Shortly before 1 a.m. on December 8, 1989, near East 4th Street and the FDR service road in Manhattan, a van drove past two occupied cars and several weapons sprayed the vehicles with a fusillade of bullets. Orlando Martin, 24, and Frank Morales, 22, a U.S. Army soldier on leave, were killed as they sat in Morales’s car. Two others, Pedro Mejia and Rafael Garcia, were shot but survived.
Detectives suspected the shooting was drug-related because all the victims except Morales were known drug dealers. They also suspected the shooting had been ordered by Danny Core, the boss of drug operations on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Spanish Harlem.
Mejia and Garcia told the detectives that the gunmen included Necio Fonseca, Willie Perez and Wilbur Hernandez, all of whom were associates of Core.
On January 11, 1990, Fonseca and Perez were arrested and charged with the shooting. A few days later, a relative of Fonseca’s told police that another man, Johnny Vargas, had admitted to her that he had committed the crime with Wilbur Hernandez, Willie Perez, and a fourth man known as “Little Danny” or “Pretty Eddie.”
As a result of the statement, the charges against Fonseca were dismissed and he was released.
On March 12, 1990, Anibal Vera, a drug dealer, was arrested on the Lower East Side and charged with misdemeanor possession of cocaine. On probation for armed robbery and fearing he would be sent to prison, Vera offered information on the shooting in exchange for favorable treatment. Vera told them that Core was behind the shooting and was then released to act as informant for the detectives.
Later that month, Mejia and Garcia—who had survived the shooting—and Fonseca were murdered.
Vera, under pressure to produce information, told detectives in August 1990 that 26-year-old Danny Colon and 20-year-old Arthur Ortiz had admitted to him that they took part in the shooting that killed Morales and Martin. At the time, Colon was the owner of a Brooklyn carpet business and Vera was his former neighbor. Ortiz was an associate of Colon.
On August 12, Ortiz was arrested on federal narcotics charges and threatened with a charge of murder unless he cooperated in the investigation. Ortiz refused and remained in federal custody until October 12, 1990, when he was charged with the murders of Martin and Morales and taken into custody by New York police. That same day, Colon was arrested and charged as well.
About that time, police charged Danny Core the murders of Mejia and Garcia—the two men who survived the initial shooting. In the summer of 1991, Core was charged by federal authorities with being the kingpin of a narcotics operation in Manhattan. Facing a potential sentence of life in prison, Core began cooperating with New York police and told them that Colon and Ortiz had confessed to him that they were involved in the shooting that killed Martin and Morales.
Core denied that he was involved in any way, but said there were five men involved—Colon, Ortiz, Hernandez, Perez and Vargas. Core said that Hernandez had murdered Fonseca because he was believed to be cooperating with police. Core admitted that he personally had murdered Mejia and Garcia and said that in all, he had committed 14 murders.
The case against Colon and Ortiz did not come to trial for nearly three years. During that time, Ortiz was slashed with a razor by another inmate at Rikers Island prison. He required more than 130 stitches.
During the years leading up to the trial, Vera repeatedly violated the terms of his probation, including being found with a gun and suspected narcotics while being housed in a hotel by prosecutors as a protected witness. Vera also was arrested twice—once for possession of narcotics and once for selling narcotics. Facing up to 25 years on the two cases, the prosecution in the murder case intervened and offered him a deal of no more than five years. Vera didn’t take the deal until he was arrested for failing to appear in court on the narcotics charges. He then pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 2 ½ to five years in prison. Afterward, he refused to testify against Colon and Ortiz until his grandparents were relocated.
At trial, the only two witnesses who implicated Colon and Ortiz were Vera and Core. Vera repeatedly denied he had received any benefits and the prosecutor said she was not involved in any deals with Vera. The deal with Core was disclosed. But the statement from the relative of Fonseca—in which Vargas admitted he had committed with murders with Hernandez, Perez and either “Pretty Eddie” or “Little Danny,” was never disclosed to the defense attorneys.
On October 5, 1993, Ortiz and Colon were convicted by a jury of two counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder and weapons charge. Each was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.
Core pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced to six years in prison.
In 1997, the convictions of Ortiz and Colon were upheld on appeal.
In 2003, Colon wrote a letter to Vera, asking him why he had lied. A week later, Vera contacted Colon’s family and recanted. He revealed the details of his deal with prosecutors that had been kept from the defense attorneys. And he wrote to Colon to apologize.
Colon retained attorney Joel Rudin, a New York City lawyer who has handled numerous wrongful conviction cases involving prosecutorial misconduct. His investigation turned up two witness statements (including the one from Fonseca’s relative) implicating the original suspects. Colon and Ortiz were not mentioned in the statements.
Rudin filed a petition for a new trial, but it was denied. An appeal was rejected in 2008. The Appellate Division opinion said the evidence should have been turned over to the defense, but the court found the trial had been fair because the failure to do so was “harmless.”
On November 19, 2009, the New York Court of Appeals reversed and ordered a new trial, finding that the prosecution had knowingly elicited false testimony from Vera. On March 30, 2010, Colon and Ortiz were released on bond.
On June 29, 2011, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges.
Ortiz and Colon filed federal wrongful conviction lawsuits against the City of New York and police detectives involved in the case.
– Maurice Possley