The Tragedy of Louis Scarcella

scarcella-may-1991.jpg
Alan Zale
Louis Scarcella, right, leading David Ranta out of the 90th Precinct in August 1990. Ranta was convicted in May 1991 despite no physical evidence connecting him to the murder of a Brooklyn rabbi.
Another day, another murder, another suspect refusing to talk. The precinct caught maybe half a dozen homicides a week. This was 1993, and this was north Brooklyn. For every case solved there were plenty more cold ones on the books. But the young precinct detective was skilled and lucky on this one. He had good street sources and he had a lead within hours of the shooting. It led to an arrest.

The precinct detective sat across the table from the suspect in a small, windowless interrogation room in the far corner of the precinct. He knew the suspect would not crack easily. The man was not some stickup kid who'd botched a robbery, not some crack fiend looking for quick cash, not some corner boy settling a score. The man, the detective believed, was a leader of the neighborhood's most powerful gang. An hour or so into the questioning, the suspect held the line.

The door opened. Two men in suits walked in. The man in front was a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, thin-waisted, thick-haired fellow with deep-set, dark eyes and an icy glare. The precinct detective knew this man. He'd seen him around the precinct. It was hard to miss him. He looked, colleagues often said, how a detective in a movie looks. And he played the part well. His suits were tailored. He always seemed to be chomping his trademark cigar, whether at the station, on the streets, or at the bar after hours. He had a booming voice thick with a Brooklyn accent. He had a hearty laugh and a respectable handshake. He loved to buy others drinks and trade stories. He was the friendliest and warmest man many of his peers had ever met, and he was quick to cut himself down with abundant doses of self-deprecation. It was hard not to love Detective Louis Scarcella.

Behind Scarcella stood his partner, Detective Steve Chmil, a stout man with a trim mustache, a brown comb-over, and skeptical, probing eyes. Where Scarcella seemed to seek the spotlight, Chmil was fine working in the shadows. The Robin to Scarcella's Batman, cops around the borough joked. Scarcella and Chmil had come to assist on the precinct detective's homicide case. He was expecting the company. Scarcella and Chmil were members of the Brooklyn North Homicide Squad, a roving, 40-man task force formed to relieve the borough's murder epidemic. Precinct detectives faced dozens of robberies, burglaries, rapes, assaults, and shootings each month. The heavy caseloads made it tough to stay on top of a murder investigation for more than a few weeks. So homicide-squad detectives worked with the precinct detectives to help investigate murders. And perhaps no detective in New York City was better known for solving murder cases than Louis Scarcella.

Scarcella was the star of the Brooklyn North Homicide Squad. He had solved some of the city's most notorious crack era crimes, plus scores more that got barely a blurb in the papers. He was tenacious and crafty. He developed close contacts on the streets. He had a knack for tracking down eyewitnesses. And he was a master at getting suspects to talk. "That crystal ball" in his stomach, he called it.

Great detectives, he once said in a television interview, had "the ability to get inside to that person's soul whatever way you can and get the person to say what you need to hear." What set Louis Scarcella apart, prosecutors and fellow cops believed, were his people skills. "He understood human nature," says Douglas Nadjari, an assistant district attorney who prosecuted a few of Scarcella's cases. "He could read people. He knew how to talk to people. He was empathetic. He didn't talk down to them. He was not judgmental. He had a way with people."

And so the precinct detective would let Scarcella and Chmil try their luck in the interrogation room. The suspect wasn't talking anyway. The precinct detective figured he'd try a new strategy. A classic good-cop move: He would step out to buy a cheeseburger for the suspect, he told them. He'd be right back.

Less than half an hour later he returned to find Scarcella and Chmil outside the interrogation room. "We got a full confession," Scarcella told the precinct detective. "He's writing it out now."

The suspect would later be convicted of murder. Louis Scarcella had done it again.

Now retired, the former precinct detective says he was relieved on that day to have solved at least one of the growing number of homicides piling up on his desk. "I was thinking, 'OK great, I'm about to clear a case,'" he says today. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, as he did not want to comment publicly about the case.

But these days, he adds, he often wonders just what had happened in that interrogation room.

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