One of the most outrageous cover-ups in New York City history went back to court in November. For the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, it was an opportunity not just to right a wrong in a decades-old murder case, but to send a message that the New York City Police Department’s routine assaults on freedom of information will no longer be tolerated. A decision is expected soon.
Forty-seven years ago, NYPD Patrolman Phillip Cardillo was gunned down inside Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam Mosque in Harlem. Fearing controversy, the mayor and NYPD brass promptly threw Cardillo under the bus. The crime scene was swiftly erased. Suspects were released and vanished. Investigations were stonewalled. Evidence was buried.
Exaggeration? Don’t take our word for it. A special grand jury probe concluded there was “a concerted and orchestrated effort by members and former members of the Police Department to impede the investigation into the murder of Patrolman Philip Cardillo.” No one ever served a day in jail for the crime.
A Judicial Watch investigation turned up new evidence in the case, but hit a stone wall with the NYPD. In 2017, we filed a New York Freedom of Information Law request for case documents and an audio copy of a fake emergency telephone call that lured police to the Harlem mosque. We planned to make the audio tape widely available. Even after all these years, we reasoned, someone might recognize the voice that lured Cardillo to his death.
The NYPD ignored our FOIL request. It’s a tactic familiar to anyone who has attempted to exercise freedom of information rights with the department. The NYPD is easily with worst freedom of information offender in the state.
Our response? Enough. We sued the NYPD. We asked a New York court to compel the NYPD to turn over the Cardillo case file and the audio tape.
The NYPD countered, saying the 47-year-old case was still “active and ongoing.” It submitted an affidavit from the commanding officer of the Major Case Squad claiming that the Cardillo murder “is an open investigation and remains actively pursued by the NYPD.”
And that audio tape? The NYPD says they can’t locate it—despite being presented with evidence from Judicial Watch indicating copies of the tape had circulated in the department in recent years.
Judge Verna Saunders ruled in favor of the NYPD, declaring that the court had “no basis to discredit the sworn statement” from the head of the Major Case Squad. Documents denied. Read more about that decision here.
We appealed the judge’s ruling to the state Appellate Division, arguing that it’s preposterous to claim a four-decade-old case is still “ongoing” and that disclosure of the documents pose no risk to any investigations. Read the Judicial Watch brief here.
The Appellate Division heard the case on November 19. Judicial Watch was there, along with the former lead detective in the case, Randy Jurgensen. Jurgensen wrote the definitive account of the Cardillo murder, Circle of Six.
Justice in this case is not complicated. The Cardillo files should be released with appropriate redactions, the missing audio tape should be located, and the NYPD’s war on freedom of information should be ended.