Manuel Gomez, a private investigator who used to be a cop, lives and works alone in a one-bedroom apartment above a laundromat in the Bronx. His living room is strewn with paperwork from his cases — police reports, witness statements, a photograph of a young woman with a razor wound across her face. Reproductions of famous paintings, including nudes by Picasso and Modigliani, line the walls. “The Lament for Icarus,” a 19th-century British piece, depicts the fallen Greek cradled by weeping nymphs. “What this picture reminds me,” he told me, “is that it’s better to die for something than to live for nothing.” When I pointed out that the Icarus myth was perhaps more widely understood as a parable about the dangers of hubris, he shrugged. “To hell with that [expletive]. I say, Fly right past the sun. I always push the envelope.”
Over the last few years, Gomez has made a name for himself investigating the cases of people who claim to have been charged with crimes they didn’t commit. He says he offers his services only to people who are truly innocent — something the former Army intelligence officer insists he can suss out within moments of meeting someone. “I learned to pick up on their tell signs,” he said. “Their idiosyncrasies.”
Many current and former NYPD offices contend that the department pressures officers to produce high arrest numbers in low-income black and brown communities.
Some officers with high arrest numbers also rack up record numbers of civilian complaints.
High arrest numbers mean more than 250,000 cases are prosecuted every year in New York City, though the court system only has enough judges and staff to take about 650 of those cases to a jury verdict each year.
That means prosecutors often pressure defendants to plead guilty, which tens of thousands of defendants do each year. Some of them are innocent.
New York’s blindfold law, which allows prosecutors to withhold crucial evidence from defendants until a trial is about to begin, leaves defendants and their attorneys in the dark.
Most of Gomez’s clients come from the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the United States. The area has a high crime rate and a heavy police presence. Gomez, who once worked the same streets when he was a cop, is among a number of current and former members of the N.Y.P.D. who contend that the department pressures officers to meet arrest quotas in low-income black and brown communities, and that this pressure drives them to arrest people for trivial offenses and, in some cases, for crimes they didn’t commit. (The department has long denied this practice and in recent years has vowed to sanction supervisors who continue to enforce quotas.)
As a private investigator, Gomez looks for cases that seem to reveal police wrongdoing. He has cultivated relationships with local television reporters and often appears on their shows to denounce cops and prosecutors. He thrives on the attention. At 51, he’s built like a safe, strong and square, and he dresses like the detectives he grew up watching on TV, in shiny shoes, double-breasted pinstripe suits and shirts with his initials stitched into the cuffs. At times he talks like a hard-boiled action hero. “I see myself as a punisher for the wicked and a bringer of justice to the innocent,” he told me. “I protect the weak.”
In the low-income communities where Gomez operates, people who have been wrongfully arrested face enormous obstacles in proving their innocence. One reason is the sheer volume of arrests in these neighborhoods. In New York City, where the arrest rate has begun to decline after soaring for decades, there are still more than 250,000 arrests prosecuted per year. The city’s courts, meanwhile, employ only enough judges and court staff to take about 650 of those cases all the way to trials with a verdict. With hundreds of thousands of cases to dispose of, prosecutors often try to pressure defendants to plead guilty, typically pursuing lesser charges if they agree to take a plea. Not everyone who succumbs to this pressure has committed a crime. For defendants who can’t afford bail, just getting out of jail can be reason enough to take a plea. “There are people pleading guilty every day in that courthouse to things they didn’t do,” says Marty Goldberg, a lawyer with decades of experience as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney in the Bronx.
In many cases, defendants have only minutes to confer with their overworked public defenders and can only guess at what evidence the prosecution might have against them. New York is one of several states with what is known as a blindfold law, which allows prosecutors to withhold crucial evidence from defendants until their trials are about to begin. Prosecutors say these laws protect witnesses from retaliation, but critics challenge their fairness and constitutionality. “You can’t see the police paperwork, sometimes you don’t even know the names of your accusers,” says Justine Olderman, executive director of the Bronx Defenders. “You’re in the dark. Coupled with the bail system and pretrial detention, you can understand why people would be desperate for someone like Manny.”
Gomez doesn’t just gather evidence for his clients the way an ordinary investigator might. A trial is in many ways a contest in which each side seeks to bolster its own credibility while undermining that of the other. But because so few criminal cases actually go to trial, defendants seldom get the opportunity to challenge the credibility of the officers who arrested them, the detectives who investigated them or the witnesses who accused them of committing a crime. Gomez does all of that on his clients’ behalf — not in the courthouse but in the court of public opinion. His aim, in every case, is to pressure prosecutors into conceding defeat before they can persuade the defendant to take a plea. “I jam the evidence so far down their throat,” he told me, “that they have to say ‘dismissed.’ ”
He investigated his first wrongful arrest in 2014, a murder case in which a young Dominican immigrant named Enger Javier spent two years in jail awaiting trial. Gomez found surveillance videos that proved Javier was not involved in the stabbing; the district attorney dismissed the charges, and Gomez’s client sued the city for wrongful imprisonment, receiving an $800,000 settlement. Since this first case, he says, he has investigated dozens of others. In a number of high-profile cases, his clients had their charges dismissed or won settlements from the city. Gomez says he often allows his clients to defer payment until they receive settlement money. His clients speak warmly of him. One man who had spent months in jail told me Gomez brought him clothes and books after he was released. “He treats people the right way,” he said.
