Update, Oct. 21, 2005: The murder conviction that sent Lemus to prison in 1992 had just been vacated by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Roger Hayes. Click here for more details.
NEW YORK — The events unfolded in a matter of seconds, but the mystery has lingered for 14 years. The bullets hit two people, but dozens more, one by one, were drawn into this intricate tale, unable to let it go. Investigations were launched. Careers ended. And two veteran homicide detectives sworn to uphold the justice system questioned their faith in it.
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It all began on a frigid Thanksgiving night in 1990. It was "Latin Night" at the once popular Palladium nightclub in Manhattan. At about one a.m., shots rang out at the velvet ropes and two bouncers were hit. Marcus Peterson, an amateur bodybuilder and neighborhood football coach from Brooklyn, was only 23 when he was murdered. Thirty-one-year-old Jeff Craig, a former NYC police officer, was wheeled away with a bullet in his thigh.
The Palladium nightclub is now a college dorm. Witnesses told detectives that on the night of the murder, an Hispanic man got into a scuffle with a bouncer. He left but returned minutes later, this time with friends and guns. Within seconds multiple shots were fired at close range.
Soon, police issued an all-points bulletin for two Hispanic men in a 1984 or 1985 blue Oldsmobile. The only other detail was a partial license plate number with the numbers 8 and 1, and the letter K.
Three weeks after the shooting, eyewitnesses identified 22-year-old David Lemus in a photo array. At the time, he was a part-time construction worker going to night school to become a carpenter's apprentice. Five weeks later, he was picked out again in a lineup, arrested and charged with murder.
Another 10 months passed before a second man was arrested. Twenty-six-year-old Omeldo Hidalgo was also picked out in a photo array and a lineup. Hidalgo had come to this country three years earlier and was working in his brother's grocery store, sending money to his family back in the Dominican Republic.
Both men had prior arrests, Hidalgo for gun possession and Lemus for driving a stolen car. In November 1992, two years after the shooting, they were tried together. Carol Kramer was the jury foreperson.
Carol Kramer: "Our jury was really wonderful, just as diverse as the city. We were half black, half white, half professionals, half working people. The main testimony, the evidence, was the statements of the four eyewitnesses who were standing in front of the Palladium that night. Each of the witnesses would be asked, 'Do you see the man who shot Marcus?' Yes. And then they'd point to that man. 'Do you see the other man who shot Jeff?' Point to him, and they would say, 'That was the man.'"
In all, six eyewitnesses testified for the prosecution, four of them identifying Lemus and Hidalgo. All of the eyewitnesses said the area was well-lit and they could clearly see the men involved. But there were discrepancies in their accounts and juror Kramer wasn't convinced.
Kramer: "I don't know what the rest of the jury was thinking. But I was thinking, these eyewitnesses sort of contradict each other. And I hope there's more evidence."
There was. Delores Spencer, linked romantically to David Lemus, testified that a couple of days after the shooting, Lemus had confessed to her that he was one of the gunman, even asking her if he could hide "the gun" at her house. But when she was wired by police, during one of the taped conversations, David Lemus insisted that he was, in fact, innocent. The jury never heard that. But prosecutors played a portion of another conversation in which Lemus, once again, seemed to incriminate himself:
David Lemus: "If you're scared, just say you're scared."
Delores Spencer: "Why should I be scared of you?"
Lemus: "Because you know that I know that you know." [3 short puffs]
Kramer: "And that was very damning. Because in it, we hear him say k-k-k. And he made sounds that to us, sounded like gunshots."
After hearing that audiotape, juror Kramer started to look at the eyewitness identifications in a different light. She says she and her fellow jurors were sure that the eyewitnesses were right.
After 10 days of testimony from 13 witnesses, prosecutor Steve Saracco, rested his case. Now it was the defense's turn. But attorneys for Lemus and Hidalgo decided not to call a single witness, believing the prosecution failed to prove its case.
Kramer: "When we got into the jury room, we sat down. Somebody said, 'Well, does anyone think they're not guilty?' And there wasn't a peep."
Both David Lemus and Omeldo Hidalgo were found guilty of 2nd degree murder. They were sentenced to 25 years to life.
