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People Top 5
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PEOPLE Top 5 are the most-viewed stories on the site over the past three days, updated every 60 minutes
- March 07, 1988
- Vol. 29
- No. 9
Incident at Wappingers Falls: the Case of Tawana Brawley Puts New York Justice on Trial
Last Nov. 28, Brawley, a 15-year-old black high school cheerleader, was found semiconscious, curled up in an open plastic garbage bag on the lawn of an apartment complex in her hometown of Wappingers Falls, N.Y. "KKK" and "nigger" had been scrawled across her torso with a marker. Her hair had been chopped and pulled out, and her head was smeared with excrement.
When white police officers approached her in the hospital emergency room, Brawley recoiled in horror. A black officer was sent in to ask who had attacked her. Too traumatized to speak, she pointed at his badge, then wrote in his notebook: "a white cop."
Those words have sent shock waves far beyond her little village (pop. 6,000) in the rugged hill country 55 miles north of New York City. Brawley has been plunged into the middle of a battle that pits angry black activists against the highest officials in the state of New York and threatens to thwart any effective investigation of her case. As the months drag on, no one has been arrested or charged. Even the participation of the FBI and the posting of a $25,000 reward by Bill Cosby and Essence magazine publisher Edward Lewis have not led to a break in the case. "Bill and I don't care who the perpetrators are, whether they're black, white, pink, yellow or family," says Lewis. "They should be caught."
They may not be. In the days after Brawley was found, investigators were able to obtain only a sketchy account, mostly related by her mother, aunt and stepfather, of what happened to her. This was the story they told: After visiting a former boyfriend doing time in the Orange County jail for a shooting incident, Brawley got off a bus about a mile from her home at 8:35 p.m. on Nov. 24. As she walked down a dark but heavily traveled road, a green sedan pulled up, and a sandy-haired, mustachioed white man wearing a shiny jacket, a badge and a shoulder holster pulled her into the car. When she screamed for the police, the man told her, "Shut up, stupid, I am a police officer," then knocked her unconscious with a blow on the head. Brawley awoke somewhere in the woods, surrounded by at least six white men, who forced her to perform oral sex. Repeatedly struck and possibly drugged, she passed in and out of consciousness for the next four days.
That skimpy account has never been amplified. Resentful that local authorities seemed to focus their suspicions not on a white cop but on Brawley's stepfather, Ralph King, 40, a parolee who served 11 years in prison for the fatal shooting of his first wife, the family called the Rev. Al Sharpton, a fiery community leader in Brooklyn. He put them in touch with black activist lawyers C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox Jr. Those attorneys, whose confrontational tactics have long kept them on the front pages, promptly charged that the Ku Klux Klan had infiltrated the Wappingers Falls Police Department, that Dutchess County District Attorney William Grady was perpetuating "a massive cover-up" of local officials' involvement in the attack, and declared that Brawley would not cooperate with the investigation of her case until arrests were made.
With Brawley silent and the investigation at an impasse, the mystery has only deepened, as has the racial rift in the area. "A good number of whites automatically suspect her story," says Noel Tepper, attorney for the Dutchess County Committee Against Racism. "A good number of blacks automatically believe it."
Fueling speculation was the suicide, four days after Brawley was found, of Harry Crist Jr., a part-time police officer in a neighboring town. The detailed note he left made no reference to the Brawley incident, according to his family; they say he was distraught over a breakup with his girlfriend. But the coincidence in timing raised questions. "It's hard to defend yourself from innuendo when you're deceased," laments the Crist family lawyer.
A few weeks later, District Attorney Grady withdrew from the Brawley case, citing an unspecified conflict of interest that could, he said, create "the appearance of impropriety." A criminal defense attorney from nearby Poughkeepsie, David Sail, was named as a special prosecutor to pursue the investigation independently, but he asked to be relieved the next day, maintaining that "no local attorney" could prosecute the case—presumably because, in a small community, there was no one who didn't know someone who might conceivably be involved in the case. Yet, inevitably, the withdrawals were grist for the conspiracy theory that prosecutors were covering up for people in high places.
Skeptics suggest that it is the Brawleys who are covering up. The spot where Tawana was found is directly behind a condominium where her family had lived until only 10 days earlier. Brawley's mother, Glenda, had been sitting in a parked car in front of the building just moments before Tawana was found behind it, and, according to Wappingers Falls police records, did not file a missing persons report until 17 minutes after sheriff's deputies picked up her daughter. Neighbors say they heard people inside the vacated apartment around Nov. 24. According to one widely circulating rumor, Brawley could have been "partying" inside her old apartment when "things got out of hand." As a white youth indelicately puts it: "I think one of her own kind did it. Maybe one of her friends worked her over."
Curiously, Brawley's attorneys claim that the unsolved crime is really no mystery at all. "Everyone in Wappingers Falls knows who did it," Alton Maddox has claimed. "Even I know who did it." Unfortunately, Maddox won't tell. In a last ditch effort to secure Brawley's cooperation, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed Attorney General Robert Abrams as special prosecutor in January. Abrams, a liberal with a solid civil rights record, set up a biracial task force of eight lawyers and 12 investigators to handle the case. Even that did not satisfy Mason and Maddox, who capped an escalating series of ultimatums by first insisting that Abrams try the case himself, then demanding that he be replaced by yet another special prosecutor. "Bob Abrams is aligning himself with the culprits," Maddox said. "They have tried to cover over evil and to cover up for the good-ole-boy network."
Meanwhile, the trail grows colder. Police don't even know where the attack occurred. "Locating the scene of the crime might have been vital for a complete forensic workup," former special prosecutor Sail points out. "It's snowed and melted several times. The chances of recovering forensic evidence are now slim to none. I'm inclined to believe that Maddox has a different agenda than ferreting out the facts of the case." Indeed, critics charge that Maddox and Mason, who have long demanded the establishment of a permanent state special prosecutor for race-bias cases, may be sacrificing Brawley's interests to pursue that goal.
As for Tawana, she has gone to another town 53 miles away, moving back in with the police-officer uncle with whom she has lived off-and-on for half of her life. She had a sweet 16 party last December and has enrolled in the local high school. Physically, at least, she appears to have recovered from her ordeal. "She gets psychological counseling once a week," says the uncle. "She doesn't appear to be frightened. She's doing pretty good." Brawley frequently visits her mother and stepfather in Wappingers Falls, and her spirits were lifted when heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson visited her there recently, impulsively handed her his $30,000 diamond-studded Rolex watch and promised to pay for her college education. Though the press attention "doesn't bother her," according to Brawley's cousin Kenya, "some of the things that go with it do—the stories and rumors about her family. But Tawana can make it. She's strong."
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