Shortly before nine in the morning last March 5, Detective Richard “Bo” Dietl walked into the shield room at Police Headquarters and turned his gold badge over to a young policewoman. She casually tossed it into a drawer without bothering to look up. A few minutes later, Dietl handed his laminated police identification card to a civilian clerk, who quickly inserted it into a punch press. The word retired was punched across his photo, and the card was handed back to him. He was free to go. Dietl was now an ex-cop.
Until his retirement at 35, Bo Dietl was probably the best detective in New York. He was one of the city’s most decorated cops, having received more than 62 Police Department medals and awards and dozens of public-service and community awards. He was credited with solving two of the city’s most publicized crimes. In 1981, Dietl and his partner tracked down the two men who raped and tortured a 30-year-old nun in an East Harlem convent. Last year, Dietl helped catch the man later convicted of the Palm Sunday massacre in East New York, the city’s bloodiest mass slaying.
Most of his arrests never made the newspapers or the six o’clock news, however. From his first day as a probationary patrolman, when he ran across rooftops chasing a burglar, Dietl loved catching crooks. Shortly after his graduation from the Police Academy, in 1971, Dietl volunteered for the high-action City Wide Anti-Crime Squad. During his fifteen years as a cop, he made over 1,400 felony arrests. The average cop makes 120 arrests during the same career span. A phenomenal 95 percent of Dietl’s arrests ended in convictions.
He was mugged over 500 times while working in the decoy unit, where he specialized in playing a drowsy or drunken commuter. He was rushed to hospital emergency wards more than a dozen times. He was stabbed, shot at, beaten, run over, and pushed down flights of subway stairs. And yet, despite countless incidents in which Dietl’s challengers had to be physically subdued, the five-foot-eight-inch, 185-pound physical-fitness buff (he is the Police Department’s unofficial arm-wrestling champ) only once fired his gun at a suspect—and that time he purposely fired over the man’s head.
Obviously, Dietl is the kind of cop the department should want to keep, especially at a time when recruits with less than five years’ experience make up more than half the force. But when he turned in his shield and papers, no one from the department bothered to ask him why. There was no effort made to keep him. Hardly anyone at headquarters even acknowledged that he was going.
For as long as he could remember, Dietl had wanted to be a cop. He grew up in East Harlem and Ozone Park, Queens, and he signed up soon after he finished high school. But Dietl was never the kind of cop who played departmental politics adeptly. In fact, to many of the bosses downtown, Dietl was the closest thing New York had to a Dirty Harry. He was the kind of old-fashioned cop who preferred working the streets and making arrests to taking tests toward promotion. He complained a lot about how the city’s prosecutors tried to water down his cases, and he thought nothing of storming into a prosecutor’s office or threatening to go to the press. He made arrests after hours and on his days off, and some of the department’s nine-to-five desk officers got crazy processing his paperwork from when he wasn’t even supposed to be working.
Dietl was also the kind of cop who got involved with his cases. He took it upon himself to protect his citizen witnesses from threats and violence before and during trials—despite a department policy that discourages such protection because of a manpower shortage. On some days, Dietl would show up at the precinct with abused or abandoned children he’d found during his investigations. Many other cops would simply have called the Bureau of Child Welfare. “Under the department rules, you’re supposed to bring endangered children into the precinct and notify BCW,” Dietl said, “but almost no one does it. There’s an unwritten code in the department that says you don’t get involved.”
During his first year as a uniformed recruit in Queens, Dietl amazed his precinct superiors by making dozens of arrests of the pushers and muggers operating along Roosevelt Avenue. He was removed from the beat when it became known that he had been taking off his uniform hat and jacket and wearing a Day-Glo sweatshirt and dark glasses to blend in better and catch suspects. Dietl, in other words, was the kind of cop who never let the department’s 600 pages of rules and regulations get in the way of his job.
