My research on New York City youth gangs requires analysis of different kinds of source documents. Period photos, newspaper articles, magazine articles and books are all excellent ways to understand and learn more about gangs. But this is not enough, so I also rely on primary sources such as interviews with people that lived in gang-ridden neighborhoods and former gang members. Secondary sources can also be a source of information, but care must be taken with them and they should be put through rigorous analysis.
Probably the best kind of sources besides interviews with former gang members are court records. Although court records are part of the public domain, it is difficult to access them and sometimes it can take a tortuous route to get your hands on them. Navigating a clunky and cumbersome bureaucracy that houses these old records requires patience. Before I describe the frustrating journey to view these records, an explanation of the two different kinds of court records that are available will be helpful.
District Attorney Case Files
First, there are District Attorney case files that house all the various kinds of important information the prosecutor needed to win a conviction. Typically, the more serious the crime, the more records there are in the District Attorney case file. For example, a case file for a burglary charge might only total six or seven records. Court records for homicide cases, however, are more numerous.
In a homicide case where a defendant would plead guilty, there would be no trial and thus fewer records in the District Attorney’s case file compared with a case that went to trial. But even with a defendant pleading guilty, there were still more records than a felonious assault. For example, statements to the police alone would beef up the case file considerably. On the other hand, if a defendant would plead innocent, a trial would ensue. Trials forced the District Attorney to come up with enough evidence for a conviction, and depending on the complexity and notoriety of the case, this could lead to a large amount of evidence and records in the case file. For example, in the Michael Farmer trial where the defendants pled innocent, there is a considerable amount of records to sift through.
As you can well imagine, the District Attorney doesn’t keep all his case files on the premises forever; this would be a strain on storage space. Typically the DA keeps their case files for 25 years, after which point they are given to the Municipal Archives. But this isn’t necessarily written in stone, especially because the boroughs of the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn all do things slightly different. In the case of the Manhattan District Attorney, case files are all safely in the protection of the Municipal Archives. This doesn’t mean that all the case files are in good order, but in my experience it’s not too bad. The Bronx District Attorney case files seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth from the 1950s, though I am still trying to track them down. In the case of King’s County (Brooklyn) District Attorney case files, I thought they, too, were gone, but this might not be entirely true as I was able to find two King’s County District Attorney case files in the Archives this past summer that I thought I would never see. As you can see, each of these three boroughs seem to do it differently than the other borough, even though they are all part of New York City.
As for the kind of records found in the District Attorney case files, they are generally things like psychiatric reports, statements made to the police, letters written to the District Attorney, crime scene photos, probation reports and a treasure trove of other unusual documents that can sometimes shed further light on a particular defendant or crime. But again, the files seem to differ a little between the boroughs and even the statements made to the police in Manhattan differ slightly than with statements made to Brooklyn police.
How are these records accessed? To look at these records you need an indictment number. For every case the District Attorney tried, an indictment number is tied in with the defendant’s name. For example, in Salvador Agron’s case in 1959, his indictment number is 3604-59. Finding an indictment number is not simple. To get an indictment number you need the defendant’s name. If you don’t know the defendant’s name it becomes much, much more difficult, but not impossible. If you don’t know the name of the defendant, there is an option of trawling through the District Attorney ledger book which is on microfilm, but you really have to know what you are looking for. There are a lot of cases tried from year to year, so it can take a long time to find an defendant name on the microfilm. Plus, this was in the age before computers, so all the entries put in the ledger are in difficult-to-decipher hand-writing. If you do find the case and defendant name on the microfilm, it is accompanied with the indictment number.
It’s a little better if you want to see court records and already know the defendant’s name. However, if you know the name, you can’t just give the name to the Archives for them to locate the case file. It doesn’t work that way, because they are filed by indictment number, not by defendant name. And with that in mind the Archives don’t have the time or means to track down indictment numbers for you (they would have to go through the ledger to find the defendant to do so). So to find the indictment number, you have to approach the Criminal Court for the particular borough the case was tried in. Provide the defendant name and they will (hopefully) give you the indictment number. This process is at times maddening because when you call the Criminal Court asking for something like this, nobody knows anything about it because the case is so old. You are then bounced around from department to department and if you are fortunate, you will eventually find someone who can help. Of course you then bump into crusty bureaucrats that have no desire to help you and either refuse or take a long time to find it and you wonder if they put the effort in that you expect (as a side note, not all government workers are like this. Some are very, very helpful and I am indebted to them). If you come out of the process with an indictment number, good for you! But your journey is not over……
Now that you have the indictment number in hand, you can then give that to the Municipal Archives to request the case file. If it’s a file from a Manhattan case, there is a good chance it can be found. However, the Archives don’t have the District Attorney’s case files in their building, they are stored in a warehouse in Brooklyn. So it takes a week or two to find the case file, and even then that is not a guarantee they will find it (in a side note about Manhattan DA case files, I requested a case in 2007 which the Archives found. When I requested it again in 2012, the case wasn’t found). If they do find it, you can go directly to the Archives and examine the file. If you want to copy anything you can use the copier there, but at 25 cents a copy it gets very expensive. If you aren’t in NYC, the only choice, besides going to the city, is to pay someone to copy it for you.
Criminal Court Records
That was the first kind of court record I first mentioned. The other kind of court record are the records maintained by the court, but not the District Attorney. The court will generally have files like plea minutes, trial minutes, indictment pages, affidavits, sentencing minutes and court worksheets. These are different than what the District Attorney has, although there is an overlap between them. For example, sometimes there is more than one copy of the sentencing minutes — one copy with the Court and one with the District Attorney. At this point it is a little unclear to me how the Court maintains their records. If you have the indictment number you can order the records from them. They keep it off site, either at one of their depots or, maybe directly from the Municipal Archives, but I’m not certain about that. Once the Court locates the file from wherever, they will sort through it and cherry-pick what they feel you should see, effectively making your research null and void as they don’t let you see much. The Municipal Archives, however, let’s you see the case file in its entirety which is important because court records are valuable sources of information, especially when it comes to a case that went to trial.
