At about 5:30 a.m. on February 8, 1990, 38-year-old Chaim Weinberger, a jewelry courier, left his apartment building in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, carrying a 50-pound suitcase full of diamonds and other valuables he was taking to the Dominican Republic. Weinberger noticed a tall blond man eyeing him as he left his apartment building and when he got near his car, he saw the man following him. He tossed the suitcase into the trunk and got into his car to get away.
The blond man put a handkerchief over his face and drew a pistol as he approached. Weinberger drove in reverse, knocked the robber down and sped off.
The robber then noticed Chaskel Werzberger, a 56-year-old rabbi, warming up his car nearby. The gunman walked over, shot Werzberger in the head, yanked him out of the vehicle and drove off. Werzberger died three days later. His car was found in another Brooklyn neighborhood a day after the shooting, splashed with paint in an apparent attempt to cover fingerprints.
The murder of the esteemed rabbi shocked a city accustomed to murders and a $10,000 reward was offered for information.
A number of witnesses told police that they saw the events in full or in part. Weinberger described the gunman as being between 5'11” and 6'0” tall, clean shaven and with blonde hair. Several other witnesses recalled that prior to the crime they saw two men in a station wagon parked nearby, one in the driver's seat and the other in the front passenger's seat.
More than one hundred names surfaced as potential suspects, including Thomas Joseph Astin, who police learned of through an anonymous telephone call. But Astin died in a car crash while being pursued by police on April 2, 1990. After his death, detectives brought Weinberger to the morgue to view Astin's body, but Weinberger was unable to identify him as the robber.
Beginning in June 1990, Detective Louis Scarcella interviewed Dmitry Drikman, a convicted rapist facing robbery charges. Drikman pointed the detective to Alan Bloom, a convicted robber and drug addict, who was in jail facing charges that could send him to prison for life. After several conversations with Bloom, the detective said that Bloom had admitted that he attempted to rob Weinberger with 35-year-old David Ranta, an unemployed house painter with more than a dozen arrests for theft, robbery and drug possession.
Drikman and Bloom were then housed in the same cell together and subsequently, Drikman also implicated Ranta in the crime. Drikman’s girlfriend was then interviewed and she told police she had seen Ranta and Bloom plotting how to cover up the attempted robbery and murder.
Bloom would ultimately testify against Ranta after being granted immunity for his involvement in the robbery and murder and a promise for a reduced sentence on his outstanding robbery charges. He told the police that he had helped to plan the robbery of Weinberger and said Ranta, whom he had known for a few years, was an accomplice, as was another man named Steve Shakir. Bloom said he left before anything happened and did not know who the gunman was, but he said that Shakir had a gun.
After he failed a polygraph test, Bloom changed his story to say that not only did he see the crimes, but that Ranta was the gunman. Bloom would later say that he lied about Shakir’s involvement. He also said that on the night before the crimes, he had been with Drikman.
Bloom said that he had stolen the station wagon that several witnesses had observed at the crime scene prior to the crimes, and that he had used the station wagon to drive himself and Ranta to the crime scene. He said Ranta approached Weinberger, pointed a gun at him and attempted to rob him. Bloom told police that he was supposed to be the getaway driver, but that after Ranta left the car, a police car drove by so he moved the car about 10 feet further away. As a result, Bloom said, Ranta didn’t immediately spot the car after the botched robbery attempt and apparently decided to steal Werzberger’s car.
Bloom said Ranta ran across the street, fired his gun twice, pulled the rabbi from his car and fled.
Bloom said he met Ranta later that day, took Werzberger’s car and abandoned it in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Bloom said that later, he and Drikman returned to Werzberger's car and splashed white paint on the interior to obscure any fingerprints. Bloom passed the polygraph test administered after his second statement.
Two others corroborated Bloom. Cheryl Herbert told the police that she had been in a relationship with Ranta and that prior to her birthday in February, he told her he was expecting to come into possession of some nice jewelry. Herbert told police Ranta later told her that he was in a lot of trouble because he had participated in a robbery with two others and that they had abandoned him and as a result, he had to kill someone.
Alison Picciano told the police that Ranta had admitted to her that he had pulled Werzberger from his car and shot him while he was on the ground.
Ranta was arrested on August 13, 1990 and taken to a police station where detectives said that after initial denials, Ranta eventually admitted that he had been at the crime scene with Bloom and Drikman in a station wagon, which he believed Bloom had stolen. Police said Ranta said that he had known about a plan to rob a Jewish jewel courier and that he was to have been the “lookout” during the robbery. The detectives said Ranta said he saw Bloom and Drikman exchange a gun in the station wagon and that, before any of the crimes occurred, he had left the scene when Bloom and Drikman began arguing about which one of them was going to commit the actual robbery.