While Dietl’s aggressive style helped him catch crooks, it also antagonized prosecutors and many of the bosses at Police Headquarters in lower Manhattan. That’s one of the reasons Dietl remained an anti-crime cop for twelve years—anyone else with his record of arrests and convictions would have been promoted to the detective division years sooner. When Dietl and his partner, Thomas Colleran, caught the nun’s attackers, for example, they weren’t even supposed to be working on the case. Investigations such as that one belong to the department’s elite 2,500-member detective division. The fact that an anti-crime cop, instead of a detective, solved the case meant that Dietl eventually got more departmental headaches than medals.
The sisters of charity convent, on East 116th Street at Pleasant Avenue, is a three-story sandstone-and-brick building next to Our Lady of Mount Carmel church, a dwindling parish in the heart of a tiny Italian neighborhood in East Harlem that has seen grander days. Many of the tenements in the area have been abandoned. Most of the Italians still living in the parish are old people who refuse to move: some have their rents paid by certain neighborhood alumni, who return to the area daily for their out-of-the-way “business” meetings and their telephone-booth conference calls. Were it not for Rao’s, a popular restaurant at 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue, few outsiders would even know the neighborhood still exists.
At about 10:30 in the morning on Saturday, October 10, 1981, a small, 30-year-old teaching nun went to investigate some noises she had heard coming from the convent’s roof door. On the top step of the second-floor stairwell, she was suddenly overwhelmed by what she thought were two men. They pushed her down the stairs and began ripping her clothes. For the next hour and a half, the woman was repeatedly raped, beaten, sodomized, and sexually abused. While one of the men rifled the convent for money and valuables, the other carved more than 27 crosses on her body with a sharpened nail file.
By the time Dietl got to the convent, the precinct’s detectives, the citywide Sex Crimes Unit, and the Major Case Squad were all over the place. From a friend in the Sex Crimes Unit, Dietl learned at the scene that the nun had been alone at the time of her attack and that she was so badly traumatized that she couldn’t furnish any description of her assailants. Dietl also learned that the detectives were going through their files of known sex freaks, looking for a possible lead.
The Police Department ought to ask itself why an officer like Bo Dietl would reluctantly give up the gold shield for which he had fought so dearly.
“I had chased junkie burglars across the convent roof a dozen times,” Dietl said, “and, to me, the guys smelled more like burglars than sex offenders. Sex offenders go in through the front door, and they usually go in alone. It’s a loner’s crime. Burglars use the roof or upstairs windows and usually work in pairs.”
As a member of the precinct’s anti-crime squad, Dietl had no authorization to work on the nun case, but he nevertheless began talking to the addicts, car strippers, burglars, fences, prostitutes, and muggers he had repeatedly arrested and knew from the area. He went into smoke shops, after-hours bars, and numbers joints.
All of this is specifically forbidden by the department’s loose-leaf book on rules and regulations. It says that even in the course of an investigation, police officers and detectives may not talk to known criminals or go into licensed premises (that is, bars) unless they get permission in writing and are accompanied by a superior officer. Dietl, of course, had no permission whatever.
Dietl didn’t pick up anything that day, but detectives in the Sex Crimes Unit learned that a junkie who could barely remember his own name recalled seeing a tall guy and a short guy with a limp walking about a block from the convent at about noon. The detectives didn’t take the junkie’s description seriously, but Dietl carefully filed it away.
A few days later, Dietl was off duty when he was called over by one of the managers of a small restaurant that’s frequented by organized-crime hoods. Dietl had often stopped in at the place at night and had found it a great neighborhood listening post. The manager commiserated with Dietl about the nun and then mentioned that he had heard from “a guy” that the nun had been attacked by two men from 125th Street.
“It wasn’t much,” Dietl said, “but I began to feel my heart pound. It’s hard to explain, but when you’ve been on the street, you begin to get a sense that something smells right. There were three pieces of independent information. The nun said she thought there were two guys. The junkie said he saw a tall guy and a short guy with a limp near the convent. And now the wise guys are passing the word that it’s two guys from 125th Street.
