A year later, four deaths remain unexplained
Sunday, February 11, 2007
By MIKE KELLY
THEY CALLED him "Scorpio." To the gamblers, pool hustlers and all-night boozers who hung around his illegal after-hours bar on a dank stretch of Railroad Avenue in Paterson, Scorpio seemed like just another street operator.
He wasn't. Scorpio, whose real name is Lorenzo Gonzalez, was an undercover FBI informant, with a $3,500 monthly stipend from the federal government. His bar, the Kings Court, was set up by federal agents to lure members of the Latin Kings gang in a sting.
The plan seemed solid - on paper, at least. But the unpredictable realities of crime intervened just before dawn on a Wednesday in December 2005. Police say three suspected gang members burst in and murdered four bar patrons who had no affiliation with the Latin Kings or any other gang. Each victim was killed with a single bullet in the head.
Families of three of the victims are now going to court with Fort Lee attorney Rosemarie Arnold and asking a basic question: If the FBI wants to set up a sting operation, shouldn't it take steps to protect innocent people who end up in the line of fire?
The question essentially challenges a time-honored police tactic - to catch crooks, cops sometimes have to go undercover and pretend to be crooks.
Such tactics are used by every level of law enforcement, from police departments in small Bergen and Passaic towns to high-level international counterterrorism agencies -- not to mention the authors of countless crime novels and films. The work is risky. But when things don't go smoothly and bystanders are killed, who is responsible?
At Kings Court, though, Scorpio went one step further and bent the law by running an unlicensed bar where gambling took place. The bar Scorpio operated had its $1,500 monthly rent paid for by the FBI. But it had no license to serve booze.
This may explain why no FBI agents were working at Kings Court, not even hiding behind closed doors, ready to burst out with guns drawn in case trouble loomed. The bar's main operator - and only FBI representative on the scene - was Scorpio, who was not armed, and not an FBI employee, but only a paid informant. FBI agents monitored the comings and goings at Kings Court with surveillance cameras.
How Scorpio became involved with the FBI is still a mystery. But two facts about his background are now clear: Scorpio had a criminal record and he had no experience in law enforcement.
Immunity for FBI
What's surprising about Arnold's lawsuit, filed last week in New Jersey federal court, is that her clients are barred from suing the FBI itself. Federal law gives the FBI immunity as an institution from negligence suits.
But FBI agents are not immune. Nor is the whole federal government. So Arnold is suing "the United States of America" and a string of FBI agents, some of whom are named only as "John Doe." Also named are three accused killers, now being held at the Passaic County jail, charged with murder.
How this lawsuit is resolved could bring about major changes in how local undercover officers operate and possibly also in how the cat-and-mouse investigations of terror suspects are handled. But for the four families of the dead, this is also an attempt to get answers to how their loved ones died.
In July 2005, Scorpio opened Kings Court on the second floor of a warehouse on Railroad Avenue and essentially had two roles. He was the manager. He was also the ad hoc film director for the FBI.
The FBI installed surveillance cameras in the bar. Whenever Scorpio thought he saw a suspicious character, he reportedly turned on the surveillance cameras. The FBI then analyzed the pictures and video, and tried to match faces in the club with suspected members of the Latin Kings.
How it started
Early in the morning of Dec. 14, 2005 - a Wednesday - three men and a woman were drinking inside Kings Court. The four may have been gambling, too, but police evidence on this is not entirely clear.
What is clear is that loose cash was lying around. How much is not known, though.
Police initially estimated that the patrons had $7,000 to $10,000 on them that night, possibly from the gambling there, possibly brought in from gambling at another illegal after-hours bar. In her investigation for her lawsuit, attorney Arnold said the figure may be as low as $1,000.
Around 4 a.m., three men entered. Scorpio flipped on the surveillance cameras - thus getting a photo of the men's faces. Then, according to Arnold, he turned them off - thus missing out on what happened next.
The men ordered the four patrons to give them their money. Then, one of the men reportedly shot each patron in the head.
Ralph "Rudy" Hernandez, 53, of Paterson was killed first. Police found his body sprawled on the bar's linoleum floor and with $1,000 still in his pocket. Johnny Melendez, 39, of Newark was next, his body slumped against a wall.
Jesus Gonzales, 31, of Paterson, a sometime bouncer who left behind a 7-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son, was shot as he tried to hide under a pool table. Tara Woods, 29, of West Paterson, a dental assistant and part-time waitress, who left behind an 11-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter, was killed as she curled into a fetal position near a wood-paneled wall.
The killer was cruelly efficient, police investigators later noted. The bullets were fired from at least six feet away, thus ensuring that the victims' blood did not stain the killer's clothes.
"They didn't waste time and they didn't waste bullets," Passaic County Prosecutor James F. Avigliano said at the time. "There was a lot of blood. But there were no footprints in the blood."
Scorpio in hiding
Somehow Scorpio escaped the mayhem - another mystery that police are trying to solve. As the shootings were taking place, he ran outside and called 911, not only telling police about the killings but also announcing that he was an FBI informant.
Scorpio is reportedly now hiding in another state. Attorney Arnold claims she has spoken with him several times by phone.
But the most alarming silence in this sordid case is from the FBI. Not once in the 14 months since the killings has anyone from the FBI come forward to discuss the agency's role in Kings Court - and what it might have done to protect four people who died. FBI policy is not to discuss investigations.
But we do have some last words from one of the victims, according to court papers. As Tara Woods was about to be shot, she uttered this plea:
"Please don't kill me. I have kids."
As a mother of two young children, Woods probably should not have been drinking at 4 a.m. on a Wednesday in mid-December 2005. But she did not deserve to die for that mistake.
Where was the FBI?