On an April morning forty-five years ago, NYPD Patrolman Phillip Cardillo was gunned down in a Nation of Islam mosque in Harlem. He died six days later. New York’s political and police leadership abandoned Cardillo within hours of the shooting. No one was ever convicted of the crime. The case was a sensation back in the day. Does it matter anymore?
It still matters to the Cardillo family, who have endured decades of controversy over the murder. It still matters to the thin blue line in New York, where “Remember Cardillo” became a watchword for a generation of cops, evoking the treason of the brass and the gnawing sense that a cloud of lies and cover-up had descended over the case.
Many details about the death of Cardillo remain hidden in the files of the NYPD and the FBI, but we do know a few things.
We know there was a cover-up.
A special prosecutor assigned to examine the Cardillo case concluded there was an “orchestrated effort” by members of the NYPD “to impede” the probe. The lead detective in the case wrote a scathing memoir, “Circle of Six,” accusing members of the city’s political and police establishment of a “purposeful negligence of duty” in the Cardillo affair. A Judicial Watch investigation unearthed a secret NYPD report containing evidence that was withheld from New York detectives and prosecutors.
Judicial Watch’s investigation also uncovered FBI surveillance reports linked to the main suspect in the murder, a Nation of Islam member known as Lewis 17X Dupree. And we published details of a covert FBI program targeting black radicals believed to be behind the assassination of police officers. Some evidence suggests that the secret, high-stakes Operation Newkill manhunt may have intersected with the Cardillo killing. You can read our investigative report here.
We know that for decades, every attempt to get to the bottom of the Cardillo case has hit the rocks. That includes an initial police investigation, a secret NYPD probe and the special prosecutor inquiry. And more.
Stung by a public outcry after the initial investigation went nowhere, the NYPD tried again. It handed the case to Randy Jurgensen, an NYPD detective highly regarded by his peers. Mr. Jurgensen’s probe was fiercely resisted by NYPD brass, but the headstrong detective persisted. Eventually he found a witness and gathered enough evidence to arrest Mr. Dupree. Mr. Dupree’s first trial resulted in a hung jury. He was acquitted at a second trial. Decades later, trial prosecutors told Judicial Watch they never saw important evidence then in the possession of senior NYPD officials and did not know the FBI had mosque members under surveillance.
In 2006, Mr. Jurgensen published “Circle of Six.” The book impressed then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly so much that he ordered the NYPD’s elite Major Case Squad to re-open the Cardillo case.
According to a letter from the NYPD to the FBI obtained by Judicial Watch, the new investigation was launched “to determine if there is evidence of a conspiracy in 1972” to kill Cardillo. As late as 2012, the Major Case squad was assuring the Cardillo family that the investigation was still “active.”
And then it vanished. A promised report never materialized. A stony silence from NYPD officials greeted former cops and reporters who persisted in asking questions about the investigation. The NYPD ignored repeated Judicial Watch requests for a statement on the status of the Major Case probe.
We know that the FBI has been uncooperative as well. Sources tell me that the Major Case squad reached out to the FBI early in its investigation. After a token sweep of one of its data bases, I’m told, the FBI stopped cooperating, and the NYPD did not press the issue. “Ray Kelly had bigger fish to fry with the FBI than Cardillo,” one NYPD official told me.
Based on the public record and documents obtained by Judicial Watch, it’s clear that the FBI took a keen interest in the Nation of Islam. At the time of the Cardillo shooting, its Harlem mosque was led by Minister Louis Farrakhan. Mr. Farrakhan was a rising figure in the Chicago-based organization, but embattled and surrounded by controversy. Mr. Farrakhan was upstairs in his mosque office on the day of the Cardillo shooting.
We know that a broader portrait of FBI activities in New York at the time raises some troubling questions about its role in the Cardillo case.
1972 was the immediate post-COINTELPRO era. New York City was under siege from a skyrocketing murder rate, drugs and domestic upheaval; radical groups had launched a wave of bombings and assassinations. The FBI’s secret COINTELPRO counter-intelligence program had deployed a range of dirty tricks to disrupt and discredit many groups, including “black extremists” a broad category of targets ranging from the Nation of Islam to the non-violent Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the murderous Black Panther Party. In 1971, COINTELPRO was exposed and shut down. Officially at least, the era of dirty tricks was over.
