Boston Detectives Kenneth Acerra and Walter Robinson:
Exposed by the Boston Globe Spotlight Team in 1996.
Federally indicted in 1997.
Convicted and imprisoned in 1998 after pleading guilty.
Five months after Sean Ellis was convicted, the Boston Globe's award-winning investigative Spotlight Team broke the story of corruption in Boston's Area E-5 station house -- the professional home of victim John Mulligan and task force investigators Kenneth Acerra, Walter Robinson, and John Brazil (until 1992).
Acerra, Robinson, and Brazil were exposed as dirty cops -- robbers perjurers, and exortionists on a grand scale. Partners Acerra and Robinson were subsequently indicted on federal charges and convicted; John Brazil, whom the two had "mentored," turned evidence and escaped charges.
It happened seemingly overnight.
“Corruption probe shakes up Boston Police Detective Unit; The case of the disappearing money,” read the February 10, 1996, Boston Globe headline. The story read like pulp fiction:
Tearing apart a West Roxbury apartment in search of drugs, a Boston police detective discovered a strongbox filled with cash. “I like this,” Kenneth Acerra exclaimed, an eyewitness recalled. He stuffed his coat with bundles of money and shared his bounty with his partner, Detective Walter F. Robinson Jr., tossing him thousand-dollar stacks, said the witness, who asked not to be named.
Accusations of police ripping off drug dealers usually dissolve into crossfire charges of lying between police and criminals. But it was not the first time for these two detectives, and there was something different about this case...
The Globe stayed on the story, which unfolded like a movie drama over the next two years.
All three detectives proved to be corrupt cops who falsified search warrants to gain entry to the apartments of known drug dealers and illegal immigrants. Once in, they demanded money and drugs and, in exchange, either did not arrest the dealers or got their charges reduced. By not showing up for their scheduled court appearances, the officers extorted additional payments when the charges were dismissed.
Most times, the detectives claimed not to have found any loot, falsifying their police reports. Occasionally they turned in a small portion of the drugs and money, keeping the bulk for themselves. Considered workhorses by their colleagues for their aggressive policing, the trio in truth reported finding drugs in less than half their 1992 searches, just forty-five percent of the time, and finding money with drugs only twenty-one percent of the time. (Colleagues in comparable districts found money in 66% of their searches.) As a former federal prosecutor noted to Globe reporters, “It is axiomatic that money is found with drugs during street-level arrests...Once you kick in the door, you almost always find cash.”
The Globe's series ignited an internal Boston Police investigation, and Acerra and Robinson were stripped of their badges. Soon federal prosecutors came in and were joined by the IRS, and secret grand jury proceedings got underway. Local drug dealers and illegal immigrants found themselves in the unusual position of escaping punishment for their crimes in exchange for giving evidence against the criminal detectives.
The feds learned that the corrupt scheme had netted the corrupt cops hundreds of thousands of dollars and had gone on for over a decade -- before, during, and after the Mulligan murder and trials.
Federal grand jury transcripts -- obtained some years later
by Ellis's appellate attorney -- revealed that
John Mulligan was an accomplice in
Acerra and Robinson's criminal scheme:
2 1/2 weeks before the detective's 1993 murder
they and other Area E detectives committed an armed robbery
of Boston drug dealer Robert Martin's
two Commonwealth Avenue apartments.
After eighteen months of probing, in March 1997, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ted Merritt indicted Acerra and Robinson on over 40 counts of perjury and armed robbery. (Brazil was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for informing on his colleagues.) Acerra and Robinson at first vigorously denied all charges, but a year later pleaded guilty in return for reduced (3-year) federal sentences and $100,000 fines as restitution to their victims, some of whom were innocent civilians. Brazil subsequently resigned from the force.
* * *
After the convictions, several cases involving the corrupt detectives began to fall apart. In one instance, Detective John Brazil was accused by the defendant in a murder case of falsifying a police report to ensure his conviction.
Additional revelations of police corruption started rolling in, until the Boston Globe's editorial board declared a "Police Emergency in Boston." Among those charged, Sean Ellis's chief interrogator, Boston homicide Detective William Mahoney, was revealed as having "testilied" (lied under oath) in the trial of accused murderer Donnell Johnson, who was convicted. (After additional information surfaced in his case, Johnson was freed.)
Sean Ellis's trial attorneys, Norman Zalkind and David Duncan, began readying a motion for a new trial for Ellis. After all, Acerra and Brazil were the men who brought forward Acerra's teenage relative, Rosa Sanchez, as a witness; in the lawyers' belief, Acerra and his partner, Robinson, manufactured her photo ID of Sean. Acerra was also implicated in mishandling Mulligan's cell phone -- "finding it" in the central compartment of the murdered detective's SUV a full week after his murder, even though crime scene technicians didn't find it when they searched the vehicle immediately after the crime.
* * *
The Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist (and now Brandeis University journalism professor) Eileen McNamara took a jaundiced view of the convicted detectives' roles in Sean Ellis's conviction. After their indictments she devoted an entire column calling for a retrial of Ellis -- in a proceeding unsullied by dirty detectives:
“Indicted cops taint Ellis trial"
It took the Commonwealth of Massachusetts three trials to send Sean Ellis to state prison in Walpole. It should take one more court appearance to send him home to await a new trial in the murder of Boston Police Detective John J. Mulligan… There was no physical evidence linking Sean to the murder, and no motive given beyond the ‘street trophy’ theory – for a killing that had all the markings of an assassination... An itchy street punk trying to snatch a gun dispatched his victim with such ferocity and precision?
The Mulligan case has stunk from the very beginning… and the odor of corruption that hung over the cop who was killed and over the cops who investigated his killing has to make one ask whether this case really was just a random act of violence....
Recapping that prosecution witness Rosa Sanchez “initially picked another man out of a police photo array” and pointed to Sean only after “an emotional chat” with Acerra and Robinson, McNamara asked:
... Is it such a leap to suspect that cops accused of falsifying search warrants, fabricating confidential informants and shaking down drug dealers might also have railroaded a street thug for the murder of...a fellow Area E detective whose own reputation was almost as shady as their own?