Thursday, 14 December 2017

American hero or the biggest rat in NYPD history? New documentary explores the controversial legacy of the late Robert Leuci, whose turn undercover led to more than 50 indictments of 1970s New York cops .

  • Brooklyn native Robert Leuci was a narcotics cop in the notorious Special Investigations Unit, which were known as untouchable 'Princes of the city'
  • He went undercover to expose dirty cops taking bribes, stealing drugs and setting up businesses themselves
  • He initially vowed not to implicate his friends and partners but the investigation did so in the end
  • More than 50 law enforcement officials were indicted; two committed suicide and dozens of other lives were ruined
  • Leuci remained conflicted until he died in 2015 about his role in the process
  • He met Norwegian photojournalism student Magnus Skatvold at a Rhode Island barbecue  in 2009
  • The two became friends  and filmmaker Skatvold, who was initially unaware of Leuci's past, became intrigued by his story
  • He and co-director Gregory Mallozzi convinced Leuci and other people involved to sit for interviews for a documentary, though Leuci died before it was finished
  • The documentary, Blue Code of Silence, last month was awarded the coveted Pitch Perfect Award at the DOC NYC festival, given to works in progress 

  • Bob Leuci, who died in 2015 during the filming of a new documentary about his life, was instrumental in exposing corruption within the NYPD in the 1970s

    The unlikely duo met at a barbecue in Rhode Island, a young Norwegian student of photojournalism and a former NYPD detective who exposed massive corruption within the force in the 1970s. Magnus Skatvold had no idea who Bob Leuci was when he was first introduced to him, considering the New York native a ‘fast-talking … very kind, very charismatic grandfather that was just the center of attention and telling stories and being very interested in everybody.’
    They struck up a friendship, and the more that Skatvold learned about Leuci, the more fascinated he became. Their relationship eventually sowed the seeds for a new documentary, which was just awarded the prestigious Pitch Perfect Award at DOC NYC film festival – a prize given to a work-in-progress during a daylong pitch event.
    Blue Code of Silence is currently a 60-minute rough cut, directed by Skatvold and Gregory Mallozzi, telling the story of how Leuci brought down New York City’s most corrupt police unit – at a grave personal cost. Skatvold interviewed and collaborated with Leuci, who tragically died during the making of the film, as well as family members, friends and people connected with the story.
    Leuci had agreed in the 1970s to cooperate with the Knapp Commission, which had been formed by New York Major John V. Lindsay following whistleblower revelations by other legendary NYPD officers. The commission aimed to investigate corruption within the system; Leuci, heavily entrenched in a narcotics unit and tainted by participation himself, agreed to go undercover – but insisted on exposing the whole system and not just cops.

    Norwegian director Magnus Skatvold, left, met Leuci, center, at a Rhode Island barbecue in 2009 and became fascinated by the former cop and his backstory; he and co-director Greg Mallozzi, right, decided to work on a documentary project about the story

    Detective Leuci, right, with lawyers Nicholas Scoppetta, left, and Mike Shaw, center, who recruited him for undercover work to unveil the widespread corruption within the police force that included taking bribes and selling drugs

    His two years of work wearing a wire, under the code name Sonny, led to explosive prosecutions of dozens of law enforcement officials and at least two attempts on his life. More than 50 men were indicted as a result of his evidence and lives were ruined – leaving Leuci with a complicated view of his own involvement in the widespread exposure of police taking bribes, stealing drugs and selling them themselves and other improprieties.
    ‘I think there had been several, throughout the years, that had approached Bob and wanted to make either a documentary or a feature on him,’ Skatvold, 30, tells ‘He didn’t want to open that chapter again about his life … [But me] being the outsider, not knowing anything about this case beforehand, kind of not being colored by prejudice or anything like that, I think he found that very fascinating.
    ‘I was kind of like a blank page that could come in and maybe see this story in a different light, in a sense. It really started off as friends … and it kind of grew into the idea of making a documentary.’
    He adds: ‘I think also, with other people that have been involved with this story, this is very painful for a lot of people – because what he did, essentially, it became a very big corruption scandal which implicated so many people. Over 50 cops were indicted for corruption because of his testimony, and two of his friends also committed suicide.

    Skatvold's new documentary about Leuci's role last month won the coveted Pitch Perfect Award at DOC NYC film festival, given to promising works in progress

    ‘Some of the most interesting parts of this story is that this is a story that took place in the 70s; still, to this day, there has been so much pain and anguish in Bob’s life – and talking to him, he had so much regret for what he really took part in – not the corruption, not the misconduct itself, but kind of the betrayal of his friends and colleagues.’
    Skatvold says: ‘In today’s society, I think we need stories about whistleblowers. We need stories about people who have really stood up against corruption and, and what’s fascinating in Bob’s story is that he isn’t like a genuine hero. He’s a very complex anti-hero, in a sense; he wasn’t like the last honest cop like Serpico, who never took a dime. He was part of the same culture that he … wanted to change. And that’s kind of more of that Shakespearean undertones to this story.
    ‘It’s very much a tragic story. He kind of betrayed his friends and partners, which he kind of regretted his whole life after all of this.’
    Leuci was born into an Italian-American family in Brooklyn on February 28, 1940 and graduated from the Police Academy when he was 21 years old. He was the first member of his family to graduate from high school.
    ‘I found what I was looking for – acceptance, connection, kinship – call it what you like – belonging just to belong, that kind of thing,’ he wrote in his memoir, All the Centurions, about his feelings towards law enforcement membership.

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