David Lemus's mother, Nilsa Huertas, was a single mom living in the Bronx 14 years ago. She still remembers the conversation she had with her only child the night of his arrest. She says he told her he did not do it. And she believed him. Omelda Hidalgo's mother, Lucia, also refuses to believe that her son was capable of such a crime.
A mother's anguish is one thing; a jury's verdict is another. But soon, new witnesses would begin talking. new evidence would be uncovered, raising important questions. Had the wrong men had been convicted? Had someone gotten away with murder? Those questions would come to consume a detective who had nothing to do with the case, but wouldn't let it go.
It was December 1992. A jury had just found David Lemus and Omeldo Hidalgo guilty of murder when a Bronx homicide detective named Bobby Addolorato stumbled across some information.
Bobby Addolorato: "See back then, I never heard of the Palladium shooting. It was a Manhattan homicide and I was a Bronx detective, so I just hadn't heard of it."
At the time, the detective was interviewing an informant about gang activity in the Bronx. The informant told him about a murder he'd witnessed at the Palladium nightclub in Manhattan. He still remembers it today. According to Addolorato, the informant said he was parked in his car when he saw two of his fellow gang members -- Joey Pillot and Thomas "Spanky" Morales -- open fire from the street, shooting the bouncers that Thanksgiving night.
Knowing nothing about the case, detective Addolorato made a few calls in 1992 and learned that, in fact, there had been a murder at the Palladium and two men had already been convicted. Not Spanky and Joey, but two other men named Lemus and Hidalgo.
Still, the detective thought the D.A.'s office should hear what his informant had to say and prosecutors agreed to meet the informant. Afterwards assistant district attorney Steve Saracco said he wasn't convinced. He said the informant's account didn't match the known facts of the case.
Addolorato: "After about 20 minutes, he came back out and said, 'Listen, thank you very much, he's really not on the money with his facts.'"
Detective Addolorato couldn't argue. After all, he knew his informant was a gang member with a drug problem. So he let it go -- but not for long.
Two years later, Addolorato, now working with federal prosecutors in his gang investigation made a number of arrests. Among those jailed were Joey Pillot and Thomas "Spanky" Morales, the very men Addolorato's informant had identified as the Palladium shooters. Spanky wouldn't talk, but Joey Pillot was willing to cooperate and to get a deal, he had to tell all.
Under questioning, Joey Pillot made a startling confession, that he and his cohort Spanky were the Palladium gunmen. He even recalled how his 9-mm gun had jammed and that an unfired bullet had fallen to the ground. In fact, an unspent round was found at the scene.
Addolorato: "Even when Joey admitted that, and it rang a bell with me, there was still needed to be work done to corroborate Joey Pillot."
Detective Addolorato was skeptical because Joey Pillot told different versions of the story, contradicting himself on key points, like who actually pulled the trigger. So the detective kept digging. He learned that just days after the murder in 1990 there was a call to the NYPD's anonymous crime stoppers hotline. The tipster fingered two people: Joey and Spanky. And working his sources, Addolorato found more, three witnesses who said Spanky had bragged about the killing.
Addolorato: "They told us, "Spanky's face was out to here like he got punched, and they were bragging, Spanky said, 'Yeah, and we lit them up. And, you know, we shot the bouncer."
Also, there was that all-points bulletin for a blue Oldsmobile with a partial license plate number with 8, 1, K. Addolorato discovered that Spanky Morales drove a blue Oldsmobile, and though the model year wasn't the same, his license plate did include the numbers 8 and 1.
Three years after Lemus' and Hidalgo's convictions, the new evidence prompted the Manhattan D.A.'S office to launch a new investigation, re-interviewing dozens of witnesses. The following year, the prosecutors agreed that Lemus and hidalgo should be granted something most inmates never get -- a new hearing before a judge.
The D.A.'s office acknowledged that Spanky Morales "was considered to be a suspect in the Palladium homicide," possibly a "third shooter." But, the D.A. argued that did not mean Lemus and Hidalgo were innocent. The judge agreed. In fact, the judge completely discounted Joey Pillot's new account of the shooting as "much worse than merely doubtful." He said it was "entirely unworthy of belief." The motion for a new trial was denied.
