Fifty years ago this month, NYPD Patrolman Phillip Cardillo was gunned down inside Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam Mosque in Harlem. No one ever did a day in jail for the crime. Is justice in the Cardillo case still possible?
The episode quickly became known as “the Harlem Mosque Incident” and was immediately engulfed in controversy, with rank-and-file cops ordered off the crime scene, a riot in Harlem, racial tensions, and a NYPD coverup. An alleged shooter was brought to trial in 1976, but a Judicial Watch investigation decades later revealed that key evidence was buried, never making it to investigators and prosecutors. The defendant was acquitted at a second trial, after the first trial resulted in a hung jury. At that point, a special prosecutor stepped in. He concluded in a 1980 report that there was “a concerted and orchestrated effort by members and former members of the Police Department to impede the investigation into the murder of Patrolman Philip Cardillo.”
That is, there was a coverup. By the NYPD. Of the murder of one of its own.
The case seemed to die. But one cop would not let it go. NYPD Detective Randy Jurgensen was the key investigator in the Cardillo affair. A legendary figure in New York law-enforcement, Jurgensen pursued the case through the two trials to a bitter end. In 2006, he published “Circle of Six,” a hard-hitting expose that accused New York’s political and police establishment of a “purposeful negligence of duty.” Soon after, then-NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly ordered the NYPD’s Major Case Squad to take another look at the case.
Judicial Watch got involved in the new Cardillo investigation. We uncovered critical documents in the case—some never before seen, some lost for decades—including a White House tape of President Richard Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover launching a secret program to hunt down cop killers; a secret NYPD report on the killing, known as “the Blue Book,” that was withheld from the department’s own investigators and Manhattan trial prosecutors; the long-lost special prosecutor’s report that raised questions about NYPD obstruction of justice; and FBI documents revealing a network of (unnamed) informants in the case and hinting at possible dirty tricks that may have drawn police to the Harlem mosque that fateful day in April. Read Judicial Watch’s investigative report here.
Seeking to learn more about the FBI’s role at the Harlem mosque, Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request for “all records concerning the Nation of Islam Mosque #7 in Harlem…[including but not limited to] all informant, wiretap, electronic surveillance, and physical surveillance records.” The FBI denied it had any records related to the mosque. Judicial Watch was not satisfied with the FBI response and we filed a FOIA lawsuit seeking a more thorough search of records. But no new records were obtained from the FBI in the case.
The NYPD took an even more brazen approach when we sought case documents under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. The NYPD turned us down, claiming it did not have to provide the records because the Cardillo case was still “active and ongoing.”
Freedom of information laws have a standard exemption from disclosure of material that could impact an ongoing investigation. But at the time we filed the FOIL request, the Cardillo case was forty-eight years old. There was zero evidence that the case was active and ongoing. The NYPD’s refusal to provide any information appeared to be an extension of a decades-old coverup.
The coverup was first experienced by early investigators on the case, including Jurgensen, and first officially noted in the 1980 special prosecutor’s report. Judicial Watch decided not to take “no” for an answer. We sued the NYPD for documents related to the Cardillo investigation.
The case went all the way up to New York’s high court. But in the end, we lost. The commanding officer of the NYPD Major Case Squad supervising the case claimed under oath that the Cardillo murder “is an open investigation and remains actively pursued by the NYPD.”
The court noted that the NYPD also “submitted…information obtained from the detective leading an active, ongoing investigation into the homicide, which included receiving tips from informants and conducting interviews of potential witnesses.”
The court ruled that the NYPD “properly withheld the requested materials” based on NYPD statements that disclosure would interfere with an ongoing investigation. Read the full court decision here.
If the NYPD is to be believed, an active pursuit of Cardillo’s killer was underway. But it’s been more than two years since the New York court, accepting NYPD assurances, rejected Judicial Watch’s FOIL request. Is that “active investigation” into the Cardillo killing still “ongoing?” What has been accomplished?
Fifty years on, is justice for Phil Cardillo still possible? “Remember Cardillo” remains a rallying cry for generations of New York City cops—a searing reminder of the dangers of the job, of racial strife, and what happens when the brass throws a beat cop under the bus.
Critical questions in the case remain unresolved. Who killed Cardillo? Who called in the fake “officer in distress” phone call that lured Cardillo to the Harlem mosque? Who ordered the ubiquitous Nation of Islam guards off the front doors of the mosque that morning, allowing Cardillo and other officers to rush in to what appears to have been an ambush? What was the role, if any, of the FBI in the case? What about the significant amount of evidence suggesting the FBI knows more about the case than it is admitting?
New York City has a new mayor and a new police commissioner, Eric Adams and Keechant Sewell. Both have promised an era of transparency and racial healing in New York, and recent polling shows strong support for their pro-cop, tough-on-crime agenda. But the Cardillo affair is unfinished business, a restless ghost that comes back to haunt New York at its worst moments. Adams and Sewell should haul in the NYPD officials responsible for those “ongoing investigation” statements and get some answers. The coverup should end. The true story of the Harlem Mosque Incident should be made public. Remember Cardillo. Fifty years is enough.
First published by Judicial Watch. Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. In 2016, he was recognized by the Retired Detectives Association of the NYPD for his “relentless investigation” of the Harlem Mosque Incident. Reprints and media inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org