In hours of secretly recorded telephone conversations, police officers in Mount Vernon, New York, reveal widespread corruption, brutality and other misconduct in the troubled Westchester County city just north of the Bronx.
Caught on tape by a whistleblower cop, the officers said they witnessed or took part in alarming acts of police misconduct, from framing and beating residents to collaborating with drug dealers, all as part of a culture of impunity within the department’s narcotics unit.
The Mount Vernon police tapes, obtained exclusively by Gothamist/WNYC, were recorded from 2017 to this year by Murashea Bovell, a 12-year veteran of the department who has been blowing the whistle on misconduct for years.
In 2014 and 2015, Bovell reported his colleagues’ alleged corruption and brutality in confidential complaints to the city and a lawsuit against the city, which was dismissed on procedural grounds. But he saw little change, so he began quietly recording his colleagues to substantiate his own claims.
“I need to have something tangible,” he told Gothamist/WNYC. “Something to prove that what I was saying is true, and wouldn’t fall on deaf ears if the time came.”
The tapes are just the latest in a series of public corruption scandals that have rocked the city in recent years. The police department itself has gone through at least five different commissioners since 2015. Bovell sued the city again last year, alleging retaliation for his activities.
In a statement, city spokesman Daniel Terry promised authorities would investigate the accusations thoroughly, but cautioned that there are two sides to every story.
“I am confident that the truth will come out, and I’d ask people to withhold judgment until it does,” he said. He said he could not comment further on a case in litigation.
Listen to George Joseph’s report on WNYC:
The recordings also raise questions about the response by Westchester District Attorney Anthony Scarpino, a former FBI agent and judge who is a Mount Vernon native and began his legal career there.
Bovell turned over a batch of recordings to Scarpino’s office in February of 2019. But nine months later, after some initial signs of interest, a DA investigator confirmed that the agency had not moved forward with the investigation, according to Joseph Murray, Bovell’s attorney.
Scarpino’s office insisted that an investigation is ongoing, but declined to comment on the investigator’s communications to Bovell and his attorney.
“Clearly we have investigated this and are investigating this, so I’m not sure what that means,” First Deputy District Attorney Paul Noto said.
Bovell said he decided to share his tapes now because he does not believe authorities are willing to root out corruption.
“I’ve taken the proper steps, protocols, to let city leaders, police department leaders know what was happening. Nothing happened. Even brought it to the District Attorney,” he said. “So now, [the] only option left is to let the public know.”
2/ Here’s active duty Mount Vernon Officer John Campo. He said his narcotics unit colleagues planted drugs, falsified search warrants, and got undercover officers to identify the wrong suspects. He asked the whistleblower not to tell anyone:
2/ Here's active duty Mount Vernon Officer John Campo. He said his narcotics unit colleagues planted drugs, falsified search warrants, and got undercover officers to identify the wrong suspects. He asked the whistleblower not to tell anyone: pic.twitter.com/Abk16XVE80— George Joseph (@georgejoseph94) June 3, 2020
What’s On The Tapes
On Valentine’s Day in 2019, Bovell mailed the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office an unusual gift: a USB stick with secret recordings of his colleagues.
He had several conversations with John Campo, a Mount Vernon police officer who first joined the force in 2010. In one of the calls, Campo complained to Bovell that he was facing possible discipline after he tested positive for marijuana use. But he said others in the narcotics unit had gotten away with far worse. Campo was particularly upset about the actions of a detective with an aggressive reputation named Camilo Antonini.
The officer told Bovell that Antonini worked with an undercover officer from “the county police” to frame civilians after undercover drug buys “on numerous occasions.”
Normally in these operations, an undercover officer buys drugs from a dealer, then identifies the dealer by confirming the suspect’s face in a photo array. But during his time in Mount Vernon’s narcotics unit, Campo claimed, Antonini would push an undercover officer from the county to identify “the wrong suspects.”
Campo did not offer any specific motive for this allegation. But in the calls he does say that the narcotics unit gave preferential treatment to favored city drug dealers. Similarly, in his 2015 lawsuit, Bovell accused Antonini specifically of collaborating inappropriately with favored drug dealers.
“So they’re going to indict people on whatever fucking fake charges or whatever the fuck it is that don’t deserve to be indicted, because they weren’t even the right person he bought from, and ‘Nini forced him to sign it,” Campo said in the call, referring to Antonini.
Mount Vernon residents have previously accused Antonini and fellow narcotics officers of corruption and brutality, according to confidential police documents. But police superiors have almost always dismissed these allegations in those cases reviewed by Gothamist/WNYC.
Reached by phone, Antonini declined to comment for this story.
