Corruption case shines light on NYPD
$1 million warehouse robbery among cases examined
By Tom Hays
NEW YORK — NYPD badges out, Kelvin Jones and the other armed men turned up out of nowhere at a New Jersey warehouse and began barking orders.
Jones told startled workers that the New York Police Department had sent the team there to inspect for counterfeit goods — even though the wholesale dealer of Prada, Versace and other fragrances was legitimate.
The men herded about a dozen employees into a tiny back office and tied them up. By then, it was obvious something was amiss.
"We were kind of shocked," one worker recalled. "We were like, why is the NYPD coming in here like this?"
Another blurted: "You're not cops."
But Jones was indeed an NYPD officer. In fact, he had held an elite undercover position.
Two with him were also part of the NYPD. A third was a former officer. But these were hardly "New York's Finest."
What they'd set up to look like a police raid was instead a brazen, $1 million robbery.
Eventually, the 30-year-old Jones would face trial. And his case, though largely overlooked, isn't isolated. In the past two years, prosecutors have accused officers of planting evidence in drug investigations, of running illegal guns, of robbing drug dealers, of routinely fixing traffic tickets as favors.
Still, Jones stands out because of his background as an undercover operative for the NYPD's Intelligence Division. The department credits the unit with thwarting numerous terror and other threats against New Yorkers.
Recent stories by The Associated Press have detailed how the unit also sought to infiltrate and monitor mosques, Muslim student organizations and left-wing political organizations — even beyond city limits — using methods that critics say infringe on civil rights, though the department denies it.
How Jones became an undercover and the exact nature of his assignment weren't made public at his trial in Newark in 2010, and police officials won't discuss it. But court documents offer hints: They show the NYPD authorized the Caribbean-born Jones to use the aliases Michael Kingston and Kelvin Johns. And in a handwritten journal, he made cryptic references to assignments in cities far from New York.
That was before he was demoted to ordinary patrol — a transfer that still gave him access to an internal police database he used to help hatch the warehouse holdup.
Jones "abused his authority for his own personal gain," Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Gramiccioni told jurors. "Instead of protecting and serving the citizens, he decided to rob them and hold them hostage."
While not commenting directly on Jones, the NYPD insists it carefully vets candidates for undercover work, especially those assigned to Intelligence Division. Some are chosen because they speak Arabic or other languages needed to make their undercover roles convincing, or because they've demonstrated a mental toughness needed to withstand the rigors of leading a double life.
Jones' demeanor would have made him a good choice, said his attorney, Michael Orozco.
"For that kind of work," Orozco said, "you'd obviously want to have someone who's cool, calm and collected — and that's him."
But a rambling journal entry addressing his girlfriend reveals that the duality was difficult for Jones.
"I never told you I was cop," he wrote, "because I was in too DEEP."
Back in 2003, Kelvin Jones was listed in the media guide for the Southeast Missouri Redhawks as a 6-foot, 210-pound linebacker, a "hard hitter" with "a good nose for the football."
Originally from the island of Grenada, Jones had grown up in Brooklyn, the son of a contractor and a dietitian.
In his last season at the college in Cape Girardeau, Mo., the Redhawks finished with a forgettable 5-7 record. But Jones stuck to his studies and graduated with a degree in criminal justice.
He played professionally in the now-defunct National Indoor Football League, leading the Fayetteville Guard in tackles and interceptions in 2006, according to a league blog, but he quit the team before a playoff game. The reason? To enter the police academy in New York City.
On his NYPD application, Jones listed his criminal justice degree and his gridiron work. And to a question about distinguishing markings on his body, he responded, "I got a tattoo on the right side of my back ... Lord's Prayer on a scroll."
The application offers nothing especially remarkable, nothing to explain Jones' next move.
Orozco believes Jones went to work for the Intelligence Division "right out the academy." Jones declined to be interviewed. His family declined comment as well.
NYPD supervisors have at times plucked recruits out of the police academy and given them special training to become undercover investigators. But police officials, citing privacy rules, declined to discuss his employment history.
In court documents, the NYPD confirmed only that Jones had been an Intelligence Division undercover who used aliases. His defense claimed that he also had permission to get a New Jersey driver's license using a fake name.
Two former NYPD officials familiar with Jones told The Associated Press that one of his assignments was to monitor the Nation of Islam — part of the Intelligence Division's effort to monitor groups considered to have extreme political agendas. Since the ex-officials weren't authorized to speak about the case, both spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Jones' journal offered murky clues. He described having "orders from my captain not to let anyone know I was in Las Vegas" — but no clue what for. Another time, he was on the road because "we got a lead from an informant that someone we were investigating would be in the LA area."
Still another trip took him to Miami. At a nightclub there, he wrote, he introduced his girlfriend to a "friend" — actually another undercover on assignment with him. "I didn't pay for my flight to Miami," he said. "It was paid for by the unit."
