Bronx Double Murder: Statement Suggests Witness Heard Shots Before Defendants Emerged From Car

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Peter Hajdari, father of Peter Hajdari, Jr., claims his son's innocent and says he's only on trial because lead detective on the case, Lovera, didn't pursue other stronger leads. Photo: The Black Star News

[Column: Righting Wrongs]

The Jury in the Xtreme Lounge double-murder and manslaughter trial began deliberations yesterday and asked to have some transcripts read back to them and video tapes to be replayed; deliberations continue today.

Jurors wanted to hear phone calls between one of the defendants, Zaire Bansey, 22, and a friend, Sayquan Bowman, recorded from Riker's Island. Bowman has testified that he too had been in the white car driven by Bansey on the morning of the October 5, 2014 incident.

Jurors also wanted to: see video tape of the fight outside Xtreme Lounge when patrons were leaving; video, in slow motion, of the car driven by and parked by Bansey at the intersection of Grand Concourse and Fordham Road--the same car from which the prosecution's key witness Lamont Gholson testified that he saw the men emerge; readback of Bowman's testimony; and, to listen to audio recordings of the interrogation by assistant district attorney Jessica Goodwin, of Naya Santiago, then 17, and Xena Linrosa, 18 at the time; the two girls went to the club with Bansey and his co-defendant Peter Hajdari, Jr., who is now 21, and Bowman.

The accused and their party were not involved in any confrontation inside the club or any of the multiple fights outside the club that morning, surveillance cameras show.

In my first column I wrote that the prosecution has presented a very weak circumstantial evidence case and pointed out that even Ms. Jacqueline Gonzalez, mother of Armani Gonzalez, one of the young men killed outside the nightclub on the early morning hours of October 5, 2014, seems to harbor reasonable doubt. When asked by defense attorney Peter St. George Davis if justice to her meant the conviction of Bansey and Hajdari, she said, "If they did it." Her son was only 21 and she deserves justice.

However, the Bronx County DA's case is full of holes, raising questions as to whether the correct defendants are on trial. The testimony of the prosecution's key witness, Lamont Gholson, is very far removed from his most important statement; the first one, which he gave to his Fordham University supervisor, a retired former captain on the New York Police Department (NYPD).

This doesn't mean that Gholson is a liar; he may have been manipulated, coached or coerced. He was a van driver shuttling Fordham students from campus to and from the East 181 Street subway station on Grand Concourse and Fordham Road.

In my first column I discussed some of the inconsistencies in Gholson's statements and his testimony on the stand. Here are some additional review of his statements and some observations from one of my visits to the location where Gholson's van was parked on the morning of the October 5, 2014, incident.

Gholson's van was parked near the corner of Grand Concourse and Fordham Road. He couldn't have parked on the very corner because there is a fire hydrant, meaning the closest he could have parked was at least 6 or 8 feet away from the Fordham sidewalk. In cross examination by Davis, the attorney, Gholson said when the white car driven by Zaire Bansey, then 19, and his party, turned into Grand Concourse some time after 3:40 a.m and pulled up, it caught his attention because it parked next to a fire hydrant on the other side of Fordham Road.

The distance from the sidewalk on Fordham Road to the fire hydrant on the other side of Grand Concourse is about 31 feet. Assuming Gholson had parked 6- or 8 feet away from the corner of Fordham Road, the total distance from Gholson's location to the fire hydrant across the street was anywhere from 37 feet- to 39 feet. Even with good eyes, one can't see the fire hydrant on the other side under darkness.

Gholson faced another disadvantage. During cross-examination, he admitted to Dawn Florio, defense lawyer for Hajdari, that he needs his glasses for driving; he wasn't sure he had them on that early morning. On the stand, Gholson testified that he saw the two men run from where they parked the car, in the direction of Valentine; they stopped in front of the store "Pretty Girl" --which would place them about 8 feet from their car-- whereupon one of them extended his arm and then he heard gunshots "pap! pap! pap!"

(When the lead detective on the case Sergio Lovera interviewed Gholson on October 24, 2014, there was no mention of any man extending his arm out, according to the detective's report, dated October 27, 2014.)

Gholson also testified that the man whom he observed raising his arm had his back turned to him; Davis, the lawyer, demonstrated to the jury how preposterous this statement was--since, if true, he could not have seen the man's hand--undermining Gholson's credibility. (Since Gholson never says he saw a gun, even if he had seen an arm and a hand, Davis asked: "Isn't it a fact you can't shoot anyone with your hand?")

