Police Quashed Critical Accounts in Hasid Shooting, Witnesses Say

A man who said he witnessed the police shooting of Gideon Busch, a mentally ill Hasidic man killed on Aug. 30, has told the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office that a police officer crossed his name off a witness list immediately after the man told a version of events that contradicted the account that police eventually put out.

The witness’ account is likely to interest the 23 grand jurors who have been meeting in a courtroom at 360 Adams Street since Sept. 7. The jurors will probably be on the case at least until October, said a source in the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who convened the jury.

The witness’ allegations raise questions about how police conducted themselves in the crucial hours after the shooting-and how they gathered the facts that led them, as well as Police Commissioner Howard Safir and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, to loudly proclaim that the shooting was justified.

The two officials asserted that Busch put an officer in mortal danger by swinging a hammer while shrieking outside his Borough Park home, forcing officers to fire at him. Busch was hit 12 times, in his heart, lungs, liver and intestines. “A hammer is a deadly weapon. Would you like to have a hammer inserted in your brain?” Mr. Giuliani asked reporters at a press conference.

However, Mr. Safir’s and Mr. Giuliani’s version of events-which has offended many in Mr. Giuliani’s traditional Orthodox Jewish constituency-rests, in part, on the testimony of an officer whose actions after the shooting have been put into question. That officer, Daniel Gravitch, who did not fire his weapon during the confrontation with Busch, was one of two officers to recount the events for authorities. The others, the shooters, have not yet given statements to either the police or the District Attorney.

The grand jurors must confront conflicting accounts about the final minutes of Busch’s life. Their main task is to assess the more than 20 statements-some contradictory-from eyewitnesses about what led up to the shooting. Then they have to determine whether the officers reacted inexcusably and, if so, whether their actions were criminal.

On the key question of mortal danger, a source in the District Attorney’s office told The Observer that a majority of the eyewitness statements contend that Busch indeed was moving toward the officers when they opened fire.

Yet several witnesses have said that was not the case, that Busch was standing still when shot. These witnesses said they have given their statements to the District Attorney.

One is Tzvi Rokeach, an attorney who asked that the name of his well-known midtown firm, which has strong Republican Party connections, not be named. Mr. Rokeach was standing directly across the street from the shooting, helping his parents move. He agreed with the apparently minority point of view that Busch was stationary, about six to eight feet away, when he was shot. “What concerns me is that within 24 hours after this happened, the organs of the Police Department were working in full defense to say [Busch] was beating someone up. They said that he was standing over the police officers, ready to bash in someone’s brains with a hammer. And that’s incorrect,” said Mr. Rokeach. (Authorities, in fact, said merely that the police officers were in mortal danger, and Busch had the hammer raised and was capable of harming one or more police officers.)

Things are moving on other legal fronts as well: The Busch family is in discussions with lawyers regarding a possible wrongful death suit; they are already working with the New York Civil Liberties Union to push for reforms in police training.

Stuart London, the attorney coordinating the four patrol officers’ defense, said that he expected the officers to testify before the grand jury. George Cerrone, the attorney for the two sergeants involved, said that he was leaning toward having the sergeants testify, but, at press time, he had not yet discussed testimony conditions with the District Attorney, and no final decision had been made.

So far, according to a source in the District Attorney’s office, the grand jury has heard from some eyewitnesses but none of the officers. However, they haven’t heard from all the eyewitnesses, including Raphael Eisenberg. On Aug. 30, Mr. Eisenberg, a resident of Borough Park, was walking home from work on 46th Street in Brooklyn when he saw two police officers confronting Gary, or Gideon, Busch. Busch was well known in the neighborhood because of his eccentric, occasionally disruptive behavior; he apparently had stopped taking his anti-psychotic medications.

Grand jurors will ask Mr. Eisenberg and other witnesses: Once Busch darted up the stairs leading out of Busch’s basement apartment, were Busch and his hammer a menace to the officers? Mr. Cerrone, the lawyer, said that Busch hit Sgt. Terrence O’Brien three or four times, on the arm, leg, hip and gun holster, and that the sergeant was left with a big bruise on his arm. Standing next to Mr. Giuliani at a press conference, Mr. Safir said, “They were confronted with deadly force, and they did what their training told them: They responded with deadly force.”

