Meet the NYC Cop Who Became the Champ of Wrongful Arrests

Enid Alvarez/NY Daily News via Getty, Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/AP
Enid Alvarez/NY Daily News via Getty, Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/AP

Let’s begin with the first story I ever heard Louis Scarcella tell.

Detective Scarcella, who is the center of my new podcast The Burden, was a highly decorated, widely celebrated NYPD cop. The Prince of the City, one lawyer called him. He was known as the closer, he locked up the worst criminals and got the confessions other detectives could not get.

His heyday was the ’80s and ’90s, when New York seemed like a failed experiment. The city was overrun with violent crime—there were more than 2,000 murders some years. Back then, the city needed a tough cop like Scarcella, a cop who had a superhero nickname: The Hulk.

Now, back to that story.

Louie is waiting around to testify in court. It’s lunchtime and there’s a break. Good time to track down a murder suspect in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Detective Scarcella, by the way, is in a coat and tie.

Scarcella: “And there was an Italian guy right here smoking a cheroot. I said, ven aca ven aca. Come here. Come here. And I showed him the picture. And he points to the white house. Lo and behold, a man, six foot, 300 pounds, comes out of the house. I run over to him. I put the gun on him. He's got a Sig Sauer in his waistband. I jump on him… He’s going for the gun, I put my Glock to his head and pull the trigger. But the gun’s no good. My gun’s no good. I jump on him. He's bucking me. He’s bucking me like a bronco. I grab him and I knock him to the ground.”

Wow. I’d hear this story several times—Louie never told a story just once. Each time, one question came to my mind. Did he ever imagine that Glock goes off?

Scarcella was quick to answer. “I intended it to. What do you want me to do? He’s going for the Sig Sauer. What am I supposed to do, kiss him?”

That was my introduction to Detective Louis Scarcella. Back then, the city was, in Scarcella’s phrase, “a crazy world of murder,” and he had a mission, assigned to him by the politicians. Take back the city. “I was the protector of those people. They needed me. And I loved doing it.” he said.

When I told Derrick Hamilton that story, he offered a different version of Scarcella.

“This guy is no better than a serial killer. He kills people’s dreams,” Derrick said. “He’s a piece of shit.”

The Myth of Central Park Five

Growing up in a Brooklyn housing project, Derrick had been a tough kid, no doubt, He’d shot people. But he insisted he didn’t do the murder that Scarcella helped convict him for. In prison, Hamilton turned himself into one of the best jailhouse lawyers of his generation. As he explained to me, “The law was my girlfriend. It was all I had, I had to love it, ’cause it’s my only way to freedom.” In prison, Derrick helped found a law firm—that’s right, a law firm in prison—made up of convicted murderers. None had degrees; none had even graduated high school before going to prison. They were all self-taught in the law. They pushed desks together in the prison law library, studying each other’s cases. Derrick lectured the firm on procedure. Do you know what your burden is? Legal burden. In the prison, they ran a clinic on the DL reexamining peoples’ cases—and they started getting people out of prison! Derrick had helped get a couple out of prison himself. No count is available on how many were sprung as a result of the “firm’s” efforts, but anecdotally there were at least a handful.

Then one day, Derrick is looking at the motion written by another member of the prison law firm, Shabaka Shakur, another Brooklyn kid convicted of murder, who also claimed he was innocent. Derrick noticed they’d both been investigated by the same cop: Louis Scarcella. That moment probably changed New York legal history. It certainly changed Scarcella’s.

“That’s the same motherfucker who framed me,” Derrick told Shabaka.

Then he said. “We gotta do something about this guy.”

And so from this law library under the watchful eye of a correctional officer, this law firm targeted Scarcella… with the help of a brand new reporter at The New York Times itching for a big story.

I was in The New York Times office sharpening pencils,” said Frances Robles, better known by her film noir nickname, Frenchie. She’d done 20 years at the Miami Herald and she was ready to make her mark in New York. Derrick tipped her off. Soon, she’d be warned that this story could be dangerous. If she was going to show that people were wrongfully convicted, that could upset the real killer, right?

