N.Y. officer admits guilt in torturing

Volpe weeps for his family after telling of attack

he faces 30 years in jail

May 26, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- In a faltering, hesitant voice, Justin A. Volpe admitted yesterday that he tortured Abner Louima with a stick and then thrust it in his face, an act, the police officer acknowledged, intended to humiliate and intimidate the handcuffed Haitian immigrant.

"If you tell anybody about this, I'll find you and kill you," Volpe said he told Louima moments after the Aug. 9, 1997, assault in the bathroom of the 70th precinct house in Brooklyn.

By pleading guilty, Volpe hoped to be spared a life sentence for the assault that cast a shadow on the entire New York Police Department. But while he offered chilling details about acts he has long denied, Volpe did not implicate any other officers by name, even though four others are still on trial in the case.

As he confessed to six federal crimes, Volpe at times struggled for words when pressed to explain the forces that compelled him to torture Louima.

"When you put the stick up toward his face [after the sexual assault], was that a part of your effort to humiliate him?" U.S. District Judge Eugene H. Nickerson asked at one point, his tone quietly insistent.

Volpe paused, then said, "I was in shock at the time, your honor."

The judge repeated the question.

"I couldn't believe what happened," Volpe said, again seeming to fumble. And then: "I was mad."

Still unsatisfied, Nickerson tried once more. "You intended to humiliate him?"

"Yes," Volpe finally said, averting his eyes from the judge.

Volpe, 27, wept but once, at the end of the 45-minute hearing when he said to Nickerson, "Your honor, if I could just let the record reflect I'm sorry for hurting my family."

The judge cut him off. "You'll get a chance to do that when you come to sentence," he said.

Volpe wiped the tears from his eyes, and then turned and looked into the audience for his most outspoken defender, his father, Robert Volpe, a retired New York police detective once renowned for solving art thefts. The son managed a weak smile to his father as security officers led him from the courtroom and took him into custody.

"There are all different kinds of hell," Robert Volpe said later. "It's not easy seeing your son taken away."

Volpe did not apologize to Louima, but his lawyer, Marvyn M. Kornberg, said he was clearly remorseful. "When you plead guilty, I think that's a sufficient apology," Kornberg said. "The man's facing life."

Even by throwing himself to the mercy of the court, Volpe faces a minimum of 30 years in a federal prison, his lawyers said. He also could be fined up to $1.5 million for violating Louima's civil rights.

No sentencing date was set.

The plea was seized on by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani as evidence that the Police Department had turned a corner in its battle with corruption and brutality.

"It destroys the myth of the blue wall of silence," the mayor said, alluding to the testimony of Volpe's fellow officers, who described how Volpe had boasted of the attack after carrying it out.

Louima was not in court to hear Volpe's guilty plea, but his cousin, the Rev. Samuel Nicolas, spoke for the family yesterday, telling reporters outside the court: "We just like to thank God for keeping Abner alive."

Today, the four other officers charged in the case will return to court as their trial continues. Their lawyers were conferring with Nickerson yesterday to decide how best to explain to jurors Volpe's sudden exit without tainting any juror's impression of the evidence against the remaining defendants.

"We're obviously very pleased with today's development," U.S. Attorney Zachary W. Carter said, declining to say much more because the trial is continuing.

Twenty minutes before the appointed hour, Justin Volpe slipped into the courtroom through a side door. Accompanied by his lawyers and several police officers, he appeared relaxed and polished.

He had spent the night at his parents' home in Staten Island, eating with with mother and father, visiting with his girlfriend, as a half-dozen watchful law enforcement officials decamped outside with a couple of hecklers. In court, he chatted amiably with his lawyers and his private investigator.

But minutes before Nickerson walked in, Volpe searched the court for his father, who, along with an uncle, were the only relatives to attend the hearing. When their eyes met, Robert Volpe gave him a smile, and then a clerk called out, "United States of America vs. Justin Volpe." Volpe's poise then began to fade.

Flanked by his lawyers, he faced Nickerson, who peered back over half-glasses and showed none of his usual wit. Nickerson asked him if he understood what he was about to do, and Volpe, in a low and throaty voice, said he did.

When the moment of confession arrived, Volpe reached into his jacket and pulled out a one-page statement. He took several deep breaths, and rocked back and forth, and read.

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