Busch’s brother Glenn, a trusts-and-estates attorney with his own midtown office, told The Observer the shooting was an “execution.”

Mr. Eisenberg and three other witnesses said that Busch had scampered away from the officers and had stopped moving, clearly smarting from pepper spray and shrieking in a berserk state. After a brief standoff with officers, Busch was shot 12 times as he stood in the driveway before collapsing. He was dead on arrival at Maimonides Medical Center. These witnesses were first interviewed by The Jewish Press and Newsday .

Mr. Eisenberg also told The Observer he informed District Attorney Hynes’ investigators that immediately after the shooting he had spoken to a police officer, who had not been involved in the shooting, who was canvassing for witnesses in its wake.(Contacted by The Observer , one source in the District Attorney’s office was not aware that Mr. Eisenberg had made such a report to the District Attorney.) Mr. Eisenberg said that the officer, Daniel Gravitch, reached for a piece of paper to add Mr. Eisenberg’s name to the witness list, telling him, “I didn’t even fire my gun and I’m shaking.” But then, according to Mr. Eisenberg, Officer Gravitch wrote down Mr. Eisenberg’s name, then scratched it out after Mr. Eisenberg contended that Busch had not been moving when he was shot.

Another witness, a 16-year-old named Aaron Gerlitt, had told friends and neighbors that he had a similar experience with the police and had reported it to the District Attorney. (Mr. Gerlitt had traveled to Israel for the Jewish holidays and could not be contacted. His account comes from three different people to whom he told the story.)

Failure to turn in the name of a witness who could implicate another officer is considered a prosecutable abuse of authority, said attorneys and prosecutors not involved in the case. John Tynan, Mr. Gravitch’s lawyer, did not return calls from The Observer by press time to say whether Mr. Gravitch ultimately included Mr. Eisenberg’s name in the list given to his commanders. Mr. Gravitch did not respond to a message left at the Brooklyn South command to which he and the other five officers involved have been temporarily reassigned.

Glenn Busch said he had heard these stories but declined to comment on them, or on any contemplated civil suit. “We’re exploring our options, as any family would do, and focusing in on this investigation, that this investigation is thorough and handled properly,” he said. He said he believes that some witnesses have still not come forward. Mr. Rokeach, the midtown lawyer and a witness, also had that impression.

The Busch case will be politically charged on two fronts, no matter what the grand jury does. The tragedy occurred in a year in which both police misconduct and the dehospitalization of the mentally ill have drawn a massive amount of public attention.

Busch’s brother said that the Police Department had played one issue against the other. “When I left the morgue, the wheels were already spinning, trying to develop as much as possible on the victim,” he said. He asserted that there was no way newspapers could have published as much as they did about his brother’s history without help from the Police Department.

Mr. Hynes, too, is interested in Busch’s mental health history-especially in his previous hospitalizations. “He’s fed up with people being released improperly,” said someone in his office. The Busch family has asked for a meeting with the District Attorney’s office, which was tentatively scheduled for sometime after Sept. 20.

Even if the officers are deemed to have fired for excusable reasons, and no criminal trial is held, it’s clear that the Busch shooting will continue to have a political legacy. Glenn Busch confirmed that the family had retained Norman Siegel of the N.Y.C.L.U. to aid in getting the police to revise their policies.

The Busch family and Mr. Siegel have noteworthy allies. It’s conceivable to think that the Orthodox Jewish community, even more than all those legal eagles-the Justice Department, the Public Advocate, the Attorney General and the Civilian Complaint Review Board-will be able to squeeze Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Safir politically for a further reform of police procedures. Four days after the shooting, Mr. Safir made his way to Borough Park for a meeting with a clutch of rabbis. Many of the rabbis had expressed support of the police the day after the shooting, but at that meeting on Sept. 3 they told Mr. Safir that they and their congregations were concerned about how the police handled the shooting. A leader of the Agudath Israel movement wrote to the Police Commissioner that, despite the usual faith in the police, there is “a widespread sense that something went terribly wrong.”