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When Cop and Crooks Share Hoop Dreams, Nightmare Begins

ASSOCIATED PRESS

On the asphalt of Sunset Park’s 56th Street courts, in the summer of ’93, Zack, Supreme and Bubba played the city game, basketball.

The ball bounced from one to another. From Detective Zaher “Zack” Zahrey, a neighborhood kid turned city cop. To William “Supreme” Rivera, who, authorities said, captained a renegade gang that robbed drug dealers and killed a guard in a 1992 armored car robbery. To Sidney “Bubba” Quick, whose crack habit imperiled every purse in Brooklyn.

Basketball provided an escape from their different and deadly worlds. But it was only temporary. This would be the last summer they shared the same court.

In March 1994:

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* Supreme was murdered in a local disco.

* Zack, a decorated undercover narcotics officer, was tagged as a corrupt cop.

* And Bubba, behind bars for the fifth time since his 15th birthday, would cut a deal to become the key witness against Zack.

That month, barely a year after Zahrey received a detective’s gold shield, an intoxicated tipster told the police Internal Affairs Bureau that Zack’s ties to Supreme and Bubba transcended the basketball court.

“I was starting to hear word on the street that there were questions being asked about me,” Zahrey said later. “But I didn’t have anything to worry about, because I didn’t do anything.”

Internal Affairs Sgt. Robert Boyce turned up zero on Zahrey until five months later, when he visited Bubba Quick in jail. The persistent, violent felon was approaching his 30th birthday and a likely life sentence.

The sergeant kept returning to Quick, interviewing him three times, pressing for dirt on Zahrey. Boyce focused on the October 1993 murder of a Sunset Park drug dealer, J.R. Guadalupe.

In a March 1995 meeting at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Boyce promised Bubba “a very, very, very sweet deal” if he could implicate the policeman from the playground in Guadalupe’s death.

“If you give me Zack,” Boyce promised, “I’ll drive you home.”

Yes, Quick recalled. Zahrey was there when Guadalupe was killed.

There was little physical evidence. There were questions about Quick’s credibility. Still, the case against Zahrey moved forward, from Internal Affairs to the Brooklyn district attorney to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

It would take more than three years--including six months behind bars--for Zahrey to clear his name. His nightmare ended when a federal jury--after deliberating just five minutes--exonerated him.

“This prosecution was brought just for the sake of bringing it, to make the public think the authorities are doing something about police corruption,” charged Zahrey’s attorney, Joel Rudin.

“Detective Zahrey was a human sacrifice on the altar of public opinion.”

*

Even on the court, Quick and Zahrey were opposites. At 225 pounds, Bubba had the burly body of a power forward--a dreadlocked, gun-toting banger. He ran with Rivera’s gang, the Supreme Crew.

Zack was a lithe 6-foot-2, with a thin mustache and a badge. The 33-year-old son of Palestinian immigrants joined the department on July 8, 1985, earning his detective’s shield in just seven years.

His court-honed walk, talk and attitude translated into law enforcement success. Working dangerous assignments in Brooklyn’s toughest neighborhoods--Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville--he made 131 undercover drug buys in one 15-month period.

“A leader among his peers,” his supervisor, Lt. Robert Napolitano, called him in a June 1993 review. “This undercover officer exemplifies the undercover officer.”

Just a month before, Zahrey and Quick--a high school dropout, an on-and-off junkie who played ball between purse-snatchings--met for the first time at the 56th Street courts.

They were introduced by Supreme Rivera, a Brooklyn playground hoops legend and Zahrey’s former classmate at Fort Hamilton High School.

Zahrey and Rivera had long been friends. They started a failed construction business together, and played on the 84th Precinct basketball team when Supreme was an auxiliary cop.

Zahrey insists his relationship with Rivera cooled after he joined the Brooklyn North narcotics squad in 1991--coincidentally, around the time the Supreme Crew started getting busy in Brooklyn.

In March 1992, authorities said, the gang pulled off a $186,000 armored-car robbery, killing a 71-year-old guard.

The crew’s specialty, however, was ripping off drug dealers for their stash and their cash. Their reign ended March 10, 1994, when Rivera was shot 14 times inside a Brooklyn disco--with a gun lifted from a cop.