“I drove right back to the precinct and went upstairs to the detective task force. The place was a madhouse. Every boss in the world was up there. I could hardly get inside. I looked around the room. There wasn’t a guy working on the case who knew the first thing about the area. They didn’t even know where to get coffee. When I finally told them what I heard, they said they were getting a hundred tips an hour and I’d have to get on line.”
So Dietl told his precinct commander, Captain Louis Fortunato, about the information he’d picked up and asked if he and his partner, Colleran (who was already a detective, though assigned to the precinct anti-crime squad), could have permission to work exclusively on the nun case for the next three days. Fortunato knew that Dietl and Colleran were among the most active anti-crime cops in the city, and he agreed to the unusual request—despite the fact that the chief of detectives would probably be furious to learn that anti-crime cops were muscling in on a detective-level crime.
Dietl and Colleran started immediately. Their plan was to go to every junkie, pusher, pimp, fence, burglar, mugger, and hoodlum that they knew and ask about a Mutt and Jeff burglary team from 125th Street. The only detail the two cops had to go on was that the short guy limped.
The two cops worked around the clock for two days, napping in the car and going to the precinct for wake-up shaves and showers. They drank endless containers of black coffee and munched sandwiches (without making the necessary meal notations in their memo books) whenever they could.
On the second day. after having questioned at least 200 people, Dietl and Colleran spotted a young burglar they knew. He was out on bail, sitting on a television set and smoking a joint in a doorway on 125th Street. When the cops approached, the young man said he was just minding the TV for somebody. He didn’t know the guy’s name. Honest.
Dietl said he wanted to know about a Mutt and Jeff burglary team, and the youngster said that he knew two guys who did burglaries who lived right across the street. He pointed to a five-story tenement at 62 East 125th Street. He said that the tall burglar, named Harold, lived in the first-floor front apartment with his stepfather, who was the superintendent. The short guy lived somewhere else but visited regularly.
Dietl and Colleran walked into the building and knocked on the apartment door. The apartment was filled with youngsters, many of them laughing and slapping one another to be quiet for the police.
“Where’s Harold?” Dietl asked.
“No Harold here,” said a girl who answered the door. “He lives upstairs, the second floor.”
“Does he have a short friend he hangs out with?” Dietl asked.
“Yeah,” the girl answered.
“Does the short guy have a limp?” Dietl asked, his excitement building.
“Nah, he don’t limp,” the girl said and then paused. “He bops.”
Dietl and Colleran looked at each other as if they had stumbled across a miracle. Dietl began to imitate the exaggerated ghetto bop walk, a kind of syncopated knee dip at every other step. The girl laughed at his effort and admitted that, yes, that was the way the short guy walked.
Upstairs, the cops found a gray-haired man with a glass eye who said that he was the building’s super and that he had a 22-year-old step-grandson named Harold Wells. Dietl and Colleran told the man that they wanted to talk to Harold in connection with some burglaries. The man shrugged and said he hadn’t seen Harold in a week. The man was cordial, but seemed nervous and evasive. Dietl handed him his card and asked him to call the precinct if he heard from Harold.
As Dietl and Colleran were leaving the building, however, they noticed that the doorway across the hall from the Wells apartment was ajar. An electric cable, bootlegging juice from somewhere else in the building, snaked into the room. With very little probable cause and no warrant, Dietl gave the door a push. Inside, Dietl and Colleran found a large, scowling man huddled over a candle. They immediately told the man they didn’t care what he was doing, they didn’t even want to know. They just wanted to know about his neighbor, Harold Wells.
The man started to smile and said that Harold had been around early that day. This didn’t seem to fit with the super’s story. Harold hung around with another burglar, a short guy named Max, the man said. He added that he’d heard Harold and Max were in big trouble. Dietl, trying to appear unconcerned, asked why. The man said that the pair had burglarized an after-hours bar belonging to Nicky Barnes and had stolen the drug king’s stereo system. Nicky’s shooters were already looking for Harold and Max.
