The True Crime Stories We Won’t Forget

The True Crime Stories We Won’t Forget

The century-old KaDeWe department store stands eight stories tall but looms even larger in the German consciousness. A short walk from the old New York Times bureau where I worked in West Berlin, the luxurious shopping destination is a symbol both of Berlin’s Roaring Twenties and the country’s postwar economic miracle. So when I learned that there had been a jewelry heist — with the thieves caught on the surveillance camera lowering themselves into the store on a rope ladder, evading the motion detectors and making off with millions of dollars’ worth of jewels — I knew it was a big crime story on the biggest stage.

My contacts in the Berlin police department told me that the thieves had made just one mistake, leaving behind a glove at the scene with DNA inside. A good story needs a twist but a great story boasts two: The DNA evidence led not to a single suspect but a pair, identical twins, identified as 27-year-old Hassan and Abbas O. The German justice system couldn’t lock them both up and each could claim the other did it. So, they walked. It may not have been the perfect crime, but it was a pretty sweet alibi.

A Bronx man spent 25 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. Why? Because a witness accidentally took the police to the wrong apartment — 16B, not 16C — and the police arrested and prosecuted the man they found there.

One night in 2006, a police officer in the Bronx responds to a fight at a White Castle. He rolls up and sees a man with a gun kneeling over another man in the parking lot. He tells the gunman to drop the weapon, but the gunman doesn’t respond. The officer opens fire, and the gunman is critically wounded and later dies. The gunman, it turns out, was a fellow officer: An off-duty Bronx policeman who was intoxicated and had just been beaten up by a group of guys at the White Castle.

It’s the mistaken identity that gets me. You can freeze-frame the shooting as the bullet’s in the air and study it: There are worlds upon worlds of fate, mystery and human connection at play. These two officers worked at station houses nearly two miles apart, and yet here they were drawn together in a few tense, confusing seconds in a fast-food parking lot. As I wrote, “In this city, people live their whole lives separated by such short distances and never once cross paths.” I don’t think the officer was ever prosecuted for the shooting. I think it was ruled a justified shooting. But how does a cop live with a thing like that, and move on?

This unsolved case — in which seven people, including children, were shot point-blank during a robbery inside a bowling alley — has been a cloud over a small New Mexico city near the Mexican border for decades. Four of the victims were killed (a 12-year-old victim shot in the head managed to call 911), and no arrests have ever been made. I grew up in the area, and it has been a source of sorrow and local mythology ever since it happened in 1990. In fact, the brutality of this crime over a few thousand dollars, the massive, multiagency law enforcement response and the fact that no credible witnesses have ever come forward to identify suspects all continues to perplex everyone who remembers that day.

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