In a subsequent call recorded in February of 2018, in which Bovell says he handed to prosecutors this year, Campo claimed that he gave a three-page memo to two different commissioners, outlining numerous acts of misconduct he had witnessed. His allegations include planting drugs, illegal home entries and fabricated search warrants.
Campo told Bovell that the commissioners referred him to the FBI, and he met with a couple of agents. But the officer said he was unwilling to go further with them because he did not want to wear a wire or take a polygraph test.
Reached by phone, Campo declined to comment for this story. The FBI also declined comment.
In February of 2019, Bovell said he also mailed the DA’s office a call with Avion Lee, a Mount Vernon police officer who claimed that her supervisor had instructed subordinates to make up a drug allegation in order to justify an incident of police brutality.
In the call, the officer said she and her colleagues were walking the streets when they approached a young man who started to run. Some of the officers gave chase and he kept running. When she caught up to them, she said, the suspect had been beaten so badly she thought he had a broken jaw.
Police took the man to jail, and then concocted a story “to make it look like not what it is,” Lee said. To justify the encounter, she said, their sergeant told them to say they had seen a “hand-to-hand” —a drug transaction — but did not find any drugs in the area after the arrest.
The man spent the night in jail, but prosecutors dropped the case the next day, she claimed. “The DA said ‘No, of course not. You guys have nothing.’ It was a false arrest,” she told Bovell.
Lee did not respond to Gothamist/WNYC’s requests for comment.
Bovell’s first batch of recordings landed in the lap of Thomas Drake, an investigator for the Westchester County District Attorney’s office, on February 19, 2019, according to a text message he sent Bovell. On March 4, 2019, Drake texted Bovell saying that he had listened to some of them. The whistleblower recalls being hopeful.
“I gave them that information, and I thought this is it. Something big, positive will happen,” Bovell said.
But nine months later, at a meeting with Bovell and his attorney, Joseph Murray, at the DA’s office, Drake told them that the probe had not moved forward because they had been expecting Bovell to send more recordings, according to both men.
Bovell gave them more recordings in February of this year, and they say they haven’t heard anything since. Both Drake and the DA’s office declined to comment.
What Prosecutors Disclosed
Prosecutors have a constitutional obligation to disclose information to defendants that could help establish their innocence. But there’s a big debate in criminal justice circles about when police misconduct allegations in unrelated cases fall under that requirement.
Collectively, the officers accused of criminal activities and misconduct in the recordings have made hundreds of arrests over their careers in Mount Vernon and other parts of Westchester County. In other cities, such as Philadelphia and Baltimore, recent corruption investigations into police narcotics and gun units have led to dozens of convictions being overturned.
But court records show that in the months after Scarpino’s office got the Mount Vernon tapes, it quietly moved forward with dozens of cases involving accused officers, several of which sent people to prison based on the officer’s work.
“The DA’s office never disclosed to us any of the recordings or allegations or any indication as to what was going on,” said Clare Degnan, executive director of the Westchester County Legal Aid Society, which had several cases involving officers accused of misconduct on the tapes. “We will be looking at our prior cases to see if there’s a basis to reverse the convictions.”
Notto, the first deputy DA, argued such disclosures would have been premature because the investigation is still ongoing.
“What we would describe as an uncorroborated hearsay allegation is not necessarily something that’s been substantiated, and if it’s not substantiated we don’t necessarily disclose it,” he said.
He said anyone who thinks they were wrongfully convicted can file a complaint with the DA’s office for a review.
Alvin Bragg, a former federal prosecutor who worked in Westchester County, criticized the DA’s decision to keep prosecuting people while waiting to see what came of the corruption investigation.
“How do you undo the harm of having been prosecuted? Detained? Lost your job? Lost time with your family?” said Bragg, who is supporting Scarpino’s opponent in the Democratic primary later this month. “Where does that get calculated into this assessment when you say, ‘We’ll deal with it all in a year and a half?’”
Damon Jones, a police reform activist and publisher of BlackWestchester.com, argued that the DA’s actions cannot be separated from the fact that Mount Vernon is one of Westchester’s few majority-black cities.
“They don’t care,” he said. “They wouldn’t do this in Scarsdale or any other community, but they continue to do this to people in Mount Vernon.
Notto, the first deputy district attorney, dismissed this criticism. “We handle every case the same no matter where it emanates from,” he said.
Henderson Clarke’s Story
In May of 2018, Richard Thomas, the mayor of Mount Vernon at the time, stood at a podium in City Hall to announce the arrests of twenty-two suspected drug dealers across the city.
“These people behind us are heroes,” said Thomas, pointing to a row of police officers standing on a staircase in matching blue jackets.
