Thursday, February 05, 2009

Court Officers Fill Gallery to Honor Murdered Colleague at Mob Trial

It was a courtroom, but the court officers seemed out of place. They were not escorting prisoners or guarding a judge, shepherding the family of a defendant or quieting a crowd. They were the crowd.

In federal court in Brooklyn on Tuesday, in a rare rendering of a grim law enforcement rite, court officers filled the rows of the gallery to honor the memory of a colleague killed in the line of duty. The ritual, one that the city’s police officers have become woefully accustomed to, was unusual for the court officers, who, in the last 40 years, have lost only a handful of their number in violent circumstances.

The occasion was the trial of Charles Carneglia, who is accused of murdering Officer Albert Gelb, a decorated court officer, and several others.

Officer Gelb was fatally shot in 1976, and his death remained a mystery for more than three decades. The authorities, who accused Mr. Carneglia last year in a wide-ranging racketeering case in which 61 others were also charged, say the killing was mob related.

Also in court was Emily Gelb, Officer Gelb’s sister, listening as Peter Zuccaro, a burly Gambino family associate who became a government informant, testified about the killing. Ms. Gelb buried her face in her hands as Mr. Zuccaro matter-of-factly talked about beating her brother and of later hearing from his associate, Mr. Carneglia, a reputed Gambino soldier, about his death.

About two dozen court officers, wearing suits rather than uniforms, filled up several rows. They said they knew about Officer Gelb from stories told at the Court Officers’ Academy and from the plaque dedicated to him in criminal court in Brooklyn, where he had worked.

Officer Gelb, 24 when he was killed, was the most decorated court officer in the city at the time, making arrests, both on and off duty, of men with guns and a purse snatcher.

“He didn’t have to get involved,” said Sgt. Tim Smyth, a court officer, outside court. Mr. Zuccaro’s testimony had been tough to watch, he said. “It made it real.”

The state’s 4,000 court officers protect and secure courtrooms and court buildings. They guard defendants and sequestered juries, keep guns out of courthouses and escort judges to their cars (and in some cases, when the judges receive threats, guard them at home). They are authorized to carry weapons when they are off-duty.

In interviews, court officers said their work was not without dangers, although nothing like those faced by police officers. They are not out on the streets alone, or forced to confront heavily armed criminals.

Dennis Quirk, who has been president of one of the two court officers’ unions since 1974, said that he and his colleagues had to master different skills, like subduing attackers in the courtroom without using guns. “The perps we’re dealing with are criminals who we know don’t have a weapon,” he said.

The perils court officers confront are courthouse scuffles and the occasional riot, or the crush of observers at high-profile trials, officers said.

Lt. Jack Sullivan, 49, said in an interview that the trial of John A. Gotti in Manhattan, for example, was a circus. “There were as many people rooting for him as against him,” he said. Lieutenant Sullivan said he had taken his share of knocks, but he did not want to talk about his injuries in detail.

When court officers die in the line of duty, it is usually away from the safety of the courthouse

In 1973, Francis Carroll, an officer in Criminal Court in Manhattan, was shot to death trying to prevent the escape of two men who took $50 from the clerk of a Midtown hotel.

Alphonso B. Deal, another court officer, was also killed while off duty. Mr. Deal, a senior court clerk who worked in Lower Manhattan and lived in Harlem, was fatally shot in 1988 when he came to the aid of a neighbor who had been shot in a robbery attempt.

Senior Court Officers Mitchel Wallace and Thomas Jurgens as well as Capt. William Thompson died after they raced to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Then there was Officer Gelb, the son of a dry cleaner from Flatbush, Brooklyn, who in three years as a court officer racked up more arrests than many of his colleagues made in a career.

In February 1975, in the Esquire Diner in Brooklyn, he crossed paths with Mr. Carneglia, according to Mr. Zuccaro, who was in the diner at the time.

Officer Gelb wore a leather jacket and a big hat, and Mr. Carneglia wore two guns. Mr. Zuccaro said that he saw Officer Gelb and Mr. Carneglia struggling over a pistol, and that Mr. Carneglia had asked for his help.

Mr. Zuccaro said he had obliged. “I punched him to the side of the head,” he said. “I kicked him a couple of times.”

Mr. Carneglia was arrested on a charge of weapons possession and, Mr. Zuccaro testified that later, Mr. Carneglia told him that he was trying to “straighten it out” with Officer Gelb so that he would not testify against him.

In March 1976, before he was scheduled to testify against Mr. Carneglia, Officer Gelb was found dead in his car with four bullets in his body.

In court on Tuesday, Mr. Zuccaro testified about another conversation with Mr. Carneglia. “He told me that the guy couldn’t be reached,” Mr. Zuccaro said, “and that he wouldn’t back off and that he had to go.”

Thanks to Kareem Fahim

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