That was 1996. Years passed. Detective Addolorato says the case kept him up at night because he had a hunch that something wasn't right. If the wrong men were in prison, as a cop, he felt it was his duty to fix it. He talked to anyone who'd listen, especially one man, Steve Cohen. Cohen was one of the federal prosecutors who had worked with the detective on that gang investigation. In fact, he was the one questioning Joey Pillot when Pillot confessed. Now, Cohen was a defense attorney and, believing Lemus and Hidalgo were innocent, he took on their case for free. His clients have always maintained their innocence. In 2002, Dateline spoke with David Lemus and Omeldo Hidalgo.
Dan Slepian (NBC producer): "How did you know about the Palladium murder?"
Lemus: "Was watching news, Channel 2 news right after the Price is Right, and they had a little clipping right there saying there was a drive-by shooting at the Palladium and bouncer got shot, I was like, wow."
Slepian: "Had you ever been to the Palladium?"
Lemus: "I went to the Palladium one night in my life."
Slepian: "In your entire life?"
Lemus: "In my entire life."
Slepian: "It wasn't Thanksgiving night?"
Lemus: "No, it wasn't Thanksgiving night, this was maybe like a year before."
But what about his admission to his friend, Delores Spencer, that he'd been involved in the murder, and asking to hide the gun at her house? David Lemus told us it was all a lie, and the biggest mistake of his life.
Lemus: "I told her that I was at the Palladium, and there was a shootout that happened at the Palladium, and some people had got shot, and I told her that I was a part of that."
Slepian: "Why say that?"
Lemus: "I was trying to to portray this image of somebody that I wasn't."
Steve Cohen: "David said to me once that he wanted to be a tough guy with a car when all he was, was a knucklehead with a bus pass and he lied to Delores Spencer to build himself in her eyes. What does that make David Lemus? It makes him stupid. Does that make him someone who should be in jail 25 years to life? I don't think so."
Lemus: "There's not a day that goes by that I don't say to myself, out of all the things you could have said to Delores that day, why the Palladium? Eats you up."
Slepian: "How did you get involved in all this?"
Omeldo Hidalgo: [Speaks in Spanish]"
Lemus: "He's says he doesn't know. He still asks himself the same question."
Slepian: "Were you at the Palladium on Thanksgiving?"
Lemus: "No, he says he doesn't even know where the Palladium is at."
And there's one other thing that still made no sense at all to Cohen.
Cohen: "Lemus and Hidalgo have never been linked. They'd never laid eyes on each other until they were both arrested and showed up in court."
Of course, that's a defense attorney talking. And over the years, Lemus and Hidalgo made repeated legal challenges to their convictions. They lost every one. No court ever found there was credible evidence to overturn the jury's verdict. The D.A.'s case held up. Case closed. Or was it?
Nearly eight years after Carol Kramer voted to convict David Lemus and Omeldo Hidalgo of murder, an article appeared on the front page of the New York Times raising questions about the Palladium nightclub shootings.
One man who read it was Richie Feliciano, in prison on federal drug charges. After seeing the article, he told federal prosecutors that the wrong men had been convicted. He said he knew because he saw someone else shoot the bouncer, a friend he was with that night. The feds found Feliciano candid and credible and passed the information to the Manhattan district attorney's office, and also to detective Bobby Addolorato, who interviewed Feliciano.
Addolorato: "He goes, 'I can't believe that they have two guys in jail. He goes, I was there that night. I drove Spanky's car away from the scene.'"
Spanky Morales was thus identified yet again as the real shooter—the same name police heard in 1990 from a tipster just days after the murder. The same name detective Addolorato heard in 1992 from an informant, and then again in 1995, when gang member Joey Pillot confessed that he and "Spanky" Morales were the gunmen. Now, in July 2000, nearly 10 years after the murder, one more witness was pointing the finger directly at Spanky Morales.
Addolorato: "It's somebody who's saying I'm standing a few feet away from him when he takes out a .38 and blasts the bouncer."
The new witness reinforced what the detective already believed -- that David Lemus and Omeldo Hidalgo were innocent. Addolorato became more determined than ever in pursuing the case, no matter how long it took. Two years later, he was still at it when he was promoted to detective first-grade, the highest rank a detective can achieve in New York. His partner, John Schwartz, was also a first-grade detective and a 19-year veteran.
