“You’re only one man bro. If shit hits the fan, call the covering Sergeant and tell him you need help.” These were the last words Detective Alex said to me on his way out the door. All I have to do is just follow the investigative steps I learned and I’ll be fine, I repeated to myself over and over. But no matter how much I tried to psyche myself up, I was still nervous.
I’d only been in the 26th Precinct Detective Squad for a few months. My colleagues had held my hand, helped me along, and answered all my questions. Tonight, though, I was getting thrown into the fire. I’d be the only Detective working the 1600 x 0100 tour. It was a Saturday, in the middle of the summer, and I worked in Harlem. What could possibly go wrong?
So there I was… alone…just me and my options. I could keep busy by catching up on paperwork; I could call on a victim; I could do a canvass for surveillance cameras; or I could turn on the TV, put my feet up on the desk and wait for the phone to ring. Being new to the Squad, but not to the Police Department, I chose to conserve my energy. After messing around on the computer for a couple of hours, I called in some Chinese food and watched the Mets game. Except for a patrol cop asking me to debrief his prisoner, there was nothing. It was all quiet on the Western front. Just the way I liked it. I checked the clock on the wall and it said midnight. Only one more hour to go and I’d be home free!
As any veteran Cop will tell you, the tour’s not over until you signed out of the book. But sure enough, 0045 hours — 15 minutes before I turned over my post to the Night Watch Detectives — a call came over the radio. It was a robbery at a Deli on 123rd street and Broadway. Fuck me! I thought. I got up, put my gun and vest on, and responded to the Punjab Deli.
This is how the ‘first five’ (aka detective report) of The Tuna Caper would read: At time and place of occurrence, witness #1, (night manager at Punjab Deli) states that he did observe perpetrator put several cans of tuna fish into his hoodie pockets and flee the establishment. Witness #1 states that he did chase the perpetrator out of the deli and did observe the perpetrator jump into the driver’s seat of a Black Lincoln Town Car and head southbound on Broadway. No big whoop. Open and shut case, right? Except for the fact that the Lincoln Town Car belonged to a livery cab driver that had pulled over to talk with co-workers while business was slow. The perpetrator got spooked when the deli worker came out from behind the counter and chased him, so he jumped into the running, unattended Town Car and tried to get away.
We had a major problem now: Tuna Man is turning out to be a crazy person, and Tuna Man is a horrible driver. First he tries to mow down the three livery cab drivers. Luckily they were quick enough to dive out of the way. Their cabs, however, weren’t so lucky. Tuna Man smashed into their Town Cars, and then sideswiped every other car parked on 123rd street and Broadway. He then got on the Westside Highway heading south and started ramming into every car in front of him. Nine vehicles in total reported being forced off the road by an out of control Black Lincoln Town Car. Next, Tuna Man gets off the West Side Highway on 56th street and heads east …but not for long. He crashes the stolen Town Car into the front door of 550 West 56th Street and then abandons the car… fleeing on foot in an unknown direction.
I got nothing on this case. The deli worker can’t give a good description because he only saw the back of a grey hoodie. The livery cab drivers were so startled, they can’t I.D. him. The victims who were rammed from behind stated that the car that hit them had no headlights on, so they couldn’t see the drivers face. There were no surveillance cameras in or outside the deli.
It’s six o’clock in the morning. I was standing in front of 550 west 56th Street having a bad cup of coffee when an officer from the Evidence Collection Team informed me that they dusted the car and got no lifts. Ughh!!! How is that possible? I thought.
After Evidence Collection left, a department tow truck driver asked me to put the Town Car in neutral so he could pull it off the building. When I jumped into the car, I automatically pushed the seat back because I am 6’ 4” tall, and I heard a horrible crunching sound. So, I got out of the car to peek under the back seat and what did I find but a can of tuna, wedged between the driver’s seat and the floor mount. BINGO! I just had a feeling. I put on a pair of rubber gloves, grabbed that can of tuna, and called the Evidence Collection Team back. My hunch was right: perfect thumbprint!
The next day I got a match — a positive I.D.. Tuna Man had 36 priors but no permanent address. So, I did a check of the shelter system, and BINGO again!
On day three, my partner and I started our tour at 0500 hours to make sure we would be at Wards Island (a homeless shelter) for breakfast, and who do we find sleeping in bunk #326? TUNA MAN!!!
“How did you find me?” he asks.
“Charlie sent me.” I couldn’t resist.
Back in the day, when I first got up to the Squad, I was always nervous. There was so much stuff to learn. Through it all, though, I never forgot what Det. Alex said to me that fateful summer night in Harlem. “You’re only one man bro. If shit hits the fan, call the covering sergeant and tell him you need help.” That’s one of the things I miss the most about being retired; knowing that whatever happens, someone’s got my back.