The Snitch: Lonzo

When a "snitch" accuses a homeless man of the murder of a Bronx police officer, lives are disrupted, and justice is fleeting for all persons involved.


The elevator doors were almost closed when Lonzo jammed his foot between them. He was late. The doors reversed themselves and slid back open. He squeezed in, compacted his body and side-eyed the crowd. It was like riding the subway at rush hour except all of the occupants were men and most of them were white. The car held a mix of cops in uniform, some in plain clothes, a.d.a.s, defense attorneys and even a couple of guys who looked like they had cases pending in the courthouse. They stared at their feet, like they were trying to make themselves invisible, hoping nobody remembered them from a previous call or arrest. Probably had bench warrants dropped on them, too, but he wasn’t there for that. He recognized an assistant who was known to disdain police officers, which, in Lonzo’s experience, was a sentiment not uncommon in prosecutors. When their eyes met, Lonzo nodded his head, but the man’s face remained blank. Not long ago, they worked a robbery-homicide together. Jimmy was lead of course, so maybe the guy forgot Lonzo was even involved. Or, maybe, the suit thought all cops looked alike, and Lonzo was part of that undifferentiated mass of New York’s finest, indistinguishable from the other members of his species. The Blue Wall and all that. Five minutes in and Lonzo’s head was already beginning to ache.

He rode the elevator up to the eighth floor and then disembarked. He signed in at the front desk and a uniform buzzed him into the DA’s office. He checked his watch. It said 9:54, which meant he still had time to collect himself before his grand jury appearance. He walked down a narrow hallway clogged with prosecutors and cops, who wandered back and forth, prepping cases or killing time until they had to testify at a hearing or trial or in front of a grand jury. Prosecutors’ offices lined the hallway, most of them not much bigger than a small closet. A lot of police officers liked to take advantage of the free donuts and coffee the DA’s office provided, but Lonzo wanted no part of that. His wife warned him about eating on the run, even when busy, and he knew that if he partook, he’d have to explain it to Wanda later. She knew how to interrogate him and extract a confession better than any detective he had ever worked with. Once he admitted that he had indulged, she would give him that look, followed by the cold shoulder for the rest of the day. He instinctively patted his stomach. His stomach rumbled back at him. He needed to lay off the treats. Maybe some caffeine would kill his appetite.

He briefly gossiped with a couple of guys he knew from the forty-third, then turned a corner and walked toward the grand jury waiting room. He needed to get his head right. “Speak Like Child” by Herbie Hancock played on a loop in his brain. Herbie knew how to tickle those keys. Lonzo favored that whole album over the more critically acclaimed Empyrean Isles. He appreciated the feeling of hope, optimism and innocence the musician imparted to the title song of the album, especially on days when it seemed like his whole world had turned to shit. This morning, Lonzo wanted to give his statement to the grand jury and then go home and sleep for the rest of the day. He was scheduled to do overnights all week and he came straight in from his tour. The assistant on his case needed to file an indictment this morning; otherwise, the court would release the defendant before parole had the chance to drop a hold on him.

Sometimes he felt as though he spent half of his life testifying in front of a grand jury, waiting to testify or standing outside the room until the grand jury decided whether it wanted to call him back in. Many times, when he looked up at the jurors, he noticed that they appeared to be dozing off or in a state of catatonia, induced by the tedium of testimony that catalogued man’s inhumanity to man, or in many cases, woman. He always offered his own attestation in a practiced monotone, even in the cases that might demand a little more outrage, and even if the details were particularly disturbing or the level of violence was especially pronounced. He preferred to let the unadorned nature of his testimony speak for itself. Cases where children were the victims proved the greatest challenge, and it was difficult for Lonzo to keep the emotion out of his voice. When he was forced to describe the degradations perpetrated on a child, he couldn’t help but think about his own children, now cops themselves. He knew and accepted that many individual acts were egregious and deserved punishment, but he also believed that no one should be judged solely based on the worst thing they may have done in their life. From his perspective, a lot of what went down in the street was happenstance, a series of interconnected, but random events that led to bad choices, desperate circumstances or the bad luck to be standing on the corner when the world came crashing down and the blue and whites rolled up. During moments like these, when Lonzo was required to recount a litany of misery for a bunch of disinterested strangers, it made him think again about his grandmother. Without her guidance and determination, life could have turned in a different direction. It did for many of the guys he came up with.

