By Rocco Parascandola
NEW YORK — The New York Police Department is hoping that old FBI files can help detectives investigate one of the most controversial cases in city history - the April 1972 slaying of a police officer in Louis Farrakhan's Harlem mosque, Newsday has learned.
Access to the documents could be a critical step in trying to find those responsible for the shooting death of Officer Phillip Cardillo 35 years ago this week, which ratcheted up already-tense race relations in the city.
Higher-ups ordered the white cops on the scene out of Mosque No. 7 and 16 suspects were set free, which infuriated police and prompted accusations that City Hall was more concerned with minimizing tensions than bringing Cardillo's killer to justice.
Lewis 17X Dupree, a Nation of Islam member, was arrested in 1974 and charged with murder in Cardillo's death. His first trial ended in a hung jury; he was acquitted in his second trial, in 1977. Dupree's current whereabouts could not be determined.
Some police observers have long believed the killing stemmed from a conspiracy, with militants using a ruse to lure officers to the mosque at East 116th Street and Lenox Avenue. Once there, police sources say, some men assaulted officers inside the mosque preceding the shooting.
The case was thrust back into the spotlight last year with the publication of "Circle of Six: The True Story of New York's Most Notorious Cop-Killer and the Cop Who Risked Everything to Catch Him." The book, co-authored by retired detectives Randy Jurgensen and Robert Cea, blasted NYPD brass and City Hall, and alleged that the investigation was hampered because the city feared racial strife.
Proving that contention would seem difficult after all this time, but police sources say the NYPD is determined to try.
Major Case detectives, whom Police Commissioner Ray Kelly assigned to the case after the book's publication, confirmed the existence of FBI files about the mosque, police sources say. Sources said the files are being gleaned for any helpful information, such as the names of mosque members who may be willing to discuss what happened that day.
At the same time, detectives are trying to determine why Dupree later served about half of a 15-year sentence on a federal drug conviction.
The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.
Todd Cardillo, one of the slain officer's three children, said he is glad that people remember his father. He is not convinced that all those responsible for his father's death will be held accountable.
"I don't think there will ever be any full closure on it," the son, who was 1 year old when his father was killed and now is 36, said in a telephone interview from his home in Palm Coast, Fla. "The case should have been closed 35 years ago. It should have been open and shut. Now, whatever happens, happens."
The events that led to Officer Phillip Cardillo's death began with a phony 911 call on April 14, 1972, according to police at the time. The caller described a wounded officer in the mosque, and Cardillo and his partner, Vito Navarra, raced there. The front doors, usually manned by members of the Fruit of Islam security staff, were unattended, according to published accounts.
Cardillo and Navarra heard a commotion on the mosque's second floor and went upstairs. There, police said, the partners were set upon by up to 20 men and beaten. Two other responding officers also were beaten.
During the attack, someone grabbed Cardillo's gun and shot him. The 31-year veteran, who lived with his family in Astoria, died six days later.
"I was 5 then and I have a memory of a lot of sadness," said Chris Cardillo, 39, a cousin who lives in New Jersey. "It was just an intense sadness for the entire family. Just a betrayal."
Navarra, now 63, retired and living in Southold, stayed on the force, becoming a detective and working on the investigation.
It was obvious to him, Navarra said, that politics took priority over justice in the case.
"I don't know of any other homicide where the mayor and the police commissioner were apprised of everything we did," Navarra says. "Basically, I don't think they wanted an arrest."
Jurgensen, the book author who was among the officers responding to the mosque that day, made the case his personal crusade while still on the job and now in retirement.
"I truly believe somebody out there knows something about that 911 phone call. Somebody out there was told to leave those doors," Jurgensen said. "If that person comes forward or if Major Case uncovers someone or we see the FBI records, then we might be able to piece this together."
Copyright 2007 Newsday, Inc.