By Mike McAlary and Marianne Arneberg. Wendy Lin also contributed to this story.
It was a Saturday, Jan. 17, when special state prosecutor Charles J. Hynes received two telephone calls. Two youths suspected of wrongdoing in the racially motivated killing of a black man in Howard Beach wanted to talk.
That afternoon, 17-year-old [Defendant] limped into Hynes' office in lower Manhattan, his left arm in a full-length cast from an operation to transplant bone from his hip to wrist. Hynes spoke with the youth for two hours. What he gleaned is unclear. Hynes refuses to say.
[Defendant's] cooperation was short-lived. The next day, he retained an attorney, Todd Greenberg, who said his client made four statements to Hynes and wanted immunity, which Hynes was unwilling to grant.
A second call later that Saturday, Hynes recalled yesterday. It was from an attorney, Richard Librett. His client, Robert Riley, 17, also wanted to cooperate in the investigation of who and what had caused Michael Griffith, 23, to run across the Belt Parkway in the early hours of Dec. 20 into the path of a car.
It was the first time, Hynes said, that investigators learned Griffith had been chased to his death down 90th Street by a gang of white teenagers, while another group chased Griffith's companion, Cedric Sandiford, 36, along a different route, beating him with sticks and a baseball bat.
Police were originally told that Riley's car had broken down in a parking lot several blocks from the beating, law-enforcement sources said. But it was later determined that he actually drove to 90th Street, saw Griffith get killed and then drove two other teens to where Sandiford was being beaten four blocks away, sources said.
On Tuesday, Hynes announced that Riley was the key prosecution witness in the case in which he and two others were charged with second-degree murder. Lesser charges were also lodged against nine other teens, including [Defendant]. But while Riley, alleged to be among those who chased Griffith onto the parkway, was charged with murder, law-enforcement sources said he will probably plead to an assault charge, and may be granted youthful-offender status, which would spare him a jail term. Librett declined comment.
His cooperation shocked some. In fact, Riley spent several weeks at the home of his close friend, Scott Kern, 18, assuring his parents that Kern was innocent of any wrongdoing, according to Kern's attorney, Gabriel Leone. "Riley was hanging out at my kid's house right up until the time he testified before the grand jury," Leone said. Kern and Jon Lester, 17, have been charged with murder.
The calls to Hynes' office came four weeks after Griffith's death, four days after Queens District Attorney John J. Santucci turned the case over to Hynes. Sandiford, a key witness, and his attorneys refused to cooperate with Santucci, citing a police cover-up.
But sources said the Santucci investigation also was seriously hampered by detectives, who did not notify his office of Griffith's death until at least 10 hours after the incident. By that time, sources said, police were discussing offering leniency to one of the youths, Jason Ladone, 16. Police were prepared to let Ladone go, calling him a witness, despite his admission that he hit Sandiford with a bat. After being told of Ladone's statements nearly 22 hours after the incident, Santucci's office ordered police to arrest Ladone.
At that point, fearing that word of Ladone's arrest would get out, police rounded up 10 other suspects. Although Ladone seemed willing to cooperate, Santucci's office decided that Ladone was a possible accomplice to murder. He was indicted Tuesday on second-degree attempted murder and other charges.
Riley never offered to cooperate with either police or Santucci. What prompted Riley to cooperate with Hynes remains a mystery.
"I believe he got sickened by what he saw on 90th Street," said one investigator familiar with Riley's statements. "He did not join in on 156th Avenue," where Sandiford was beaten.
Others believe that family pressure played an integral role. Riley's father is a corrections officer; his brother a city cop. "I think he listened to good sound advice given to him by his attorney and his parents," Hynes said. "He knew he was in trouble."
Hynes said Riley surfaced after each of the 12 teens who were allegedly involved in the incident were interviewed in their homes by police. Hynes also interviewed 15 others who attended a party with the others but did not take part in the attack. Although police had interviewed six of the 15, no one from Santucci's office had spoken to them.
Hynes said Santucci's ability to obtain witnesses may have been hampered by Sandiford's lack of cooperation. "Cedric Sandiford provided us with a psychological advantage," he said, "because none of the kids knew exactly what he knew."
Law-enforcement sources said Santucci "didn't want to grant immunity to a murderer," in the early stages of his investigation, feeling it would be politically unwise.
Santucci refused yesterday to comment on the case. His spokesman, Tom McCarthy, said Santucci was pursuing several different angles when he turned the case over to Hynes. But, he added, "the results were less than encouraging" without Sandiford's cooperation.
Meanwhile, attorneys for several of the teens indicted in the case said yesterday that they, too, had offered Hynes the cooperation of their clients. But Hynes said that he was unwilling to offer immunity in exchange for cooperation.