic cop waved for them to keep moving even after Escobar pointed to the MEDIA sign in the front window.
“Pull up to the joker, and I’ll give him the old Pete Vansand charm,” Vansand said.
Escobar did as told. Rolling down his window, Vansand smiled at the cop. “Hi, Officer, WZYN News here. We’re a little late arriving, so can we squeeze in behind the other news vans?”
“No room, move on,” said the man, whose name tag identified him as Officer McKinnon. “You guys were all told to show up an hour ago.”
“How about one for the home team? I’m Pete Vansand.”
“I don’t care if you’re the mayor of County Cork. Move along or I’ll have your vehicle towed.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Vansand swore. “The press conference is about to start. Come on. I’m sure you’ve seen me on the evening news and special reports by the Vansand Action Team.”
Officer McKinnon leaned over and studied Vansand’s face as if seeing him clearly for the first time. He smiled, his Irish blue eyes twinkling. Vansand smiled back, relieved. But then the cop frowned and shook his head. “No, don’t believe I’ve ever seen your mug,” he said. “But you’re on the evening news? Well, I’ll tell the missus when I get home tonight that I met a famous man. Now move along.”
Vansand slumped. “Fucking moron,” he muttered.
“What was that, Pete, old buddy? Was there something you wanted to say to me?” Officer McKinnon smiled again, only this time there was nothing friendly about it.
“I was just saying what a paragon of the law you are,” Vansand replied before turning back to Escobar. “Oliver and I will get out here and take the camera. Go find a place to park and then come find me.”
“You sure?” Escobar asked, looking in the rearview mirror at the young intern, who was staring out at the crowd on the street. “It’s damn heavy. Plus the union won’t like it.”
“Oliver can handle it,” Vansand replied. “Can’t you?”
Gray turned back toward the other two. He seemed to be sweating despite the air-conditioning. “Um, yeah, sure,” he said. “I can help.”
“Right,” Vansand said. “And what the union doesn’t know won’t hurt them, right?”
Getting out of the van under the watchful eye of McKinnon, Vansand opened the side door for Gray, who picked up the camera with a grunt and stepped out. Returning the cop’s glare, the pair walked back down the block to the cordon of police officers and the site of the scheduled press conference. Vansand led the way up to a police captain who was standing behind his men. “Pete Vansand,” he said, holding up the credentials. “WZYN. This is my intern, Oliver Gray.” Gray held up the press card issued to him by the station.
“You’re late,” the captain said, but tapped the shoulder of his man in front of Vansand. “Let them through.”
Vansand passed through the police line and walked to the area on the side of the steps reserved for the press. But there he ran into a roadblock of his fellow journalists, none of whom were willing to let him move closer to the podium with the camera.
“Come on, you print guys don’t need to film anything,” he complained to a New York Post reporter blocking his way.
“Pound sand, Vansand,” the other reporter said with a smirk. “You want a better seat, show up early. You television bastards always think you deserve special treatment.”
Vansand gave up. “There’s no dealing with idiots,” he said to Gray. He pointed at the camera. “Have you learned how to use one of these yet at NYU?”
Gray shook his head. “I haven’t taken the class yet. Sorry.”
Vansand shrugged. “No problem. I’ll do it myself.” He reached for the camera. “The union would probably go even more ballistic
if I let a journalism student shoot footage anyway. Going to be bad enough if they find out I did.”
Suddenly there were shouts from the crowd on the other side of the police line. “There’s Karp,” someone yelled. “Quit protecting racist cops, Karp!”
Across the street, Reverend Mufti’s chants gained new momentum. “What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
Vansand shouldered the camera and started filming just as a short, balding, pear-shaped man wearing a plaid vest and round wire-rimmed glasses stepped up to the bank of microphones. Behind him stood a tall, rugged-looking man with close-cropped, pewter-colored hair—Butch Karp. On the side of the podium closest to the press corps, a large, broad-shouldered black man scowled out at the press and crowd. He appeared to be some sort of bodyguard and was clearly not happy with the circumstances.
“Good afternoon, I’m Assistant District Attorney Gilbert Murrow,” the pear-shaped man said. “District Attorney Karp will be issuing a statement in a moment. There will be no follow-up questions. Thank you.”
With that, Karp replaced Murrow at the podium. If anything, he looked even less pleased than the bodyguard to be speaking to the press. “Good afternoon,” he said. “Due to the lawlessness that has swept the streets of our city since the officer-involved shooting of a young man, Ricky Watts—”
“Murder, you mean!” someone in the crowd yelled. This was met with shouts of agreement, but Karp pressed on.