But Frenchie, well, she’s fearless. “Look, if I get killed doing this, that is not a bad way to die,” she told me. Frenchie’s stories landed in 2013; by then Scarcella had already been retired for a dozen years. Suddenly, news vans were parked in front of his Staten Island house. Scarcella politely declined to comment, except to say he stood by his cases. He wouldn’t speak to Frenchie.

But I wanted to hear from Scarcella.

As a staff writer for New York magazine, I’d covered some of the great criminals of the era. Son of Sam had a prison chat with me; Bernie Madoff confided in me—it took me a year to get to him. In my previous #1 podcast, Empire on Blood (soon to be re-released) I’d helped a wrongfully convicted man get out of prison. How could I understand how justice was done, or undone, without hearing from the guy in the center of it all, the cop the press dubbed “a disgraced detective.” One news report called him “a rogue official” who had apparently hoodwinked an entire system. I thought, Really? One rogue official? I needed to hear from him.

I recruited a fellow journalist, Dax-Devlon Ross, who’d won the Association of Black Journalists’ Investigative Reporting Award.

Dax and I were to be partners on this story. My assignment was to get to Louie.

I called him, I called his friends. Nothing. I tried for half a dozen months. And then one day in 2020 my phone rang. Retired Detective Louis N. Scarcella wanted to talk to me in person.

We met at a Coney Island diner. He walked in, a man in his sixties, shorter than I expected for someone nicknamed The Hulk.

Scarcella was Brooklyn through and through. He’d grown up in Bensonhurst, back then an Italian enclave. In his neighborhood, a bunch of people became cops and firefighters, and a portion became mobsters. Louie had both in his family. He chose to follow his father into the NYPD where he’d serve for 29 years.

At the diner, Louie looked rugged and fit in a sleeveless T-shirt. Twenty-two tattoos ran up and down both arms—one depicted his father’s detective shield. He launched into intense, frankly captivating stories—like the Glock story. Then he stood up. He wasn’t ready. Let’s meet and talk again, he said.

Photograph of retired NYPD detective Louis Scarcella

Retired NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella outside of his home in Staten Island, NY.

Enid Alvarez/NY Daily News via Getty

And so began what I came to think of as a series of tests. I think he wanted proof of commitment. He invited me to Russian baths on the edge of the water in Brooklyn. He beat me with oak leaves in the sauna. Then he invited me to jump in the freezing Atlantic. In mid-winter. He had been president of the Polar Bear Club. He swore by the health benefits of the plunge. I visited his gym, and his house in Staten Island, where Christmas decorations covered every surface. I took him to the bar I ran on a Brooklyn street he’d once patrolled.

He offered a review of my bar, Erv’s. A pleasant yuppie bar where, he surmised, there weren’t a lot of Trump voters. As for the dead-end block on which the bar was located, he appraised that too. It was afternoon; he looked around. There were some guys playing dice, drinking, some low-level drug dealers. “This here could erupt into anything. This is like atomic energy. Anything can happen.” By which he meant, nothing good. He suggested I had big cojones for opening a bar on this block. Or else I was an idiot.

Finally, one day, I asked Detective Scarcella, Have I passed the test?

Scarcella didn’t hesitate. “Passed the test.”

And so Scarcella came to the recording studio— we’d eventually talk for 35 hours over dozens of conversations. Turned out he was busting to tell his story.

One of the first things I asked him: What did he think of me when we first met.

Scarcella: “I didn’t like you.”

He noted that we hadn’t grown up on the same block.

Scarcella: “But then I came to love you.”

Me: “Wow. Love.”

Scarcella: “Well, I’m Italian.”

Louie and I developed a relationship. He was isolated, and, he said, misunderstood. I became his first call when he heard bad news, which was increasingly often. In the past decade or so 21 people he helped investigate have had their convictions overturned. He told me he wanted people to know who he really was. I promised to tell his story. To try to see the city through his eyes.

