Hot read of the day: GQ’s Sean Flynn on retired NYPD detective Louis Scarcella, dozens of whose cases are under review by the Brooklyn D.A. Flynn’s opening:
It was a gift, the way he could get bad guys to open up. “Really good detectives,” he said once, “are born with this sixth sense, that crystal ball in their stomach. It’s having the ability to get inside that person’s soul whatever way you can and get the person to say what you need to hear.” What else could explain it? Sometimes a case would come along and a whole squad of detectives would work it. But after months: cold as stone. And then Louis Scarcella would show up, find an accomplice, charm a witness, and—bang, just like that—a killer got locked up. A lot of killers. So many killers it’s tough to remember. “I don’t know how many homicides I caught,” he says now. “Some people say 140, some say 170, some say over 200. I really don’t know how many.” It doesn’t matter. Catch that many killers, and they’re all just statistics. What matters is how good the detective is, and everyone knew Louis Scarcella was the best.
In 1973, when Scarcella was sworn in, 1,680 people were murdered in New York City, and about as many were killed the next year and the year after that, all through the ’70s and into the ’80s. And then crime got really bad, and Bernie Goetz shot those kids on the subway, and the Central Park jogger got raped and beaten nearly to death, and the New York Post screamed DAVE, DO SOMETHING! on the front page, meaning Dinkins, the mayor. The murders peaked in 1990, at 2,245—almost seven times as many as in 2013—and didn’t start to dip until 1995, when Scarcella was five years out from his pension.
He is 62 years old now, with a heavy brow and shaggy hair that’s only beginning to thin. He’s fit and trim, muscles ropy under the tattoos staining his arms, and he still keeps a duplicate of his gold shield, which has the same number as his father’s gold shield, in his pocket. He doesn’t look like what the papers are calling him, a rogue. When he left the job, he was as famous as a street cop can get, because he broke some of the most heinous cases in a city that stratified crime between horrific and merely appalling.
He remembers those cases, the flashy ones that leapt out from the background drone of routine slaughter. The ones he put on his résumé. There was the subway clerk blown up by kids who squirted gasoline through the token-booth slot. That was a big story, a national story, because it was like a scene in a movie called Money Train, and it gave Bob Dole, who was running for president, an opportunity to grouse about how Hollywood was ruining America. He remembers the world-famous dancer, stabbed three times in the chest by a burglar, a grotesque symbol of New York’s descent into chaos. Took him a few months, but he got that guy, too.