John Schwartz: "I had no idea that he had been working on a case from the Palladium going back 10 years. He just turned around to me one day and he took a folder out of a box. He says, do me a favor and just take a look at this. Tell me what you think."
In that folder were a series of police reports that grabbed their attention.
Addolorato: "In the police reports, there were several interviews of Janice Catala, who was David Lemus' girlfriend at the time."
The detectives discovered that shortly after the murder Janice Catala had given several accounts of where she and David Lemus were that night, contradictory accounts, one of which put them at the Palladium.
Addolorato: "It's putting him at the scene of the crime. So if David wasn't there what's the explanation for the report?"
The detectives were about to find out. Dateline's cameras were rolling when they paid a visit to David Lemus' ex-girlfriend. They went to her apartment without calling or giving her a heads up that they were coming. They just showed up and knocked on her door:
Addolorato: "I need you to be 100 percent honest. Because at this point, only the truth is what we're after. Were you there that night?"
Janice Catala: "No, I wasn't there that night."
Addolorato: "Was David there that night."
Catala: "No, he wasn't there that night."
Addolorato: "Okay. Your first original statement, okay, that you spoke to a detective."
Catala: "I remember that."
Catala: "I remember that very clearly."
Catala: "At the precinct when we were walking in that's when they told me, well he's here for murder."
Catala: "'Well murder.' That night we didn't go anywhere. We were home. We ate and that was it. We went to sleep. They kept on badgering me. I mean they had me there for hours. I didn't say any statement at all. They were the ones telling me, 'you guys went to the Palladium, when you were leaving there, that your car broke down. You left it on the highway and you jumped in another car with some friends and you guys left.'"
Addolorato: "That night did you sign a written statement."
Catala: "No, I didn't sign anything at all."
When the detectives came out of the apartment, both knew that the ante had just gone up in the case. It's impossible to know what Janice Catala said back then. But it troubled the detectives that there was no signed statement from her. Addolorato says that the lack of a written statement is unusual, that if police are going to take a statement from someone, they would normally take a statement.
Addolorato: "We had somebody telling us that one of our brother officers had basically perjured himself in a police report."
Dateline contacted the detective who wrote the report. He told us he had no comment.
Addolorato: "I mean, you know, it does-- it puts us in a lousy spot."
Schwartz: "This is the position all those bad cop movies are in."
Addolorato: "I've always believed that the truth comes out, you know, the justice system is fair."
But if the system was going to work in this case, Addolorato would have to dig deeper. His next move was to see the inmate whose confession to murder years earlier had been rejected by a judge. Was Joey Pillot sticking to his story that he and Spanky Morales were the real shooters? Would he offer up any other leads?
Addolorato: "Joey's got no reason to talk to me. He has nothing to gain. He's serving 15 to life."
Schwartz: "He could be labeled a rat."
Addolorato: "Maybe there's something we missed, some little thing. I mean, run through the whole thing. I mean—"
Joey Pillot: "We're hanging out in a club. Big commotion started with the bouncer. The bouncers grabbed him again and the bouncers started beating up on him."
Addolorato: What did Spanky have?"
Pillot: "Everything was hectic, the shots happened. I never got to let a round from out from my gun. For what reason, I don't know."
Addolorato: "So when you went-- when you cocked it you jacked the slide."
Addolorato: "Round come out?"
Pillot: "Yeah, it did."
So his story had not changed. Pillot was still insisting his gun had jammed and that a 9-mm bullet had fallen to the ground at the scene. But the detectives needed to know if anyone else could corroborate Pillot's story. Sure enough, Pillot said there was. He gave them another name – Peachy – and said they all came together and left together.
Schwartz: "He told us Peachy was there, Spanky was there, I was there. He never said Lemus and Hidalgo were there."
Pillot: "I don't know these kids from a hole in the wall. They should let those kids go home."
That night, the detectives found the man with the street name "Peachy." Dateline cameras rolled from behind a one-way mirror, as Peachy sat down with them.
Addolorato: "There are many pieces of this puzzle. Okay? But you're important because your little piece can help an awful lot. Think back 12 years."
Peachy: "One thing I remember was Joey arguing."
Addolorato: "Was Spanky there that night?"
Peachy: "Yeah, yeah."