This was his story as we began.

“If I did one nanogram, one nanogram of what they said I did, and you know what I mean by nanogram? An infinitesimal part. If I did one of the things that they said I did, I would've killed myself.”

And then he added, “I love myself. I'm not gonna kill myself.”

I asked him. “What do you love about yourself, Louie?”

He answered: “I'm going to tell you. I think I'm a very good person.”

In a way, that assertion guided the four-year journey that led to The Burden. Was Louie Scarcella a very good person?

I was probably well-positioned to understand Louie’s point of view. Louie’s instincts, his suspicions of the crowd outside my bar, were well-founded. A year later, my bar would close due to a murder. It had long been a violent block, and, as a bar owner, I knew I needed the cops. Maybe I even needed a tough cop like the Hulk, to help keep order.

Louie and I spent a lot of time visiting the scenes of crimes—in other words, the scenes of his past glory. He told me how he wrote a confession on a cocktail napkin and how he prayed with one suspect. Louie explained his views of justice, and how he went about doing it. He reminded me that when he was in his prime, there was no DNA evidence and not much closed-circuit TV. So Louie relied on what he considered his superpower: his instincts. He insisted he could read people, as he told Dr. Phil—that’s right, he went on national TV—he had like a sixth or seventh sense. He called it “a crystal ball in your gut” that could lead to an arrest.

Black and white photograph of a building in New York City near the murder scene of Nathaniel Cash

Louie had effectively a ninth- or tenth-grade education—he was “socially promoted,” he explained, because he was a good ballplayer. He had almost no training to be a detective. But he had those instincts. He claimed he could sort the bad guys from the good guys. And, he claimed, those instincts were near-infallible. “There were a number of times on the job where everybody said ‘no’ and I said ‘yes’ and believe it or not, it came back around and I was right. Not blowing my horn. It’s just fact.” (Not really. It wasn’t difficult to find instances where his instincts had been off the mark.) But Louie was nothing if not self-assured—“I walked a little bit like my shit didn't stink,” he told me. He was a swashbuckling figure, He smoked a cigar everywhere. He solved headline cases. Louie, I came to understand, had a keen sense of justice and also a conviction that playing strictly by the rule book did not always yield just results.

One day, we were at a diner, discussing a case he’d investigated—believe it or not, he’d investigated his mobster uncle for murder, and his police bosses knew about it. The victim was a drug dealer who supposedly had hooked his uncle’s kid on drugs. Louie asked me what I’d want to do if a drug dealer hooked my kid on drugs.

I acknowledged I’d want to kill the guy. But, I added, it’s not in my blood.

It was in Louie’s blood. He told me he’d probably kill the guy, and then turn himself in. And then he added, “We had a phrase, unfortunately enough: public service murder. This fit the criteria.” That was a chilling phrase. (By the way, this was a case Louie couldn’t crack.)

Louie insisted to me that he didn’t frame people. He certainly locked up lots of guilty people. And he insisted that Brooklyn justice was not the Louie Scarcella show. And he was right about that. The district attorney was the ringmaster. In The Burden, we report on confidential evidence demonstrating that the DA sometimes didn’t want the truth to get in the way of justice, as one assistant district attorney was known to say.

In the end, I’d have to confront Louie with what my years of reporting had yielded. About his responsibility. His supposed infallibility. It was a confrontation that felt a bit like a betrayal of my relationship with Brooklyn’s once most famous and now most infamous detective.

But Dax and I had dug deep. We’d tracked down witnesses who lived in rural North Carolina, we’d reviewed documents that hadn’t been public. I told Louie that I’d studied the case of Derrick Hamilton. I didn’t know whether he was innocent, but I knew this: he was wrongfully convicted. It was our final interview.

I sent Louie an advance copy of the podcast series. He texted me. “It was horrible and I should have never did [the podcast].”

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