Shortly before midnight on January 6, 1994, two men pushed their way into Bernardo Garcia’s apartment on South Third Street in Brooklyn, New York. They threatened Garcia, his wife and their daughters, ages nine and 14, and forced Garcia to give them the keys to his grocery store, Diana’s Grocery, on Union Avenue a few blocks away.
One more robber entered the apartment during the two hours the family was held at gunpoint and Bernardo Garcia was struck several times.
Communicating by walkie-talkie, the robbers in the apartment took the keys out to others who got into the store and stole cash kept there.
The man who struck Garcia was described to police as 5 feet, 8 inches tall with dark skin.
On March 4, 1994, 20-year-old John Vera, who lived in the same neighborhood, decided to get a haircut at a barbershop next door to Garcia’s grocery. At the time, Vera was working for an inventory services company in Queens, leaving for work at 4 a.m. each day and returning around 8 p.m.
Before entering the barbershop, Vera stopped at the grocery to buy a soda and a bag of potato chips. He went to the barbershop and got a place in line and walked across the street to chat with some men he knew from the neighborhood.
Ramona Garcia, one of Garcia’s daughters, summoned police after he left and said that she recognized Vera as one of the robbers. She later said she was suspicious of Vera because he asked how much a bag of chips cost.
Police responded and arrested Vera as he stood talking to his friends. Vera is 5 feet, 4 inches tall with light skin.
He went on trial in January 1995. Bernardo Garcia was called to testify and said that the robbers put a sheet over him. Asked if there was anyone in the courtroom that he recognized as one of the robbers, Garcia pointed to a spectator.
Garcia’s daughter Ramona, however, identified Vera as one of the robbers. She said he wore a scarf over his face and it slipped down. She said, “I could see his face completely from his eyebrows to his chin.” She said she recognized him from the neighborhood and from him coming into the store.
Vera was convicted of six counts of robbery in the first degree, four counts of robbery in the second degree, five counts of burglary in the first degree and two counts of assault in the second degree. On February 6, 1995, he was sentenced to a combined six to 18 years in prison.
Three other men were also arrested and pleaded guilty.
The case against Vera began to collapse when two of the defendants who pled guilty, Antonio Cepeda and Anthony Mann, came forward and said Vera was not involved.
Cepeda said that Vera did not take part. Mann said that there were eight people involved in the robbery and that Vera was not involved. The men said they were part of a gang known as the “Grand Street Posse” that committed numerous similar heists. A New York police officer had supplied them with guns and walkie-talkies, they said.
The Kings County District Attorney’s office began re-investigating the case and assigned it to Assistant District Attorney Karen Bennett. Bennett showed a photograph of one of the gang members to Bernardo Garcia’s wife and daughter and both were shaken by the similarity to Vera.
At the request of the District Attorney’s office, a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed for Vera and he was released from prison on January 27, 2000. On February 10, 2000, the convictions were vacated and the charges were dismissed.
Vera filed suit in the New York Court of Claims and in 2008, he was awarded $640,000.
– Maurice Possley