Addolorato: "Okay, so he was there."
Peachy: "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah."
Addolorato: "Right, okay."
Peachy: "And then as we leaving, then a big commotion happened. But from what I was at, whatever, to be honest, I couldn't hear nothing."
Though Peachy was adamant that he did not witness the actual shooting, his account had never been heard before, and because of that, detective Addolorato thought Peachy's signed statement would finally convince prosecutors that the Palladium shooters had gotten away with murder.
Addolorato: "Did he tell me the whole truth that night? No, okay? I believe he held back, but he puts Joey Pillot in an argument with the bouncers. He puts Spanky there. He puts himself there, which as far as I was concerned was a home run knocked right out of the park."
It was now November 2002. David Lemus and Omeldo Hidalgo were just beginning their second decade in prison. Freeing the men in prison was one thing, but just as important to the detectives was something else. Spanky Morales, who had spent nearly a dozen years in prison on unrelated charges was about to get out.
Addolorato: "So now it is a race against the clock, because we don't want this guy hitting the streets. We wanted to lock him up before his foot hit the pavement."
So they set up a meeting with the Manhattan district attorney's office, hoping Morales would be charged with murder.
Addolorato: "The policy in New York is you don't make a homicide arrest without the authorization of the district attorney's office which is fine. Those are rules. Play by the rules."
Now the detective was about to make his case to the D.A.'s office. After a decade of digging, after what had become a personal crusade, would detective Robert Addolorato finally convince prosecutors that he knew the real story about what happened at the Palladium?
Detective Bobby Addolorato and his partner, John Schwartz, finally thought they had all the evidence they needed to get two men out of prison, and arrest the man they considered the real killer in the Palladium case. Now, all they had to do was convince Manhattan prosecutors.
Despite all their preparation, their meeting at the D.A.'s office had lasted less than an hour. The prosecutors said they would initiate another investigation, asked the detectives to put their findings in a written report, and sent them on their way.
Addolorato: "I was pissed. Was there something I missed or wasn't clear on what we were explaining? We were walking in with case evidence, folders, cases, box loads of evidence and it was being ignored, like just I don't even want to look at it. Who are you to tell us? We're two New York City detectives."
Schwartz: "We were treated with such hostility from the time we walked in. I had never, never been treated like that in 19 and a half years with the police department."
Addolorato: "It's like they just didn't care. And you know, that just rips me to shreds because that's their job. Like that's my job. They're supposed to care."
Three weeks later, the detectives delivered their written report with a warning to the D.A. Spanky Morales was now just one week away from getting out of prison and had reportedly threatened witnesses. They specified that it was imperative to hear back by Dec. 17. 2002 so that they could ensure the safety of their witnesses and take any further steps required. The detectives thought Spanky Morales' imminent release required immediate action, but apparently prosecutors didn't think so. A week passed, with no word back from the D.A.
Addolorato: "It's December 17. Spanky got out yesterday. They gave him a bus ticket back to New York. So he should be back-- he's back today. They haven't called us. They haven't acknowledged us. I'm at a loss for words and I'm at a loss for direction at this point."
Schwartz: "You know what? Even if they called and said listen, this isn't going to get done by the time they get out, fine. At least they are doing something."
Addolorato: "You had no questions about that report?"
Christmas 2002 marked 10 years since detective Addolorato first learned of the Palladium murder. Working on Christmas Eve, he stopped to say a prayer for the two men, whose freedom he was still fighting so hard to win. Hope—for years, it was all David Lemus's mother had. That holiday season, she visited her son in prison.
Nilsa: "You know when I first saw all these walls, I nearly died. It hurts more knowing that he's not guilty. I don't have a life. I exist. My son is my life."
But with a new year came a new start. The detectives learned that the Manhattan district attorney's office was launching its most exhaustive investigation yet, one that would eventually include dozens of interviews in 14 states. Two new detectives were assigned, bringing fresh eyes, but no background knowledge, to the case.
So Addolorato and Schwartz headed to Manhattan to help the new investigators get up to speed. When they got there, they saw something they'd never seen in all the years they'd been looking into the case -- the D.A.'s original case file. They say the papers they saw, astonished them.
Schwartz: "One was a note indicating that Spanky had been identified by a couple of the prosecution's witnesses prior to the trial."
