New York police grab innocent man on basis of a bank machine photo

August 19, 1991|By Seth Faison Jr. | Seth Faison Jr.,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- James L. Hairston Jr. fell into bed at 8 a.m. Thursday after driving a 12-hour shift in his cab the night before. He was awakened two hours later by an authoritative knock at the door of his Brooklyn home. It was the police.

"Put your clothes on; you're coming with us," Mr. Hairston said a husky detective told him.

He told the detectives he had no idea what they were talking about, but then, he had not yet seen the morning newspapers.

"WANTED," said the headline on the front page of the New York Daily News, the word printed above a photograph of Mr. Hairston. It was a picture taken by a bank automatic teller machine.

He was described in the newspaper as a man who had used an Apple Bank card taken from a rape victim less than an hour after the assault. Other newspapers also published the photo, copies of which were distributed by the police. Television news broadcasts showed it as well.

But it was the wrong photograph and the wrong man.

Police later admitted that Mr. Hairston was not a suspect in the rapes, or even anyone who might lead them to a suspect.

Mr. Hairston said later that the police questioning was the scare of his life.

"It was wrong for the bank to give the police that picture and wrong for the police to put it out without doing more investigation," he said.

Mr. Hairston, 43, is a soft-spoken father of four who wears a librarian-style chain on his eyeglasses and is the son of a North Carolina pastor. In his eight years as a security guard and 11 years as a cab driver, he said, he has never received so much as a parking ticket.

His trouble stemmed from June 20, when a man used a bank card at an automatic teller machine near the Stuyvesant Town apartment where a woman was raped and her card stolen about 2:30 a.m.

The police then discovered a pattern in two other rapes, both involving women living alone. In each case the attacker tied the woman's hands behind her and stole her bank card after forcing her to divulge the access code. When another, similar rape occurred on Wednesday, the police released the photograph.

Mr. Hairston was in the 20th Precinct station house before he saw a copy of the Daily News. "I kept asking if they were joking or something, and then the detective showed me the paper," he said. "I choked. I thought, 'This is it.' "

The police apparently began to have doubts about Mr. Hairston's involvement when they learned of his sterling reputation, and when he insisted that he had made only deposits at the bank machine.

Police became aware of the mistake through five additional photographs of people making transactions on June 20 at the machine, Mr. Hairston said. One of the new photos showed Mr. Hairston again making a deposit, he said. The four others showed another man making withdrawals. The police had at first believed that Mr. Hairston was in all six photographs, he said.

The police issued a statement about the error, saying that a malfunction in the automatic teller system had misaligned the photographs.

On Friday, Apple Bank released a statement saying that there had been no malfunction.

On Friday, the police arrested and charged a suspect, 22-year-old Garry Jacques, in two of the rape cases.

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