“Since the incident, the New York Police Department has conducted its investigation with its usual professionalism and thoroughness. The detectives involved in that investigation have now passed on their report to my office. I, personally, have tasked the NYPD detective squad attached to the District Attorney’s Office to continue that investigation so that a determination can be made as to whether charges are warranted against the officer. That investigation has not yet concluded and therefore no decision has been made. When . . .”
As his words sank in, an angry murmur rose from the crowd. “He’s going to let the pig off!” a woman screamed.
“No justice!” a large black man bellowed and pressed against the wall of riot officers.
“When that decision is made,” Karp continued, “it will be according to the rule of law, and without fear or favor to either party, which every citizen has the right to expect from the County of New York District Attorney’s Office. That includes police officers.”
“Everybody except an unarmed black boy!” a protester yelled.
“Although this investigation will continue as long as necessary to establish the facts, I’m told by Detective Clay Fulton, the chief of the DAO squad”—Karp indicated the large man Vansand had assumed was his bodyguard—“that he expects it to come to a conclusion soon. I ask that the good citizens of our city exercise patience and restraint and allow the system to work.”
“You’re stalling, Karp!”
Across the street in the park, Mufti, apparently made aware of Karp’s statement, picked up the speed and increased the angry tenor of his demands. “WHAT DO WE WANT?”
“WHEN DO WE WANT IT?”
Karp looked at the media cameras. “Thank you. That is all.”
As the angry crowd pressed up to the cordon of police, Mufti changed his chant. “NO GUN, NO EXCUSE!”
“NO GUN, NO EXCUSE!” the crowd responded.
Looking through the viewfinder on the camera, Vansand wondered what Nat X was referring to when he told him that something big would happen. So far all I’ve got is what everyone else has, he thought, miffed.
Then he felt a tap on his shoulder. “Excuse me, Mr. Vansand.” The newsman recognized the voice of Oliver Gray.
“Keep the camera on me,” Gray said, and moved past him toward the podium. He then shouted, “KARP!”
From off to his right in the media crowd, Vansand heard someone yell, “GUN! HE’S GOT A GUN!” Only then did he realize what he was seeing in the viewfinder. As Gray advanced toward the podium, he raised a handgun and pointed it at Karp. The journalist also realized in that split second that because he was farther toward the podium, the other television cameras had to turn to film Gray, which meant they couldn’t capture the gunman and Karp at the same time. But he had both in his viewfinder, almost as if he was looking over Gray’s shoulder.
It all happened so quickly—Gray’s shout, the realizations, the screams of the panicking members of the press—that Vansand didn’t have time to react, just film. Nor could Karp do anything but frown as the gun was leveled at him. Fulton was the only one to react, moving to get between the shooter and his target as he reached inside his suit coat. But he was too late.
There was the sound of a shot—so loud that Vansand jumped, but not so much that he missed filming the bullet slam into the district attorney’s chest. That shot was followed by another and another impact. Karp fell back before the big detective obscured his view. A gun had materialized in Fulton’s hand, and for a moment Vansand thought the detective was pointing it at him. But when he fired, it was Gray who was struck and knocked back; a second shot drove the young man out of the viewfinder and to the ground.
People were scattering all around him when Vansand heard more shouts and reeled around. It took him a moment to refocus the camera on the protesters across the street. Many of them were standing with clenched fists raised in the air as Mufti shouted into the bullhorn.
“WHAT DO WE WANT?”
“WHEN DO WE WANT IT?”
Vansand felt someone tug on his sleeve. It was Escobar, his face flushed with excitement. “Holy shit, you get that?”
“Oh, yeah,” Vansand said. “I got it all.” He handed the camera to Escobar and stepped toward the podium, where a half dozen
people including the black detective and a petite brunette woman surrounded the fallen district attorney.
With that scene behind him, he turned to his cameraman. “Roll on me in five, four, three, two, one . . . Pete Vansand reporting to you from the Criminal Courts Building in Lower Manhattan, where District Attorney Roger “Butch” Karp has just been shot by a gunman, an NYU journalism student named Oliver Gray. More on that exclusively on WZYN this evening. Pete Vansand signing off.”
Vansand made a signal for Escobar to quit filming. He grinned. “Let’s get that on air as soon as possible. Then, Julio, mi amigo, you can rent a tuxedo,” he said, “because we’ll be going to the Emmys!”