Addolorato: "They knew that the man that Joey Pillot was saying did it, was identified back in 1991 by their own witnesses."
Schwartz: "He was never placed in a line up or charged."
Addolorato: "Oh, there were other things in the folder."
Schwartz: "The other was a note stating that Danielle Troche, who we found out was Spanky's sister–in-law, had called the police in early 1991 and told the police that Spanky had been one of the people involved in the shooting at the Palladium."
The detectives wondered, had prosecutors turned over the notes to defense attorneys at the time of the original trial? If not, why not? Was it carelessness? Did the D.A. consider the notes insignificant? Or was it an intentional decision that ended up denying Lemus and Hidalgo a fair trial? Addolorato says when he voiced his concerns a police department supervisor told him and his partner to back off.
Addolorato: "So I was told I was not allowed to make any phone calls. I was told I was not allowed to talk to the district attorney."
Schwartz: "We were ordered to remain silent."
And soon, they say any role they had hoped to play in the new investigation vanished.
Schwartz: "We're alone now. We've been cut off all of a sudden. They're painting Bobby to be a bad guy, us to be loose cannons and they want us to have no involvement. Who's more knowledgeable about this investigation than Bobby? Nobody."
The two men in prison still had defense attorney Steve Cohen working to free them. He was now dealing with a new prosecutor, Daniel Bibb, who advised him in a voicemail message that his investigation wouldn't be finished any time soon:
Dan Bibb voicemail: "Steve this is Dan Bibb from the Manhattan D.A.'s office. What I can tell you is that the investigation is proceeding. There are interviews happening every day of people with information relevant to the investigation. I can also tell you that the investigation is not going to take weeks, it's going to take months. If that's unfortunate for you, I apologize."
Cohen: "It's pathetic. We're dealing with two human lives, people who I believe didn't do anything and are now sitting in jail for more than a decade and are being told basically being told through me, we'll get to it, when we get to it."
Still another six months passed. The D.A.'s latest investigation with those two new detectives was in full swing, but as far as detective John Schwartz was concerned, they were only covering old ground. Schwartz had been thinking about retiring, and in November, 2003, after 20 years on the job, he did.
Schwartz: "You break your ass for 20 years and you come to something like this and I hate leaving anything unresolved and I hated leaving Bobby by himself. But I was done, enough's enough."
Eight months later, in July 2004, the frustration proved too great for detective Addolorato, as well. Unable to investigate the case, and chafing under orders not to speak publicly about it, he too retired. He says it was the only way he could speak out about what he believed was a miscarriage of justice.
Addolorato: "I never wanted to say that I was a whistle blower, but this whistle needed to be blown in a big way. I swore an oath when I signed up for the police department to protect the rights of everybody, to uphold the Constitution and I'll be damned if I'm going to sit by idly on my hands and let two guys rot in jail."
Lemus and Hidalgo had been behind bars for 12 years and the D.A. was still investigating the Palladium shooting. Years and years ago, the prosecution case seemed solid enough. Both defendants had been identified by multiple eyewitnesses, and right after the murder in 1990, David Lemus had told a friend that he was the shooter. What could be clearer than that?
But now in the summer of 2004, everything prosecutors had proven in court was about to be challenged again, when Lemus and Hidalgo's defense team filed a motion to have their convictions thrown out. It made the local news. By sheer chance, jury foreperson Carol Kramer was watching that night.
Kramer: "I heard the words, 'Palladium murder,' and I saw these two faces on the television. It was Lemus and Hildago, how attorneys were trying to appeal this. And I thought, wrongful conviction? I mean no, I thought I'd been hit in the stomach."
Just last week, a new judge began hearing arguments on whether to overturn the convictions, and one man's name came up in court time and again, as it has for more than a decade: Spanky Morales. Where is Spanky today and what's he say about the Palladium murder? You're about to find out.
Last week, for the first time in nearly a decade, David Lemus and Omeldo Hidalgo were back in court. Their defense team argued that the two men had been misidentified by eye-witnesses, and that key evidence, pointing to Thomas Spanky Morales as the real gunman, had been mishandled by the Manhattan district attorney's office, not disclosed to the defendants, therefore depriving them of a fair trial.