*

Sgt. Robert Boyce, an 11-year NYPD veteran with 70 department citations, was relatively new at Internal Affairs when he met Zahrey that night. Both men were checking into Rivera’s murder.

The NYPD, stunned by the revelations of corruption, was determined to root out rogue cops. Internal Affairs was upgraded, given more manpower and money. Boyce was part of the new regime.

On the night of Rivera’s murder, Boyce was asking how a cop’s gun had killed an alleged crook. Zahrey was checking for information at the behest of the Rivera family.

Boyce recalled Zahrey was “in an agitated state,” repeatedly denying any link to Supreme. The sergeant became suspicious. Twelve days later, after the phone tip linking Zahrey and Rivera, his investigation began.

“I don’t want him carrying the same shield I got. . . . ,” Boyce told Quick. “He shouldn’t have my shield if he’s doing this.”

And with visions of immunity or an early parole, Quick cooperated.

But there was a problem: Uncorroborated accomplice testimony is insufficient for a New York state conviction. Boyce still had no case.

Prosecutors simply shifted the case to federal court, where Zahrey was indicted by a federal grand jury and arrested last Oct. 16.

One month later, Quick’s mother alleged that Zahrey had threatened her life in a phone call. Zahrey insisted they had never spoken, but a federal judge revoked his $500,000 bail.

For the next six months, Zahrey was locked up at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, allowed just three hours of family visits and a single personal phone call per week, separated from his wife of eight years and their three children.

When he arrived in court May 8, Zahrey was a defendant, not a detective. The handcuffs that once dangled from his belt now bound his wrists.

But defense attorney Rudin turned the tables. Over three days, he grilled the prosecution’s star witness, Quick.

Quick testified that he and Zahrey had robbed a dope dealer in a Brooklyn park. In a session with Boyce, however, Quick had said the robbery occurred in winter 1992--while he was still in jail.

Rudin pressed on. The witness had claimed the detective helped rob drug dealers, sold illegal handguns, collected $200,000 as his cut.

But no eyewitnesses put Zahrey at the crime scenes. No incriminating physical evidence--fingerprints, phone records, cash--was recovered. And, after Quick made his allegations, police had placed Zahrey under surveillance; they found him working a second job at his family’s grocery store.

Quick testified that Zahrey watched as Rivera killed Guadalupe on Oct. 14, 1993. But in his taped interview with Boyce, Quick had insisted he had no information about the murder.

“I didn’t have nothing to do with this. . . . ‘member, I was . . . cracked out when this happened,” Quick said.

There was more. Quick said he and Rivera met with Zahrey at 6:30 p.m., before the slaying; the police log showed the detective worked until 7 p.m.

An eyewitness to the murder testified that the killer was a dark-skinned black man; Rivera was Puerto Rican and Zahrey white. The only black man there, according to Quick’s testimony, was Sidney “Bubba” Quick.

Rudin argued that the government had let the real killer, Quick, go free in its zeal for Zahrey.

The detective, Rudin said, was guilty only of a love of basketball, a love shared with his neighborhood friends.

“Zack kept returning to the playground to experience the joy of a hard sweat, of that perfect jump shot, of that beautiful pass,” Rudin told the jury. “They were trying to hold onto their youth.”

*

It took the jury just one vote on June 27 to exonerate Zahrey.

The prosecution’s “case was nonexistent. He wasn’t not guilty; he was innocent,” said juror Karen Rubin.

Why did the authorities target Zahrey with so little evidence, with a likely acquittal? Rudin suggests overambitious cops and prosecutors; Zahrey wonders about personal animus. The Internal Affairs cops, Zahrey says, were “a combination of the Gestapo and the Keystone Kops.”

Either way, Boyce’s career was not hindered. The same month that Zahrey’s bail was revoked, now-Lt. Robert Boyce took over as head of the 88th Precinct detective squad.

Zahrey, meanwhile, is in limbo. He wants to stay on the job, but his police career remains in jeopardy. Despite his acquittal, he faces a separate departmental hearing on the same charges.

A return to his first love, undercover work, is impossible. He fears retaliation.

“I love the job. I really, really loved the guys, the rapport,” he says. “But I wouldn’t want to go out on the street. I’ve already been through the fight of my life.”


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