A COINTELPRO memo notes that the FBI had “high-level NOI [Nation of Islam] informants.” A confidential FBI report obtained by Judicial Watch confirms that the FBI had at least six informants in the Nation of Islam and kept close tabs on Mr. Dupree for years . It noted that although Mr. Dupree had no official position in the Nation of Islam, he held a number of jobs, including “driving Louis Farrakhan.”
The report noted that Mr. Dupree was a “current member” of the Harlem mosque and listed his attendance at 181 meetings in Nation of Islam mosques in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens from 1965 to 1971. But it does not list his attendance at any meetings of the Harlem mosque. The reporting period ends in December 1971, four months before the Cardillo shooting.
The timeline of mosque meetings in the FBI memo is worth noting for what it leaves out. Even though Mr. Dupree is a member of the Harlem mosque, the report does not note his attendance at a single meeting. And it stops short of the April 1972 events resulting in Patrolman Cardillo’s death.
Was Mr. Dupree an FBI informant so prized that his alleged role in the murder of a police officer was covered up?
We know that one COINTELPRO dirty trick was the use of fake or “pretext” calls. The FBI used this tactic FBI agents making anonymous calls or posing as someone else to disrupt targeted groups.
A February 1968 COINTELPRO memo from the FBI’s New York field office to headquarters seeks permission to make “anonymous and other pretext phone calls”to neutralize and frustrate the activities of these black nationalists.”
We know that a fake emergency call sent Phillip Cardillo to his death.
On that April morning in 1972, someone phoned police headquarters in New York with an urgent “10-13” “officer in distress” message. The caller claimed to be a NYPD detective trapped on the second floor of the Nation of Islam building. The call was a sham and the caller was never identified. Cardillo and his partner, Vito Navarra, were the first to respond, running into the building. They were met by more than a dozen Nation of Islam men running out of nearby rooms. A fierce battle ensued and Cardillo was shot with his own gun.
That’s what we know.
This is conjecture:
COINTELPRO was supposedly dead officially shut down a year earlier after public exposure and a congressional uproar. But the secret Operation Newkill was alive. And a radical campaign of domestic terrorism in New York was growing, not diminishing. Cops had been killed. The pressure on the FBI and NYPD was enormous. Under the cover of secrecy, did COINTELPRO morph into Newkill? Was Newkill essentially COINTELPRO by another name?
A Newkill operation against the Nation of Islam a pretext call, say, that was aimed at drawing the NYPD to the mosque and gaining information about suspected assassins, but that accidentally got Phillip Cardillo killed would be a devastating scandal for the FBI. The incentive to make it go away would be strong.
A secret successor to COINTELPRO, a pretext call gone terribly wrong, a cop-killing informant. From the FBI’s perspective, those would be secrets worth hiding.
FBI responses to Judicial Watch inquiries and Freedom of Information Act requests have been evasive. In its correspondence with Judicial Watch, the FBI does not even acknowledge the existence of Operation Newkill.
In an open letter in the New York Post to FBI Director James Comey, former detectives and prosecutors associated with the case called on the FBI to “right a grievous wrong and make one last effort to find justice for a slain police officer.” The authors asked for a “comprehensive search of all FBI files for information related” to the Cardillo killing, focusing on “informant, wiretap and electronic-surveillance records.” The NYPD should conduct a similarly thorough search for Cardillo records, which presumably are now gathered in the files of the Major Case squad.
So, yes, Cardillo still matters. We remember Cardillo because a husband and father killed in the line of duty matters and even forty-five years later his children weep at his memory. We remember Cardillo because the police are not perfect but they stand between us and chaos. We remember Cardillo because there is unfinished business in this old, cold case. Someone is hiding something. The FBI and NYPD should make public all Cardillo case records. Burying the truth should never be an option.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. In 2016, the Retired Detectives Association of the NYPD honored him for his “relentless investigation” of the Cardillo case. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: email@example.com
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