“We went back to see the old man,” Dietl said. “This time we said we weren’t there about burglaries. We wanted to talk to Harold about the nun case. The newspapers had run a story that day about how the Mafia had offered $25,000 for the guys who raped the nun. We said we knew that Nicky Barnes’s guys were looking for Harold because of the stereo And now we were looking for him, too. We said that we were the best shot at survival his son had. After our lecture, the old man looked kind of sheepish and said he’d call if he heard anything.
“It was about ten o’clock that night when the old man finally called. He said that Harold had been there earlier in the day and had asked for enough money to get him and his girlfriend, Sugar, to Chicago on the five o’clock bus. He said that Harold had been worried.
“It was now a little before eleven o’clock at night, and Harold and Sugar had been on the road for six hours. Back at the precinct, almost everyone was gone for the night. I called a lieutenant on the Major Case Squad at home and told him what we had, and he told me to call the Sex Crimes Unit. I did as I was told, but there was no answer. Sex Crimes usually doesn’t work after midnight. Meanwhile, I knew that Harold’s bus was getting closer to Chicago, and once those doors opened in the Windy City, it’s bye-bye Harold.
“Then the lieutenant called back and said that he had spoken to Inspector Charles Sibone and that Sibone would be calling. In a few minutes, Sibone called, and I went through the whole thing for him. I said that I had nothing positive, but I had a feeling this was one of the guys who raped the nun. Sibone was great. He authorized us to fly to Chicago and meet Harold’s bus.
“But when I called the airlines about the next flight out, I found that the patco strike had limited schedules and there were no planes leaving for Chicago until long after Harold’s bus got there at 6 a.m.
“The only thing that I could think to do was call the Chicago Police Department. I didn’t know anyone there. I had to get the number from information, but when I got them, I asked for the violent-crime section. Next thing I knew, I had a Sergeant Thomas Kelly on the phone. I quickly filled him in on what we had, and I asked if he could keep an eye on Harold and his girlfriend until Tommy and I could get there. I said we had nothing solid against the guy, but we did want to talk to him before he disappeared.
“Kelly told me not to worry. It was as good as done.”
At seven in the morning, Dietl and Colleran were back in the precinct. The squad room was beginning to fill up with task-force detectives and police brass when the call came in from Chicago. It was for Police Officer Bo Dietl. None of the top detectives in the room had ever heard of Dietl, but he was the only person the Chicago police sergeant would talk to. Finally, the phone was passed along to the outermost office, where Dietl had been waiting.
“We’ve got your boy,” Kelly said the moment he heard Dietl’s voice. “Harold fessed up the minute he got off the bus. He was afraid the mob was after him. He said they went in through the roof to rob the place. He said they were on angel dust. He said his partner’s name was Max Lindeman.”
At this point, the police brass and detectives took the phone away from Dietl and began questioning Sergeant Kelly themselves.
“It was amazing,” Dietl said. “They all smelled the glory, and we got shoved right out of the office. Downstairs, Colleran said he remembered locking up a guy named Max Lindeman for looting during the blackouts. He said he remembered because it was an unusual name for a black man.”
Colleran rummaged through his arrest records and found the 23-year-old Lindeman’s address and photograph. In the excitement of notifying the top brass about the arrest of Harold Wells, the detectives working on the case had temporarily forgotten about Lindeman. With Sergeant Bob Stephens of the precinct’s anti-crime squad, Dietl and Colleran started looking for Lindeman. First, they went to his mother’s home, but she denied having seen him. They went to his drug hangouts, grabbed pushers off the street, hit all the places where his fences congregated. There was no sign of him.
But within a few hours, Lindeman’s mother called the precinct and said her son wanted to surrender to Colleran. She said he remembered that Colleran had bought him a pack of cigarettes when he was arrested during the blackout.
After first denying that he had anything to do with the rape of the nun, Lindeman finally dropped his head into his hands and mumbled, “We were smoking dust that day, and all I remember was grabbing the nun.” Lindeman had apparently made deliveries to the convent as a youth and was convinced that there was gold and cash in the sparsely furnished building.
