12/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
IT WAS THE SORT OF THING THAT SEEMED to happen a lot to Curtis Sliwa, the headline-grabbing leader of New York City's red-bereted Guardian Angels. As he told the story 12 years ago, he was patrolling a subway station late one night with his band of volunteer peacekeepers. Three men approached, detectives with the New York City Transit Police. They said a Guardian Angel working in another subway station had been seriously hurt and rushed to a hospital. Sliwa said he had gone with the men—but they didn't take him to the hospital. Instead, he said, they drove him to a beach 40 miles away and dumped him with a warning: If the Guardian Angels didn't quit patrolling the subways, they would kill him.
The incident was front-page news in New York City in October 1980. The only problem, says Sliwa, 38, is that the story was a lie. There was no injured Angel, no detectives, no kidnapping, no death threat. He made everything up, he admits, simply to get publicity for the Guardian Angels, a quasi-military civilian security force he formed in 1979 to patrol the city's streets and subways. "Everyone was against us," he says. "The Mayor, the cops, even the public. We just needed some good attention."
Sliwa's admission late last month to the abduction hoax—and to five others involving derring-do rescues and selfless heroics—brought more headlines but not the positive attention he covets. Even so, it does not appear that his confession will be a death knell for his ailing organization. Even his toughest opponents, among them former Mayor Ed Koch, say Sliwa deserves a second chance. "He has done a lot of good things as well," Koch says.
The Angels are not in the best of shape. Sliwa's claims of 5,000 members worldwide are vastly inflated, his critics say; the onetime urban army has dwindled to barely three dozen volunteers patrolling a street of restaurants near Times Square. Disgruntled Angels have begun to break ranks; among their complaints are charges that Sliwa's publicity mania was intended to promote the weekday radio talk show he and his wife, Lisa, host. And the union representing the city's subway cops, the Transit Authority's Police Benevolent Association, is so angered by Sliwa's confession that it is considering a libel suit (in part because statutes of limitations on such criminal charges as filing false police reports expired year's ago). "He wreaked havoc over the department's reputation and its members," says Transit PBA president Ron Reale. "He caused tremendous damage."
Sliwa, a onetime night manager for McDonald's, says he decided to reveal the hoaxes during his recuperation from an assassination attempt June 19, when still unknown assailants shot him five times in the stomach and chest (PEOPLE, July 6). "In the hospital you have a lot of time to think," he says. "What would have happened if some intrepid reporter had started digging and my manufacturing of six events had surfaced? That laid heavy on my mind."
Not everyone believes Sliwa fell victim to a sudden attack of conscience. His most outspoken critic, onetime Guardian Angel lieutenant William Diaz, 28, says Sliwa had another reason. In September, Diaz told various reporters about Angel hoaxes, and Sliwa, Diaz says, was hoping to blunt possible news stories. "Curtis is a manipulator," Diaz says. "He gives this mea culpa speech. He's got this Jimmy 'I Have Sinned Against You' Swaggart attitude. He lies like a rug."
Faked stories about the Guardian Angels have been an issue since the group began. In October 1983, four former Angels accused Sliwa of dreaming up several incidents, including a sniper attack in a housing project and an assault on Lisa in the group's headquarters. Sliwa denies he made up any of those stories, insisting he limited his imagination solely to six escapades in 1979 and 1980. He stopped his lying, he says, shortly after the abduction story, when then Bronx District Attorney Mario Marola called him in for a chat. "Marola said, 'My impression is this was staged,' " Sliwa recalls. " "If I find out you created this, you're going to jail, kid.' "
It was not until the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Sliwa says, that he told anyone, including Lisa, 39, what he had done. "At first I was, like, who cares? That was so long ago," she says. "Then I got angry. felt I should have known." A day later Sliwa fessed up to New York Post columnist Murray Weiss. Few involved in law enforcement were surprised. "Remember what Claude Rains said to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca?" asks Thomas Reppetto, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York. " 'I'm shocked, shocked, to learn that gambling is going on here!' " Sliwa hopes to overcome his tainted image, but he has doubts that he can. "When people look at me, I wonder what they're thinking." he says. "Before, there was this halo. Now it's tarnished."
MARIA EFTIMIADES in New York City