One of them, Detective Camilo Antonini, had played a major role in the operation, scoring numerous arrests and signing off on several felony complaints. He stood tall and gazed at the camera. A gold badge rested on his chest.
“They went and made sure they found these people, they did their research, they had a year long operation, and they cracked down on at least twenty-two,” the mayor continued. “And there’s a few more they are zeroing in on.”
Henderson Clarke, a New Rochelle resident, was one of the suspects who remained at large. In a criminal complaint, Antonini swore that Clarke sold drugs to an undercover officer at the address of a gas station in Mount Vernon the previous year.
From the outside, the case did not look good for Clarke. He had a history of dealing, and after the May 2018 announcement the then 41-year old failed to come in voluntarily. Police eventually arrested him over a year later.
Clarke says he was innocent and that he was not going to turn himself in for a false charge. In the years before his arrest, he had turned his life around, he claimed, holding down jobs at a group home and a moving company.
“I was on my way. Bringing in regular checks, getting taxes taken out from my money, feeling great about my change,” he said. “And then this ghost charge comes out of nowhere.”
Clarke said he was in North Carolina on the day of crime, July 26, 2017. The day before, Clarke said he and his girlfriend had taken a Greyhound hundreds of miles down south to his brother’s house. He has Instagram posts of his brother’s house and bus receipts that support his story. His browser history from that day shows a Google search misspelling the name of a restaurant, made from somewhere near Smithfield, North Carolina, just after 6 a.m.
Defense attorneys note that drug sales to an undercover officer are usually straightforward prosecutions, especially when they come down to the word of a veteran detective versus that of a defendant with a history of dealing. Still, even after prosecutors reduced his charge to drug possession, Clarke says he never considered pleading guilty. He wanted to prove his innocence to his teenage daughter, who had begged him to stop selling.
The pending case took its toll. Clarke says he applied for jobs in grocery stores and warehouses, but a wanted poster with his name and face from the 2018 press conference was now on the internet.
“People just tell me, ‘Oh, we’ll get back at you,’ and never get back at me,” he said. He said his kids also came to distrust him, not knowing if he had really changed.
Clarke waited more than five months after his arrest to face his accusers at trial. But in January, just before the proceedings were to start, the DA’s office dropped his case, according to Clarke’s former attorney Alexander Ayoub.
Ayoub remembers that they did not want to disclose the identity of their undercover. The whole time, prosecutors never mentioned the framing allegations against Antonini, the attorney confirmed in an email. The DA’s office did not respond to questions about Clarke’s case.
When Gothamist/WNYC informed Clarke of the tapes months later, he was disgusted. “What that ADA just proved is no matter what, you’re guilty until proven innocent, and they will cover it and you basically gotta fight for your freedom,” he said.
That outcome, however, was better than many of the other defendants got in the highly-publicized roundup. Most pled to their charges or took plea deals, not willing to risk longer sentences by going to trial.
“There might be over a hundred other cases that this man done had his hand in that he tarnished, that he contaminated, you know?,” Clarke said. “People who are innocent, people getting railroaded.”
Karen Newirth, a staff attorney with the Exoneration Project, a wrongful convictions organization, said even defendants who have pled guilty should have their cases reviewed. Some may have pled simply out of fear of longer separations from their families, she argued.
“What’s being alleged here is essentially that on the Westchester County District Attorney’s watch criminal law enforcement agents were allowed to run rampant in the city,” she said. “They should inform all defendants who may be affected by this new information about these police officers and engage in a thorough review of these cases.”
In other cities, such as Los Angeles and Dallas, police corruption investigations have resulted in the exonerations of defendants who had previously pled guilty.
Noto, the first deputy DA, said the office would launch such a review if its internal investigation substantiates any of the allegations.
But Bovell, the whistleblower, is skeptical that prosecutors are willing to scrutinize their past work.
“When you have an active cop that gives them cases, they’re gonna find it hesitant to have to investigate the cop and turn over all these cases,” he said. “So they’d rather sweep it under the carpet.”
Bovell said he’s hoping the recordings will finally force a reckoning in Mount Vernon.
“This is happening for real. It’s happening right here in the community,” he said. “And nothing is being done about it.”
This piece is part of an ongoing series on police corruption allegations in Mount Vernon, New York and Westchester County. If you have a tip about a prosecutor’s office, a law enforcement agency or the courts, email reporter George Joseph email@example.com. He is also on Facebook, Twitter @georgejoseph94, and Instagram @georgejoseph81. You can also text or call him with tips at 929-486-4865. He is also on the encrypted phone app Signal with the same phone number.