When a case goes to trial, a court reporter took down everything that was said during the trial and compiled all the exchanges in what is called trial minutes. Trial minutes can be interesting sources of information, although you can’t hear or see the clashes between the District Attorney, Judge and defense lawyers.
Here is an example of some trial minutes for a case from 1959 involving a gang war between the Forsyth Boys and the Sportsmen which ended in the death of Julio Rosario. The defendant in this case was Miguel Castro and he was found guilty when the trial came to a close. The trial minutes total 406 pages. For a researcher this is a welcome source but can be difficult to manage, so I had the trial minutes bound together in two books — volume 1 and volume 2. My sister, who is a talented graphic designer made the cover for me. She did a great job, and now I can manage the trial minutes easier in book form and make notes in the book. (Click to Enlarge)
There are lots of other interesting records that can be found in homicide cases I am researching, here is a sampling of some different court records that I have found over the years.
NYPD Fingerprint Card
When the police would arrested anyone for a crime, they were brought to the precinct station and their fingerprints were taken and mugshots snapped. Below is what a fingerprint card looks like. These two cards are the fingerprints of Robert Fasano aka “Buffalo Bob,” and Salvatore Monaco, two members of a Park Slope gang called the Gremlins. Fasano shot and killed Louis Cuomo, a member of an opposing gang called the Ditmas Dukes in 1958. Fasano was convicted along with Monaco of murder. For an example of what a mugshot looks like, go to this page.
The following is a police report on a felonious assault between two gangs from the Lower East Side called the Dragons and Sportsmen. Juan Melendez and Samuel Carrion, members of the Sportsmen, armed with a Mossberg rifle, shot at and wounded Robert, Castro, a supposed member of the rival Dragons.
Sentence and Parole Recommendation
When a gang member (or anyone for that matter) served some time in prison for their role in a crime, depending on the circumstances, they would often be eligible for a review of parole possibilities. In cases like that the parole board would ask the prosecutor for his opinion on whether parole should be granted. If the case was particularly heinous, or if the prosecutor felt the defendant should stay in prison they would notify the parole board. Here is what such a form looks like below. Most parole forms like this are marked “none” by the prosecutor meaning it is up to the parole board. However, occasionally the prosecutor marks “against,” as in this case. The defendant in question is Dominick Caivano, a member of the East Harlem gang called the Red Wings who had a role in the murder of an opposing gang in February 1959. Although he wasn’t the shooter (Joey Diaz was), Caivano was sent to prison for his role in weapons offenses.
Handwritten District Attorney’s Note
When the Manhattan District Attorney was assembling a case against defendants he would often write volumes of hand-written notes on yellow, 8.5×14 paper outlining the case for his team, laying everything out with all the pertinent information. It can be difficult to read, but if you take the time, interesting information comes to light that does not appear in the trial or in the statements to police. Here is an example (Click to Enlarge):
Letter written from defendant family to District Attorney
Sometimes letters were written to the District Attorney that were from the public or in this case the family of the defendant. Below is a letter from the mother of David Jordan, a member of a Brooklyn gang called the Bishops. David Jordan was involved in a murder on the rooftop of a Brooklyn tenement in September 1959 along with two other Bishops, Alvin Richards and Eugene Hampton. Jordan’s mother sent a letter to the District Attorney saying her son was never in trouble before and was not present at the place of the murder. The District Attorney has some of his own notes on the letter which was presented at the Grand Jury (Click to Enlarge):
Weather Report Subpoena
This interesting report is a subpoena from the Manhattan District Attorney to the Weather Bureau of the Department of Commerce. In this case it was for the trial of Salvador Agron aka the “Capeman” who was charged in the stabbing death of two boys in a Hells Kitchen Park in August 1959 (Click to Enlarge).
Transcript of District Attorney’s Notes on Defendant Statements
Sometimes for complicated cases with a lot of defendants or situations where the defendants’ statements were confusing, the District Attorney would summarize the statement in a helpful synopsis shown below. This is a transcript of the defendant Reuben Rivera, a co-defendant of Salvador Agron (Click to Enlarge). To see the transcripts of the other co-defendants with Salvador Agron, click here.
District Attorney Recommendation for Police Promotion
This is an interesting record that I found in relation to the case of Juan (John) Cruz and Alfredo Gracias, two Forsyth Street Boys who were responsible for the shooting death of an innocent 15-year-old girl — Theresa Gee on the Lower East Side. After the trial ended with a guilty verdict, the District Attorney, Robert Reynolds, drafted a letter to the Police Commissioner outlining the exemplary work of two detectives who worked the case. Instead of putting up the finished, polished letter, here is the letter that required corrections before the final draft was completed (Click to Enlarge).
Arrest Record Summary from NYPD
This is an NYPD arrest summary of two Sportsmen (Samuel Adams and Clarence Simmons) from the Lower East Side who were juveniles (under the age of 15) that stabbed and seriously wounded two Forsyth Boys, a rival gang.
Statement to Police
Here is an example of a statement made to the police. This is the statement of Raphael Buidrago, a member of an East Harlem gang called the Viceroys who was involved in a gang shooting. The Viceroys were bitter enemies with another East Harlem gang from East 103rd street called the Dragons.
There are other court records out there of course, but these are an interesting cross section of what can be found in the District Attorney’s case files.