On Thanksgiving night, November 22, 1990, more than 1,000 people jammed “Latin Night” at the Palladium nightclub on East 14th Street in Manhattan, New York.
Shortly after 1 a.m., a fight broke out after a member of a group of people wanted to leave and re-enter without paying. As he quarreled with bouncer, Fritz Vincent, another man tried to act as mediator, but withdrew when Vincent punched the first man and knocked him to the ground. The customer left and returned with several other men, some of whom were armed.
During the fracas, one man pointed a gun at the head of bouncer Jeffrey Craig and pulled the trigger, but the gun jammed. Another man fatally shot bouncer Marcus Peterson as he tried to run inside the nightclub during the brawl. Craig was then wounded in the leg.
Within hours, an anonymous caller said that two Bronx street gang members named Spanky and Joey were responsible. The address given for them was the same address of the C & C gang. One of the bouncers identified Spanky, whose real name was James Rodriguez, as one of the gunmen.
But that tip was forgotten a few days later when police arrested a woman on prostitution charges and she said she had a friend, Dolores Spencer, who knew someone involved the shooting.
Spencer told police that shortly after the incident, David Lemus,
22, a man she was having an affair with, had told her he was one of the gunmen.
Police put together a photo array and showed it to four of the bouncers and two picked out Lemus. Two months later, in January 1991, Lemus was picked up and put in a lineup. Three bouncers, including Craig, identified him. Three other bouncers were unable to identify him.
Lemus, a high school dropout from the Bronx and part time construction worker who was going to night school, was charged with murder.
In June, 1991, police put together another photo array that included the photograph of Olmedo Hidalgo, 24, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who worked at his brother’s grocery store and spoke very little English. Three bouncers picked Hildago out, a fourth bouncer picked another man. Hildago was charged with murder.
Both went on trial in December 1992. In addition to the eyewitness testimony, Spencer testified that Lemus left a message on her answering machine after shooting, saying, “Call me, I’m in trouble.” (The tape was not saved.) She said she called him and he said he had shot a bouncer at the Palladium, but said the fight broke out after someone had pinched the buttocks of a girl he was with, he got into a fight and was thrown out.
The prosecution also played tape recordings of calls Lemus made to Spencer after he was arrested. The tapes included an exchange where she said, “Why should I be afraid of you?” He responded, “Because you know that I know that you know,” and then made three popping sounds she believed were a reference to the shooting.
The trial judge rejected a defense request to play another portion of a tape in which Lemus said he stood to win a large legal settlement because he was innocent.
The jury deliberated for about a day before convicting both men. They were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Two years later, in 1994, Steven Cohen, a federal prosecutor, and Robert Addolorato, a New York City police detective, were interviewing Joey Pillot, a member of a Bronx street gang, in an attempt to determine whether to offer him a plea bargain in exchange for his testimony.
Pillot admitted to participating in murders and other crimes, including the Palladium shooting. Pillot ultimately told Cohen and Addolorato that he was involved and that his best friend, Thomas Morales, who also went by the name of James “Spanky” Rodriguez, was the gunman. His own gun, Pillot said, jammed.
Cohen contacted Stephen Saracco, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Lemus and Hidalgo and Saracco informed their defense lawyers who conducted an investigation and in 1996 filed a motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence.
The trial judge, Jay Gold, granted a hearing where Pillot testified that Morales had left the club after drinking too much and was denied entry when he tried to get back in. That’s when Morales was punched by the bouncer. Their party—four men and four women left—but Pillot said he and Morales returned and that’s when the shooting occurred. He said his gun jammed and that Morales fired the shots that killed Peterson and wounded Craig.
Two other members of the gang testified that Pillot had admitted his involvement shortly after the shooting.
The prosecution argued Pillot had concocted the story.
Judge Gold agreed and dismissed the motion.
The denial was appealed and affirmed.
By 2000, Morales, who was convicted of extortion in 1996, was released from prison. Pillot, who pleaded guilty to murder, was serving a sentence of 15 years to life.
In 2004, lawyers for Lemus and Hidalgo requested another hearing in State Supreme Court, citing more new evidence.
The lawyers said that three prosecution witnesses at trial had identified the man who attempted to intervene in the initial fight as a man named Jose Figueroa. But prison records showed that it couldn’t have been Figueroa because he was in jail at the time of the shooting. The evidence raised doubts about the testimony of the eyewitnesses, the lawyers said.
Further, they had obtained evidence that another member of the Bronx gang, Richard Feliciano, said he was the mediator and that Lemus and Hidalgo were not involved. Feliciano said Morales was the gunman.
The lawyers also found witnesses who said that Morales had admitted he was the shooter.
Further, the lawyers had unearthed evidence that in December 1992—about the same time that Hidalgo and Lemus were convicted, a police informant and member of the Bronx gang, told detectives he had seen the shooting and that the gunmen were Pillot and Morales.
The prosecutor who handled the case at the hearing, Daniel Bibb, urged the judge to vacate the convictions because he was convinced both men were innocent.
Based on the evidence of Pillot’s confession and the failure to disclose evidence to the defense, the conviction of Hidalgo was vacated on July 22, 2005.
The charges against Hidalgo were dismissed on August 19, 2005. He was deported to the Dominican Republic.
Lemus’s conviction was vacated on October 19, 2005 and Lemus was released on bail. He was retried and acquitted on December 6, 2007.
Charges were brought against Morales for the shootings, but the charges were dismissed by a judge who said the 15-year delay in prosecuting him was unfair.
Pillot was not prosecuted for the shootings.
Hidalgo filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit which was settled by the city of New York in 2009 for $2 million. He received another $625,000 from the New York Court of Claims.
Lemus filed a similar lawsuit that was settled in 2009 for $1.25 million.
– Maurice Possley