When Barry Gibbs walked out of the Eastern Correctional Facility in upstate New York last week after serving more than 17 years of a life sentence for a murder that authorities now believe he didn’t commit, the 57-year-old former postal worker admitted to wanting two things.
He didn’t ask for revenge against Louis Eppolito, the allegedly corrupt “Mafia Cop” and accused mob hit man who authorities now believe framed Gibbs for the 1986 murder of an alleged prostitute in Brooklyn. He didn’t even ask for a set of clothes, a place to live or a job, though he now admits he desperately needs all of them.
No. The only thing that Gibbs, who is Jewish, asked for publicly was a lobster dinner — a feast of succulent shellfish drowning in butter — and, if possible, a place to spend the High Holy Days.
As of last weekend, all he had gotten was the lobster dinner — “It was a very good supper,” he told the Forward. The meal was courtesy of friends and supporters who joined him in celebration September 29 after a state Supreme Court judge in Brooklyn, acting with the approval of prosecutors, tossed out his 1988 conviction. The ruling was prompted by the discovery of new evidence that a police officer coerced a witness into testifying against Gibbs, according to court papers filed in the case. Though the court papers do not name the officer, Gibbs’s attorneys have identified him as Eppolito.
Gibbs’s dramatic release was the latest development in the high-profile case against Eppolito and former New York City Detective Stephen Caracappa. The pair, both highly decorated, now-retired New York City police officers, were arrested March 9 as they dined in a Las Vegas trattoria. Suspected of working with the mob, they face a sweeping federal indictment and are formally accused of eight murders on the mob’s behalf. Both men have denied the charges. They are awaiting trial.
The key informant in the case against Eppolito and Caracappa is widely reported to be 71-year-old convicted drug dealer Burton Kaplan — who is compared by some of his confederates to the notorious Jewish mobsters of the past, like Meyer Lansky and Lansky’s fictional alter ego from “The Godfather,” Hyman Roth.
Precisely how Gibbs ended up being accused of the 1986 slaying of the alleged prostitute, Virginia Robertson, remains a bit of a mystery, said Gibbs’s lawyer, Vanessa Potkin. She is an attorney with the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School’s Innocence Project, which seeks to use DNA evidence to overturn prior convictions.
“It’s all pretty vague,” Potkin said, adding that most of the police records from the case are based on Eppolito’s statements and are, therefore, suspect. Potkin said that by all accounts, Eppolito was eager to close the case of the slaying of the alleged young prostitute. Robertson was found strangled to death. Her body had been dumped along Brooklyn’s Belt Parkway, not far from the Mill Basin Bridge.
Among the questions is why was Eppolito was so interested in a run-of-the-mill homicide. Potkin noted that there has been speculation that the young woman was killed by someone linked to the mob and that Eppolito was trying to protect the killers. Equally likely, she said, is the possibility that “Eppolito was trying to make himself out to be some kind of super cop.”
Regardless of his reasons, Potkin said, Eppolito found a likely fall guy in Gibbs. Though Gibbs never had spent time in prison, he since has admitted that he had a drug problem at the time — and what’s more, Potkin acknowledged, he had had “an encounter” with Robertson “more than six months” before her death.
Gibbs was included in a police lineup and was identified by a witness who authorities allege had been at least coached and possibly coerced by Eppolito.
Gibbs was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
“I knew I was innocent,” he said. But he still was forced to spend the next 17 years adjusting to life in prison. During his incarceration, he continued to try to overturn his conviction. Though in 1999, the Innocence Project hoped to use DNA evidence to clear his name, it couldn’t come up with any. It was only after Gibbs’s appeals were exhausted that he got a break. After Eppolito and Caracappa were arrested, Innocence Project co-founder and director Barry Scheck encouraged investigators to take another look at the case. Federal investigators interviewed the witness, who recanted his testimony and claimed that Eppolito had pressured him into testifying.
Eppolito’s attorney, Bruce Cutler, has denied the allegations and contends that the disclosure is part of a government effort to discredit his client.
Gibbs’s sudden release from prison does not necessarily mean that his ordeal is over. While he may be eligible for compensation from the state for the years he spent in prison, “it will take years for him to get that,” Potkin said. And in the meantime, she said, “he has no place to live; he has no job.” In fact, Gibbs planned to spend the first few nights after his release sharing a motel room with an old friend who had flown in from the West Coast to help celebrate his release.
What’s more, she said, Gibbs will face formidable obstacles in rebuilding his life. Not only will he need help finding a job and a place to live, but it is also likely that he will need counseling after nearly two decades of incarceration. Gibbs’s mother died while he was in prison; his father lives in a New Mexico nursing home.
“Very often, we find that people in his situation suffer from [post-traumatic stress disorder],” Potkin said. To Gibbs’s credit, she said, he “is very open to counseling.”
In the short run, she said, Gibbs and his supporters are hoping that the community, particularly the Jewish community, will be able to provide some assistance, perhaps a job or help with a place to live. So far, however, all Gibbs has received is $100 from a well-wisher.
Still, despite his ordeal, Gibbs says he is in good spirits. “I’m starting to feel better,” he told the Forward just days after his release. “I’m taking baby steps… life in prison was 360 degrees from life on the street.” But if he has developed one skill in his years behind bars that might help him, it is this: “I’ve learned to adapt.”
And, he said, he still can manage to wolf down a lobster dinner.
He was still unclear as to how he would be spending the High Holy Days.
“I don’t know what I’m going to be doing,” he said. He noted that not long after his release, his attorneys received a telephone call from a Chabad rabbi who had, on occasion, visited Gibbs and other Jewish inmates at the Eastern Correctional Facility.
“I hope he calls back,” Gibbs said.