From Prep Basketball Star to Murder Charge: It All Started With One Unlucky Shot

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Albert Samaha
Protesters at City Hall in April called on Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson to advance his review into convictions tied to Louis Scarcella.
Ronny Pondexter spent four years in prison for a murder he did not commit. In 1992, he had been arrested by Detective Louis Scarcella, the subject of last week's feature story. A woman testified that she saw Pondexter shoot a man below her window. She recanted her testimony shortly afterward and in 1996 the New York State Court of Appeals granted Pondexter a new trial. He was acquitted.

It is a wild and sad story. But the story Pondexter tells about how he ended up running the streets in the first place might top it.

See also our feature story: The Tragedy of Louis Scarcella

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Photo illustration by Tom Carlson

Before Pondexter ever met Louis Scarcella, he was a point guard at Prospect Heights High School, he says. He was a decent offensive player, but top-notch on the other side of the ball. "I was slim so I had to be agressive," he says. "I was a defensive specialist. I'll hack you. I'll do what I had to do so you don't score."

So while he was just 5'9", he believed his defensive skills could win him a college scholarship. By his senior year, he was the team's star player.

"My dream was going to the NBA," he says.

His team was good, and much of his Crown Heights neighborhood often came out to watch the big games. Some of the team's biggest supporters were the local drug dealers. They liked to bet on the games, Pondexter says.

Before one game his senior year, according to Pondexter, a couple of dealers approached him. They told him they were putting money on his opponent (he doesn't remember who the opponent was). They told him he had to make sure they didn't lose their money.

They didn't offer him a cut of the money or anything. But they didn't have to. Pondexter feared them.

"Hell I'm a teenager and these are grown men with jewelry and expensive cars and stuff," he says.

All was going fine as the fourth quarter drew to a close. Pondexter had played well, but not too well. His was down by one point with a few seconds left. His team had the ball. As the point guard and best player, the ball would be in his hands.

He didn't want to make his point-shaving obvious, so "I just throw it up at the rim."

"And this is a circus shot I took," he recalls. "It hits the front side of the rim, the back side of the rim. It was about to miss, but it bounced around the rim and it bounced in by mistake, and we won by one."

"My heart dropped," he says. "I'm like, 'What did I do?'"

He left the gym quickly and headed for the subway station with his head down. A group of men cut him off not far from the gym.

"You loser!" one yelled.

"That was my money!" another shouted.

He saw one of them pull out a gun. He turned to run.

"I bet you you won't win another game!" somebody said, and then the gun fired.

The bullet him in the knee.

"And that was the changing stage of my life," he says.

His basketball career was over. His chance for a scholarship was gone.

"I started carrying a gun after that," he says.

A few years later, he was convicted of illegal possession of a firearm. And a year or so after that, he was picked up on the murder charge.

After he was acquitted in 1996, Pondexter moved to North Carolina, where he lives today. He enrolled at Johnson Community College and graduated with a a 3.0 G.P.A.

Send story tips to the author, Albert Samaha





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