An older man I know recently pulled me aside in a Bronx diner and told me I should look into a Bronx police shooting from the 1990s. Although he wasn't a cop, the man had an intimate knowledge of law enforcement and warned me to be careful. The case and the players involved were hot.
The shooting occurred in an apartment at 1740 Grand Ave. on Jan. 12, 1995, around 11 p.m. The players were Jorge and Hermilinda Rodriguez, who lived in the apartment, and a crew of three young Latinos, who allegedly came to the Rodriguez apartment to rob it: Freddie Bonilla, 18, and two cousins, Anthony Rosario, 18, and Hilton "Max" Vega, 21.
The police report claims that the young intruders entered the apartment in classic push-in robbery style. According to police officers Patrick Brosnan and James Crowe, Rosario and Vega were shot dead and Bonilla was arrested. The police did a quick seven-day investigation and labeled the case a justifiable homicide. Later, a Bronx grand jury would confirm that conclusion by a 12-8 vote.
It would have stopped there but for Margarita Rosario?the mother of shooting victim Anthony Rosario and Hilton Vega's aunt. Her suspicions that something was wrong were confirmed when eyewitness Freddie Bonilla told her that the cops came out of the kitchen and told them to put their hands up and get on the floor. Bonilla claims they complied with the police, and that only the cops drew weapons. The next sound he heard was rapid gunfire.
Rosario's inquiries were stonewalled by the medical examiner's office and other city agencies. Eventually, independent autopsies done on Rosario's son and Vega showed that her hijo was shot 14 times in the back and Vega eight times in the back. She pushed the Civilian Complaint Review Board to investigate the case. It did, and more came out.
In 1998, Jon Osman, an NYU film student, got involved with the case after hearing Margarita Rosario's story. Osman, who was born in Afghanistan and came to New York in 1975 as a child, was strolling the city when he stumbled upon a Rosario rally.
"I heard her speak at a rally and that and the facts of the case blew me away," says Osman. "At first I thought it might be a grieving mother exaggerating the facts of the case. But I figured I would take my time and see what happened. I spent three years on the film. I didn't want to rush it."
Osman traveled all over the Bronx to interview various people for his 2002 documentary, Justifiable Homicide. I asked how he found the borough.
"I think the Bronx is a wonderful place. Full of hard-working people. I walked around there with a lot of expensive equipment and was never bothered."
When asked about the cops, Osman sighed and said, "I back the police. It's not like I am against them. I think they have a hard job. We need cops. During the film I met a lot of good cops. But the CCRB [Civilian Complaint Review Board] does a good job of keeping cops on their toes. Cops serve a good purpose in society and as a society we deserve the best."
The CCRB found another eyewitness that agreed with Bonilla's take on the shooting?the apartment dweller Jorge Rodriguez. It seems that Rodriguez and his wife were running an illegal marriage ring out of the apartment. His wife, Hermilinda, also known as Linda, had flyers on telephone poles all through the Bronx that read, "If you want to get married, call Linda." The couple was charging Dominican nationals and other illegal Bronx Latinos nuptial access to local girls in order to get their green cards. One of their brides was Hilton Vega's girlfriend. The Rodriguezzes owed her $200 or $2,200, depending on how you look at it, and Vega, Rosario and Bonilla had come to get the money.
Osman's film shows that Jorge Rodriguez was a career criminal once arrested for shooting a cop and a known operator. Hilton Vega had two prior arrests, while Rosario and Bonilla had no priors, according to the film.
They were no angels. They all went up to the apartment locked and loaded. You walk into a career criminal's Bronx apartment with a gun and you're taking your chances. The chance the young Latinos never counted on was Patrick Brosnan and James Crowe jumping out of a dark kitchen.
"I tried to get Brosnan and Crowe to talk on the film but they didn't want to," says Osman. "In the film, the CCRB investigator says that Brosnan had a reputation as a cowboy and had three prior shootings. I thought it was important to get their side of the story on the film, but they didn't want to talk and they couldn't be persuaded."
Patrick Brosnan retired in 1996 citing ear damage from the shooting. He's currently living well on a 3/4 pension from his salary, and has opened his own security firm called The Brosnan Group, located in the Westchester town of Scarsdale. He's done all right for a former Bronx cowboy.
You hit their website and images of Brosnan and others come up dressed in black, looking like no-nonsense tough guys. The firm is staffed by a number of cops who retired before 20 years and had done security work for Mayor Giuliani. That seems like the fast track out of the scut work of NYPD. Many cops?Brosnan, Brosnan Group VP John Fleming and Bernard Kerik, among others?are doing quite well now in the private security industry. Rudy took good care of his own.
Giuliani himself makes an appearance in Osman's film, during a split screen in which Margarita Rosario calls into the former mayor's radio show, during which they talk over each other. But Giuliani gets in the last word. He always does. He told Rosario that she should look at her parenting skills and what role they played in her son's death.
I asked around the Bronx about Patrick Brosnan. He had been born and raised there but no one who knew him wanted to speak on the case. They sounded frightened. Cops declined to comment as well, other than to say that since the shooting, Brosnan and Crowe no longer speak to each other. The shooting had been investigated by the feds but was dropped. When I asked if they had anything positive to say about Brosnan, I was also met with silence. I couldn't even get an off-the-record endorsement.
The film, Justifiable Homicide, is now used as part of the course work for the criminal justice track of John Jay College.
"I am happy that future cops are seeing this film," says Osman. "People need alternative views. You need to see all the sides in the Bronx."