Sunday, March 31, 2013
NEW YORK (AP) — By his own estimation, retired detective Louis Scarcella was always good at getting people to talk about their crimes.
The suspect in the brutal 1990 slaying of a prominent rabbi was no exception.
"We come from the same neighborhood," Scarcella recalls telling David Ranta, also from Brooklyn, during questioning in 1990. "We're both Italian. Why don't you get it off your chest?"
Scarcella says his coaxing got Ranta to confess he was in on a botched robbery that led to the killing. He ended up going to prison on a murder conviction — at the time, another big score in the detective's storied career.
But a few weeks ago, Scarcella was summoned to the Brooklyn district attorney's office and told that a recent review revealed too many flaws in the case to hold Ranta any longer. After a judge's apology, Ranta was released earlier this month amid a crush of crying relatives and television cameras.
Ranta, 58, has proclaimed his innocence, sparking speculation that he could try to sue authorities for a wrongful conviction. There was no response to messages left for his attorney.
In another twist, Ranta suffered a heart attack the day after he was released and was hospitalized. His family has said he's on the mend.
All the drama has cast a harsh spotlight on Scarcella, who during his time with the New York Police Department earned — and embraced — a reputation as a larger-than-life investigator. Ranta's trial attorney calls him a "cowboy" who "did a lot of bad things."
Scarcella, 61, defends his record and bristles when asked what went wrong with Ranta.
"I caught a lot of cases and I got confessions," told The Associated Press in a recent interview at his Staten Island home. "I was called into cases that weren't mine to speak to people. I was called in and I did my job and I got confessions."
On Ranta, he added: "I stand by everything I did. I did my job and I would do it the same way. ... I sleep well at night."
Scarcella, who retired in 2000, has slowed down since his days as a brash young crime fighter.
A former marathoner and weightlifter, he had a hip replacement last year. A highchair and a bassinet sat in his second-floor living room, ready for use by his grandchildren.
On his left arm is a tattoo depicting Cain killing Abel. Another on his shoulder is of an NYPD badge with 92 on it — the same shield number used by his father.
Scarcella's hair is still dark but thinner than in a black-and-white photo showing him leading away a handcuffed Ranta following the arrest in the rabbi case. The tabloids ate it up, and so did he.
"I'm vain to a certain degree," he said when asked about the photo. "I had my perp walks. ... Was I proud? I was tired. I was relieved. And I was going on vacation the next day."
Scarcella had good reason to need a break: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the city averaged up to six killings a day. It was an era when homicide detectives juggled a dozen or more investigations at once.
"You had to prioritize," Scarcella said. "We were undermanned."
Scarcella was credited with solving sensational cases that gave the city a scary reputation and made NYPD detectives redeemers — that of the ruthless drug lord known as "Baby Sam," of an intruder who stabbed a dance choreographer and of two teens accused of killing of a transit worker by torching a subway token booth.
In the 1996 trial in the token booth case, the defense accused Scarcella of beating one of the suspects. He testified that he pounded on a table and told the suspect he was a liar, but he denied physically abusing him.
Scarcella says he fed meals to suspects he was trying to get to confess. He would allow them to see their girlfriends, if that's what it took. He once got down on his knees and prayed with a man he was interrogating. But he denies ever abusing anyone.
False accusations come with being an "active cop," he said. So does appreciation: He cited a recent letter of support from a family of an innocent bystander shot dead in 1986, thanking him for his "professionalism and heart" in his pursuit of the killer.
Feb. 8, 1990, brought another high-profile case: Scarcella and other detectives got word that a gunman had approached the car of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger — a Holocaust survivor and a leader of the Satmar Hasidic community — shot him in the forehead, pulled him out of the vehicle and drove away in it.
Investigators later determined that the shooter was fleeing a failed robbery of a diamond courier. Two men being held in other cases gave them the name of an unemployed drug addict named David Ranta, who was eventually tracked down by Scarcella.
Under questioning, Ranta gave a signed statement admitting that he had helped plan the botched heist and was at the scene shortly before it occurred, according to court documents.
"He told me he was there," Scarcella said. "He didn't say he shot him, but implicated himself in a felony murder."
The confession was a key to Ranta's conviction at a 1991 trial. He was sentenced to 37 1/2 years in prison.
The case began to unravel after a newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit began its review in 2011. A witness came forward to give the unit a sworn statement recounting how a detective had told him to "pick the one with the big nose" — Ranta — out of a police lineup.
Scarcella vehemently denies coaching the witness.
"I would have deserved death if I had done anything like that," he said.
Prosecutors made clear that there was no evidence that police deliberately tried to frame an innocent man and haven't ruled out Ranta's involvement in the case. They don't intend to examine Scarcella's past any further, either.
Since Ranta's release, police say Scarcella has received death threats, but he won't talk about them. Nor does he have anything bad to say about Ranta or express concern about lawsuits. He claims he's at peace with his past.
"Being a homicide detective was the greatest job in the world," he said. "I'd go back to it in a minute."