The NYPD has had more than its share of tragedies coupled with travesties throughout its history, everything from the legendary Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino being shot to death in an ambush in Sicily in 1909 because the police commissioner blew his cover by telling the press of his mission to identify members of the mafia, to the infamous Black Liberation Army murders of radio car partners in the early '70’s, to the assassination of rookie cop Ed Byrne in 1988 as he sat in a radio car guarding the home of a witness in a major drug case in Jamaica, Queens. But the single most abhorrent police officer murder in this city’s history is that of Phillip Cardillo in Harlem’s 28th precinct on April 14th, 1972.
While this murder has been basically thrown into the collective history of cops dying in the line of duty, with no specific “asterisk” relating to the internal department turmoil and incredible wimpy political posturing of the then-mayor and his police commissioner, Officer Cardillo’s death has left an indelible wound on every cop from that time. Even officers who weren’t yet born at the time of Phillip Cardillo’s killing express outrage when they learn the circumstances of his murder.
Cardillo and his partner, Vito Navarro, were the first to respond to what turned out to be a phony 10-13, an officer in need of urgent help, that came from within the Nation of Islam Harlem Mosque located on West 116th Street. Upon entering the facility, the responding officers were met with approximately 15 to 20 men who assaulted them, stripped Cardillo of his gun and shot him at point blank range.
A street riot involving cops, mosque members and people on the street broke out shortly after the shooting. “I happened to be on the FDR drive when I heard the news on the radio, 1010 WINS. I got off at 125th Street and headed toward 116th,” said retired Detective Al Sheppard, who was off duty and wanted to respond to the scene but never made it. “People were rioting. They surrounded my Volkswagen and started to shake it. I had to get out of there, otherwise I was going to start shooting.”
Phillip Cardillo, 31, died six days later, leaving a young wife and three small children.
The immediate investigation was hampered by Mayor John Lindsay, who was more concerned about appeasing the public and protecting his image, as he was preparing for an unrealistic run for president, and Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy, who saw himself as a new-breed intellectual, progressive police executive (but in reality, couldn’t catch a burglar in a phone booth). Then-rookie Congressman Charles Rangel was also present at the scene and warned that riots would ensue if cops did not immediately leave the area.
Also in this mix was Benjamin Ward, who would eventually be appointed by Mayor Ed Koch to be the city’s first black police commissioner. Ward was the Deputy Commissioner of Community Affairs at the time and, prompted by Rangel, was quite instrumental in releasing 16 suspects who were being held by detectives for questioning. The release of the suspects caused a substantial setback in the investigation, necessitating a great deal of investigative back-tracking and catching up, resulting in invaluable evidence being lost and two failed prosecutions.
“Years later (retired Chief of Detectives) Al Seedman and I were having a few drinks and he opened up,” recalled Detective Al Sheppard. “He blamed Lindsay, Murphy and Ward for everything. He was forced to give the order to let these guys go,” Sheppard said.
On the receiving end of Seedman’s forced order was Detective Sonny Grosso, the real life “French Connection” cop and eventual TV/movie producer of classic cop shows like Kojak and Baretta. “This brings me back to a very bad time,” Grosso said.
It was my last major case. We had 16 suspects being held in the basement of the mosque. The shooter was definitely among them. Seedman orders me to release them and give them cards with the address of the 28th precinct because Ward said he’d arrange for all of them to show up. Surprise! Not one showed up. I gave Seedman a look and he said, "Don’t shoot the messenger. We do what we’re told in this department."
Grosso, who went on to co-write the book Murder at the Harlem Mosque detailing the Cardillo story, vividly recounts the scene that day and laments, “They (the mayor and police hierarchy) allowed the mosque members to destroy the crime scene. They actually had their members mopping up Phil’s blood.” Grosso eventually had his movie contacts reconstruct the mosque hallway in a studio to assist the first cops on the scene in remembering who was where and who did what.
“I have never seen such a display of prejudice and bigotry in my life,” Grosso said.
If this incident happened anywhere else, St. Patrick’s Cathedral or any other religious institution, there would’ve been no problem in fully investigating this murder and convicting the shooter. They would’ve said, ‘Come on in. What do you need?’ But Lindsay wanted to be able to say as a presidential candidate that New York had no race riots like other cities.
Mayor Lindsay and Commissioner Murphy skipped Cardillo’s funeral. Benjamin Ward actually apologized to the leaders of the mosque. And an unrepentant Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan would later state that the officers "charged into our temple like criminals and were treated like criminals." The then-commanding officer of the 28th precinct, Inspector John Haugh, by all accounts a rising star in the NYPD, abruptly resigned in disgust.
In 1992, young cops assigned to the 28th precinct, virtually none of whom were on the job when Cardillo was murdered, held a poignant 20th anniversary commemoration that was hampered by events that eerily resembled the turmoil and politics of 1972.
“I was naïve. I thought all the big brass would eagerly attend,” said Luigi Moneta, who was a young cop at the time and would eventually retire as a lieutenant. “The mayor (David Dinkins), and the commissioner (Lee Brown) didn’t come. The borough commander didn’t even come.”
That commemoration by the next generation of NYPD cops helped trigger an annual motorcycle ride sponsored by the Blue Knights every April around the anniversary of Cardillo’s murder. The ride has attracted approximately 400 cops on motorcycles who begin on Long Island, lay a wreath at Cardillo’s gravesite, and continue through Harlem right past the mosque, ending at the 28th precinct.
The Cardillo case recently galvanized cops once again. The NYPD will open a new state of the art police academy in Whitestone, Queens, within the year. Its library will be named after Benjamin Ward, despite his less-than-stellar legacy in the department. Police unions and many fraternal organizations have expressed outrage because there is no street, pole, sign, hallway or anything named after Phil Cardillo, yet an individual who was instrumental in allowing his killer to go free will be honored.
Defending a $40 million settlement to the men convicted in the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger case, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, "An injustice was done and we have a moral obligation to respond to that injustice." Well, under that same theory, the street in front of the new police academy should be named “Police Officer Phillip Cardillo Way.” That simple corrective action will probably cost less than $100 for the street signs.
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