At about 7 p.m. on July 21, 1994, several Hispanic men armed with guns robbed three jewelers in town for a gem show as they getting out of their car in the parking lot of the Pan American Hotel near the Long Island Expressway.
The robbers took three bags of Tahitian black pearls with a retail value of about $1.5 million.
As the robbers fled, their car crashed into the hotel and then headed down Queens Boulevard. But the crash flattened one of the car’s tires and about a mile away, the robbers abandoned the vehicle and came across an off-duty police officer who was parking his car.
The robbers struggled with the officer who fired a shot, but then was knocked unconscious and his car was taken. One of the robbers was holding the gun when it discharged and was wounded in the hand.
Two of the jewelers were so shaken up they were taken to St. John’s Queens Hospital for examination. While there, Napolean Cardenas, 24, accompanied by his brother, Carlos, 23, came into the emergency room. Napolean came for treatment of a gunshot in his hand. Police questioned him about the heist and the jewelers were allowed to view them, but no identification was made.
Five days after the robbery, on July 26, 1994, one of the jewelers, Ted Lee, telephoned police and said he believed that the Cardenas brothers were involved.
Before police could taken any action, Napolean Cardenas, who was due to surrender to begin serving four months in prison for credit card fraud, fled to his native Dominican Republic.
Eight months after the robbery, two of the jewelers came back to New York from California and viewed Carlos Cardenas in a lineup. One identified Carlos Cardenas. Both brothers were charged with the robbery.
On May 1, 1996, Carlos Cardenas was convicted of first degree robbery, second degree robbery and grand larceny. He was sentenced to eight to 25 years in prison.
In 1997, Napolean Cardenas surrendered to federal marshals in Colombia and was returned to the United States to serve his sentence for credit card fraud. New York authorities then moved to prosecute him for the robbery.
In the spring of 1999, Napolean Cardenas went on trial. He was identified by Lee as well as the police officer, who said Cardenas was wounded in the hand when his gun discharged. Cardenas contended that he was not involved in the robbery and that he was at the hospital that night because he had accidentally shot himself with a .380-caliber handgun.
In fact, Cardenas’s girlfriend still had the bullet and bullet fragments still remained in Cardenas’s hand. Neither the prosecution nor the police investigated the claim.
Napolean Cardenas was convicted and sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison for first degree robbery and second degree assault.
In 2002, Napolean Cardenas wrote a letter to the Legal Aid Society asking for help. A Legal Aid attorney located the bullet and an analysis showed that it was aluminum while the police department ammunition issued at the time of the robbery was copper-jacketed.
March 2002, x-rays taken of Napolean Cardenas’s hand showed fragments in his thumb, middle and index fingers. In September, 2005, surgery was performed on his hand to remove the fragments. An analysis of the fragments showed they were lead. Defense attorneys said that this suggested the bullet that hit Cardenas’s hand was a hollow-point bullet. New York police bullets were not hollow-points.
The state opposed a motion for new trial and the case stalled until 2006 when, acting on leads provided by the defense, the prosecution located inmates serving prison terms on unrelated convictions who said that neither of the Cardenas brothers were involved in the robbery.
The Cardenas brothers took and passed polygraph tests. In January, 2007, the charges were dismissed and they were released from prison. The brothers later settled a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit with Carlos receiving $400,000 and Napolean receiving $800.000.
– Maurice Possley