But as I followed Gomez over the course of a year and a half and multiple investigations, watching him attack the credibility of cops and prosecutors in New York, it became clear that Gomez had credibility issues of his own. His single-mindedness, though clearly an asset to his clients, could also be a liability. He could be rash to the point of recklessness. He had a history of aggression and violence. And he sometimes overlooked facts that didn’t conform to his preconceived ideas of justice and injustice. Some cases his clients have brought against the city and the police have been dismissed with prejudice by the courts. Goldberg told me that even if his clients were out of options, he’d advise against hiring Gomez. “I am loath to believe anything the man says,” he told me.
Gomez insisted to me that he had never done anything unethical during an investigation, but he acknowledged that he “walked the edge” between what was permissible and what was not. “The ends justify the means,” he told me, summing up the wisdom he gleaned from Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” “Whatever I got to do,” he said, “I’m going to do it.”
In the summer of 2016, Gomez took on what would become the biggest case of his career. He claimed that a ring of corrupt cops in the 42nd Precinct of the South Bronx was terrorizing an entire neighborhood, forcing kids to implicate one another in crimes, as part of a scheme he described as a “gargantuan nightmare of corruption.” At the center of the case was a teenager named Pedro Hernandez. Over the next 14 months, Gomez brought widespread attention to Hernandez’s story in the New York press, transforming the then 16-year-old into a cause célèbre. To Hernandez’s supporters, from Kerry Kennedy to the prominent activist Shaun King, his ordeal illustrated the most egregious failings and inequities of the system. In a long essay on Medium, King declared that Hernandez’s saga was “the most painful, traumatic, outrageous, outlandish, over-the-top story of government-sanctioned police brutality, wrongful convictions” and “widespread corruption” in “modern American history.”
When Hernandez’s troubles started, he was living with his mother, Jessica Perez, and three siblings in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, a hilly neighborhood scattered with massive public housing complexes. As of 2015, Morrisania accounted for a higher percentage of the city’s jail population than any other neighborhood in New York. Hernandez’s older brother, Jesswill, was in jail, facing a murder charge for which he would later be convicted. Hernandez had been having his own run-ins with the law. Starting when he was 15, he had been arrested multiple times for a series of shootings and robberies, among other less serious offenses, and had spent time in a juvenile detention facility. But all his criminal charges were eventually dropped.
As Hernandez and Perez would later repeat in court filings, they claimed he had been unjustly targeted and framed by a group of cops at the 42nd Precinct, among them a detective named David Terrell, who specialized in gang investigations. Perez told me she first met Terrell a few years earlier, when her sons began having problems with the authorities, and since then she had had a series of disturbing exchanges with him. On one occasion, she told me, Terrell called her at home and asked her to bring some “Spanish food” to the precinct. On another, she said, he drove up alongside her and her mother and ominously said he would “break into” her before laughing and driving away. Perez said she eventually “put him on zero,” admonishing him in front of another officer to leave her alone. After that, she said, she began seeing Terrell in the lobby of her building, talking to her neighbors in what she felt was an attempt to work up some bogus justification for arresting Hernandez. (In a continuing lawsuit, Terrell asserts that he never had any “personal involvement” with Perez, and his lawyer called the accusations “laughable”; a lawsuit Perez and Hernandez filed against Terrell, other officers, the City of New York and a district attorney was dismissed. Hernandez has since filed a new lawsuit.)
In July 2016, Hernandez was charged in connection with another shooting and was sent to Rikers Island, where New Yorkers who can’t afford bail are typically jailed while awaiting trial. In the past, Hernandez’s family had been able to pool together enough money to bail him out. This time, the prosecutor, claiming that Hernandez was a violent gang member and a “scammer” with access to large amounts of cash, asked the judge to set the bail high enough to keep him inside. The judge obliged, settling on $250,000 — an unusually high sum for even a violent crime. On her next visit to Rikers, Perez had to tell her son that she couldn’t afford to bring him home. “That was the day that he first told me, ‘I can’t be in jail, this is making me feel like I want to die,’ ” she told me. “I came home, and I had two options. Have the same feelings with him — he wants to die, I want to die, too. Or get mad about it and do something about it.”
Perez called Gomez, whom she had seen on television. Gomez says he was initially skeptical when Perez told him her son’s story. Would rogue cops really conspire to arrest the same kid again and again for crimes he didn’t commit? “It was too outrageous,” he said. “Too out there.” But after meeting Hernandez, Gomez was convinced of his innocence. “He didn’t have that street look, like a thug or criminal,” he told me. “He was just very family-oriented. You could see that. You could feel it.” Hernandez told me that he was “not a saint,” but he added, “I wasn’t the worst kid outside in the streets either,” and he insisted that he hadn’t committed any of the crimes for which he was charged.
Gomez took the case and began reviewing what little evidence the prosecutors had been required to share with the defense: A 15-year-old boy was shot in the foot during a street fight, and “one or more witnesses” identified Hernandez as the shooter. The paperwork didn’t name the witness or witnesses, or any details about what they claimed to have seen.