Brooklyn Boro

Crime reporter from Brooklyn breaks big story

December 1, 2015 By John B. Manbeck Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Johnny Hincapie’s release: Bill Hughes, Johnny Hincapie and Bob Dennison outside the courthouse at 111 Centre St. in Manhattan, Oct. 6, 2015. Photo by Brent Buell

Who was this kid from Brooklyn, now in his fifties, being interviewed nationally on Dateline NBC about Johnny Hincapie?

His name is Bill Hughes. He’s a former reporter who is now teaching at CUNY’s York College. So what?

Just that the Hincapie story was big news, big enough to rattle the New York DA’s Office, and Hughes was at the center of it.

On Oct. 23, we gathered around the TV in Tony Mancini’s penthouse condo in SoHo to watch Bill’s debut on national media. Tony had been his Brooklyn College journalism professor and Bruce Porter his mentor at Columbia J School. I had introduced him to the trade at Kingsborough Community College.

When he appeared in my journalism class, he had dropped out of other colleges after a teenage life on Brooklyn’s streets and several brushes with the law. He saw newspaper work as enticing. With a tenacity to push the envelope, he challenged himself as a writer and editor, transferred to the journalism program at Brooklyn College and entered the Columbia University Journalism School for a master’s degree.

At that point, he engaged in the field of print journalism as a crime reporter in New Jersey for The Herald and News and later in Westchester-Rockland on The Journal News for the Gannett chain. His coverage of police stories earned him the attention of his editors, the chagrin of civic administrators and a 2010 byline in City Limits on a story about Hincapie’s possible innocence.

The Hincapie story had captured his attention. It was a complex story demanding knowledge of the law and the criminal justice system. Research filled three years of his time.

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The case: In 1990, a group of young men, mostly from Colombia, searching for an easy mark to finance their evening out, invaded a subway station where a family of tourists from Utah were waiting for a train. The gang approached them, threatened, beat and robbed them. The eldest son, only 22, confronted the gang and was stabbed fatally.

Hincapie, then 18, was rounded up as a suspected member of the gang because he was in the station at the time. He knew members of the gang from his neighborhood. Police claimed he was a lookout. Hincapie’s story was that he started entering the station to meet a friend, saw action there and left for Roseland Ballroom.

Nevertheless, the police charged him as an accessory and with proof of a signed confession, he was sentenced to 25-50 years in state prison. He is the only one of the convicted gang still in prison, with the exception of the actual killer.

The NBC news peg was the retrial of Hincapie, now 43. Hughes had interviewed him in Sing Sing, among several other prisons, and found his argument questionable, but further research sowed doubt about the conviction in his mind. He wrote the story about the case and shelved it.

But his City Limits story was picked up by a former chairman of the New York State Division of Parole, Bob Dennison. Now, with a new collaborator, Hughes and Dennison called themselves the Irish Gumshoe Squad and proceeded to reinvestigate all possible leads. Then they started a movement for a retrial, but they needed a sympathetic lawyer. That’s when flamboyant Ron Kuby volunteered to take the case pro bono.

The law that enmeshed Hincapie emerged as an aftermath of “wilding” crimes in New York by “wolf packs,” such as the Capeman murder and the rape of the Central Park jogger. The public was scared, and the police received the brunt of the blame. To curb the explosion of crime in New York City, the courts reintroduced a 1935 felony murder statute that roped in anyone associated with a murder.

A consequence of the rampant crime spree was the election of former federal prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani, who promised to clean up “quality-of-life” crimes and battle an out-of-control crime rate. Soon, crime rates dropped.

But it was too late for Hincapie. He had been trapped.

Once the Hughes story broke, the defense uncovered new evidence, a new witness and a sympathetic judge, Eduardo Padro. The prosecution maintained Hincapie’s guilt, accusing him of lying. Then a surprise witness came forward after having read the case: She knew Hincapie but was too frightened to testify earlier. The prosecution’s case began to unravel.

The judge noted an element of doubt and freed Hincapie from his prison cell on $1 bail for the first time in 24 years. As of this writing, Hincapie faces a post-trial Appellate hearing on an appeal filed by New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and is due back in court on Feb. 5. But for now, he is finally at home with his family.

“It has been the most gratifying experience of my professional career to utilize journalism to achieve such profound results,” said Hughes. He hopes the story of Hincapie will serve as a cautionary tale to anybody who gets caught up in the legal system. Hincapie had earned a master’s degree while in prison and has proved himself an asset to society.

Unfortunately, he had not exercised his legal right to an attorney because he was not informed. Hughes warned, “The police can and will lie to you, so you should never speak to them without a lawyer present.”

And this all started on the Kingsborough campus in Manhattan Beach.

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John B. Manbeck, former Brooklyn borough historian, is the author of numerous books about Brooklyn.

 

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