Did the prosecution withhold key evidence? It was issue one at the hearing, the very same issue that detective Bobby Addolorato says he raised to no avail two years earlier.
Daniel Bibb: "It is the people's position that they were told about Morales's identification.
Prosecutor Daniel Bibb insisted that the Manhattan District Attorney's office had acted properly, withholding nothing that would have cleared Lemus and Hidalgo. Yes, he said in court papers, there was evidence that Spanky Morales was involved in the crime, but as "a third perpetrator," "an accomplice, not an alternative," that Lemus, Hidalgo and Spanky had all committed the crime together. The defense countered, asking if the prosecution believed Spanky was involved, why hadn't he ever been prosecuted? Picking up on that, Judge Roger Hayes turned to prosecutor Bibb for an explanation.
Judge Roger Hayes: "It is something that is puzzling to the court."
Bibb: "It is the subject of continuing discussion within my office."
Judge Hayes: "In other words, if your theory is correct, why is that person unprosecuted?
Bibb: "That also has been the subject of continuing discussions in my office."
In court papers, Bibb offered a fuller explanation of what he called the "failure" to arrest Spanky. He cited New York City's high murder rate at the time, noting there were 2,262 murders in 1990, the year of the Palladium shootings. He also noted the fact that within months of the shootings, Spanky was in prison for other crimes anyway.
But for more than two years now, Spanky Morales has been a free man. In November 2003, and again in February of 2004, he was questioned by the new detectives about the Palladium murder. During one interview, police said Morales told them "he had firsthand knowledge of the incident" and that "he was there." But he wouldn't give specifics unless he "was given immunity" from prosecution. And what did Spanky have to say about whether he thought the two men convicted of the murder belonged in jail? He told police "he had the answers to that, but would not say yes or no."
In January, Dateline tracked down Spanky Morales, who told us more than police ever heard from him about Lemus and Hidalgo. When we showed him photos of the convicted killers, his so-called accomplices, here's what he had to say:
Spanky: "I do not know any of them."
Slepian: "Never met them before."
Slepian: "Ever spoken to them before?"
Spanky: "No. Never seen them before."
And then, Spanky practically invited authorities to pick him up. He claimed he could finally clear up the whole mess and maybe free the two imprisoned men.
Spanky: "I'm not hiding from nobody, they know here I'm at. They say they've got an abundance of evidence that I'm involved in this thing. I'm in the same place I've been at since I've been home. So I just want to rectify and make it clear in the record that I don't know these guys."
If he's telling the truth and he doesn't know and has never seen Lemus or Hidalgo, and they were never part of his gang called C an C, does the prosecution's theory that they all did this together hold up?
Judge Hayes: "Is there any information in your possession that ties the defendant with each other or the C and C gang."
Bibb: "Only in the most tenuous way."
Under questioning from the judge, prosecutor Bibb acknowledged that aside from growing up in the same vicinity and hanging out the some of the same local bars, he found nothing to connect Lemus to Hidalgo or either of them to Spanky Morales and his gang.
Bibb: "Absent that, I've been able to find no other connections."
Fourteen years after the Palladium murder, it's up to the judge to decide did these men get a fair shake from the system. Should they be set free? Those are questions that weigh heavily on all those who have been drawn into the case.
Addolorato: "I ended my career for this case, and I'd do it again cause it's the right thing to do."
Schwartz: "If they can do it to these two guys they can do it to anyone else."
Cohen: "My heart breaks for the two of them. It's just something I can't imagine living through."
Nilsa: "But the wheels of justice roll slowly. So we have patience for 13 years. I have patience. I told my son and I promised him, 'I'll fight for you to the day of my last breath.' And that's how it is."
Kramer: "I think I made a huge mistake. I want to reverse it. I want the police and the district attorney to put the right man in jail and get the innocent guys out. I mean this is a travesty of justice."
The Manhattan District Attorney's office declined Dateline's request for an interview, citing the on-going court action. In a statement, prosecutors emphasized that they've conducted a comprehensive reinvestigation of the Palladium shooting. They also noted that the motion filed by lawyers for Lemus and Hidalgo seeking a new trial is based largely on evidence uncovered and disclosed to the defense by the Manhattan District Attorney's office. The next hearing in the case is set for April 18.
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