Wells and Lindeman were originally charged with rape, sodomy, robbery, burglary, and assault and faced up to 50 years in prison. Later, they pleaded guilty to lesser charges after the nun said she was unable to confront her attackers in court. Lindeman, the one who’d raped and tortured the woman, was sentenced to ten to twenty years in prison after pleading guilty to oral sodomy. Wells received a five-to-fifteen-year term after pleading guilty to burglary.
Dietl claims that some city detective bosses were so angered that an anti-crime cop had got credit for the arrests in the nun’s case that Dietl’s promised promotion to the detective division was delayed six months.
“I only got the gold shield,” Dietl said, “because I stormed down to headquarters when I heard my promotion had been rescinded. I slammed my shield down on the desk right outside the police commissioner’s office and threatened to quit.”
A sympathetic captain assigned to the commissioner’s office calmed Dietl down, and, within a week, Dietl was ordered to appear for review before the top chiefs of the department.
“They were all there,” Dietl recalled. “Chief of Detectives [James T.] Sullivan asked if I wanted a pat on my back for the nun case. Chief John Guido of the department’s Internal Affairs Division wanted to know why I went to a bar where his men had reported known gamblers hung out. I said the guy who owned the place was a relation. Guido started screaming at me. It was nutty. I saw that they were all petty tyrants watching out for their own turfs and competing with one another with their feuds and jealousies and connivings, while the cops below them are dropped, dumped, promoted, left back, shifted, or left stagnant like pawns in the battle among the chiefs for more stars.”
After the meeting of the chiefs, Dietl’s name was added to a list of 50 new detectives, and the order promoting him to detective, third grade, and entitling him to a $3,000 annual raise, was signed by the commissioner.
“I remember the ceremony,” Dietl said. “Everyone was smiling and shaking my hand except Sullivan and Guido.”
Dietl was assigned to the East New York precinct in Brooklyn, one of the city’s high-crime areas. On the night of April 15, 1984, the bodies of two women and eight children—ages four to fourteen—were discovered in various rooms of a neat, two-family house at 1080 Liberty Avenue. Dietl was off duty on the night of the murders, but went to the scene. “I’ve been to many homicide scenes,” Dietl said, “but this one was just unreal. In many cases, guys joke around at the scene to ease the tension, but not this one. Everyone was silent. It was solemn. No one had ever seen anything like this. It will stay with me forever.
“There were guys who served in Vietnam, and they said they had never seen anything like this. Full captains with 25 years on the job came out crying after looking at the bodies. Everyone had been shot in the head. One woman had a bowl of chocolate pudding in one hand and a spoon in the other. She was frozen like that. There was a small child next to her. He had his arms outstretched.
“I never believed for a minute that one guy could have done all this. I would have told you it was crazy to think one guy could have done it, but when I saw Christopher Thomas, I started to believe it.”
Thomas became a prime suspect in the case after Enrique Bermudez, the father of two of the dead children and Thomas’s alleged partner in cocaine deals, was given limited immunity by the Brooklyn district attorney. Once Bermudez had mentioned Thomas, Dietl and Detectives Samuel McCalvin and Jerry Magliolo found witnesses who had seen Thomas around the house on the day of the murders. Later, they found another witness, who said he had seen Thomas, after the killings, at a girlfriend’s house in the Bronx. Thomas was carrying a flight bag containing cocaine, two handguns, and $600 in cash, the witness said.
Bermudez claimed that on the day of the murders he had given Thomas three grams of cocaine and $50 and had said that there would be no more. Bermudez confirmed that several ounces of cocaine and $800 were missing from a hiding place in the house after the murders.