He knew enough now to not take any of this shit personally, but the circumstances with which he often found himself confronted were the personal choices made by people like Torretti, guided by nothing more than how to climb the next rung in the ladder, but preferred to think of themselves as guardians of the social order. In the grand scheme of things, Lonzo was just following orders, an outlook which had historically negative connotations but was a dilemma faced by bureaucrats, pencil pushers, grunts and street cops everywhere. If the mayor and the district attorney said lock up every poor bastard that hopped a turnstile or drank a forty in public, he knew he had to mostly comply. When he wrapped his head around this idea, it just made him depressed. He refocused and repeated his mantra to himself: head down, clear cases. Let the white shirts worry about all the policy nonsense. They got paid for that. Most of the time, testifying in the grand jury represented closing the door on a cleared case and one less file to worry about; nine out of ten cases resulted in a plea bargain, even most homicides. Sometimes, the assistant handling the case never told him what happened after he cleared it and he rarely asked. It was kind of a glass half full, half-empty kind of thing; it all depended on how you looked at it.

Lonzo opened the door into the grand jury waiting area and gave the room a cursory scan. It was windowless, filled with wooden benches that looked like church pews, each with space for four or five people to sit. Most of the benches were filled with cops, gabbing or studying their memo books, but when his eyes focused on an open bench in the back corner of the room, he saw Sully there, his left arm still wrapped in a cast, staring forlornly at a spot on a distant wall. Before Lonzo could avert his gaze, Sully’s eyes locked onto his. The two men nodded at each other, and Sully waved his good hand at Lonzo, then patted the bench at his side. Lonzo surveyed the room again, then walked over to Sully and sat down next to him. Sully wore a navy polo shirt and jeans, and his silver shield hung down on his chest, attached to a beaded chain. He picked up his memo book from the bench and when Lonzo settled in, the men shook hands.

“Lonzo. What you in for?”

“Dude on parole shot up his girl’s house. Took out a television and a saltwater fish tank.” Lonzo shook his head and chuckled at the memory. “Family of clownfish DOA. Found him holed up in his mama’s closet. For this I had to drag my sorry ass down here after doing an overnight. You?”

“Project mope boosted a car to take his granny to the hospital.”

Lonzo raised an eyebrow.

“Thought she was having a heart attack.”

“Sometimes a man gotta make hard choices in his life.”

“Lonzo, the kid was fifteen. He could barely see over the dashboard. I popped him coming back from Lincoln Hospital. 911 told him EMTs wouldn’t come in the building cause the elevator was out.”

Lonzo thought about the dilemma. He had faced this problem himself. “Project elevators more out than in.”

Sully lowered his voice and leaned in. “What are we doing here, Lonzo?”

“I don’t know, Tom. Waiting to testify in the grand jury?”

“I spent twenty-five years humping, keeping my head down. I seen some shit and I may’ a looked the other way, but I mostly stayed out of it. You know what I’m sayin’?”

“You tried to stay correct.”

“I never tuned anybody up, never flaked anybody, none of that testilying shit. Just let the chips fall. My ass was shiny but my nose was always clean.”

“The job is just a job.”

Before he spoke again, Sully grabbed Lonzo’s wrist and squeezed it. The detective shook off the uniform’s grip. Sully didn’t seem to notice.

“Lonzo, I’m fifty-three years old and my whole life has come down to five seconds in some piss-stained stairwell.” Sully’s eyes teared up and he wiped at them with the forearm of his good hand. “Ferraro was bleeding out while I was passed out cold in the dark. I come to and the EMTs tell me he didn’t make it. That’s what I fuckin’ remember about that night. When I can fall asleep, that’s what I dream about.”

Lonzo waited for more but it didn’t come. The door to the waiting room opened, and a young woman in a gray suit stood in the frame and glanced around the room. Her eyes landed on Lonzo.

“Detective Givens? You’re up.”

Lonzo stood up and started to walk away. He stopped, as if he had forgotten something, scoped the waiting area and then turned to Sully. He took a deep breath and talked himself down from shouting at the man. What good would it do to take out his frustration on Sully? No good. He knew Sully wasn’t the real problem here. He felt his stomach churning. He kept his voice low, but he couldn’t keep the anger out of it.

“Sully, right now, I’m gonna walk in that grand jury room, put my hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth. I’m gonna tell the folks in there about a gun, a TV and a fish tank. Then I’m gonna go home, crawl into my bed, pull the covers up over my head and sleep like a baby.”

Lonzo turned his back on Sully. He followed the young woman through the doorway and out of the waiting area, closing the door behind him. Sully watched him leave. He sat alone with his thoughts and waited for his turn to tell the people of the Bronx a parable. This one featured a teenaged driver, his ailing grandmother and an elevator, and one shiny-ass cop, now with a cast on his arm. There were a thousand variations on these types of stories, but every one of them played out the same way. Only the cast of characters seemed to change.

Read more chapter excerpts from the novel The Snitch.

About the Author

M.D. Semel

M.D. Semel is a writer living in Connecticut and has worked and studied in the Criminal Justice System in New York City.