On the morning of the incident, Gholson was interviewed by his Fordham supervisor Joseph Downing, a veteran of 28 years on the NYPD who had risen to the rank of captain before retiring and taking the Fordham job. Downing's own written report undermines both Gholson's testimony and the prosecution's case. Here's what the former NYPD captain wrote in his report of October 5, 2014: "As the undersigned was approaching Valentine Avenue & E Fordham Road four (4) gunshots were heard and 911 was notified of the ongoing incident. Numerous people were fleeing the area of the gunshots. It appears the dispute stemmed from Xtreme Lounge located at 2510 Valentine Avenue (just north of Fordham road)." So according to Downing there were four shots, and people were "fleeing the area of the gunshots" and the "dispute stemmed from Xtreme Lounge located at 2510 Valentine Avenue..."

So, as Downing was driving towards the Grand Concourse, along Fordham Road, he actually heard the gunshots and placed them towards where Xtreme Lounge is located. This would make sense, since according to the autopsy reports, the bodies of the victims Dennis Rodriguez, who was 24, and Gonzalez, were found outside the club.

From the corner of Fordham Road, the Extreme Lounge was more than 100 feet deep into Valentine Avenue, which is perpendicular to the location of "Pretty Girl",  which is another 100 feet or so away towards the Grand Concourse.

In the Downing report based on the interview with Gholson, there's no mention of any person extending a hand out. Also consider this: If in fact, either of the two men whom Gholson claims he saw standing in front of "Pretty Girl" did fire towards Valentine Avenue (remember Gholson never says he saw firing--he insinuates there was firing), this means the person would have been firing towards Downing. The Fordham supervisor was driving towards Grand Concourse and also heard the shots.

Is it conceivable that an NYPD veteran of 28 years wouldn't notice if someone was firing a gun in his direction?

The surveillance video played numerous times in court shows that after the white car driven by Bansey parked, he and Hajdari ran out to go back towards the club when they noticed, the defense lawyers contend, that one of Bansey's friend was being beaten up in one of the fights outside the club.

The same surveillance video shows that the boys ran back quickly to the car within seconds. While the boys were out of the car, and then when they drove off vehicles continued to drive up Fordham from the direction of Valentine Avenue; and, I counted at least eight vehicles from the video coming from Fordham and driving pass Grand Concourse.

If one of the two men had indeed been firing a gun in the direction of Valentine Avenue, is it conceivable that not a single motorist would have called 911 that morning?

Downing also wrote in his report: "Upon arriving at East Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse Supervisor Downing was informed by S/O L. Gholson, assigned to van #1, that he heard the sound of three (3) gunshots and observed three males getting out of a vehicle on the north east corner of E. Fordham Road and Grand Concourse. The males then fled in the vehicle north bound on the Grand Concourse."

S/O are initials for "security officer."

Gholson testified that he saw two males; he told Downing that he saw three males. The video from the surveillance camera does show a third person emerging from the car when Bansey and Hajdari briefly ran out. It was Naya Santiago; she and Ms. Linrosa testified that they were both terrified after they saw the fights outside Xtreme Lounge--Ms. Santiago wanted to drive away but didn't know how to operate the vehicle.

The prosecution has tried to refute the defense's contention that there was another person in the back seats, Sayquan Bowman, Bansey's friend. Bowman testified that he was seated behind the driver's seat in the back. Davis, the attorney, during closing argument said that was the reason why Ms. Santiago didn't just get out of the backdoor from behind the driver's side, to try and drive off since Bowman was blocking that path; he used this assertion as evidence that Bowman was indeed inside the vehicle too. What's more, video from surveillance cameras at Xtreme Lounge shows Bowman lending his jacket to Xena on that chilly morning as the party entered the club; video from the cameras also shows Bowman walking away from the club with Bansey, as, Bowman testified, they went to get the car when the club closed.

The defendants were friends with the victims and socialized together at the club that night. Bowman testified that when Bansey and Hajdari returned to the car, Hajdari drove Ms. Santiago and Ms. Linrosa home. Bowman testified that he and Bansey returned to the Xtreme Lounge to check on the friend who'd been caught in the fight. They saw their mortally wounded friend, Gonazalez. Bowman testified that Bansey accompanied the victim in the ambulance to the hospital.

Did the prosecution's star witness Gholson, without his glasses, mistake Ms. Santiago for a male, when she ran out of the car? Is that why he told his supervisor that he saw three males?

Here's the most critical and, for the defendants, favorable information from the Downing report based on the interview with Gholson on the morning of the incident when his memory should have been at its best. Gholson told Downing that he "heard the sound of three (3) gunshots and observed three males getting out of a vehicle..." In other words, he first heard the shots, then he saw people coming out of a car.

This could also explain why Bansey and Hajdari made such a quick turn back to the car; possibly, they too had heard echo of the shots that Gholson had already heard as they were still getting out of the vehicle.

Not only did Gholson not describe anyone extending an arm out; he actually seems to exonerate the individuals who emerge from the car from possibly being the gunman or gunmen.

 

Part-three of the Xtreme Lounge Double-murder and manslaughter series will examine the interrogation of Naya Santiago and Xena Linrosa, who were then 17 and 18, respectively, without a lawyer's or their parents' presence.

Contact: mallimadi@gmail.com

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