“Before we had enough information to arrest Thomas for the homicides,” Dietl said, “he was arrested by Bronx police for attempted rape and sodomy of his own mother, a 53-year-old nurse at Lincoln hospital. She had been badly beaten and was refusing to press charges against her son. When I told her that I wanted him in connection with the murders in Brooklyn, she refused to believe me. She said that he had been free-basing cocaine, and she had been trying to get him into a drug-rehabilitation program.”
Thomas was placed in a lineup for the Palm Sunday massacre case, and Dietl watched behind a two-way mirror. “The witness we had who had seen Thomas in the apartment on the day of the murder was trying to pick him out,” Dietl said. “He was hesitant. I noticed that all six look-alikes were facing the mirror. Then I realized that the witness had only seen the guy from the side, not face on.
“I ran into the lineup room and had everyone face sideways.Then I ran back into the viewing room and opened the shade. Our witness spotted Thomas immediately. All of the brass was waiting outside the room, and I walked out and gave them all the thumbs-up. They were elated. If we hadn’t gotten that witness ID, we all knew we were in trouble.”
Last month, Christopher Thomas was convicted of ten counts of manslaughter in the first degree; he’s scheduled to be sentenced in September.
Two of the top brass who know Dietl, First Deputy Commissioner Patrick Murphy and Chief of Operations Robert Johnston, refused to discuss Dietl’s retirement. Other commanders for whom he worked said they regret losing him. “We shouldn’t lose guys like Dietl,” said David Durk, the officer who talked Frank Serpico into coming forward, an act that culminated in the Knapp Commission hearings on police corruption in 1970. Durk commanded the East Harlem detective squad during some of the years Dietl was assigned there as an anti-crime cop. “He got the job done, and the city got more than its money’s worth,” Durk added.
Fortunato, the precinct commander who gave Dietl and Colleran the chance to solve the nun’s case, said Dietl was as hardworking a cop as he had ever come across.
Dietl said he decided to retire after fifteen years because of an ankle injury he had received on vacation. To stay in the department, he said, he would have had to take a clerical job or even go on limited duty. In either case, the change would have sharply cut into his overtime pay and, eventually, his pension benefits (which are based on his final year’s salary). Like many active cops, Dietl had come to rely on the $4,000 he earned each year in overtime. At the time of his retirement, his regular salary as third-grade detective was $26,000.
“The department is being run more and more by inexperienced kids who are great at taking tests but don’t know the first thing about what’s going on on the streets.”
“The money is tough,” Dietl said. “Every cop I know has to have a second job. I’ve got two kids—ages five and seven—and I was taking home $623 in a paycheck every other week. I just couldn’t make ends meet on limited duty, and I would have had to retire eventually on a diminished income.” Instead, Dietl started Bo Security and Investigations, a private detective company that lists among its clients the royal family of Saudi Arabia, whom he met while doing security details on the force.
Still, Dietl said he would never have quit if he had thought there was a place in the department for people like him. “The department is being run more and more by inexperienced kids who are great at taking tests but don’t know the first thing about what’s going on on the streets.
“You’ve got sergeants who passed the test with three years on the job, while third-grade detectives, like myself, have to wait another fifteen years for a promotion to second grade no matter how hard we worked and no matter how good we were.”
Dietl has a point. The only path to career advancement in the department today is through the passing of tests—one to become a sergeant, one to become a lieutenant, one to become a captain. The tests are tedious and require considerable study. (Typical question; How many forms do you fill out in an accident between a horse and a taxicab? Answer: Seven.) Some cops, eager to get ahead, actually find soft clerical jobs so they can devote themselves to preparation. Meanwhile, experienced and effective cops—the cops who believe in old-fashioned, hard-nosed police work—languish. Often as not, they get lazy or sloppy, or they just quit.
The Police Department ought to ask itself why an officer like Bo Dietl would reluctantly give up the gold shield for which he had fought so dearly. The effort to answer that question might shed some light on the Byzantine politics and brass-plated feuds that dictate so many of the department’s current policies, And it just might reveal more about what’s really going on downtown than any stun-gun trial, public hearing, special prosecutor’s investigation, or other examination of the department’s woes.