Ranta was placed in a lineup the following day. Scarcella reached out to a rabbi who came to the station with six witnesses. The first witness, Weinberger—who had been the initial target of the robbery—didn’t recognize anyone. The next two witnesses identified someone other than Ranta.
The fourth witness, who spoke only Yiddish and required an interpreter, initially said he didn’t recognize anyone. The witness was then escorted to a nearby room with Detective Scarcella, a prosecutor and the interpreter. A tape recorder which was recording the lineup conversation was turned off and then turned back on as the witness said that, in fact, he had identified the man in position six—which was Ranta.
The fifth witness identified Ranta and the sixth witness identified another man in the lineup.
A second lineup was held later that day. Three more witnesses came in and all three identified Ranta.
Despite what police said Ranta had admitted, Ranta took and passed a polygraph examination.
Ranta went on trial in New York Supreme Court in May 1991.
Bloom testified, as did Herbert and Picciano, portraying Ranta as the gunman. Bloom told the jury that when he and Ranta met later in the day after the crime, Ranta said, “Why did you leave me? I had to kill someone.”
Picciano testified that Ranta told her, “I had to do what I had to do. I shot him.”
Ranta’s statement to police was presented to the jury as well—though it portrayed him as an accomplice instead of the gunman. The trial judge was critical of Detective Scarcella for failing to tape record Ranta’s statement or take any notes and for failing to take any notes of his conversations with Drikman and Bloom.
The defense tried to suggest that Drikman was the gunman and that Ranta was innocent. Weinberger testified that Ranta was not the gunman.
On May 22, 1991, Ranta was convicted by a jury. He was sentenced to 37 ½ years to life in prison.
His initial appeal was denied, but in 1996, Astin’s wife signed a sworn affidavit saying that her husband, before he was killed in a car crash, had admitted that he killed Werzberger. She said that Astin left their home at 4 a.m. on the day of the crime and returned later in tears, saying he had robbed someone carrying jewelry and that someone had been hurt.
Despite this affidavit, Ranta’s motion for a new trial was denied. The judge said that Astin’s wife’s credibility was damaged because she was facing a drug charge at the time she made the claim.
In 2011, Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes created a Conviction Integrity Unit and invited defense lawyers to present cases where they believed innocent defendants had been convicted. One of the cases proffered was Ranta’s.
The Integrity Unit began re-investigating. One of the witnesses who identified Ranta in the lineup said the lead police detective, Louis Scarcella, told him to pick “the guy with the big nose,” so he picked Ranta because he had the biggest nose.
The prosecution investigators discovered that during the weeks when police were interrogating Bloom and Drikman, both were allowed to leave jail, smoke crack cocaine and have sex with prostitutes in return for implicating Ranta.
Drikman and his girlfriend recanted their accounts that implicated Bloom and Ranta. Bloom had since died.
Ranta’s lawyer, armed with the new evidence, filed a motion to vacate Ranta’s conviction. The motion was not opposed by Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes, who was the District Attorney when Ranta was arrested 23 years earlier.
On March 21, 2013, Ranta was flown from his prison to a Brooklyn courtroom where his convictions were vacated and the charges were dismissed. He was then released.
In May 2013, Ranta filed a $150 million wrongful conviction claim against the city of New York. In February 2014, the city settled the claim for $6.4 million.
A few months after Ranta was released, The New York Times published an article accusing Scarcella, who retired in 1999, of misconduct in many investigations: fabricating evidence, coercing witnesses and concealing evidence of defendants’ innocence. The article reported that one witness, Teresa Gomez, a crack addict, had somehow testified as an eyewitness in six separate murder cases. The report prompted the Brooklyn Conviction Integrity Unit to begin to re-investigate 57 cases in which Scarcella was involved.
On May 6, 2014, Kings County District Attorney Ken Thompson, who defeated Hynes in his bid for re-election in the fall of 2013, announced that as a result of the Integrity Unit’s investigation, the murder convictions of Darryl Austin
, Alvena Jennette
and Robert Hill
should be vacated and the charges dismissed.
“Based on a comprehensive review of these cases, it is clear that testimony from the same problematic witness undermined the integrity of these convictions, and resulted in an unfair trial for each of these defendants,” Thompson said in a statement.
– Maurice Possley