The girlfriend, he wrote knew him only as Kelvin Johns — not Jones 3 and the deceit was not his only regret. He worried that someday he was "going to get shot."
Still, he reasoned, "This NYPD career is just a stepping stone for me." He saw it leading to future job in federal law enforcement.
Though Jones told his lawyer that his supervisors "loved him," one of the former police officials who spoke to the AP said Jones proved unreliable and difficult to supervise. And at some point, the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau began investigating allegations he gave protection to drug dealers in exchange for cash or narcotics, court records say.
Internal investigators noted his lifestyle, flashy for someone on an officer's salary. Witnesses described how he drove a BMW sedan, wore expensive clothes, owned a condo and, according to his girlfriend, Sahar Saidi, bankrolled her Spanish studies in South America.
"This is the kind of person I know Kelvin to be — thoughtful, considerate and generous," she wrote in a letter of support to the court.
The NYPD revealed a different view when it reassigned him from Intelligence to regular duty. But if the idea was to neutralize him, it didn't work.
In his new assignment, Jones met officers already making a mockery of the department's "New York's Finest" moniker.
He learned that two patrolmen were routinely robbing prostitutes and brothels, according to trial testimony. Jones sought out one, Brian Checo, to get in on the action.
"I told him it's not worth it because it's not a lot of money," recalled Checo, who pleaded guilty and agreed to become a government witness. "And that's when he said he is going to have something for us and he is going to let us know."
About two months later, Jones let Checo know he wanted help robbing a warehouse. This one was in Brooklyn, and it stored counterfeit clothing.
Checo and two others 3 patrolman Richard LeBlanca and ex-officer Orlando Garcia — signed on.
Jones "had been sitting on a spot" — police slang for reconnaissance — "for a while and that if I was interested ...he would be paying us $4,000 each," Garcia testified.
The plan called for them to wear NYPD raid jackets, bulletproof vests and badges.
"We were going to try to make it seem like an official NYPD raid. ... Just make it look like, you know, a sting," Garcia said.
Converging on the Brooklyn warehouse, the officers used a broom to knock out a security camera. Jones shouted out the names of the employees before the men handcuffed them and trucks began showing up to haul merchandise away. He told his crew the goods would be sold to a fence.
Word later came that the same fence had made Jones an offer he couldn't refuse, this time regarding a perfume warehouse in Carlstadt, N.J.: If he and his cohorts could "get four trucks of perfumes, he will give them $500,000."
Jones had learned the other side of the law from his police work. He was always careful to use prepaid cell phones. "You gotta change it up," he told Checa. Also, Jones' black BMW had South Carolina plates.
Another tactic came straight out of the surveillance playbook: He had gone to the New Jersey warehouse before that heist to photograph the cars outside. Plugging license plate numbers into NYPD computers, he called up the vehicle registrations and made printouts of names and other information on employees.
On the day of the robbery in 2010, Jones, using the name Mike Smith, went with the others to rent two 24-foot trucks. LeBlanca maxed out his debit card renting one, and Garcia had to use his card, too. Both, incredibly, used their real names — a mistake that would come back to haunt them.
It was still daylight when they arrived at the In Style, USA warehouse. Jones led the fake raid wearing a hat and a hoodie that obscured his face. A police badge hung from his thick neck.
"We have papers, documentation," Jones told them, reading names from his printouts. He told employees they were suspected of selling knockoff merchandise, and accused their boss of hiring undocumented workers and not paying taxes.
The robber-cops used plastic ties to bind the employees. "We were tied up for three hours," one said later. "It was really bad for everyone."
But fear did not silence everyone. The warehouse owner spoke out at one point, saying, according to police testimony: "You're not cops."
The helpless hostages heard the beeping noise of trucks backing up. Day laborers hired by the holdup crew did the loading. There were six trucks in all. Four carrying hundreds of boxes of perfume and other merchandise valued at $1 million got away, but the two 24-foot trucks rented earlier that day were left behind after someone called the police.
Afterward, panic set in. Jones advised his cohorts to report that cards used at the truck rental office had been stolen.
But when it dawned on Checo that Jones had made himself a "ghost" — with the prepaid phones, the alias, the out-of-state plates, he lashed out.
"If I get arrested and lose my job, I'm going to rat you out," he recalled telling Jones.
Tension only grew when Jones paid the men $2,000 apiece, half of what they were promised.
"They are coming," Checo told Jones, referring to police investigators.
And he was right. Police and federal agents arrested the officers. The owner of the truck rental agency picked Jones out of a photo array. Checo, as promised, flipped, and the other two robbers also cooperated.
Jones was convicted at a federal trial in Newark in December 2010.
At sentencing, he claimed, "I was framed," but the judge was unmoved.
The former NYPD undercover is serving a 16-year sentence in an Ohio prison.
Associated Press Writer Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press